I recently spent two nights at a Johannesburg hotel, and had an amazing experience at the exit-gate of the hotel’s parking garage.

Concerned about Monday morning traffic, I was up early and was keen to start driving to the Building Resilience workshop (click here) I was due to facilitate. Payment for parking my hired car was to a teller in a booth at the exit-gate. You know how it works: you pay her, she deposits the cash into her teller’s machine, which in turn triggers the exit-boom to rise.

As I drove up to the payment booth however, I saw there was a problem. The teller was struggling to load a roll of paper for receipts into her cash machine.  As she battled, cars began to queue up behind me. After a few minutes, a driver leaned out of his window and shouted: “Come on! I am gonna be late!”

The poor woman became even more flustered, but soon got the machine working. “I am so very sorry to have delayed you, sir”, she said handing me a receipt while the exit boom rose.

“No problem”, I replied, “it isn’t the end of the world. I hope your day gets better,”, and drove out.

The next morning, there in the teller’s booth, was the same lady from yesterday.

“How was your day yesterday?” I asked her as I paid.  “I know it didn’t start well.”

“Yes,” she said, “the day started terribly. I had problems at home, was late getting to work, then this machine wouldn’t print properly, and a customer shouted at me.”

What she then said absolutely amazed me.

“I knew however that I had a choice about how the rest of the day would turn out. It would either get worse, and the whole day would be horrible. Or I could decide not to let it affect me. I decided to have a happy day. And it was.”

What wisdom and courage! She understood the awesome choice we have about how we experience life.

What happens to us, once it has happened, can’t be undone. We do however have choices about how we experience what happens. The choice is about the meaning and interpretation we put to the events that happen to us.

This ability to create meaning is an awesome power, because it gives us the power to determine how we experience the events in our lives. Like this lady, we can choose to have a happy day even in difficult times.

Exercising this choice however is often not easy. In fact, sometimes it’s darn right difficult, particularly when there are other stressful events in your life or when really horrible things happen.

If your first reaction is unhelpfully negative, how do you choose a positive reaction?

I have found that if my automatic or “logical” reaction is unhelpfully negative, there are three steps that work for me:

  1. Acknowledge where you are at

I start by acknowledging that my thoughts and feelings are not serving me well. The little voice in my head, my “inner critic”, is saying unhelpfully harsh and destructive things. I tell myself that I don’t want to think these negative thoughts any more. So I make a deliberate decision to change.

  1. Break out of your negative thinking, feelings and attitude

Like water running downhill in an erosion channel, inappropriately negative thoughts, feelings and attitude has the power of entrenching themselves deeper and deeper. To break out, I try to do something completely different that takes all my attention. For example, I call a friend and chat about something completely different. Or I go for a long run or a swim. Watching an uplifting or inspiring movie (click here) also works for me.

  1. Act out the chosen positive thinking, feelings and attitude

I try to act as I would like to feel, interacting in a way that is positive and affirming. I smile, greet people, ask after their welfare, and find something to genuinely complement them on. I even try to do this in my emails. I find this helps change my focus from “the negative in me” to “the positive out there.”

In summary, we all have a choice about how we experience what happens to us. Like the teller-lady, we may not be able to choose what happens to us, but we have the choice of how we experience what happens.  How have you chosen to experience what’s happening today?