The transformation of learning into education paralyses man’s poetic ability, his power to endow the world with his personal meaning. Man will wither away just as much if he is deprived of nature, of his own work, or of his deep need to learn what he wants and not what others have planned that he should learn. (“Tools for conviviality”, Ivan Illich)
I am currently reading 2 of Ivan Illich’s eye-opening books, “deschooling society” and “tools of conviviality”. I’ve been highlighting many passages from these books, and making occasional side notes. I think I should share some of these here on this blog. So here comes the first, in the context of my first clinical psychology placement coming to an end.
I find it amazing that, to learn to become a psychologist, we must sit down and endure the pedagogy of other psychologists–despite their common lack of teaching skills–while being completely restrained from observing them in the exercise of the very skills they are presumably trying to teach us.
From such a model of skill transmission, only one learning outcome is guaranteed: the factual knowledge that certain lecturing psychologists have slightly less of a soporific effect on their audience than most!
Besides spoken or written language, our thoughts are also mostly made up of language. We use words to think about ourselves, other people or the world in general. We use words to plan what we are going to do or say, and to make sense of our memories.
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Now on to the meat of this article:
The words we use to think and talk about ourselves influence the way we feel about ourselves.
Human beings are amazing. Our brains are constantly active, even when we are asleep. We are constantly thinking, whether we are aware of it or not. Our emotions are directly influenced by our thoughts. Whenever we feel anger, excitement, anxiety, joy or sadness, it is usually because of some thoughts we’ve just had.
Our brains can think very quickly, and some types of thoughts can become so automatic that we don’t realise we’re having them. These automatic thoughts, however, were not always automatic. We learned them at some stage. For example, if our parents constantly told us that we were clumsy when we were little, we probably believed them. Later on, when we would make little mistakes, we would have been more likely to attribute them to our clumsiness than to other factors, because we started to believe that we were clumsy. Little by little, that belief can become reinforced until it is well-established and completely automatic.
While I was writing this article (took me a couple of weeks!), I came across the following video which I thought was excellent and very relevant to my topic. I don’t agree with everything Daryl Cross says, but I love the way he puts things across. It makes a lot of sense to me.
What happens when we have acquired an automatic thought of being clumsy? We knock our glass of water at the restaurant, and almost immediately we feel overwhelmed with shame and anger. But it wasn’t the spilled drink that caused the anger, it was the following automatic thoughts: “I did this because I’m clumsy. My clumsiness makes me look ridiculous. I’ll always be like that”.
Often, the negative automatic thoughts we have about ourselves don’t stand up to simple reasoning. If we were really aware of them, we could easily debunk them because they’re usually very exaggerated. The thoughts I just mentioned are unreasonable:
“I did this because I’m clumsy”: are there no other possible reasons? What about being nervous? Perhaps someone actually pushed us? Or perhaps it was just bad luck, and this kind of thing happens to everyone from time to time!
“My clumsiness makes me look ridiculous”: How do you know that? Do people tell you that you’re ridiculous when you do clumsy things? Many automatic negative self-thoughts assume that we can read people’s minds. We can’t.
“I’ll always be like that”: What a sad prophecy! Fortunately, we don’t know the future, and that includes what our future self will be. We just don’t know.
In all of this, I suppose it goes without saying that negative speaking so often flows from negative thinking, including negative thinking about ourselves. We see our own faults, we speak—or at least think—critically of ourselves, and before long that is how we see everyone and everything. No sunshine, no roses, no promise of hope or happiness. Before long we and everybody around us are miserable .
The words we use to think and talk about ourselves influence the ways we think and feel about other people.
If we are in the habit of criticising ourselves, we will tend to think that other people also have similar thoughts as we do, and silently criticise everything we do. This makes it difficult for us to trust others, because we think they are always judging us.
We can’t read anyone’s mind, so it’s impossible to know for sure what people are thinking or planning. To deal with this huge amount of uncertainty, our brains are naturally inclined to make lots of assumptions, so we don’t have to spend every waking minute worrying about what other people might think or do to us. One of these is to assume that other people think the same way we do. This is a very useful assumption, and often it works just fine: humans have many things in common, including some of the ways in which we think.
However, this assumption can be a problem unless occasionally challenged. If our thoughts are extreme, for example if they are very negative towards ourselves, assuming that everyone feels and thinks the same way about us is not only very inaccurate, it’s also very dangerous. Why is it dangerous? Because of something else we tend to do as humans: notice and remember the things that confirm what we believe, and ignore those that don’t. This is called the confirmatory bias.
