Foundational Freedoms

I control my perception and my reaction


We have a lot of freedom. We possess the most important freedoms. I’m not talking about First Amendment freedoms or Second Amendment freedoms or the freedom to go to the McDonalds drive thru, order 5 Big Macs, a 20 piece McNugget, a shake, and absolutely delete it all in the parking lot… then circle back for seconds. I’m not talking about those freedoms.

I’m talking about the freedom to choose:
Where I give my attention
How I frame (and feel)
How I react
What I do

These are the most important freedoms. The foundational freedoms. Because they're the freedoms that I own regardless of my circumstances.

Where I give my attention and how I frame my situation are two choices, which, when combined, create my “perception.”

How I react and what I do are one in the same, since everything we do is a reaction. A reaction to our emotions, environment, and others. We're never choosing “what to do” in a vacuum. It‘s always in response to something. It’s always a reaction.

One of the mantras I repeat to myself (almost daily) is:

I control my perception and my reaction.
I do not control others' perceptions & reactions, my environment, or the future.

Out of all of the things I wish I could control in this world, there are only 2 things that I actually can control… my perception and my reaction.

Also, I have absolute freedom to choose how to express these foundational freedoms. I own the full range of possibilities.

And these are the freedoms upon which all other “freedoms” in my life are built.

Where I give my attention

Do I watch the news?
Do I watch my weight?

Do I play volleyball games with friends?
Do I play status games with friends?

Do I focus on the beautiful sunset?
Or the fact that I’ve hit every single red light for the past 5 blocks and this is the longest drive home I’ve ever had?

Do I focus on who’s here?
Do I focus on who’s missing?

Do I focus on what I have?
Do I focus on what I lack?

This choice of what to focus on is mine, and solely mine, to own.

How I frame

A situation happens. I have an impulsive emotion. Then, I own the choice of how to frame the situation. This choice of how to frame informs how I feel going forward. I have the option to replace the initial emotion with my chosen emotion.

A close friend recently got laid off. Up until she did, she hated her job. She couldn’t wait to leave. She’d even set a predestined date for quitting, just to keep her sanity while she was still at her job.

Then she got laid off. All of the sudden, the decision was made for her. The door closed. She then had to confront her choice of how to frame this situation...

She could feel sad that her journey ended and it wasn’t on her terms.

She could feel angry that her incompetent, misogynistic bosses laid off the most capable person on the entire team. The only one who showed up early and left late. The only one who gave a damn.

She could feel insecure that she wasn’t good enough. Telling herself, “clearly they let me go for a reason. I must not be good at the job.”

She could feel liberated that she was finally departing from a job that she hated. She could thank her boss for freeing her of the burden of deciding to leave herself.

Each of these options of how to feel were dependent on how she chose to frame the situation. Regardless of what she chose, the situation itself would not change. She would still be jobless. Yet her perception of the situation, her experience of the situation, was entirely up to her.

(She chose “sad” for a day, then transitioned to “liberated” & popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate.)

He chose peace

My senior year of college, my best friend & roommate, Henry, died unexpectedly. A part of that experience that always stuck with me was a single phone call, one of the hardest ones I ever had to field.

The morning of Henry’s death, as I sat in the grief counselor’s office, she came in and said, “Henry’s dad is on the phone and asked to speak to you. Do you want to talk to him?” Amidst the tears & shock, I had barely spoken. Somehow I mustered a mumble, “of course.” Despite agreeing to the request, I was incredibly scared.

I was stuck in my impulsive emotions of fear and sadness. I was scared because I didn’t have any answers. I didn’t know what happened. I just woke up and Henry didn’t. I feared that his dad, Sandy, might be angry and press for answers: “What the Hell happened?!? Tell me now!”

I was scared that Sandy might be uncontrollably sad (like me in that moment). Something to the effect of:
“Why God?!? How could you do this? How could this happen?”

Yet, when I did pick up the phone, I got my second dose of shock that day. I heard his soft, caring tone:
“Trent… Trent… are you ok? How are you doing? It’s going to be ok. Do you know what happened?”
“Sandy, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I have no idea what happened. I just went to wake him up and he was gone.”
“Trent. It’s ok. It’s going to be ok. I want you to know that when I got the news, at first I was shocked, but then I felt a wave of peace come over me. I know that Henry is at peace. Everything is ok.”

I will never forget those words. A “wave of peace… Henry is at peace.” This is a dad who just got the news that his son had died unexpectedly. He had every right to be enraged, upset, sad. Yet, grounded in his faith, he chose peace that day.

He chose peace.

