We’ve all witnessed the classic supermarket scene: frazzled parent grabs a treat off the shelf to quiet a tantruming 3-year-old. I’ve been there myself. The reason we do this is, it works. The child quiets down and everyone gets some relief from those unpleasant ear piercing screams. But as most of us know, rewarding a child for a tantrum guarantees more tantrums in the future. Our short-term gain will bring long-term pain.
This is exactly what happens when we get anxious. Imagine you are texting a loved one to make sure they arrived to their destination safely. If they do not respond to your text, your monkey mind is activated. It sounds the anxiety alarm, Something is wrong! Do something! So you send another text. Or perhaps you call instead.
Continuously calling and texting to verify the safety of our loved ones is a great example of what I call feeding the monkey. It seems innocent enough. Your cell phone is so simple to dial. But this behavior is just like giving a tantruming child a treat.When we respond to the monkey mind’s perception of threat by doing something to neutralize the anxiety it causes, we are quite literally agreeing with the monkey mind and rewarding it for sending us anxiety. By picking up the cell phone again we are sending it the message that we cannot handle the anxiety of not knowing.
When our loved one finally responds, we feel instant relief, further reinforcing the assumption of the monkey mindset that 100% certainty is necessary. Just as the child in the supermarket learned that Because I screamed and cried, I got a treat, your monkey learns that Because I sounded the anxiety alarm, your loved ones are safe.
Whether we are quieting a child with a treat, or quieting the monkey mind by texting a loved one, the result is the same: short-term gain, long-term pain.
As many parents learn, if you can tolerate the child’s tantrum without reacting to it, the child will eventually quiet down and the tantrums will decrease. This works because the child learns 1) that she cannot dictate your behavior, and 2) she can self-regulate herself. The lesson you want to teach your monkey mind in situations where loved ones are out of sight is 1) it cannot dictate your behavior and 2) it can self-regulate.
Neither screaming children nor the monkey mind can be reasoned with. The only teaching tool we have is our behavior. If we want to tame the monkey mind and invest in less anxiety in the future, we need to stop feeding it and learn to tolerate the anxiety that comes with uncertainty. In this example, when you don’t hear back from someone, instead or attempting to neutralize the anxiety by texting or calling again, welcome it. The message you are sending is I can handle not knowing. Although it will be uncomfortable, the truth is, you can handle not knowing. With continued practice, I guarantee you a tamer and less reactive monkey mind. Short-term pain, long-term gain.