Getting the Obvious Out of the Way

Before I get into this subject, let’s get the obvious out of the way so that I don’t get misinterpreted.

People Have Patterns of Thought And Behavior

Newton’s first law of motion states:

“Objects tend to keep on doing what they’re doing unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” - Sir Isaac Newton

The same is true for people. People tend to keep the same patterns of thought and action. That’s why we have the word “personality”. A personality is just observed patterns in thoughts and behavior. This isn’t to say people are incapable of change, just that it’s not the default. The default is people keep doing what they’re doing.

You Can’t Expect People to Change

As a consequence, it’s foolish to expect people to change. There are special circumstances. Extreme life events change people. Children and adolescents change as they get older. New experiences change people. Sometimes a change in environment can do the trick. But in the general case, you should not expect others to change.

In romantic relationships, it unfortunately happens all too often that one partner expects the other to change or tries to force the change. People make small concessions in relationships, but expecting a partner’s core personality or ingrained habits to change is a bad bet.

Self-Talk

With all that said, one of the common ways people wreck their lives (besides lying) is through destructive self-talk, a common form of which is telling themselves that they’re destined to be the person they were in the past or worrying about who they’ll be in the future.

Being Truthful to Yourself

Given the obvious facts I stated about the default of people not changing, isn’t telling yourself you’re going to stay the same just being truthful? I just said not to expect people to change and now I’m saying telling yourself the truth that you probably won’t change is bad?

Yes, precisely. One can admit that something is true while also acknowledging that it’s not useful to continuously think about it.

I’ll use Covid as an example. There are thousands of depressing Covid stats and you’re free to read as many of them as you like, but I’ve been down that road and it only lead to despair. The most relevant truth about Covid is this: If you get the vaccine, social distance, wash your hands, wear a mask, and follow expert guidance then the rest is out of your hands. Continuing to read Covid stats won’t benefit you.

There’s a false dichotomy that the only two options are facing the cold, hard, depressing truth and telling yourself comforting lies. Either you’re a tortured genius or a happy idiot. But this ignores the fact that it’s not just the depressing truth which is depressing. It’s the constantly thinking about it that’s the most destructive.

Toxic Positivity

You don’t necessarily need to lie to yourself about what’s going on in the world not to be depressed. A few people opt for that strategy. They put a positive spin on everything and when that becomes impossible, they outright lie to themselves. This is a form of Toxic Positivity[1].

For examples of toxic positivity, just search Youtube for how to get rich. You’ll find clueless one-percenters who genuinely seem to think poor people only exist because they have the wrong mindset. I don’t think I need to explain how harmful this is. This extreme can be avoided by just not lying to yourself.

Starting Fresh in Every Moment

What does any of this have to do with starting fresh? Well, people tell themselves they can’t do things based on past attempts that went badly or imagining things going badly in the future. People with social anxiety imagine that they’ll make a fool of themselves in their next interaction which hasn’t happened yet. Recovering drug addicts think because they relapse once, they’re a user again.

And it might be true that if you relapse then you’re likely to become a regular user again. I don’t know the odds. But on a personal level, the odds don’t matter because it’s counterproductive to remind yourself of the bad odds while you’re trying to quit.

It’s much more helpful to focus on the positives like “If I quit, I’ll be healthier.” or “Other people quit using, so it’s not impossible.” Focusing on the positives without deluding yourself isn’t anything new. It goes all the way back to the ancient Stoics[2] who invented several techniques for achieving positivity without delusion.

From a subjective perspective, you are always starting fresh. Every moment is a new moment and it’s going to be filled with whatever thoughts you happen to have. Reflect on the past and learn from it. Plan for the future. But there’s no need to cling to the past and imagined future as final arbiters of who you are or what you’re capable of now. The past doesn’t make you who you are any more than the thought of money makes you rich.

So if you’re waiting for a reason to let go of thoughts of your past or imagined future, I give you permission. Drop the mental baggage and start fresh in every moment. You’ll be a better person for it and it’ll be better for everyone around you.

Link(s):
1: Toxic Positivity
2: Stoicism