Choosing everyday in every way

This choice of ours is not confined to situations of tragic loss. We experience it everyday in all situations.

A friend bails on dinner plans last minute.
I can choose to feel furious that they have no respect for me & my time.
I can choose to feel free now that I have 2 hours back to do whatever I want. “Thank you for giving me the wonderful gift of time.”

A friend invites me to a party last minute, even though I already have plans for a chill game night with other friends.
I can choose to experience FOMO or JOMO (joy of missing out). In the latter case, saying to myself, “Yeah the party sounds fun but it also sounds like such an effort. I’m pretty low energy so I’m happy I’m already committed to game night. More my vibe tonight.”
I can choose to be angry that they invited me so last minute. “You couldn’t think of me earlier?!? I would‘ve come if I’d known about it sooner. I already made plans though and now I can’t bail. Now I’ll be stuck at a lame game night while you’re having the night of your life! This sucks!”
I can choose to be grateful that they thought of me at all. “How lucky am I to have too many friends that I have overlapping plans? Wow, what a life.”

I graduate from college.
I can choose to feel elated that I achieved a childhood dream of mine.
I can choose to feel proud for braving the long nights of studying for finals and for overcoming my 9AM Friday class where the professor vindictively made attendance 30% of the semester grade.
I can choose to feel depressed that I just wasted 4 years of my life & thousands of dollars on a piece of paper.

Along the way, others will weigh in on how I should feel:
"I'm so sorry you lost your job. You must be so mad."
"I'm so sorry you lost your son. You must be so sad."
"I'm so proud you graduated. You must be so glad!"

Yet their perception need not influence my own. If I relinquish my power to dictate my perception, then that's still my choice. When I'm feeling frustrated and misaligned in my life, I try to take a second to ask myself, "where am I giving away my power to choose?" Suddenly, I'm reawakened to the fact that "choosing my perception" is within my locus of control.

Absence of emotion

The intention is not to "not feel." To feel emotions is human. The impulsive emotion is a natural response. It's programmed by centuries of evolution, as well as years of data that I've personally fed it in the form of experiences and thoughts. So, the intention is to first become aware of this default emotion as quickly as possible. Then choose the framing that will guide me to the emotion that I want to experience.

Even when facing physical discomfort, I can choose the extent to which I actually focus on the sensations.
Choosing to feel hungry
Choosing to feel pain
Choosing to feel tired

My framing might simply be to shift my attention elsewhere. These physical sensations are merely components, or building blocks, of my conscious experience. They don't comprise the full picture.

So I can ask myself, "which block am I choosing to focus on right now? Is it the one that I want to be focused on?"

How am I choosing to frame?
What am I choosing to feel?

How I react

My reaction is often informed by what I’m focused on and how I frame the situation. My choice about the first two tends to dictate this one. The reaction naturally following the perception.

If I’m sitting in traffic, hitting every red light for the last 5 blocks, furious that my friend just bailed on our dinner last minute, and pissed off that I just spent my last dollar on tuition, then when another car cuts me off, my reaction might be a tad bit aggressive. Birds are flipped.

Alternatively, if I’m sitting in traffic, enjoying the beautiful sunset, grateful that I’m attending my dream school, ecstatic that my friend just bailed on our dinner last minute so that I can have a chill night at home, then when another car drives in front of me, my reaction is likely going to be a bit more nonchalant. A nice wave to say “come on through.” Or I might not even notice. I’m just watching the birds fly by instead.

However, it’s not always the case that my perception informs my reaction. Sometimes I must deliberately choose my reaction, even if my perception is misaligned and running off in a different direction.

The Forest of Anger

A completely hypothetical example that definitely did NOT just happen…

Erin and I get into a minor “tiff” that becomes a full-blown argument. I'm absolutely fuming inside. I’m feeling an unhealthy mix of insecure in myself and angry at her. I’m not sure which emotion is contributing to which, but they're certainly feeding each other, as I ride this spiral all the way down to rage.

So here I am, sitting in this state of rage. I know I can “choose how to feel” but it doesn’t feel that way right now. I feel like my emotions kidnapped me and dropped me in the Forest of Anger. Unsure how I got here, I’m sitting amongst the rage trees and insecurity leaves. I’m overwhelmed. I’m lost. My perception feels stuck.

All of my ideas about how to escape (how to react) are to hurt her. My wounded ego promising the path to the promised land:
“Call out her insecurities. And make it hurt!”
“She has no right to say that!”
“That's so hypocritical. Bring up what she did yesterday!"

I can picture this ego-inspired escape from the Forest of Anger to the top of Victory Mountain. I’ll be standing on top while I leave Erin at the base... defeated.

