Redirecting our focus after we’ve taken a hit usually isn’t a matter of will. It’s a matter of skill.
Most everybody I’ve ever worked with desperately WANTS to be able to redirect their attention from the painful thing that happened in the past, to the productive thing they can do now.
But it takes more than just willpower.
We have to actually know how to DO it.
The thing about our focus is, it’s usually drawn to the strongest stimulus.
Our focus gets drawn to loud things, shiny things, attractive things.
It also gets drawn to sad things, infuriating things, threatening things, and grotesque things.
Whatever is most stimulating, grabs our attention.
(If, like me, you have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, your brain is so held hostage to these stimulating things that shifting your focus can be literally painful. I thought this was an overstatement until a psychiatrist called my attention to it, and it turns out to be literally true.)
The problem with the last terrible thing to happen to us— or even terrible things that happened to us years ago— is that they are very stimulating. They’re emblazoned on our mind.
If we screwed up, and we have a self-defeating belief structure that says “I ALWAYS SCREW UP WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME,” then our screw-ups hold our attention hostage as well.
Focusing on the NEXT right thing— the thing we can do now, compared to the thing we can’t change because it’s in the past— isn’t as inherently stimulating or captivating as ruminating on the past, negative stuff.
Our brain is wired for drama.
Rebuilding isn’t dramatic. Usually it’s work. Often it’s boring.
Especially if we have to start over from square one, it can be overwhelming and off-putting to think about.
So OF COURSE our brain doesn’t want to focus on it.
How do we overcome our brain’s reluctance to let go of the past, and focus on the next right thing?
We have to coax it along.
We have to learn to frame the next right thing as something that has the potential to feel good or be interesting.
We have to visualize the next right thing making us feel 1% better.
We have to talk to ourselves in a way that encourages us to look forward, not back.
And more than anything, we need to gently, supportively redirect our focus forward, as many times as it takes.
That’s where a lot of us get into trouble.
We’re willing to redirect our focus once or twice— but more than that, and it starts to get old.
The thing is, if we KEEP redirecting our focus from the unchangeable thing in our past, to the next realistic step we can take now, if we stay consistent with it, if we turn ourselves around EVERY SINGLE TIME we notice ourselves perseverating on the past…it’ll get easier.
We’ll get better at it.
In fact, we can make perseverating on the past our cue to refocus in the present, to identify the next right thing.
In my own mind, I installed a music cue. When I feel my brain looking back on the past with chagrin, I play some movie music— the music that tells the audience the hero’s about to turn things around.
I find it’s helpful to give my head a few quick shakes. To take a few breaths. To blink a few times— and come back to focus on the center of my chest.
It used to be painful to have to go through all that just go get focused forward.
Now it’s second nature.
You can come up with your own ritual for looking forward.
Just make sure you stay consistent and persistent with it.
Your brain’s gonna try to stay stuck in the past, because that’s where it thinks color and drama exist.
You need to use your imagination to convince it there’s color and drama— and victory— ahead.