Let’s start with something we have in common.
We are HUMAN BEINGS. I don’t think anyone will object to this one. Anyone? Good.
Now, this may mean something very different to each one of you. (do I have the time to ask around?)
Some may immediately think of something positive about it, or quite the opposite.
I’d like to focus on the good stuff right now. The stuff we often don’t even think about: what makes us unique, on this planet.
Not as individuals, I’ll get there later.
But as a SPECIE.
Abstract thinking - our ability to create an abstract network of meaning. Let’s make an example. What happens when I say the word “umbrella”? We immediately imagine the object. We attach an emotion. We bring back to memory events from our past. We may then move to wonder whether it’s gonna rain tomorrow. Should you check the whether forecast? This ability is what allows us to relieve the past, and plan the future. To actually plan hundreds of different futures. We create symbols, beliefs, meanings. We imagine... we day dream.
Structure building: bringing our mental models into real world items. And we go past that... we are using technology to expand our boundaries: We use tools like machine learning to enhance our cognitive skills or powerful telescopes to enhance our visual reach. Technology has become a part of our exoskeleton, allowing us to push beyond our limitations.
Higher consciousness: we can contemplate the meaning of infinity, and we can contemplate ourselves contemplating the meaning of infinity. This boosts our ability for self-transformation, both as individuals and as a species. Or let’s say that there is the POTENTIAL for it...
Everything in our world, including us, is made up of stardust, clumps of matter that originated in the crucibles of stars.
We are not only in the universe, but the universe is also within us. Our brains, as an extension of the universe, are now being used to understand themselves. That is why Carl Sagan has famously said “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” We are the only living being on Earth that can do this.
Let’s now move from the cosmos to the deepest corners of our minds. To our individuality. Our uniqueness.
So, we are human beings.
And the same amazing traits I described a moment ago, can sometimes backfire. We attach symbols and painful feelings to common objects or events, through memories and simple network connections. Even through smells, colours, bodily sensations... and so on. We then have infinite ways to bring them back to mind. And well, being human also means having a hardwired bias towards negativity. It actually made a LOT of sense in the past. It kept us alive and well for thousands of here. Nowadays? Not so much!
At the same time we tend to focus on negative thoughts as... well... we want them to go away. When you have positive thoughts our brain kind of reacts with “ah, all good eh? Cool, let’s move on and find something to do”.
The moment we are conceived, some of our unique features are already there, in our genes. Our humanity for example, which comes with some unique and amazing features, and some others which make life complicated, and frustrating. It certainly would help to know them from a young age.
our bias towards negativity, and recalling more unpleasant memories
our predisposition to categorising everything for easy fruition (I’m black, your are white)
our bias towards being right, and being better (the “I told you so” meme, the category I belong to is better)
the tendency to be affected by recurring thoughts
the tendency to search for, interpret, focus or even remember information to confirm our preconceptions
the tendency to stick to previous beliefs even when shown new revealing evidence
the tendency to chose the worse option when given too many to chose from
the tendency to underestimate the influence and strength of feelings
the tendency to give too much importance to little events or parts of it
the tendency to overestimate our influence vs external factors
the tendency to ignore an obvious negative situation
the tendency to do the opposite of what we are told (yes, that’s a thing)
the tendency to like things to stay relatively the same
Naïve realism: the belief that we see reality as it really is, objectively and without bias. that the facts are plain for all to see; that rational people will agree with us; and that those who don't are either uninformed, lazy, irrational, or biased.
the tendency to defend the status quo
the tendency to generalise
and let’s not get started with memory biases! How memory works.
the best one of all: the tendency to see oneself as LESS biased than others
Some of these traits are already deeply wired in the way your specific brain works, and reacts to things. Other traits work in a different way. They are there, encoded in your genes, but their expression is heavily influenced by the environment you grow up in, and the models you observe the most (yes, mommy is first place).
As human beings, we are curious, and obsessive. We pursue pleasure, and easy achievements. Oh we love them.
Each of us has a unique life. Not at the higher level (we all have some family, some friends, some kind of job or hobby, and so on). The details matter here. And the details can make all the difference in the world. So each one of us, has a unique life. The details of it, matter. We find meaning in this life of ours. We find joy. And happiness. And excitement. And pain. And suffering.
We are all those things.
SET THE MISSION
Direct question: Do you know that ONE thing bothering you? - make sure they are listening, wait a moment, repeat if necessary -
That one thought that is haunting you? That one regret you cannot get rid of? That one person that always gets the worse out of you? That one important change you really cannot get around making it? That one Xmas proposition that fails every year? That one awful habit you cannot get rid of. That one hidden dream you are even scared to think about? That one itch.
Whether you have just THAT one, or many more, I’d like you to pick one, JUST one.
Direct question: Would anyone like to share? Just to break the ice?
Nope? Ok, well. I’ll share mine then. I have mommy issues. So there it is. She is the person who takes the worse out of me, that one Xmas proposition that fails every year, the one inspiring the thoughts haunting me, and so much more. At least it’s not a regret, let’s look at the bright side. As I want to keep this real, this is my ONE thing for this evening.
