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The One Thing You Should Know About Your Mind

Here’s the one, foundational thing that this psychologist wishes everyone knew about how their minds work. 

Licensed clinical psychologist and Peak Mind co-founder Dr. Ashley Smith shares the one foundational thing she wishes everyone knew. Stomachs growl, hearts beat, and minds think. Understanding that thoughts are just productions of your mind and not necessarily meaningful or truthful is important. Furthermore, learning about the glitches in our thinking and the ways in which our thoughts become distorted or twisted is important. With this knowledge, we can set our thoughts aside while we pursue our strengths, goals, and values.  

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If You Want to Be Happy, Expect Less

If you want to maximize happiness and cultivate more inner peace, expect less.

As a teenager, I was stoked to watch An American Werewolf in Paris. I just knew it was going to be edgy and scary – a cinematic masterpiece! What it was, however, was a giant let down. It was a terrible movie. 

Fast forward a couple years, and said movie was on TV. I agreed to watch it with some friends despite knowing how much it sucked. Imagine my surprise when the credits rolled, and I realized that I didn’t hate it. In fact, I had rather enjoyed it the second go round.

Same movie, polar opposite reactions to it. What accounted for the difference? That experience was one of the first that really hit home to me the power of expectations. 

The Power of Expectations

Expectations are internally constructed rules and demands for the future — our whats and hows about upcoming situations, events, even people.

Notice the language: internally constructed. Our brains create expectations, these powerfully adhered to artifacts of imagination; they are not tangible facets of reality or valid parts of our external world. Sure, some expectations are mutually agreed upon and accepted by a large number of society (I expect people to wear pants in public, and I venture that you hold the same expectation). Others, however, are more unique to us as individual expectors, based on our histories, personalities, thought patterns, and wants. Unmet expectations, as in my silly movie example, are frequently the source of angst. Think of your most saddening, maddening, or frightening experiences recently. Think of the times when you felt anything but happy. Were unmet expectations, on your part or someone else’s, at the core of the issue?

Expect Less

A pessimist dressed in a realist’s clothing may say “expect less to avoid disappointment.” Set that bar low. Things either turn out just the way you expected, or you’re pleasantly surprised. 

I agree with “expect less,” though in a different way. Expect less. As in expect less frequently. Set fewer expectations period. Don’t set the bar lower, but rather, don’t set the bar at all.  It is the bar itself, not its location, that is the problem. More precisely, it’s the mismatch of the bar and reality that robs us of happiness. So much of what happens around us and to us is, at least in part, out of our direct control. Yet, we strive to control it anyway. These efforts give us the illusion of control but really just take time and energy, keeping us from being fully authentic in the moment. If the mismatch of expectations and reality is what fuels discontent, and we can’t actually control (at least some aspects of) reality, why not focus on expectations? Those ARE within our sphere of control. Since we can’t always predict or predestine events, trying to match expectations to the unknown future is a gamble, and I, for one, am not willing to bet my happiness like that. If we let go of expectations (or don’t make them in the first place) then we are free to experience things as they happen. While not every moment will be an enjoyable one that we’d like to have continue or repeat, our overall happiness level is less impacted. 

Challenge: Practice embracing some uncertainty. Try to enter into some experiences without imagining or planning how it’s going to go. Try to catch and erase your expectations about someone else before you interact. Let go of those shoulds

Expectations and Relationships

The role of expectations within the context of relationships is particularly interesting to consider. How many times have you found yourself saying or thinking, “I’m mad because I thought you were going to do XYZ?” What you’re really saying is that you’re angry because your expectations and reality did not match. Maybe you’ve been on the other side and found yourself apologizing for someone’s disappointment in you…for something you did not agree to or weren’t even aware was an issue? How was I supposed to know that you expected me to notice that you were quiet because you had a rough day at work? I was too busy setting my own expectations about how this evening was going to go…

Can you imagine what it might feel like for you and your loved ones if we all let go of expectations and worked toward fully accepting each other and ourselves for who and what we actually are?

Challenge: The next time you find yourself angry with someone, check yourself. Did they really do anything wrong, or did they just not meet your expectations? And the next time you find yourself apologizing, ask yourself the same thing.

Wrapping It Up

To a certain extent, I believe that we all set expectations. It’s one of those short cuts that allow our brains to process so much information so quickly and to keep us safe. If I expect that running across the interstate may result in me getting hit by a car, I may take precautions. So often, though, we make so many internal demands that we essentially hold the future hostage. Meet our demands or else!

The saying “It is what it is” sounds like a vague platitude, but it’s more profound than you may realize. It is the essence of letting go of expectations, of meeting each moment as it comes, making room for and accepting the ups and downs of life. It is at the core of being mindful and a key for facilitating your own happiness. I expect that you’ll agree.

