This week, I spent a lot of time on my coaching certification. I did a lot of coaching calls (both as a coach and as a coachee) and reflected on many coaching materials.
Naturally, thoughts were on my mind a lot this week.
It still always amazes me how we push to confirm our thoughts.
In Annihilation, Dr. Ventress says:
Then, as a psychologist, I think you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke, we destabilize the good job… and a happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions. They’re… they’re impulses.
I think this is an important observation.
A problem, by definition, is unwanted. If I don’t want it, why would I take action to perpetuate the problem? That would be intentionally harming myself. It doesn’t make any sense.
This is where the distinction is helpful. Because, somehow, despite not wanting to harm ourselves, “almost all of us self-destruct.”
(The following three examples are over-simplified and completely fabricated to illustrate this idea as related to the above quote.)
I have the problem that I am in a lot of pain. The world is a shitty place, and I’m clearly not enough. So I drink to make the pain go away. Over time, I start to choose alcohol over relationships. And other people choose not to spend time with me. As a result, I feel alone. This is painful.
I have the problem that I’ve been excelling at my job, but I haven’t gotten the raise and promotion I deserve. It’s unfair, and I’m frustrated. So I stop offering my feedback in meetings. I stop being the first person to volunteer to help out. I coast on my work instead of pushing it out. As a result, my boss sees my performance declining, and I don’t get a raise or a promotion.
I have the problem that while we’ve been married for 18 years, my spouse continues to leave a mess around the house despite my asking him not to. So I stop asking him to clean up because I’ve asked so many times already, and he should know what I want. I do stuff to annoy him because it’s only fair. I don’t want to have sex because I’m not in the mood, and he doesn’t deserve it, anyways. As a result, we grow further apart. Any motivation he may have had to clean is now completely gone.
In each of these three examples, we take actions we think that, at worst, will leave us no worse and, at best, will solve our problem. However, what actually happens is that our actions perpetuate our problem. In this way, we’re (unintentionally) self-destructive.
Another way of looking at this comes from Werner Erhard in Speaking Being (which is pretty much an annotated transcript of the Landmark Forum):
A rat can learn how to negotiate a maze by finding a piece of cheese, but will choose a new tunnel if the cheese is moved. The difference between a human being and a rat is as follows: a human being will go down the tunnel with no cheese forever. You know, you’ve been doing the same shit year after year after year, hoping for a different outcome. What you care about is being in the right tunnel, regardless of whether there’s cheese or not.
The thing with our thoughts is that we think they’re true.
Well, duh. Why would I think something that I don’t think is true? It doesn’t make any sense.
But then our subconscious tries hard to affirm that our thoughts are true. (Maybe this is because it could be evolutionary disadvantageous to question your perception of reality constantly?)
Our reticular activating system focuses our attention on the things that confirm our thoughts. In other words, confirmation bias leads us to find data that supports our existing thoughts (and overlook data that don’t support them).
I think this is part of what Erhard is getting at when he says, “What you care about is being in the right tunnel, regardless of whether there’s cheese or not.”
As much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, we don’t care about reality–we only care about what we “know” to be true.
In a recent Unf*ck your brain episode, Kara Loewentheil speaks to this in action:
Your brain decides what you are literally going to see with your eyes. Think about looking at photos of yourself. Your thoughts about how you look actually influence what you see. Think about how often you have not noticed that somebody got a haircut, or is wearing glasses, or now they’re wearing contacts, or something looks different about them. We can go forever not noticing these changes because our brain has created an image of what that person looks like and it’s just using that image and not drawing our attention to any changes.
I oversimplify this as the Law of Attraction.
This is why I really value my therapist and coaches.
Yes, they too experience the world through the lens of their thoughts. However, they can help me see my blind spots, where I ignore or distort information, or vicious circles where I may be unintentionally pushing for unwanted results.
Unfortunately, not everyone can afford a therapist or a coach. (Obligatory plug: I’m offering free coaching sessions as I work towards my life coaching certification. Click here to sign-up for a complimentary session(s)!)
One free and independent alternative that I’ve enjoyed using in the past is Julia Cameron’s morning pages.
The morning pages in themselves can be a freeing exercise. They can help you clear things from your mind and help you start from a new space.
I think in The Artist’s Way, Cameron suggests you don’t need to read your morning pages. However, in light of this newsletter, I think reading your morning pages can help bring you awareness of the thoughts you’re thinking. This may help you gain insights into how you may be shaping your experience of reality.
To wrap up, I leave you with these questions:
What thoughts are you thinking?
How are these thoughts shaping your experience of reality?
Are these thoughts helpful for you right now?