When you’re angry at someone, it’s easy to focus on “all the problems” in that particular relationship. When you do this, you start to see the negative and unwanted behaviors everywhere. Essentially, you prove yourself “right”.
This happens because of a little-known, but very important part of your brain circuitry, called your Reticular Activating System, or RAS for short. Your RAS is like a filter between your conscious and subconscious minds. It takes instructions from your conscious mind and passes them on to your subconscious. You’re constantly giving your RAS instructions by what you’re thinking about- the problem is, you don’t even realize it.
So if you’re thinking, “My partner is always nagging me”, the RAS hears this as an instruction or order: “Look for my partner nagging me.” Sure enough, your partner is “always” nagging- you hear it constantly. If you’re thinking, “My mother is always critizing me”, the RAS follows through on this order also and you’ll hear your mother’s criticisms in every interaction you have with her.
The RAS is one of the reasons why you will “suddenly” notice a lot of pregnant women when you’re pregnant or the amount of Nissan Pathfinders on the road after you buy one.
The good news is that you can deliberately program the RAS by thoughtfully choosing the exact messages you send. If you really want to find forgiveness or happiness with your boss, friend, partner, or sibling, you need to shift what you’re focusing on and be conscious of the orders that you are giving to your RAS.
Here’s a 3-step method to get in charge of your RAS and move from resentment and anger to forgiveness and appreciation:
1. Get the “buts” and “if only’s” out of your head. Whatever you’re so sure you’re “right” about, I’d like you to suspend that judgement for a little while and try it a different way. Focusing on the other person’s negative qualities is creating more of a negative situation, and you’ve got to pull yourself and that relationship out of a downward spiral. Be effective, not correct.
2. Write down one thing you really appreciate about the other person. For the next week, really write it down. You can do it in the notes on your phone, or you can keep it in a separate little notebook somewhere. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to take a minute and write it down. I want you to push yourself to think of a different thing every day.
3. Consciously do one random act of kindness for that person every day for the next week. It’s a challenge. It doesn’t have to be anything big, and you don’t have to tell them. It could be making his/her favorite meal, making a donation in their name, putting away the dishes when it’s not “your turn”, calling them during the day to say you’re thinking of them, or buying them flowers or taking them to a comedy show. Whatever you want. Challenge yourself to think of something different every day.
What starts to happen when you do these things, even though they only take a few minutes of your time every day, is that they get that RAS activated in a positive way. You’ll absolutely start noticing more of the other person’s great qualities as you shine the light on the positives instead of the negatives. Your brain will seek out the healthy and wonderful things they’re doing or saying.
Here’s another bonus of doing this: thinking these thoughts and doing these nice things will actually result in the other person changing because, when you start acting nice to them, they start acting nice to you! They will feel the change and begin to reflect it back- often without even knowing it!
No matter how subtle the shift, they’ll pick up on it and begin to treat you differently as well. The biggest impact, by far, will be how you’re feeling day-to-day as you let go of the pain, anger, resentment and hopelessness and begin to embrace other possibilities for how to be in your life and in this relationship.