Situations come and go more often than we are usually comfortable admitting, in which we wish we’d done other than what we did in fact do. We may attempt to pass the behavior off as a result of hunger, sleep, another person’s actions towards us, the weather, hormones or a mental diagnosis, but all of these are simply pointers to some version of the common phrase: “that wasn’t who I really am.” In other words, we are quite comfortable with imaginatively projecting a version of ourselves who acted other than what actually happened. We empathize with, and perhaps even envy, a version of ourselves that exists only in our mind.
Explore Your Future Self
Thankfully imagination is not tied only to a past of recrimination and self-doubt. It can move into the future as well and bring with it versions of yourself that indeed do exactly what you desire to do. The same mechanism can be a tool for leaving us stuck in a past of impossibility, where we get caught up in a world that now never could be, or allow us to explore a future that we in fact do want to live in.
The nature of the present rarely allows us to consciously select what we supposedly find most important. Only in contemplating what we wish we’d done differently or in looking to how we’d like to be, does what we seemingly most highly Value come into focus. That Value is used to color an entire situation in what has become fixated as being most important.
Narrow Perspective is A Trap
There’s a trap here though, one of narrow perspective-taking. Bring to mind those occasions when something seemed to suddenly appear out of your peripheral vision. When driving and paying attention only to what’s in front of you, suddenly to have an animal dart from the side. When focused on a task and startled by someone suddenly being next to you. Perspective-taking is powerful, but it is also extremely limiting. We lose sight of what is around us. While this is great for pushing behavior in service to a goal, it is incredibly poor for keeping in mind the broader world and all its influences.
What you’re doing when using the past to pass judgment is funneling it through a present already mired in its own limitation. Values guide the selection of behavior to support them. When you say you should have done otherwise you’re effectively saying you should have cared about something differently in that moment. But that’s the problem right there, you’re no longer in that situation which existed. Further, you’re no longer the you that existed then. You’re someone new, someone who has more information than previously, someone who has the capacity to judge what has come before because there is now a ‘before’ to consider.
A Value Always Exists
The fact is that the you in the past did care about something, a Value that called out a behavior to support it. The behavior was something which, in that context, was seen as the only possible thing to do. If you pause and reflect for a moment, odds are you’ll be able to see what that Value was and perhaps acknowledge that it’s still something you care about.
Here is where the imagined you of the future can be greater than the past. It simply has more to build with. The future can be one of recognizing how in every situation is a Value that may be selected to guide behavior, yet acknowledging how there are always more Values that matter to you. Rather than getting caught in the trap of narrow perspective and risk behaving in a way that undermines or ignores a Value, you can take the time to contemplate what all there is you care about and how best to support them.
Self-control is not about control or shaming or manipulating yourself through a technique. Self-control is the flexible mental space to see the many Values that exist in a given moment and act within that greater appreciation towards the best version you believe yourself capable of being.
The future awaits the you that you want to be.
Yong, Ed. Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self. The Atlantic. December 6, 2016.
I recently had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Jared Levenson from “Eating Enlightenment” for a podcast interview. We covered a lot of topics, including shame, it’s relationship to eating disorders, religious ideology and my own journey from fundamentalism and how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be used in therapy and life in general.
I want to take a moment to look at how ‘tunnel vision’ works. We’ve all heard of bias and, if you’ve been reading me for any length of time, will recall I am at pains to remind people that bias is not only inevitable, it’s not something we can ever get away from. The best hope we have is to set up habits of introspective critical thinking as a counter to bias, to engage consistently with those habits and construct our lives around them. This means actively engaging with people and ideas you may not agree with. It means, when in dialogue, learning the other person’s perspective such that you can present it to them in the best way possible that they would agree with. It means recognizing how no single position or idea defines the whole of who a person is. Ideas matter, but so does intention. We can appreciate how a person wants to make the world better from within their own perspective, even as we condemn the real-world consequences of implementing their ideas.
The core of a healthy society is our collective ability to wrestle with big ideas, to learn how to be resilient in the face of difficulty, and to recognize that thoughts are changeable. To do the latter, we must engage with them, even if, when it comes to our own self-destructive habits, we do so for the purpose of letting them go.