So, let’s make THIS evening something concrete, and not abstract.
Let’s make it about THAT one thing you have picked and you have clear in mind. We will go back to it later in the evening.
Now, let’s PLAY A GAME
What is the ONE WORD that comes to your mind, when I say...
“ Keep Calm and... ???” Do you get any word automatically in mind? Such as “CARRY ON”?
What about “There’s no place like... HOME”.
Easy right? We have many of such sentences stored somewhere in our memory. We heard them a lot, or they became a meme at some point for a period of time. They just got stored. Tucked away. Probably for good. A life-long meme.
Now I would like you to repeat this exercise, and complete the sentences I’ll say with the first word/s that come to your mind, without thinking much about it. There are 5 of them. But as we don’t have anything to take notes, I’ll do them in sequence.
I’m a good person, I am ______________
I'm not a good person, I am __________________
What I hate the most about myself is that I am ________________________
Anyone wants to share?
Now let's take a 180 degree turn. Once again, complete the sentences below:
If _________________ wasn't a problem, I would ____________________
If I didn't ________________________, I would ____________________________
CONDITIONING, THOUGHTS, LIMItING BELIEFS
What happened there?
Some words almost automatically came out I guess.
Some of them may be harsh, judgemental or hurting.
Have you ever wondered where those words come from?
I’m asking because... The words that came to your mind are DEEPLY WIRED in YOU. In who you are, and the way you live.
To be more precise, they are deeply wired in the PERCEPTION you have of yourself.
They are more than words.
They are strongly hold BELIEFS.
And they hold an immense power on how you live your life.
So, I ask you to try to remember.
Can you recall the exact moment you start thinking it?
Was it an event of your past? Several events?
Did you get such overwhelming proof that it became a belief?
Some of you may not remember when “it started”. It may feel like it has always been there. As a part of you.
Others may start seeing their network of words, memories and symbols firing up, in an attempt to find, or generate, an answer.
What if I told you that most of those beliefs, especially the ones that feel like they have always been there, are not really yours?
Can you open up to this possibility? Just for a moment.
Several research fields (Neuroscience, developmental psychology...) tell us that the backbone of our personality is shaped between the age of 0 to 7, with some minor changes happening between 7 and 14.
They also tell us that as children:
- we model our behaviour on the caregiver that is mostly with us. Usually mom. We do not learn by being told, we learn by seeing, and repeating. By modeling. When what we see is different from what we are told, we feel lost and confused.
- In the first 2 years of our life we need constant reassurance that we are, indeed safe. Our primitive brain, at that tender age, has a very strongly wired concept of DANGER. It is not yet aware we are past that era of our evolution. We need to be hold, a lot. Reassured, a lot. Not be alone, if not for a short time. You get it.
- it’s also the time we learn how to deal with our strongest emotions. We are not born with this ability. So we model it.
- at the same time we don’t have an idea of “self” for quite a while. We look up at our parents to understand who we are. To model what is right or wrong. What is accepted and what is not.
A few things happen because of this process.
- we inherit maladaptive behaviours and beliefs. Already at a very tender age. Generational beliefs, such as “you cannot really trust anyone but your family” (even when the family itself is actually pervaded by paranoia), “you have to share this belief to be part of this family” (like we see in sects or fundamentalist religion)
- we make labels, and beliefs we are told, OUR OWN. When repeated to us often enough, from the people we trust the most, we believe them, and make them our own at a very deep level. It becomes a part of our core. We stand by it. We live by it. We apply every bias we inherited as a human being to justify them, to see them as truthful. “You are so much smarter than the other kids” “You are lazy” “You are a princess. Princesses don’t do this. They do that” “You are a whiner” “Boys don’t cry” “Girls don’t play with toy cars” “You never try hard enough” “You are naughty”. Even the most careful parents will hear a label or two coming out of their mouth from time to time. We are wired like that. There is some threshold though, different from child to child, that makes a whole lot of difference.
- We do that with labels and beliefs, and we do that at a much deeper level with feelings. How will a child grow up, if raised by a very anxious and controlling mother? Well... probably anxious. How that anxiety will then translate into adolescent and adult life is not straightforward. But nothing good can come out of it. Anxiety is modelled, whether the parent wants it or not. Whether the teachings are in line or not. After all, how can an anxious person teach a child NOT to be anxious? The same holds for a wide range of negative feelings. We simply model them. There’s no way out.
- On top of this, we are often taught to REPRESS our emotions. Sometimes because it’s actually a belief in the parent (boys don’t cry, girls don’t scream like boys, that’s enough crying, there’s no reason to cry). We then teach and show and model that belief. Sometimes it’s more subtle. Sometimes the parent believes he is teaching something, and builds a message that makes sense: you didn’t hurt yourself, stop crying. Are you crying for that reason? That’s very silly. Now you are exaggerating. There’s no reason to cry. Oh come on, it was nothing. In different ways, we teach that negative emotions are bad, and that they should be hidden rather than shown.
