As human beings how we view the world is constantly adapting and changing. It can be influenced by our mood or emotional state as well as external events or stimuli. How many times did some good news change your perception of a situation you’ve been ruminating over? Suddenly that trip to the gym seems far more attractive now you know that person you secretly fancy is going to be there to? It instantly changes everything, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
Our brains are dealing with an enormous amount of information every second we are awake. In fact there is just too much information out there to be examined carefully, which is why our brains automatically filter out a large proportion of it. This is known as selective filtering and it performs an amazing function, allowing us to cope with our daily lives without our senses becoming overloaded. I often see on social media little puzzles with words or letters missing which then demonstrate how the brain will automatically fill in the blanks for us without any conscious effort, allowing it to be read it as a normal sentence.
However, our perception can also tell us lead us astray…
As well as filling in blanks on word puzzles it can fill in blanks on situations and events that are slightly less helpful. A classic and very simple example of this is something called self-talk.
Imagine getting in to work one morning and greeting a workmate with a cheery ‘Hi’ as you pass in the corridor only to receive a grunted reply.
Cue our self-talk – ‘why are they being funny with me, they must have a problem with me, I must have done something to annoy them, they don’t like me…’ and before we know it our self-talk has delivered all kinds of distorted thinking to explain the incident.
To counter this negative self-talk there is a simple exercise used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called the ABCD method. In allows us to use realistic reasoning and take a step back from the situation and most importantly look at the evidence.
Simply put: A is for the activating event – in this case, not receiving the reply you expected. B is for the belief we attach to it – they don’t like me, I’ve done something to upset them. C is for the emotional and behavioural consequences we attach to it – we’re upset and stressed.
We think that A (the event itself) causes C (how we feel). In fact as you can see from the above example B (our emotional reaction) causes C (how we feel). Just knowing this piece of information can be incredibly powerful. It is our perception of the event that determines how we feel… not the event itself.
So to counter this we have D. D is for disputing – is this realistic, does this view benefit me, is it reasonable/logical.
Using the example above we can effectively dispute the previous beliefs with alternative views such as: we can not possibly know what the other person’s emotional state was or what they were thinking, perhaps they are having a bad day, maybe they got up late and are rushing, they didn’t see me in time, they didn’t realise I was addressing them specifically at first, haven’t I occasionally done the same thing?
Whilst this is obviously a very simple example and we cannot stop negative thoughts happening, we can learn to recognise, observe and most importantly question them. It is also important that we take time to really think about and examine the disputed alternatives, it’s not a magic pill and needs to be analysed so the brain can accept them. Remember our brains are hard wired for negativity, however the rewards can be great and well worth the effort.
The other aspect to this, which should not be overlooked, is acceptance. Accepting that we are fallible, human beings with all the complex emotions and feelings that entails. We all have distorted thinking patterns, the key is recognising it and replacing them with logical and realistic alternatives. We can use the ABCD method for all kinds of situations and (like anything in life) the more you practice the easier it becomes.
We have way too many thoughts (research says it could be anywhere between 30,000 to 50,000 to 80,000 a day!) to apply this to everything but it’s an incredibly useful tool for the bigger problems.
Along with the quite brilliant question ‘what is the worst that can happen?’ it is a practical way to help live a less stressful life. Sometimes taking a step back and looking at the evidence can help us see it as it is, rather than how we think it is.
Our perception can also get distorted on the crucial idea of control. Despite knowing in our rational minds we are unable to control many aspects of life it doesn’t stop out irrational minds taking over and trying. Unsuccessfully.
The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus extolled the central premise of ‘how we think is how we feel’. Essential to this is the idea of control and how we can slip in to worrying about problems or issues that are beyond our influence.
Epictetus gives us a fantastic quote on this…
‘There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will’
The ‘what if’ question, when we cannot influence the answer, is so attractive to the human brain. How many hours have we all wasted ruminating over something that is outside our control? Reading the Epictetus quote and allowing it to sink in has personally saved me a lot of time and heartache.
I have recommended to many of my clients they pin the quote above their desk, on the fridge – wherever they want to remind them of this salient fact.
It’s advice that is nearly 2000 years old so it might just be worth listening to…