As our self-talk becomes more negative, and we assume that other people are equally as judgemental towards us, we tend to notice the things they say and do that confirm our assumptions. This is made obvious when two people hear a third person say something, but when they talk about it later they remember something completely different. Let’s have an example: George is meeting his friends Lynn and Michael at school and is excited to show them his new shoes.
George: Hey, guys, what do you think of my new shoes?
Lynn: They’re not bad.
Michael: They’re awesome!
… later …
George (speaking to Michael): I can’t believe Lynn was so rude to me today, I don’t know what I’ve done to upset her!
Michael: What do you mean? She said she liked your shoes!
George: What are you on about? She hated them!
Michael: I’m sure she said they were nice, or something…
George: I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was obvious she hated them. In fact I think she hates me, I’ve been noticing little things she says, and she’s always talking and laughing about me when she’s with her friends…
Michael: I think you’re imagining things. She always says the nicest things about you when you’re not there, I’ve heard her lots of times. In fact I think she likes you!
As you can see, George has a fairly firm belief that Lynn doesn’t like him, and tends to look for things that confirm that belief. He believes that Lynn thinks that way, because that is the way he thinks about himself. This is leading him down an unfortunate path, because he may very well be destroying a potentially very strong friendship.
What we can do about negative self-talk
Once in a while, we need to step out of the comfort zone of our established beliefs about ourselves and others, and be willing to challenge them. This can be very difficult to do, especially if we have fed these beliefs for many years by consistently picking out bits of information that confirm them, and ignored those that go against them. Sometimes, these beliefs are reinforced by other people, the most powerful example often being our parents. However, we can challenge any belief we have if that belief is leading us to have a distorted and negative view of ourselves.
Before we can challenge them, however, we must identify them. They’re often so automatic that we’re not even aware that we’re thinking them. They’re like a psychological reflex, a mental shortcut that reduces the amount of mental effort we have to spend in reaction to events around us. If we want to change them, to “re-wire” our brain, we must be willing to spend that extra mental effort until our automatic thoughts have been modified to something less negative and more helpful.
One way to do this is to keep a little notebook and pencil in our pocket all the time, or to have a mobile phone that allows us to quickly take some notes for later. Every time we have a strong negative feeling like anger, depression or anxiety, we write down what triggered that emotion, and describe briefly how we’re feeling at that moment. Then, when we get home later on, we can go through our notes and spend a bit of mental energy to figure out what we were thinking at the time of our negative emotion. There’s always an automatic thought that gets activated by the trigger. It may be hard at first, but eventually you’ll start getting the hang of it.
So, once we’ve managed to identify some of the negative, automatic thoughts that we have about ourselves, we can start writing them down and challenging them. Writing all this down is essential, because if we try to just do it mentally, the automatic thoughts will win. It’s their domain, and they don’t like to be challenged. If you start writing them down, it gives you the opportunity to look at them at different times, when your mood is different, and when you’re likely to get more insights into them.
The truth about our worth
Thankfully, for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it’s quite easy to challenge automatic negative self-talk. We have strong beliefs in the individual worth of every human being, as literal children of God. Our worth is not determined by our actions, or by the attitudes or thoughts of other people. Our worth is fixed and equal to everyone else’s.
Don’t be fooled by the vain promises of the gods of beauty, fame, pleasure and possessions. They would have you believe that your worth is determined by how devoutly you worship them, how much time and money you pour into their bottomless treasuries. The true God, our Heavenly Father, has made it clear that our worth is not determined by our actions. We are his children and he loves us, no matter what we do. We are the offspring of deity from the time we are born until we surrender our last mortal breath.
The most important belief for which we should seek confirmation is the belief that God is literally our Father, and that we are literally His children. The degree to which we believe these simple truths will determine how well we can challenge and re-program our negative self-talk.
Great difficulty resisting offers of instant pleasure or gratification, at the cost of long-term problems. My problematic foci of impulsiveness include:
Here are some things I do that are impulsive:
Check facebook 25 times a day even though there’s rarely anything interesting on it
Search Google within 5 seconds of having any question to which I don’t have a ready answer
Rapidly fill out the rest of the Sudoku board when I think I’ve got it, and invariably I mess it up!