Was a pleasure chatting with Jared and I encourage everyone to not only listen to our chat, but take a look at the services he has to offer.
How To Question Your Assumptions and Get Out of Tunnel Vision
Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing someone else’s face. Frightened? Confused? Wondering whether you’re dreaming? The level of concern here connects us to why we get frustrated when other people don’t seem to see us accurately. We act in an ‘as if’ universe, where our behavior is done ‘as if’ it is as immediately understandable and clear to everyone else as it is to ourselves. When the reality that others don’t have immediate clear access to our own minds comes crashing down with all the weight of their judgment, there’s often an immediate feeling of annoyance, if not outright anger.
I believe the pure relief and, often, joy of ‘being seen’ makes sense when placed against the backdrop of living a life in a world that doesn’t conform to our ‘as if’ belief. There’s a weight lifted and that release forms many a basis for love and intimacy. Of course it does. Who wouldn’t want to create a life with someone who, out of the thousands that came before, takes away the constant wariness of looking in the mirror of our social interactions and possibly not seeing our own face?
Why is it, then, so difficult for others to understand us? We’re the same species. We’re using the same words in sentences that, in a specific culture, are generally accepted as having a common meaning. While we will accept that other people don’t have access to our inner mind, this seems a small thing. Unfortunately it isn’t small. It’s not even large. It’s the whole problem.
Past, Present, Future
In this world of digitized behavior, kept for all eternity, the human proclivity to organize the present in line with the past has gotten enormous support.
In a nutshell, people will interpret your current behavior in a way that makes it consistent with your past behavior, and they will tend to play down or completely ignore evidence that contradicts their existing opinion of you. What’s more, they will have no idea that they’re doing it.Psychology Today
The quote from Heidi Halvorson above is perhaps a bit more positive than warranted, in the sense that people will “have no idea” they’re ignoring evidence to the contrary of a set opinion. On the contrary, quite often evidence to the contrary is deliberately dismissed as being aberrations, as detours from the ‘true’ reality of the person being judged. This dismissal is particularly strong when judgment is joined with identity. In other words, it’s not simply that a behavior is wrong, it’s that the behavior is representative of their associated race, gender, social group. Any contrary behavior to this homogenized story will be dismissed as belonging to a long con or other form of manipulation.
There is a space in which people are unaware they’re ignoring data, often in the day-to-day minutiae of life. Ever been driving and suddenly came to the realization that you don’t remember the last several miles? This detached or autopilot thinking happens fairly often, especially when a job is repetitious or a person feels no sense of ownership for what they’re engaged in. We can acknowledge this tendency while still pointing to how certain ideologies seem to support doing so deliberately. Anytime in which a part of someone is taken to be the whole, rest assured there are a great many variables/aspects/characteristics/behavior being dismissed.
The First Will Be Last
First impressions are, as the oft-repeated advice goes, very important. The strength of these first impressions is intimately tied to the degree of cognitive/emotional weight given to a situation. As noted above, that weight is shifted and focused more fully based on ideologies that parse people into singular identities, rather than whole people who contain multitudes. That said, seeing a random person on public transit will not generate many associations and you likely won’t remember them if you were to see the person later. If, however, they had been belligerent to you personally, or had engaged in behavior deemed bizarre, then later there’d be a quick judgment applied. Also, a random person will generate weaker associations than someone you’re interviewing for an important job or who shows up to take your kid out for a romantic date.
In other words, information we get about a person early in our observation of them influences how we interpret and remember everything that comes after.Psychology Today
Early impressions are within the same mental spectrum of bias, but they’re stronger precisely because they’re fed by other biases and themselves become one. Indeed, first impressions are encouraged to be especially defining because they’re so often associated with one’s intuition, a form of knowing felt to be pure.
Importantly here is recognizing that, whatever the limitations of first impressions may be, the influence is ongoing. We will actively interpret a person’s behavior, not based on the intent of that person, but on the story we already have of them. Further, our memory will follow suit, selectively recalling the information that fits that story as well.
It’s the Relationship
So how do we learn to mitigate these influences? How do we start to live in such a way that the lack of our access to other people’s minds is not just acknowledged but constrains our own behavior? First and foremost, we need to look at how we construct our perspectives, namely through relationship.