In that moment - when I’m lost in my emotions, when I'm unable to picture a positive reframe, and it feels like I can’t control how I feel - right before I react… I pause.

My reaction is a pause.
My reaction is a breath.
My reaction is to do nothing.

Then, all I say is, “I’m tempted to say a lot of hurtful things right now. My emotions are running the show. I think I need to take a breather. Can we continue this conversation in a bit?”

When my perception feels stuck in an impulsive emotion, then a pause is often the most useful of reactions, since it provides a buffer against the default. It gives me the space to choose how to reframe and react from the place that I want to.

Four foundational freedoms. Combined to create my perception and my reaction. The only two things I can ever control.

“Don’t tell me what to do”

It seems that we’re often so focused on preserving our freedom to do whatever we want that we neglect the other foundational freedoms. Put another way, the freedom to choose what I do gets a disproportionate amount of the spotlight.

For example, when my parents give me advice, the exchange might go something like this:
Bill & Tina: “Trent, we think you should chase your dreams. You have so much potential. Don’t waste a minute living someone else’s life.”
Me: “Don’t tell me what to do!”

In this reaction, I’m so allergic to my parents telling me what to do, so obsessed with preserving my personal freedom, that I fail to recognize my other choices of what to focus on and how to feel.

First, I could simply choose not to focus on their advice. I could blatantly ignore them, covering my ears and shouting, “I’m not listening! I’m not listening!”
I could act like I’m listening but instead think about how the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals back in 2016.
I could listen but allocate no part of my mental storage capacity to this piece of advice - in one ear and straight to the garbage can in my brain.

Alternatively, I could choose to feel grateful. Grateful that they believe in me. Grateful that they want to support my dreams. Grateful that they care enough about me to gift me some of their attention.
I can evoke this sense of gratitude by choosing my framing. I can shift it from “they’re trying to control me by telling me what to do” -> “they’re trying to show me they care about me by parlaying their advice.” The latter option makes me feel good, so I think I’ll take that frame.

After all, I’m the one who grants meaning to their actions. Admittedly, I've been on the flip side of this situation, where I was the advice-giver. The one subtly suggesting what "should be done." In this case, I had to be reminded that I can't choose the perception or reaction of another.

Back to the hypothetical argument with Erin. The genesis of that argument was my inability to respect her choice of how to react.

She chose her reaction.
I didn’t agree with her choice.
I attempted to coax a new choice that aligned with what I wanted.
She saw right through that.
Tension arose.

Now the argument was less about the content of what we were discussing and more about my encroachment on her choice. She was standing her ground, wanting to protect her freedom to choose, despite my attempts to control.

After cooling down, I got the reminder that I needed:
I have absolute freedom to control how I react, but I have absolutely no control over another’s choice.

I was also reminded:
I’m not perfect... I’m still practicing.

“What do I want?”

Ok, so I recognize that I have these foundational freedoms... now what?

The full range of choices that accompanies these freedoms can be utterly paralyzing. Absolute freedom is soooooo much freedom.
So many options of where to focus, how to feel, how to react… how do I choose?

Only I can answer that question. There is no “right” answer. And the question can only be answered with another simple question:
“What do I want?”

A foundational question informing my foundational freedoms. A question I so often disregard for fear of seeming selfish that it almost feels dirty that I wrote it down.
“What do I want?”

Just me.

It’s not:
“What do my parents want?”
“What will make my partner happy?”
“What’s my boss’s preference?”

“What do I want?”
“What do I value?”
“What am I solving for?”
“Who do I want to be?”

The answer to this question informs where we give our attention, how we choose to feel, and how we choose to react.

Sounds selfish, right? Basing all of our most important decisions on what we, personally, want.
“What about your family?”
“What about your community?”
“Do you not care about other people?”

This is not to say that every desire that surfaces must be acted on. I do care about others. Seeing others happy is part of “what I want.” So “selfish” doesn’t mean actively hurting or neglecting others.
It's more akin to choosing from a place of alignment with my True Self.
Because if I don’t see my needs & wants, then who will?

The struggle is that sometimes it’s hard to know what I want. Actually, often times, my honest answer to “what do I want?” is “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know what I want.”
“I don’t know who I am.”
“I don’t know who I want to be.”

I’ve quieted my internal voice for so long that its vocal cords have atrophied. As I’ve prioritized satisfying others, I’ve stopped listening to this voice altogether. I don’t even know what it sounds like. That’s why it’s so hard to answer the question: “what do I want?”

But I must find out. Because nobody else in the entire world can answer this question, except for me.

And answering this question is how I unlock my freedoms.

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