Come on, we’ve all done it! We have an extraordinary mind capable of filtering information at a staggering rate. It’s a very necessary adaption too. As I sit in my favourite place, a Costa coffee house, there’s a cacophony of sounds all around me. Children crying, the blues music playing out on the sound system, the tap-tap of freshly steamed milk for the drinks and people chatting all around me. The limbic region of my unconscious brain is constantly monitoring the sounds for a potential ‘freeze, flight or fight’ response were something untoward to occur (remember, this is the correct response order, not the ‘fight of flight’, as it’s so often known as). If my mind were not capable of filtering out the sounds, I would be rapidly overwhelmed by all that background noise.
That highly effective filtering system is put to use every moment of the day. Stop for a moment and listen to the sounds around you. You might find that sounds were there that you weren’t aware were occurring. That’s the way it should be. Rest assured, though, that your unconscious mind was monitoring them just in case.
Like with everything in life ‘there are two sides to every coin’. The highly effective filtering system is put to use in ways that aren’t always helpful.
If you’re familiar with some psychology you’ll understand the clause: ‘the map is not the territory’. By this, psychologists mean that what is occurring in front of us is interpreted by our internal filtering system and judgements are then made. What one person concludes may well not be what another person concludes for we see the world, as another cliche so eloquently puts it, ‘through rose-coloured spectacles’. Let me give you an example. I love Christmas. Yes, ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day!’ Once, in October at a church charity function, I bought an advent calendar. It looked, to me anyway, a wonderful purchase. My mind rushed to thoughts of Christmas. I was anticipating opening each of the doors and celebrating the advent time, singing the carols and decorating the Christmas tree. With a face beaming, I turned around with my festive purchase and showed it to a friend of mine who was approaching me. They took one look at it, said not a word, turned around briskly and walked away.
We both saw the advent calendar but it had an entirely different meaning for each of us. And it’s those meanings to us that can exaggerate what’s occurring to us, which is what I was doing with the advent calendar (after all, it was only October and if I’d stopped to consider that I might have just put it quietly in the bag that I had and not magnified the importance of my purchase to such an extent!), or we can completely disregard it and filter it out as being irrelevant, which is what my friend was doing. Distortions, deletions and generalisations can frequent our thinking with great regularity and, in especially the case of filtering, deletions.
It’s not that filtering isn’t a necessary thing to do. We’ve already discussed that filtering extraneous sounds and events around us is a necessary process to coping with all that’s happening to avoid mind overload. Rather, it’s that we’re so good at doing it, that we can filter out through deletion what is actually important or relevant. We do this very effectively, but not very helpfully, when facing this particular thinking trap.
What happens is that we filter information that would change our interpretation of the event. We seldom ‘step back’ and consider what we’ve filtered, but respond to the situation with all filters blazing! The ‘stepping back’ and considering is therefore a necessary stage to empower the rational and logical part of the brain. The thing is, System 1 (the automatic, emotion-responding part of the mind) is the hare in the race; System 2 (the logical, problem-solving and reflective part of the mind) is very much the tortoise left way behind and only just out of the starting blocks.
It can get worse too. We can end up with a self-fulfilling prophesy. We filter through deletion to such an extent that anything positive that does happen is simply deleted, as being irrelevant since it doesn’t fit our current thinking model. “See, I told you so! It’s rubbish!” can be our response. System 2 is left so far behind that we don’t give it any chance to consider what information might have been filtered (or in my case, magnified) and we will automatically respond in unhelpful ways.
So, what do we do?
System 1 is automatic but can be overcome and changed to an altogether more helpful response. Plasticity in the mind means that we can overcome the negative automatic responses and exchange them for more helpful responses. It takes will power (sometimes, tremendous will power) but we can halt the thinking trap response and step back to consider a more helpful one.
“What have I ignored?”; “What have I forgotten?”; “What have I exaggerated?” etc. are the kinds of questions to ask yourself. Being mindfully aware that we are filtering through distortion, deletion and generalisation is essential. Why? Because we’ve probably got into an unhelpful habit of responding in those ways. The first stage to breaking an unhelpful habit is to recognise that we’re doing it in the first place. And that means being mindfully aware. Then, once mindfully aware, we can consider what we’ve filtered and use that to change the meaning of the thoughts that we’re having.
Let’s say that you’ve just completed a task but it’s not gone as well as you wanted it to go. How might you automatically respond (System 1) and what to do about it (System 2) given half a chance? What follows is a possible internal dialogue with yourself and a ‘meta-you’. The ‘meta-you’ is the ‘you’ observing the event and your thoughts, from near by. The ‘meta-you’ will have a different perspective: literally, because they are observing the event near by and not through your ‘rose-coloured spectacles’.
You: Typical! I never get it right. Same rubbish that I always produce. It’s never good enough!
‘Meta-you’: Hang on a minute! Never? Always? Never? Last time you did this task you did pretty well. In fact, Paul said it was good. I think you’ve forgotten that!
You: OK. It’s not as bad as I said. I forgot Paul had said that…
‘Meta-you’: How can I make it even better next time?
The ‘meta you’ helps offer alternative views, ideas and thoughts. It might sound weird but this approach really can work to help you identify those distortions, filtered deletions and generalisations that the ‘you’ has applied and do something about it. Mind you, it generally works better if a skilled coach/psychologist can be there with you asking the questions but a ‘meta you’ is an excellent substitute. Further, ‘meta you’ is with you wherever you go. And doesn’t charge either; just change in return [wink]! Give it a go. Let me know how it works for you.
We’ve reached the end of the common thinking traps and how to avoid them. Easy to avoid, aren’t they?! Ehem…. For many, common thinking traps are not easy to avoid. That’s why they are common. Changing our thinking patterns isn’t easy to do. Simply because we’ve got ourselves into a habit of thinking and operating that way. Habits don’t occur over night and seldom disappear over night either.
However, they can be changed. It takes will power, shear determination and mindfulness to respond in a much more helpful way. Crucial to all common thinking traps and how to avoid them is the belief that we can change. We can rewire our minds to think and respond differently. Neuro-plasticity abounds in the mind allowing us, whatever the age, to change our thinking and avoid those common thinking traps. As my hero William James (the Victorian psychologist), so wonderfully put it:
Act as if what you’re doing makes a difference. It does.
Act, as if you can change. Practise being mindfully aware of how you’re responding, step back and consider how you might think differently and notice what happens when you put that into practice. It will take will power but the more you do it the easier it will become. A new pathway in your mind will be formed and subsequently desired thought patterns will more easily flow down that newly formed pathway making it progressively deeper through reinforcement. Eventually, it will be a helpful habit that you possess making it easier to think in the desired way and harder to think in the old way. How good is that?!
I look forward to reading your comments on any of the common thinking traps that I have written about, especially the ones that you have found particularly helpful or relevant to yourself. In future posts I will be writing specifically about habit formation and how to break unhelpful habits.
I’ll leave you with a modified quote of mine.
If you think you can (change your common thinking traps) you’re right. If you think you can’t change (your common thinking traps) you’re right.