Perspective and the communication based off it, is too often assumed to be like lobbing a ball back and forth over an invisible line. Each person has their space and they receive the proverbial ball whole and complete exactly as intended. The complete error of this metaphor cannot be overstated. At best what is going on is the communication ball is being shaped by the interweaving of at least six variables or threads as it moves from one person to another.
- Intent of person A
- History of person A
- Environmental context(s)
- Intent of person B
- History of person B
- Automatic biases of A and B
None of these threads are singular in themselves either. The history and intent of a person will be a build-up of learned assumptions based on all the interrelationships they’ve had throughout their lives. Nobody can have access to all that. For that matter, nobody has conscious access to all those pieces of information for themselves.
The best we can do, and it’s really not as depressing as it may initially look, is to take a pause before or very quickly after each judgment we have. Within this pause, we can consider how much the story we have about the other person is about our own judgments and the influences of our many layered context. Within that pause we can learn to listen more, speak less and seek first a greater understanding of our fellow traveler in humanity. Judgment is undoubtedly going to happen, but we don’t need to hasten its arrival.
Working with clients going through difficult times, many questions come up concerning fairness, justice, and responsibility. The world, it becomes painfully obvious, doesn’t respond to our thoughts the way we’d like. Our pictures/stories of ‘what should be’ rarely match ‘what is.’ Despite this, we continue to struggle on, moving from moment to moment with a sometimes grim, sometimes emotionally poignant, determination. Faced with the struggle, there is a completely understandable question in response: When will this end?!
I want to turn for a moment to the ABCs. Before you start going down that familiar song from childhood, we’ll be looking at:
- A – Antecedent
- B – Behavior
- C – Consequence
Now, don’t go running for the hills just yet. This is simply a way of looking at our behavior, a framing of the world and our interaction with it. Prior to action is a factor/item (an ‘antecedent’) which has a causal relationship with the behavior, followed by a consequence(s) or result. This is just a more formal way of declaring what our parents used to warn us about concerning ‘there will be consequences!’ What they often left out in their warnings, and frankly what we often oversimplify as adults, are the influences/antecedents leading to particular behavior.
Getting Caught in Consequence
The reason for this formality is to help us see where we get stuck. The influences/antecedents is where we can find freedom, but we as a species are pretty terrible at determining what those are on a day-to-day basis. Seriously. We are. But more on that in a bit.
Where we get stuck is in the perception of consequence. When you stub a toe walking around barefoot, do you focus on the walking or are you wincing, hopping and holding on to the hurt foot? When you’ve lost a job, had a fight with a friend or see a relationship ending, do you focus on all the decisions that came before it or are you caught up in the emotional cacophony of the loss?
Further, even after the initial pain is worked through, consider how the consequence is still front and center in how you view the world. From the item on the floor that ‘shouldn’t have been there’ to ‘that person/group is horrible’ and ‘I always make horrible decisions,’ the thoughts/assessments are vibrantly colored by the shadowy influence of obsessing over consequence.
Before getting sucked into morose reflection, the focus on consequence makes a great deal of sense. Our brain/body system comes from eons of evolutionary development and biological cost/benefit appraisal. Expending energy on anything other than consequence would be a privilege. Think about it. If you’re focused on brute survival, the consequences of one’s behavior should definitely be front and center in consciousness. When faced with getting eaten, freezing to death or not having enough food, these are consequences that will direct, understandably, the attention of anyone.
Revealing the Influencers
We’re not going to remove our tendency to obsess over consequences and we should definitely not ignore consequences either. However, if we want to change our future behavior, reduce negative consequences and expand how we work through situations, then we need to focus on more than consequences. Here come the influencers.
The one area of our lives we have the most control over is often the one area we rarely consider in effecting our decision-making: our biology/physiology.
How well and how much have you been sleeping?
What kind of food are you typically eating? Full meals or snacks? High in sugar? For that matter, what’s your caffeine intake and how close to sleep time are you taking it?
Focused exercise? Not just wandering around but an actual exercise routine.
Meditation practice? Even 10 minutes a day is a huge help. Meditation isn’t about adding yet another activity, it’s about slowing down and seeing how the cacophony of our every-day lives is not the same thing as our image of who we are.