“With mindfulness, loving kindness, and self-compassion, we can begin to let go of our expectations about how life and those we love should be”
– Sharon Salzberg
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Connecting the Dots: Interpreting Our Experience

Just as everyone breathed a sigh of good riddance to the past year, 2021 made a dramatic entrance, at least in the U.S., when supporters of President Trump stormed the capitol on Wednesday, adding yet another entry to the List of Unprecedented Events.

Whether we’re talking about disturbing global events or the individual happenings of our daily lives, our minds work hard to interpret our experience and understand our world. They take in tons of bits of data, process that information, and, ultimately, make sense out of it. They do this by filling in gaps to create a cohesive narrative.

Our minds want the world to make sense, so they construct these narratives, or stories, to explain the whys, make meaning, figure out implications, and find some predictability. I call it connecting the dots.

Connecting the Dots

Look at these dots below. How would you connect them?

Great! Now can you find another way to connect them?

Perhaps you automatically saw a house, a star, or a zig zag. Which one is right? How difficult was it for you to come up with some alternatives? 

The Point

These dots represent facts – as close to objective things as we can get – which your mind then links together in a way that helps you understand what is or has happened. Without connecting the dots, we’d feel completely lost!

The issue, though, is that the way we connect dots depends a lot more on our histories, our belief systems, and our subconscious programming than on some objective truth. That’s why two people, even two well-meaning and reasonably bright people, can have very different takes on the same scenario.

While there may not be a right or wrong way to connect the dots, there are certainly different ways. And, depending on how you connect those dots, you see a very different picture…and then you operate in the world as though that picture is an absolutely accurate representation of reality.

What if – just what if – our minds are connecting dots in the wrong way? Or, if not wrong, per se, an unhelpful way? What if there’s a better way to interpret our experiences? What if we struggle to interpret our experience?

And, what if there are a lot more dots that we just can’t quite see? Wouldn’t that make a big difference in the picture? But, because we don’t know what we don’t know, our minds just fill in the narrative despite the missing info.

The stories we tell ourselves (or more aptly, the stories our minds tell us) become our reality. We accept them as truth and weight them like facts, often not realizing that they can be edited, revised, altered, or deleted all together.

A Solution 

Our minds are going to continue to connect dots to interpret our experience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing this, though, means that you can make your mind do some work for you, rather than accepting its first draft of the story, especially if that draft isn’t helpful for you. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What story is my mind telling me?
  • What dots is it trying to connect?
  • Is it possible that I’m missing some important information, not seeing all of the dots?
  • What’s another way to connect the dots? Another explanation? Another perspective?
  • Which version is more helpful to me?

This practice of becoming aware of the narratives and working on revising them can have a huge impact! If you’re interested in learning more about how your mind works and how those inner workings profoundly impact your life experience, you may like our ASCEND program. Module 2 is all about your mind…and tools for making it work for you.

But for now, work on being aware that the narratives exist. Notice how yours influence you, and strive to connect dots in more useful ways.

“The world you’re actually in may not be harsh. But the world your mind puts you in can be harsh as heck.”
– Dr. Steven Hayes
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Zero Sum Bias: Insight Gained from Competition

Depending upon whether you’re a football fan or not, or whether you’re one of our community members from the U.S., you may or may not realize that today is the Super Bowl. The biggest football game of the year. A display filled with athleticism, hysterical commercials, and competition.

This event got me thinking about the nature of competition itself and how it can become twisted and entangled in our minds. In fact, our competitive feelings can reveal powerful insights about what we desire, fear, and value. 

Let’s be honest.

For most of us, if we’re being honest, we’ve felt jealousy, resentment, anger, or a similar emotion toward someone who has something we want.

Career success.

Financial stability.

A certain body shape / size.

A certain type of relationship.

Many times, we begin to feel competitive toward that person – looking for reasons why we deserve what they have. Why they don’t deserve what they have. 

These feelings of resentment, anger, and hostility come from a very basic cognitive bias that is baked into the fabric of our minds: The Zero Sum Bias.

Zero Sum Bias

It’s worth getting a little technical for a minute to tease this apart. A “Zero Sum” situation is one in which one person’s success must be balanced by another person’s failure. It’s a situation in which there is only a finite amount of resource to go around, so if one person gets some of the resource, there’s less left for other people. 

The Super Bowl is a great example. Only one team can win. There is exactly ONE trophy to be handed out. One team will get it, and the other team won’t. 

