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83. How Green is Your Mind?

We have all heard of carbon emissions; either we do our part by reducing our travel, recycling our rubbish and paying our dues into a carbon emission fund, or we quietly continue as we are. But is our use of carbon fuels the only way we pollute the planet? This week's tip asks whether our thinking processes can be just as bad. 'Suppose you were a car and your thoughts were the exhaust pipe. Every time you had a negative thought, criticism or judgment - about yourself, another or others - your exhaust would be giving off fumes. How much of a polluter are you?' So asks Robin Shohet, an experienced therapist and author who has been supervising people in the helping professions for over thirty years. This thought occurred to him, he tells me, when he was a consultant to one of the organisations built around sustainability and green issues, an organisation that was, ironically, full of its own particular brand of pollution - conflict and division. If you have ever been in a room with someone in a seriously bad mood, then you will know exactly what he means. A room can be full of perfectly congenial people and yet that one thunderous person in the corner can destroy the atmosphere without saying a single word. Pollution is defined as 'the introduction of contaminants into an environment that cause harm to human health, other living organisms and the environment'. When it comes to our minds, we can discharge those contaminants both inwards and outwards. Few of us would argue with the assertion that if we put our negative thoughts out there, by saying how we don't like something or someone, complaining about the weather, lamenting the government's latest travesty, that we have an effect on whoever we are with. Similarly, we know that expressed anger, contempt, hatred will have an effect on whoever it is directed at- that is the point of expressing them. On the other hand, we may like to kid ourselves that we aren't affecting others if we only discharge our negativity inwards. But in our heart of hearts we know that isn't true. It simply isn't possible to have negative thoughts without affecting others. Let's imagine you are talking to a customer or member of staff that you don't like. You may be thinking that they're self-centred, demanding, incompetent, stupid, boring, or just plain wrong; but of course, as an upright mature individual, you don't say any of this, that would be very rude. So you smile and nod and you talk with them as though nothing is amiss. But actually do you? Imagine they want something from you, such as advice, praise, a smile, a product that you don't immediately have to hand - how likely are you to give it, and especially, how likely are you to go out of your way to give it, as compared to when you are with someone you like? When we're just hanging around people and we're in a bad mood, we may not actively deposit our black thoughts into the room, but we might pull a face and simmer, adopt an icy silence, or fake a smile. If problems within a relationship remain unresolved over a long period of time, the result is often resentment, and there are few worse pollutants than that. Whatever our strategy of choice, and we all have our favourites, we can't help but discharge harmful substances into our environment when we're thinking bad thoughts. This is not meant to provide a field day for your inner critic, who now thinks that you must stop all negative thoughts immediately! Obviously you can't, but as with all that we do, once we are aware of what we are doing, things usually change. We can spot our negative thoughts and make conscious decisions about how we do or don't act on them. We can become more aware of how we impact others with our negativity and make an effort not to. We can investigate why we think the way we do and work through it. We can check what we might be contributing to a difficulty in a relationship and be more even-handed with our judgements. We can express honestly how we feel to someone, instead of keeping quiet and building resentment. We can work out the difference between what we need to express, in order to communicate and relate, and what is simply noxious fumes. Most importantly, we can be kind to ourselves and ask ourselves what we really need. Try this: 1. What are the main themes in your negative thinking? Is it about relationships, your work, politics, the weather, the future, the past? 2. What do you tend to do when you're thinking and feeling negative, do you sound off, or do you go quiet? 3. In what ways do you impact your environment, and the people in it, with your negative thoughts? Who suffers, and how? If you don't know, consider asking them. 4. How clear are you about the difference between honest and helpful expression of your thoughts and feelings, as opposed to emotional 'acting out'? 5. How clear are you about the difference between honest and helpful expression of your thoughts and feelings, and being insensitive or unkind? 6. What would help you to reduce your 'thought emissions'? 7. And finally, what would be more fun to think about? Have a good week. Love Anita