Ain’t Right

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When I observe my thoughts, I learn a lot.

The other day, I was on the bus and reached for my headphones to plug them in to my phone. One headphone has an R engraved on it and one has an L.

As I lifted the first one, I moved it to the right, untwisted the wire so I could see if it was R or L, hoping it would be R. If it turned out to be the L, I would then have to either turn my head or reach across to put it in my left ear.

To my disappointment it was L. My immediate thoughts, which I’m grateful I observed, were: ‘That’s typical of my life’ and ‘That’s typical of me, always doing things wrong’.

I didn’t recall specific, bigger past disappointments, but in that instant my mind remembered them and a general, crushing dismay came to me. I had failed. What happened? And what was I telling myself?

The late psychologist Marshall Rosenberg said “While we may not consider the way we talk to be ‘violent,’ our words often lead to hurt and pain, whether for others or for ourselves.” The venomous thoughts I directed at myself and the world at this apparently innocuous incident were an act of violence on my part.

Where does such violence originate?

It can be seen as part of the habit of avoiding what is happening in the moment. With a desire for constant distraction comes an intolerance of any inconvenience that forces our attention back to the present. This can lead to the ‘superego’ becoming activated.

The therapist Dr Alice Greene explains that ‘superego’ is “made up of internalised parental voices from our past conditioning. This judgmental internal voice tries to control us – mostly through self-critical thoughts, self-blaming, often vicious bullying and, sometimes, suicidal self-hatred. We can more easily recognise these when we project them onto others – the beginnings of war in all worlds…”

Having just spent five days visiting the original owners of those parental voices, it seems that my superego was close to the surface, braced for a threat – whether that be existential, or just headphones – we haven’t evolved enough to differentiate between the two.

But these aggressive thoughts of self-loathing weren’t alone. I had just felt a pang of love and connection. As I looked out of the bus window, there was my long lost writing partner Angel Lewis and his son ambling up the road. I was back and there were my people to unknowingly welcome me.

Then came the furious thoughts, and five minutes later I realised I was on the 23 not the 52. I was in Paddington not Victoria. But this time there was a conspicuous absence of violent thoughts, just acceptance (which I suppose I should call compassion) and soon I was on the crowded London Underground correcting my mistake.

I’ve spent the two days since pondering my gut reaction to the headphones melodrama and I’m glad for reminder they gave me of where my mind can drag me.

Tom Charles for Urban Dandy

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