On the flip side, a “Non-Zero Sum” situation is one in which the success or reward of one person isn’t dependent on the success or reward of another person. Everyone can “win.”

Traditionally, grades or marks in school are a great example. In theory, every single person in the class could score high on an exam if they answer all of the questions correctly. One person doesn’t have to fail simply because another person got a perfect score.

But here’s the thing, psychological research shows us that collectively, we all are subject to something called the “Zero Sum Bias.” When a situation involves a reward or an outcome that we desire, we’re more likely to believe that the reward or outcome is scarce and finite, and we see the situation as a zero sum situation. 

To put it another way, if we see someone else get something we want, our Zero Sum Bias kicks in and makes us believe that we’re less likely to get that thing, simply because someone else already has it. Even if the thing they have isn’t actually scarce or finite. Even if it’s abundant and available for anyone to have.

Life is rarely a Zero Sum Game

If you go back up and re-read the list of jealousy-provoking situations above, you’ll notice one thing: none of them are zero sum situations. 

Does your cousin’s career success have anything to do with your likelihood of career success? No.

Does your neighbor’s financial stability have anything to do with your own? No.

If that Instagram influencer has the “perfect body” does it mean that you can’t? No.

You get the picture. 

Yet, because of the Zero Sum Bias, we get competitive, resentful, jealous, angry, and hostile toward people who have what we want. 

Now before you get down on yourself for this, let’s all remind ourselves that the Zero Sum Bias is a natural, normal way our minds have evolved to process and understand the world around us. Sure, it’s not “correct,” but it’s very common. We all deal with it.

Once we can accept that, and once we can be open and honest about our own hostile and competitive feelings, we can actually learn something from them! Read on.

Learn from your competitive feelings

Be on the lookout for situations where jealousy, resentment, anger, and hostility arise. 

Ask yourself if your own success or ability to achieve truly does depend on what that other person has achieved.

Many times, the answer is no.

Then go a step further. Ask yourself what it is you truly desire. If you’re feeling competitive or jealous about another person’s success, Zero Sum Bias would tell us it’s because you desire what they have. 

That is a powerful insight!!

Once you know that, you can take a more proactive, intentional stance toward setting a real goal to move in the direction of that thing you desire. 

If your neighbors are putting in a pool and you’re jealous about their financial security, be honest! Of course you want to feel financially secure!

Then, take some time to decide what you’re going to do about it. Competition won’t get you what you want in a non-zero sum game. You can’t compete with your neighbor to “win” the pool they’re putting in.

But, you can take intentional steps to improve your financial situation in your own life. How are you going to move in the direction of becoming financially secure yourself? What steps can you take, even if they’re small.

Turn negative emotions into insight

So many times, it’s our negative emotions that can teach us powerful insight about ourselves, and this is one of those times.

If you pay attention, you’ll likely uncover what it is you actually want, and you’ll be more likely to move in the direction of getting it.

If you want to learn more about your mind’s natural biases, how they can affect you, and, more importantly, what to do about them, you’ll love our signature psychological strength building program, Ascend. Check it out and learn how to make your mind work for you. 

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Watch Out for These Red Flag Words

Language matters, perhaps more than you might realize. Take, for example, the scenario you’re running late to meet a friend. When you arrive, you say one of two things

“I’m sorry I was late.” vs. “Thanks for your patience.” 

One signals to both you and your friend that you messed up. Cue guilt for you and irritation for them. The other primes you both for positive emotions like appreciation and respect. Both acknowledge that you were late, but the language used produces very different results

Let’s take another example. You have a hard task to do, and you say to yourself:

“I have to…“ vs. “I get to…

The first leads to dread while the second promotes something else, perhaps gratitude, excitement, or motivation. The second may help you tap into your values and make the difficult task feel more worthwhile. Notice that there’s only one little word that’s different, yet the sentiment changes pretty significantly.

Language shapes out thinking, which, in turn, influences our feelings and actions. That makes language incredibly important. In the 15 or so years that I’ve been working with people within my psychology practice, I’ve learned to pay attention to red flag words.

Red Flag Words

 Red flag words are ones that consistently signal problematic patterns of thinking; that is, thinking that is likely to drive unnecessary anxiety, sadness, guilt, or anger and/or urge you to take unhelpful actions. Training yourself to catch and change these red flags – or at least notice and disregard them – can be incredibly powerful. 

