That’s Just The Way I Am! (& Problem Solving)

If the doors of our perception were to be cleansed, everything would appear to us as it is, infinite

– William Blake

Sit still for a moment and listen. What can you hear? Scan the environment for sounds. It could be the fan of your computer or the dull hum of traffic noise. Now that you’ve switched your attention to them, you can hear them. Moments before, you had been screening them out. Now focus on your other senses and find out what else you’ve been screening out.

Attention
You see, we can’t pay attention to every tiny bit of information that comes our way. If we did, our heads would have to be huge. Instead, in the interests of cognitive economy, we operate a filtering system that screens out a great deal of the information in our environment  So. you just have to pay attention to the ‘good stuff’. In reality we have a self-limited view of the world. Now this is great for keeping us focused on ‘the good stuff’ but it can also mean we miss opportunities and different ways of viewing the world.

Novelty and Consistency
So, it’s just as well that we have a drive for novelty that balances our need for consistency. Getting these competing drives in balance is crucial. Too much consistency and we need consider anything new and too much novelty and we lose all sense of consistency.

All too often routine consistency wins out and when faced with a problem we are inclined to keep trying the same old thing over and over again, just like the fly that keeps head butting the window to get outside. It ignores the open window.

Perceptual Filters
As anthropologist Ruth Benedict says ‘No one sees the world with pristine eyes’. Rather each of us sees the world in a slightly different way through a series of filters that colour our perceptions. Factors such as gender, culture, ethnicity, age, sexuality, peer groups, upbringing, environment and education all have an impact on how we view the world. To this list we can add mood swings, different situations, time of day, whether we are tired, hungry or thirsty, likes and dislikes, needs and values. We filter information on the basis of personal relevance but that doesn’t mean that other information is not available to us. It is. We just screen it out.

Attention and Perception
All of these things also have an impact on what we pay attention to.  All of these filters are used to let through the relevant and screen out the irrelevant or novel. It becomes a closed system, a cycle where perception determines attention which in turn determines and reinforces perceptions. In this way we maintain our view of the world. If we allow our perceptions to narrowly define what we pay attention to, then we limit opportunities for learning and change often characterised by the phrase ‘Well that’s just the way I am’.

Problem Solving
To paraphrase Einstein ‘you can’t solve your problems with the same level of thinking that created them’. This means you need a fresh mindset. So review the categories that define ‘the way you are’ and then imagine approaching the problem from the perspective of someone totally different from you. Think about things as a different gender, race, ethnicity and so on. Think of a resourceful person you know or admire, real or fictional and ask how they would approach the problem. Approach problems at different times of the day. Also, break your daily routine. Go a different way to work, eat a different breakfast and so on. Set your alarm clock half an hour earlier. Small changes in routine can yield bigger changes in perspective. Most importantly of all, focus on solutions. Spend 20% of your time defining the problem and 80% of the time looking for solutions. Consider any solution no matter how implausible or silly. Just write down as many as you can from lots of different perspectives without censoring your thoughts. Review the solutions later.

Whenever you use the phrase ‘That’s just the way I am’ you are denying access to an enormous capacity for resourcefulness.


[Explore your perceptual filters, values and strengths in ‘Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . .Swim Out To Meet It‘ ]

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Oh No They Can’t! Oh Yes They Can! Self-Help Mantras With Evidence-Based Psychology Can Help!

Self-help affirmations are a common techniques designed to improve a person’s sense of worth but many self-help books offer the technique in uniformed and uncritical way. Unfortunately our inner critic is not so forgiving. So, if you endless repeat ‘I am a gifted, lovable, dynamic, outgoing person’ over and over again your inner critic may just respond each time ‘No you’re not! NO you are not!! NO YOU ARE NOT! NO YOU ARE @&%*ING WELL NOT!’ So, it’s no surprise that new research has found that low-self esteem felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves. However, ‘let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater’. As welcome as this research is, affirmations can still be helpful if you use them in line with evidence-based psychological insights. Let’s look at why and how.

As I explain in Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It, the problem is that many self-help gurus do not have even a fundamental understanding of attitude change, although many have recognised that the over-blown affirmations do not work. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a negative person and tried to offer suggestions you will know why. Invariably your attempts will be met with ‘yes but, yes but, yes but’. As we know ‘yes but means no!’. It’s like aiming ‘well intentioned missiles’ at the Starship Enterprise when the deflector shields are up. You ain’t gonna get through!

The secret is to recognise that attitude change is often a slow and subtler process. If we combine the psychology of attitudes with some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and insights from Positive Psychology then we do have a recipe for change. All of these already drawn on a body of research whereas the ‘repeat things you don’t believe’ approach, does not!

The secret is to use small incremental steps that are difficult to disagree with. Focus on continual improvement. So for instance, compare these two statements:

  1. I am a lovable person
  2. I am becoming a more lovable person

Statement 2 is still not perfect but it is not so easily discounted as statement 1. Furthermore, statement 1 is most likely cancelled out by the existing statement running over and over in a person’s head, which says ‘I am an unlovable person’. This has already set up a perceptual filter that looks for evidence to support this statement and filter out anything to the contrary. This how negative attitudes and stereotypes are maintained. Statement 2 can easily be tagged on as a ‘but’:

  • I am an unlovable person BUT I am becoming a more lovable person

So if you are running negative statements, what you need to do first is spot them and use a method to cancel them. Just saying ‘Cancel’ makes the process more conscious. You can then substitute a ‘becoming’ statement.

Another technique is to add an ‘up until now clause’ which opens up the possibility of change. For instance:

  • I’m crap at maths

This becomes:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths

Now add the ‘but’:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths but I’m improving

After you’ve used this for a while, your inner critic is  much more likely to be receptive to the affirmation:

  • As I work at it, my maths is improving

Whereas, ‘I’m fantastic at maths’ is likely to be met with the immediate response: ‘No you’re not, you’re as thick as pig sh*t’!’ Clearly, your inner critic recognises the lie and tells you so and you end up feeling worse. To make progress you need to write affirmations that are unlikely to be rejected.

It’s only really possible to scratch the surface in this post, but hopefully I’ve demonstrated that it’s not self-help affirmations that are at fault, it’s how they are written. Knowledge of evidence-based psychology of attitude change (and therapeutic techniques) can help us to structure statements, that slowly peel back the defences.

One of the main motivations for writing ‘Don’t Wait. . . Swim Out‘ was to dispel self-help myths and put some evidence-based insights back into equation. Here’s a short video that explains more about my approach to affirmations and turning that inner critic into an inner coach:

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