Relationships are not just about intimate partnerships. They include family, co-workers, and even the strangers we run into at the store or on the street.
Do you feel seen by those you feel closest too?
Are you concerned about the future of an important connection?
How difficult do you find it to talk with your boss?
Relationships are the medium through which we express ourselves. As such they have an enormous influence on the decisions we make.
Environment is about both the socio-cultural expectations/rules we live under and the physical structures we live within and interact with.
Is your personal space cluttered and disorganized or dirty?
Do you feel too cold or too hot at your place of work so you’re constantly having to make adjustments?
Do you live around green spaces and/or how often do you step away from buildings and into nature?
Are family members bringing up expectations you either don’t personally care about or are things you feel shame/doubt about?
Freedom through Awareness
The questions above are not exhaustive and quite often there isn’t a right or wrong answer to them. They’re about expanding your awareness of what is effecting you, because they are and you don’t have a choice about it. You can no more stop being influenced by biology, relationships and environment than you can stop the tides of the ocean being controlled by the moon.
Freedom is not in removing yourself from influence but by becoming more aware of them. This allows for the exploration of potential responses rather than being trapped into “what I’ve always done” or “feeling overwhelmed” or “I don’t know what came over me.”
We can’t remove ourselves from consequence, but we can help shift what consequences we will experience.
Main photo by Ian Chen on Unsplash
How much of your life has happened without your conscious awareness? Sure, there’s the approximately 8 hours a day of sleep, which, doing the math, is 2920 hours, translated to 121 days or 4 months. Yup, 4 months out of the year is spent sleeping. Now let’s expand on that and consider the number of times you’ve ‘snapped to attention’ and realized you’d been daydreaming and, amusingly, can’t remember what was so much more important. This can be embarrassing when in a conversation with someone else and potentially quite dangerous when driving, with a full third of accidents occurring within one mile of home and often by running into parked cars.
Stepping away from the dangerous and into the mundane, have you ever considered yourself to be on ‘autopilot’? For that matter, think back over the last week, how much can you fully remember and how much is hazy recall? Understand that this is completely normal. If we were to attempt actively paying attention to every single bit of data, internal and external, we’d be overrun and go through a system crash. It’d be like watching Netflix and having a crystal clear image, only to have your internet provider throttle your speed and everything goes grainy or stops altogether.
While we certainly don’t want to get ourselves into a shutdown experience, even the minutest increase in awareness can help us live healthier mental lives. In fact, doing so doesn’t even have to be all the time, it can simply be focused around relationships, work, physical health and so on. What area of your life would you like to understand better? Doing so requires a greater awareness.
We like to be right and that leads us to double-down on our stories of ‘what is.’ To challenge them requires two things: 1) increased awareness and 2) actively doing so from a space of positive exploration. Now, I don’t mean ‘positive’ in the sense of happy, joyful and smiling. ‘Positive’ here means active engagement or deliberate movement, or in other words, adding to what you’re doing, rather than subtracting or avoiding. Sometimes doing so is not at all joyful and may even initially result in feelings of hurt or discontent. Thankfully, increasing awareness does not require any particular feeling attached to it.
Feet on the Ground
So where to start? Regardless of what area in your life you’d like more awareness about, starting anywhere will have spillover. With that in mind: how are your feet? Seriously, how are they? What are they doing right now? How do they feel? Do you really only notice them when they are in pain?
Our feet carry us everywhere, but while in use, we rarely pay them much attention. In fact, while walking, to pay special attention to your feet will result in slowing down. That this results in not getting to a destination as quickly is likely why we’re good with ignoring them so long as they’re functioning. So it is with a great many parts of our lives.
Unless there’s some kind of difficulty, we go about our lives without much awareness. Unfortunately there are little things that can creep up on us and do us and our relationships harm if we’re not paying attention. Further, the world in and around us doesn’t stop influencing our decisions and ideas of who we are simply because we don’t actively notice parts of it. Taking even a small step, like deliberately noticing how you are stepping/moving, to expand awareness to a part of your life you aren’t generally aware of can lay the ground for new decisions and behaviors.
The more you see, the more there is to work with. The more you see, the greater potential there is to step away from the habits keeping you from moving forward.