1.     Should

If you’ve been with us for a while (or have ever had a conversation with me) then you may have heard my soap box about should. It’s the Mean Girls of the English language – criticism and judgment packaged as something helpful. Shoulds are expectations, and they are often unrealistic. Even when the expectations sound realistic, though, reality often doesn’t match them, which leads to internal ick. Don’t take my word for it. Pay attention to what happens when you should on yourself or someone else. I can almost guarantee that the outcome is a feeling of anxiety, guilt, or anger. One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself is ban the word should from my mental vocabulary. A handy trick to start with is to catch the should. Then, try to rephrase the sentence with “I want to _____ because_____.” If you can’t accurately and realistically capture the same sentiment, it’s an unhelpful should. Kick it out! 

2.     Yeah but

This red flag signals negativity, specifically a negative thinking pattern called discounting the positive. Our brains are wired for negativity, which makes them really good at noticing all of the problems, flaws, and downsides. Yeah but is your mind essentially honing in on the negative, like a heat seeking missile. How’s this for an illustration: “I just won the lottery! Yeah but, I’m going to have to pay taxes on that free money.” Kind of dampens things, doesn’t it? When you catch the yeah but, follow it up with a but at least. “But at least I’m getting a whole pile of unexpected money, and it only cost me $1 for the lottery ticket!”

3.     What if

What if is a worry. Worry is your mind looking for and trying to predict anything that could go wrong. While helpful at times, the effect is that you feel anxious or worried in the here and now…even though NONE of those potential bad things are actually happening. When your mind starts to throw out those what ifs, I encourage you to respond by saying, “What if is a worry.” Then shift your attention back to the present moment and what is actually happening. If you can’t disregard the what ifs, at least make your mind do some work to balance the picture. For every negative (and they’re almost always negative, aren’t they?) what if, make your mind find a potential positive what if as well. “What if I tell them how I really feel about it, and they get mad?” “Well, what if I tell them how I feel about it, and they listen appreciatively, and we resolve the whole situation?”

4.     Always and Never

Extremes like always and never or everyone and no one signal black-or-white thinking and are another sneaky form of negativity. Very rarely does someone always or never do something, and when you generalize in the extreme like that, you’re creating problems for you and them. Notice how different “You never listen to me” sounds from “Sometimes, you don’t listen to me.” (Better yet, soften it even more with “Sometimes, it seems like you’re not listening.”) Which one is likely more accurate? When you catch the always and nevers, ask yourself, “Is this true 100% of the time in 100% of situations? There are truly zero exceptions?” If not, choose a more accurate word like sometimes/often/frequently or some/many/a lot of people.

5.     I’m just…

I’m just…making an excuse. Just is for justification, which is a fancy excuse or rationalization. It may seem harmless, and frankly, it may be in some scenarios. Other times, however, it undermines your message or keeps you from doing hard but necessary work like taking responsibility for missteps or making changes, especially within relationships. Imagine that a coworker raises a concern about the quality of some work, and you respond with “Well, I was just trying to get the project done before the deadline.”  While that may feel true, it’s coming from a defensive place with the intent of deflecting blame. It does nothing to acknowledge the situation, take ownership, or make a plan to address or fix it. Instead, something like the following seems a lot more helpful: “The deadline was tight, and I felt a lot of pressure to get everything done in a timely fashion. I didn’t intend to sacrifice the quality of my work. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” The dialogue that follows is likely to feel a lot different. Instead of just justifying your actions, feelings, needs, or perspective, try owning them.

As Dr. April and I love to say, your mind can be your most valuable asset or your biggest barrier. You get to choose. So watch out for these red flag words and train your thinking to be more helpful and accurate. And if you want to learn more ways to make your mind work for you, check out Ascend, our comprehensive psych strength program.

“Change your language and you change your thoughts.”
 – Karl Albrecht
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Don’t Fall for This Sneaky Brain Trick

If you’re anything like me, you’re fascinated by how the brain works! I love learning about how our brains process information, the glitches in their programming, and how those natural tendencies influence us in helpful and not-so-helpful ways. Good thing, too, since I’ve spent the last two decades studying this kind of thing!

Distorted thinking patterns and brain glitches cause all kinds of problems. In the context of the upcoming election, though, one in particular stands out to me, and I want to make you aware of it, too, so that we can all work on keeping our thoughts healthy and helpful.

Black-or-White Thinking

A particularly common yet problematic brain glitch is black-or-white thinking, also called dichotomous or all-or-none thinking. Black-or-white thinking shows up when we think in rigid either/or terms. The issue here is that very few things in life are truly black and white. Black-or-white thinking creates false extremes that can lead to all kinds of problems, and it keeps us from seeing the world as it really is.

Take these examples, for instance.

  • “I ate a cookie, so my diet is blown.” What kind of choices are going to be made now, and how do those line up with health goals?
  • “Everyone is better at that than I am.”  What kind of impact is that thought going to have on continued effort and confidence?
  • “You’re either with me or against me.” (Hello, election season.) What’s the effect here on collaboration and effective problem-solving? What about on attitudes and emotions?
  • “If it’s not perfect, then it’s a failure.” How do those unreasonably high standards play out over time?

