"I went into a tailspin. I felt betrayed, rejected and unlovable. How could she do this to me? My despair began to color my job, my health - and everything in my life."
Bruce signed up for a seminar that helped him question the story he'd made up in his head about the events around him. He learned to use the four questions mentioned earlier, but he was so paralyzed by grief he couldn't get past his story.
Finally, Bruce asked himself, "What do I really think about this whole sorry mess?" The answer came quickly: "My wife should not be behaving this way. Her betrayal has caused me to lose my home and my family, and I can never be happy again."
At that moment Bruce explains he had just enough breathing room from the grip of his intense pain to ask, "Are those things true?" They felt true, but he dug deeper. "Can I absolutely know I won't ever be happy again?" Surprisingly, the answer was "no," and for a moment Bruce was stunned.
"I'd interrupted the endless loop of thought/pain/thought/pain that had been playing in my head," he said. "Without the constant drumbeat of the tragic thoughts, I felt quiet and calm."
Bruce felt temporary relief until he was overcome by the thought of his wife being with another man. "Can I absolutely know for sure she loves this guy more than she loves me? No, I can't."
"This thought had caused me to double over with pain, yet I couldn't be absolutely sure it was true - it was just the story I kept playing over and over in my mind. It floored me that one thought - how I answered this question - had the power to determine my happiness."
"It was an 'aha' moment. Everything clicked into place - my story about the situation appeared as powerful statements of fact in my head and caused knee-jerk responses of suffering. Yet when I investigated these 'statements of fact,' they were usually pretty flimsy."
Bruce told about the time he came across a favorite picture of himself and his wife. "As I looked at our smiling faces and thought of all the happy times we'd had together, I felt a wave of sadness. I stopped and asked myself, 'OK, what's the belief here? It was my old pattern, 'I'll never be happy again.'
"So I asked myself the all-important question: Could I really know that was true? Suddenly I laughed as I remembered the day the photo was taken. It hadn't all been roses; we'd been bickering off and on all afternoon. The truth was, I was happier the minute before I picked up that photo than I had been the day the photo was taken."
Bottom line: Thoughts come and go, and pain comes and goes. Bruce discovered that clinging to what he thought he wanted and needed was always based on a story about what had happened in the past - and it was a surefire recipe for suffering.
The next time you're faced with a situation that seems insurmountable, you may want to give the four questions a try.
As psychotherapist and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello says, "There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them."
Linda Arnold is a certified wellness instructor and founder and chairwoman of The Arnold Agency, an integrated marketing communications firm in Charleston. Reader comments or questions may be mailed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301, or e-mail livinglifefu...@arnoldagency.com">livinglifefu...@arnoldagency.com.