Ask yourself “What do I believe?” and the result will likely be a cascade of memories highlighting actions, thoughts and experiences fitting a particular set of Virtues, or Values-in-action. The whole of this cascade will provide the basis for a rather nice structure or Narrative that you can offer to yourself or another to express who you believe yourself to be. This process also has a rather powerful effect of providing a sense of continuity and rightness about your life.
What it is not is a means of selecting what is True and Correct as if from a bin of differentiated facts.
Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.
Ever put together a puzzle? If so, have you tried doing so with the image-side turned down so you only have the bland cardboard cutouts to work with? The latter is a lot harder and typically only done by those who’s desire to self-challenge is a lot higher than my own. But why is it harder? The shape of the pieces is the same and isn’t a puzzle simply about fitting them together? Alas, no, it isn’t, or at least the process isn’t that simple. Shapes matter, but so does the image we’re creating as a whole. Without consciously being aware, we have a pre-established guide of the larger image funneling the shapes to connect.
This whole-part strategy is a mechanism for weaving together disparate pieces of information. However, it’s just that, a mechanism or strategy, it doesn’t create something out of nothing, it has to work with what is given externally. Thankfully life is a whole lot bigger than any one of our perceptions, so we can create new stories quite often and even ones that are different than those of another despite having been in the same place and time.
Ever expressed a memory of childhood to a sibling and had them dispute it? Had a moment of confusion when declaring one’s view of an event only to have a spouse, friend or colleague direct attention to a different view of that same event or a piece from it that wasn’t seen? Welcome to the puzzle-making that is experience.
How does this fit with the initial “Who am I?” question. Glad you ask. We generally only talk about “life experience” once we’ve gathered a certain amount of it. As a consequence we don’t appreciate what went into creating it, taking our perception as gospel or simply the “correct” view. Not much in life feels better than being right and we go out of our way to keep that feeling alive and well.
But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.
We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.
The above list of terms and quote has to do with a common metaphor used for describing human cognition: a computer. While we as human beings are inevitably going to use metaphors in helping us understand ourselves, like any other content of thought we can get too caught up in it, losing the trees for the forest. Further, if we don’t question the assumptions of our metaphor we can run ourselves directly into difficulty that otherwise could have been avoided.
Rather than looking at our minds as retrieval devices, consider instead a painter. We have the canvas of our biology, social structure, and relationships working with the paints of our senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms. Information here is not like data in a machine, a part of reality to be retrieved from within it. Rather, what we consider information/facts are the resulting images pieced together through learning processes within our own personal history.
This is not a call for a post-fact society. Nor are we getting into the swamp of declaring every opinion is the equal of any other. Such is more concerned with the functions of our learning and it’s application within different areas of life. We’re here simply considering the basic process of how we develop a worldview. And at that level, it is little wonder we love the feeling of rightness and continuity. Where we get into the weeds/swamp of difficulty is mistaking the end result of our thinking strategy with the strategy itself and declaring our personal perspective equivalent to the whole of reality itself. Talk about ego!
Where this leads us is to consider ourselves and our beliefs about the world differently. Rather than our beliefs being reflections of the world itself, they are attempts at piecing together the varieties of information our body/mind parses from within the world. Even we ourselves can be seen as paintings on a canvas, so long as we never forget there is still paint to be used and space to be painted upon.
When we stop and rest upon a single thought/idea and think we have no more room to move, the result is fusion, stagnation and anxiety as we attempt to keep reality molded to only one form. Further, such fusion makes us incapable of seeing how those around us, including our loved ones, are moving along the same process we are. When they see differently, when they express themselves in alternative fashion, they are not being contrary to a singular correct reality, but instead are working within it, just from a different vantage point.
Right and wrong still matter, but judging such doesn’t have to be the first and only means of interacting with another and ourselves. The vast majority of human behavior is an honest attempt at dealing with and working within a reality that we only see partly and yet are commonly fooled into believing we see a whole lot more of. When we consider that we ourselves, not just those we disagree with, are operating in this same learning process, we may find there’s a lot more space to move, understand and grow than we initially thought.
Aeon. “Your brain does not process information and it is not a computer – Robert Epstein | Aeon Essays.” Aeon. 18 May 2016. Web. 14 Feb. 2018. <https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer>