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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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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
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How A Skinned Knee Had Me Feeling Grateful

I have to share a painful/slightly hilarious story with you.

I’m currently training for my first half-marathon. Yesterday, I was a little over 7 miles into my planned 8 mile run, and I was feeling good. Really good, in fact, so I picked up the pace. I crossed 75th Street, the busiest intersection on my route, and the next thing I know, my face was plummeting toward the ground.

  • “What’s happening?”
  • “I’m falling!”
  • “This is bad!”
  • “My face is going to hit the pavement.”
  • Images of teeth shattering (one of my front teeth is already half fake because of a bike riding/pavement situation as a kid)
  • “I’m hurt!”

Those were the thoughts that blinked through my mind in a jumbled instant.

Thankfully, I was able to stop my momentum at the last second, with my face hovering an inch from the ground, teeth intact. Stunned, I pushed myself up as a red minivan pulled into the nearby parking lot to make sure I was ok (did I mention it was a busy intersection? There were SO MANY cars stopped at the light, witnessing my fall.)

I was also able to stop my mind. Paying attention to the present moment I began to look around and breathe through my emotions.

Then another thought entered my mind: “You fell. You can’t run anymore.”

Fortunately, I was able to set that thought aside before it could take hold. I quickly assessed the damage, realized I was shaken but not seriously injured, got up, and finished my run. I even beat my goal time.

I was on a path I’d traversed 100 times. I didn’t feel myself trip or stumble. I didn’t see it coming. Yet, I fell. Hard. And it sucked. Yet I called in some positive emotions. 

And I got back up and persevered.

As I finished my run then bandaged myself up at home, I reflected on what happened, and this is where the feelings of gratitude came in. 

Gratitude is more than a throwaway emotion. It’s a verb. An active, not a passive thing. Truly being grateful, meaning that we are actively feeling and showing that gratitude, is really more of an action taking place.

I was feeling grateful to my past self for all the hard work she’s done to build psychological strength. That work was the reason I was able to get up and move forward so quickly. I had my eye on the goal and a clear sense of who I am.

  • I’m the kind of person who can handle painful things.
  • I’m the kind of person who doesn’t let my mind take me off course.
  • I’m the kind of person who isn’t afraid of failure.

I can handle painful things.

I don’t like pain. I mean, who does? Yet, aspects of psychological strength help me move through painful experiences without getting crushed. 

Yesterday, it was my mindfulness and acceptance skills that allowed me to notice and assess the painful sensations throughout my body without my mind turning up the pain volume. I didn’t realize when I started cultivating these particular skills just how crucial and widely applicable they’d be.

I don’t let my mind take me off course.

Minds are masterful excuse generators. They are SO GOOD at making up reasons and giving us justifications for not doing hard or uncomfortable things. Part of the psych strength work I’ve been focusing on lately is noticing when my mind is giving me those excuses, even the really plausible, completely rational sounding ones like “You just fell. You can’t run anymore.”

The reality is, I was stunned, slightly embarrassed, and in pain, but I wasn’t really injured. I saw the Excuse Generator for what it was and quelled it before it even had a chance to really get going.

I am not afraid of failure.

This one hasn’t always been true me. As a (mostly) recovered perfectionist, I’ve had to do a lot of work to redefine my relationship with failure so that it doesn’t hold me back, and it’s an ongoing process. Even after all the work I’ve done, deep down I still don’t like being wrong, making mistakes, or failing. It’s disappointing, and it hurts, especially when you’re feeling really confident and don’t see it coming.

That said, I am getting much better at picking myself up, dusting myself off, and persevering despite bruises (to my body or my ego). I’m steadily working on becoming the kind of person who Is not afraid to falter, who can own mistakes without internal angst, and who can even find the humor in my biggest fails.

I am grateful.

So here I am, a 40 year old woman with a bandaged up skinned knee and a deep sense of gratitude. I am grateful for the work I’ve done to build my psychological strength, for the community who supports my journey, and for the opportunity to help others.

I practice what we teach at Peak Mind every day, and it’s had a real impact on my life experience. I want the same for you.

That’s why we created ASCEND, our most comprehensive endeavor to date. ASCEND includes the best of everything we know that goes into building psychological strength.

You, too, can have a strong sense of who you are and be the kind of person you want to be. You, too, can pick yourself up and move forward through painful times. You can build skills like mindfulness and acceptance, and you can learn to find the bright spots even in the darkest moments. 

You won’t regret the effort you put into building psychological strength. I know I haven’t. 

“Failures are like skinned knees, painful but superficial.”
– Ross Perot