- Dissonance: when what we model is different from what we teach, we create an unbearable dissonance in little children. “Why are you telling me to behave differently than you do? I don’t know how to do that. “
Direct question: can you think of something similar from your own family? Something you were repeated very often, some belief that was shared at meal times over and over?
So, in summary, this is what happens:
1. You model a behaviour. You believe a label. You absorb a belief. You make it yours. You validate it through your human biases and live by it.
2. You have no idea it happened. You were too little to even realise it. Therefore it feels like inherently YOU. you never question it. you don’t even notice it. And yet, it conditions your whole life. The way you perceive YOU, and the way you live, as you.
WHY DOES THIS ALL HAPPEN?
People suffer, it's our nature.
Yet, we struggle and end up avoiding emotions, thoughts, memories, urges, sensations. Because we overthink, worry, resent, anticipate, dread them. We avoid, reject, numb, deny, escape suffering.
All this that we are doing is about moving from SUFFERING to ENGAGEMENT with life.
Instead of waiting to WIN the struggle, we learn how to LIVE now and fully. We learn to BE with our feelings. As negative as they can be.
What if most of the suffering is the outcome of the struggle, and not of the pain itself? The RADIO buttons example.
THE REASONS BEHIND...
The trap of language - when we can potentially feel pain at just a hint, a work, an object, a place... when we can recall pain SO easily, it’s understandable that, in an attempt to free ourselves, we start trying to avoid pain itself.
The FEAR of pain leads to avoidance.
Avoidance is a never ending loop of numbing and emotional compensations (food, TV, games, social media... whatever is your thing).
When we have a problem in life, we fix it, we send it away.
How does that work with thoughts?
Exercise of the yellow elephant!
It’s the same when you try NOT TO THINK a thought. In the very short term it may seem to work, when you numb in some way, but then it usually comes back stronger. and you need more numbing. It’s questionable whether you are left with any time at all to LIVE. I didn’t....
We do the same with feelings btw... which leads to even worse outcomes... anger accumulates until in the very depth of your being is a chained monster carved our of your energy, ready to unleash when tickled by life events. The amount of anger you have is often linked to the amount of PAIN hidden away.
And when we struggle, when we avoid, when we numb, we put some of the life aspects we love the most ON HOLD. We don’t feel like doing certain things, we don’t chase dreams, we don’t take risks, we just struggle, and wait for it to go away.
STRATEGIES TO FREE ONESELF
ACCEPTANCE AND WILLINGNESS (to feel)
The trouble with thoughts:
You know how we talked about language and how it can bring us suffering... well... do you think it would still happen, if you didn’t believe EVERYTHING you thought?
How often do you pause, just for a moment, to question, wonder, doubt, analyse, ponder, scrutinise, your OWN thoughts? You mostly don’t right? Why would you? They are YOUR thoughts, they come from YOU. Why would you doubt them?
But as we said, what if some of our thoughts are the outcome of inherited beliefs? Should we trust them? Should we blindly believe them? Maybe not...
The concept of inner voice/ego/identity/whatever: your dominant identity is the voice you hear the most. Is it friendly, supporting, caring and loving? Does it help you through difficult moments and to reach your life goals? GOOD. Is it blaming, offensive, unsupportive? Does it put you down and keeps you in a dark place of inadequacy? Well... maybe it’s time to take a break from it... or at least EVALUATE what it is telling you BEFORE believing it blindly.
Distancing your thoughts:
What if you could evaluate a thought? See it from a safe distance, before buying into it? When you THINK a thought, it structures your world. When you distance yourself, you SEE a thought. You still see how it structures your world, but you also see that you are doing the structuring.
Practice is core... it’s not a switch. Especially if you are not in your early 20s.
What happens when you can do this distancing? When you learn some more techniques to DEAL with the thoughts? Surprisingly enough they visit you LESS and LESS often.
How to distance:
Say it out loud (I’m having the though to...)
Labelling thoughts or distorting the word
Objectifying them through visualisation (exercise below)
Many more... depending on what better works for you
To make things more complicated... as we said at the beginning we come with some human bias already installed!
We are wired to like predictability, sameness, to be right, and have a clear identity. We dislike change, to be wrong, and anything that bothers our “status quo”, whether we like or not that status quo.
As a consequence of this, we ferociously defend the PERCEPTION we have of ourselves. Even if this perception says I am never good enough, because I never put enough effort into things, and therefore I’m inadequate and there’s something wrong with me. I’ll see what confirms this perception, and discard or undervalue what disproves it.
You can stare into the infinity of the universe. You have the potential to change your thoughts, behaviours, your whole life if you wish. You have the choice to take a stand. To live this PRESENT life as YOU. To discover and dismount your inherited beliefs, if they keep you in a dark place, or they are in the way of the life you want to live. Or the person you want to be.
YOU HAVE A CHOICE.
You will always have a choice, as long as you will live.
My purpose in life has become to show YOU, that you have a choice.
Because only YOU, have the power to fully live this life.
And sure, you can wait until…. Something happens, or you feel it’s the right moment… or… or…
But in the end… If not now, WHEN?
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