Dr. Gary G. Taylor
Taking Responsibility for How We Feel
Elder A is not having a great mission experience. When he is honest with himself, he admits that his mission is boring, unproductive, and unfulfilling. He can barely keep going from one day to the next. Elder B describes his mission as difficult but fulfilling. In general, he is having a great experience that he wouldn’t trade for anything. He looks forward to each day as a new opportunity. Both elders serve in the same mission under the same mission leadership. They have even served for several weeks in the same area as companions; which means that they have shared the same daily activities; and the same failures and successes. What then explains the fact that their mission experience is so different? Apparently, it has far more to do with their attitude and approach to their assignment than it does to the nature of the assignment itself. This appears to be an example of an age-old truth. What we feel is largely controlled by what we think and how we respond to something; not by the thing itself.
As noted, Elders A and B have been exposed to basically the same stimuli since beginning their mission, but their response is dramatically different. Of course, between stimulus and response are the Elder’s thoughts. Following are a sample of some of Elder A’s typical thoughts about his service; along with what his thoughts are really saying—which he would probably have a hard time admitting.
Our Zone Leaders are always talking down to us and they push us to do things they aren’t willing to do themselves. (I can’t enjoy my mission because of how the Zone Leaders act.)
The rules are stupid. There is no point to most of them. (I can’t enjoy my mission because of the stupid rules.)
I try but I’m not learning anything in my study sessions. (There is something wrong with the study curriculum or the recommended approach to study.)
The members don’t care. No one is helping us. (It’s the member’s fault.)
I’m doing what I’m supposed to do; but it isn’t working. (It’s God’s fault.)
My companion is impossible to live with. (It’s my companion’s fault.)
This is too hard. I can’t do this. (Again, it’s God’s fault.)
Given his negative thinking, it’s no surprise that Elder A has negative feelings about his mission. This sample of his thoughts also makes it clear that Elder A has fallen into the common trap of blaming someone or something for his discomfort. There may be truth in each of his conclusions about his mission; but none of those factors control his response. If he thought differently, more like Elder B, he would feel different. But that won’t happen until he accepts responsibility for his feelings about his mission; and until he makes a concentrated effort to change how he thinks about his service. The good news is that Elder A is free to do exactly that. There is nothing to prevent him from thinking more like Elder B does. Following is a sample of Elder B’s typical thoughts about his mission.
I really don’t like the way our Zone Leaders interact with us; but I’m not going to let them ruin my mission.
I don’t think some of the rules are all that necessary; but they are probably good for me, and I can live with them for a couple of years. It’s no big deal.
Some of my study time isn't that effective; but overall, I’m grateful for the time I have on my mission to better learn the gospel. I may never again have this kind of opportunity. I've also learned that how much I get out of my study time largely depends on how much I put into it.
We need to keep praying and thinking about what we can do to get the members more involved with us.
I would like to teach and baptize more; but maybe that will come as I continue to try. At least, I am doing my best to serve; and I know that’s all the Lord expects of me.
My companion’s attitude about his mission is hard to put up with; but I can do that until the next transfer. In the meantime, I’m just going to keep doing my best and hope things change for my companion. I’m certainly not going to let his attitude ruin things for me.
This is hard; but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. With the Lord’s help, I know I can do this; and I know I will be a better person for doing it.
Given how he thinks about his mission, it’s no surprise that Elder B is having a positive experience. Notice that he is aware of and effected by the same negatives that Elder A finds overwhelming; but he thinks about those negatives differently, which makes all the difference in how he feels.
So, it’s simple right? All Elder A must do is think more like his companion. Simple to say; but not so easy to do. Elder A’s tendency to think negatively and to blame others for the way he feels is likely a life-long strategy that has become a well ingrained habit. His attitude is not likely to improve without a strategy and concentrated effort to change over time. Following are four important steps that Elder A, or any of us enmeshed in negative thinking, could take to break free.
1. Listen for whining and blaming in our thinking and speech. When we hear it, we can stop it! We can refuse to be a victim of circumstance. We can’t always change our circumstance; but we can always develop a better attitude toward it.
2. Identify specific negative thoughts by listening to our thoughts and speech. For example, by honestly listening to himself, Elder A heard the negative thoughts described above.
3. As we listen and hear negative thoughts, the next step is to write them down, recognize that they are unhealthy; and rework them into something more positive. Elder A took time during quiet moments to write down the negative thoughts that he heard himself think and express. Next, he rewrote those thoughts into a more positive form; ending up with thoughts more in line with Elder B’s typical thinking.
4. Continue to monitor thought and speech over time looking for examples of the old habit; and each time old negative thoughts are heard, repeat Step 3 above. It usually takes repeated effort over time to break old habits. Elder A made a one-time, short-term effort; but found that his old habit soon regained control. He had to recommit himself and stay the course over several weeks before he could break his old habit and firmly establish a new one.
Again, changing thought habits is not an easy thing to do. However, Elder A would be the first to admit how worthwhile the effort can be. After both time and concentrated effort on the project, he did come to enjoy his mission. In the process, he also became a much more effective missionary. Furthermore, by taking responsibility for his thoughts; and therefore better controlling his feelings, he developed a critical life-skill that will bless him going forward after his missionary service.