For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Anon

for the sake of a horseshoe nailHave you ever witnessed someone ‘explode’ over a seemingly insignificant incident, because it’s the last in a long catalogue of similar incidents, which just tips them over the edge?

To the bystander, it’s unexpected – a bolt out of the blue – but to the person involved, it’s been building up over weeks or months, bubbling under the surface like molten lava until the pressure becomes so great that there’s no holding it back. So, what exactly happens in these situations?

The human brain is very good at recognising patterns and finding similarities between, sometimes, disconnected events. You often hear people say “that reminds me of the time when…”. Most of the time, it’s very useful, because it gives us a sense of connection and continuity, and it can also help to create new ideas. Where it can go wrong, though, is if the connections ‘prove’ some sort of conspiracy to cause us harm.

I’ve heard beliefs described as “ideas with legs” – in other words, first you have an idea about a situation, and it’s just sitting there, not doing much. Then, if another similar situation arises, your brain sets to work, connecting the two and giving more power to the original idea. Eventually, you have built up so many connections that you’re convinced the idea is right. You have catalogued proof. That’s when the idea becomes a firmly-held belief.

“Johnny doesn’t like me”, “my boss has it in for me”, “my workmates are all waiting for me to fail” are all examples of our ability to build on an idea and turn it into a belief, creating unpredictable results.

If I were to ask exactly what the boss had done, for example, to convince you that he/she had it in for you, you would no doubt be able to list all the evidence. However, what you call ‘evidence’ may simply be your opinion about what happened, rather than the plain facts.

If someone snaps at you, or does something that upsets you, do you automatically think “they don’t like me” or “they’re doing it deliberately to get on my nerves”? What if that person were having a bad day? What if something awful had happened to them recently, and they were unknowingly expressing their distress in a way that had an impact on you?

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a grumpy employee at a supermarket checkout, for example? Do you really think they’ve got something against you personally? Probably not. You probably think they’re just having a bad day. And yet, if a friend treated you in the same way, would you be so willing to give them the benefit of the doubt? Or would you think “they should know better”?

As in the story of the horseshoe nail – the lack of which caused the entire kingdom to be lost – we need to pay attention to the small things in order to avert bigger disasters. We need to keep a check on them and deal with them there and then, rather than letting them mount up into something we can no longer control.

I’m not suggesting you have a blazing row whenever someone says or does something you don’t like! Instead, take a step back, breathe deeply, then state, as calmly and clearly as you can, how you feel about what that person did or said. More often than not, you will discover that it was an involuntary act, which was not intended to cause you harm.

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