Are you starting to see how black-or-white thinking can create some problems? It becomes even more clear when we contrast it to more rational alternative thoughts like:

  • “I ate a cookie, but that’s not the end of the world. I can still make healthy choices for the rest of the day and minimize the damage.”
  • “A lot of people are better than I am at this, but I can improve with practice.”
  • “We have a lot of differences, but I bet we can find some common ground to work from.”
  • “No one is perfect. This is good enough.”

 Problems with Black-or-white Thinking

1. Negative effects on your feelings and behaviors 

You’re probably getting the sense that black-or-white thinking can negatively impact your feelings as well as your actions, and it certainly can! In fact, black-or-white thinking can also contribute to broader and more pervasive depression and anxiety, too.

2. Limited choices

Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you had to make a choice, but neither of the options in front of you seemed like good ones? For example: either I tell my friend she’s upsetting me and ruin the friendship or I say nothing and just deal with it. Yikes. Neither of those sounds particularly appealing, does it? Pay attention to this one: Either I send my kids back to school and they’ll get COVID or I quit my job to teach them at home. Again, neither sounds ideal. When black-or-white thinking is determining our choices, we’re limited. We can choose black or we can choose white. Often, though, there are gray choices available. We’re just not seeing them.

3. Relationship damage

When black-or-white thinking shows up in our relationships, bad things happen. Most people are a complex mix of strengths and flaws, of good intentions and mistakes. When we view people in black-or-white terms, though, we oversimplify and filter out important information. We miss out on that complexity and that can cause some damage. Consider, for a moment, what happens if you view your partner in all-or-none terms. Let’s assume your partner did something that he knows you don’t like, and your automatic thought was, “He never thinks about anyone but himself.” How is that scenario going to play out? And what happens if you repeatedly think of your partner in that way? Moreover, what happens when we think about children or coworkers or bosses or even strangers in black-or-white, extreme terms? I’m not seeing a pathway to solid, healthy relationships here. Are you?

Recognizing Black-or-white Thinking

Black-or-white thinking can be sneaky and isn’t always easy to recognize. Fortunately, there are some red flags that can alert you that you are falling into this trap.

Either/or

If you find yourself thinking or saying “either/or” take a pause. This is a signal of black-or-white thinking. Your mind is only seeing two options, and chances are that’s a false dichotomy.

Extreme language

Extreme language is often a sign of black-or-white thinking. Words like always/never” or everyone/no one” signal extremes.

Shades of Gray

When you notice black-or-white thinking, I challenge you to find the gray. You may be able to do that by simply asking yourself if there’s a gray option here. Other helpful questions include:

  • Can it be both/and instead of either/or?
    • For example, can I be a generally successful person who also made a mistake? Can she be both loving towards me and occasionally do things that hurt my feelings?
  • Are there any exceptions? Is this true 100% of the time in 100% of circumstances? 
    • Does my partner really never think about anyone else? Have there really been 0 times that he considered someone else’s needs?
  • Is that conclusion extreme? Could there be another outcome?
    • For example, does eating one cookie really mean that my diet is completely blown? Could it, instead, mean that I practiced moderation and can continue to make healthy choices?
  • What’s a third option?
    • For example, are these really my only two choices? How might I get the best of both? Or what else could I do in this situation?
  • And, one of my all-time favorite, most useful questions…is this thought helpful?

Beyond the Gray Zone

I hope you’ll embrace the gray and make efforts to counteract black-or-white thinking. Keep in mind, though, that changing your thinking patterns is an ongoing process. You’re going to slip into these glitches regularly, and it’s important that you don’t get black-or-white about your success! It’s possible to both make progress on your thinking AND slip into old habits. How’s that for gray zone?

And, if you are as fascinated with the brain as I am, you’ll love our Ascend program, especially Module 2: Your Mind. In this section of the program, we do a deep dive into how your mind works and why it does the things it does. Through the educational videos and hands-on exercises, you’ll learn about different forms of problematic thinking. You’ll get really clear on how your mind works and when it’s helping and hurting you. And most importantly, you’ll develop the skills to turn your mind into your biggest asset. Click the image below to learn more about the program. 

It’s up to each of us to learn how to make our minds work for us, and doing so can have a HUGE impact on your life experience. The gray zone, with its infinite shades, is a freer, more balanced place to live. I’ll see you there!

“Don’t define your world in black and white, because there is so much hiding amongst the greys.”
– Unknown