Updated: Oct 6, 2018
Imagine the benefits of mastering your emotions.
- Better decision-making.
- More fun to be around.
- Less susceptible to depression.
- Clearer thinking.
But is this even possible?
I believe it is. And it’s all about changing the stories we tell ourselves.
Let’s take a classic example.
You are driving down the road, minding your own business, when a European sports car swerves in front of you, forcing you to slam on the brakes.
What is your first reaction? Anger? Frustration? Malice?
If you’re human, probably all of the above.
But how do we react calmly in this situation? Or must we always be subject to our emotional whims?
Like I said, it’s all about the story we tell ourselves.
You may be thinking though, “Sometimes I don’t even have a chance to consciously process my emotions! How do I change something I have no control over?”
The key is a heightened sense of awareness. But before diving into that, let’s talk about these default thought patterns, where they come from and if they can change.
Default Thought Patterns
When you see a homeless person on the street corner, what do you think?
They should get a job!
I wonder what led to their current circumstances?
When you face rejection, what do you think?
How could that company not see my greatness!
I wonder what I could’ve done better?
When you get cut-off in traffic, what do you think?
That person is a straight-up idiot!
I wonder what caused them to make that poor decision?
I think you get my point. We all have default thought patterns, or stories we tell ourselves. And these stories dictate our emotions as they build up and calcify in our minds. But where do they come from?
These stories are gathered over decades from all of our experiences. If we are backstabbed by a friend, our loyalty-story will most likely look different from someone who has never been betrayed. If our parents are very opinionated we may accept those views or purposefully take the other side. Or the friends we hang around. Everything that happens to you affects these default thought patterns. But the good news is that you’re not stuck with them forever…that is, if you do something about it.
Can They Change?
First, if we never think about these stories, they will never change. But by imagining the potential benefits of changing these thought patterns, we might start taking the idea seriously. Think back to the start. Imagine the benefits of mastering your emotions.
Second, the change will take time. It takes time to reframe your thoughts.
To go back to the ‘getting-cut-off-in-traffic’ example, it will take time to give your assailant the benefit of the doubt. Don’t get upset if you continue yelling and cursing the first dozen times. It takes a while. Just do your best to be aware of your thoughts and your visceral reactions.
The Great Equalizer
That brings us back to awareness. Awareness is the first step in changing the stories we tell ourselves.
Awareness is the first step to action. They have to know something is going on to know to do something about it.
- Derick Virgil
Try to catch your thoughts. This might seem like a weird concept and it’ll take some practice but give it a try. The purpose of this is to create a lag between the event and your resultant action.
Let me explain.
When you get cut-off, you might think you can’t control your emotions because they manifest so quickly. But by catching your thoughts, you can widen the gap between the event (getting cut-off) and your resultant action (becoming angry and dropping F-bombs). And eventually this gap will get wider and wider so you can start processing the stories you tell yourself.
Furthermore, something neat might happen. That gap might reverse but instead of a negative initial reaction, it will become the positive one you were trying to institute.
[*disclaimer – I am by no means an authority on this. I fail constantly.]
But it all starts with awareness and catching these detrimental thoughts.
For instance, if you start feeling a need to gossip about someone or start feeling really negative about yourself, just ask a simple one-word question:
Why do I think that? You might not even have a good answer, but at least you will be scratching the surface. #laughablehabit
Why is Changing Our Default Thought Patterns Important?
Our thoughts are extremely powerful. From self-fulfilling prophecies to the power of positive thinking, our thoughts and attitudes undeniably have the power to affect our behavior. And behavior is what we are trying to change. If we can change our behavior for the better, we can put ourselves in a better position to get better results in any area of our lives.
Plus, I don’t think anybody wakes up and yells, “I just want to get really angry today!”
We don’t like getting angry, but it still happens.
For example, do you always want to be angry in traffic for the rest of your existence or would you rather be at peace?
Or if you hear an ambiguously annoying comment by a relative at Thanksgiving, do you want to assume the worst and get defensive or become curious and ask further questions?
Or if you get betrayed, do you want to never feel love again or try to reconcile your hurt?
As stated, these stories dictate our behaviors. We might start ignoring that relative or stop seeking out others. The first step towards making a positive change is being aware of the stories we tell ourselves.
What Does This Have to do with Investing?
Investing is simply decision making. And decisions are behaviors. And behaviors are affected by our default thoughts patterns. Therefore, a part of improving our investing is changing our counterproductive thought patterns.
For example, let’s say you check the prices of your stocks immediately when you wake up. If you see red, you might feel a guttural reaction and shut down your brokerage app. If you see green, you venture further and obsessively check your portfolio balance. Sound familiar? If not, good! If so, welcome to the club.
When we see losses in our portfolios, it doesn’t feel good. It might even cause you to sell your stocks at an inopportune time. This would be a mental association leading to a counterproductive behavior. What if we could change our default thought pattern about seeing red in our portfolios? It just so happens that one of the world’s best investors has a solution.
Warren Buffett was quoted in a 2001 Fortune article as saying,
“I'm going to buy hamburgers the rest of my life. When hamburgers go down in price, we sing the 'Hallelujah Chorus' in the Buffett household. When hamburgers go up in price, we weep. For most people, it's the same with everything in life they will be buying —except stocks. When stocks go down and you can get more for your money, people don't like them anymore."
By looking at losses in a different way, Buffett set himself up for success. Rather than reacting emotionally, he looked at the situation rationally to make good decisions.
At the end of the day, no one sees your thoughts, but everyone sees your actions. However, you can’t make ideal actions without the right thoughts. It’s a challenge to change these default thought patterns, but it is well worth it. It is a step in the right direction towards acting less emotionally and more rationally, which makes for better decision making.
And we all want that right?