Say a joke as soon as it comes in my head. I’ve become better at restraining myself over the years, but I still blurt them out and get rather embarrassed sometimes.
Click on an Internet link if it looks interesting
Two important features of problematic impulsive behaviours:
Lack of premeditation
A general awareness that the behaviour is harmful in the long term
Does that sound like you? Many people struggle with what they call “food addiction”, “pathological gambling” or “compulsive gaming”. When we decide to do something about it, we typically target the behaviour itself, removing triggers (e.g. stop buying junk food, uninstall games from the computer etc.), or setting goals for behaviour reduction.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t address the impulsiveness underlying these behavioural patterns. Once you overcome one behaviour, you are likely to be attracted to another quick-fix, instantly gratifying behaviour.
Let’s compare impulsive behaviours with snacking on junk food. The impulsive person is looking for pleasurable emotions that are easily obtained, so we can call these “emotional junk food”. Just like physical junk food, emotional junk food gives you a quick boost, but has little nutritional value. If you’re used to snacking on emotional junk food all day, stopping suddenly will leave you feeling under-stimulated and emotionally peckish.
Just like physical junk food, emotional junk food prevents you from appreciating a full, nutritious meal. Never feeling truly hungry, you are never really aware of your emotional needs, and are never satisfied after a snack. You are also less motivated to engage in truly satisfying activities that really fulfil your needs. Have you ever noticed that when you’re eating junk food, you don’t really feel like eating healthy? Conversely, when I eat healthily for a while, I tend to feel less attracted by junk food.
I'm sure there's a carrot stick in there somewhere...
So, what is the remedy for emotional snacking? Having regular nutritious emotional feasts! Don’t worry too much about the impulsive behaviours, instead make sure you know what is emotional nutritious and satisfying, and have plenty of it. Do things you know you’re good at, but make sure they’re in harmony with your values. Otherwise it’s junk food for you (although it might be fine for someone else).
In practical terms, for me this might mean doing any of the following:
Write more often: I find it very satisfying, it helps me to organise my thoughts and give meaning to my emotions.
Play badminton or table tennis more often: the feeling of mastery and physical activity is invigorating, both emotionally and physically.
Listen to classical music: I get some very powerful emotions when I listen to uplifting music, and it helps me to detach myself from the frantic pace of daily life.
Eat nutritious food: Since food is part of the things I’m impulsive with, I should apply this part of the analogy directly
What are some things you can do to stop snacking on emotional junk food, and have real feasts every day?
One of my personality traits is that I have an aversion for inefficiency. If I see someone do something a certain way, and it is obvious to me that there exists an easier, more efficient way of doing it, I find it incredibly difficult to refrain from making a comment. I’m beginning to realise and accept that these comments are generally not taken very well by those who receive them, and that I can sound rather pedantic when I make them.
Here’s an example: we have a microwave oven that we use daily to warm up Joshua’s milk bottles. This oven has the usual features of such devices, but it also has a number of shortcuts. One of these shortcuts is a 30-second “quick heat” button. You push it, and straight away you get 30 seconds of microwave emissions gently poured into your milk bottle. You push it again and you get 1 minute, and so on. Now, as soon as I discovered this button, I started using it whenever it made sense to me, and I never looked back. I never (as in NEVER) dialled 3.0.Cook from the time I found this button. Why should I? Why do in 3 (noisy) presses what can be done in 1?
Fortunately for her, Anne-Marie doesn’t think like I do. She doesn’t see the big deal with pushing only one button instead of 3. Perhaps more importantly, she doesn’t enjoy being told that her button-pushing is inefficient, and that I’ve found a way to spare her the superfluous 0.4 calories she expends by doing it. She might actually start using the button later on, and she probably does it when I’m not looking!
Until recently, that behaviour of hers really annoyed me. I just couldn’t see why someone would want to do things the “hard way” when it’s so blatantly obvious that there is a “better way”. After more than ten years of marriage, I was still stuck on that issue. I had failed to apply the principle I discovered on my mission:
“When someone behaves in a way that annoys you, it’s probably a reflection of something you do that annoys you.”
What is Anne-Marie doing that annoys me? Refusing to take my superior advice when I repeatedly offer it to her. Do I do this too? You bet! Except Anne-Marie has more tact than I do, and she usually refrains from telling me how to do things in a better way. Or she simply doesn’t make a mountain out of a molehill! Perhaps, unlike me, she acknowledges that I may actually enjoy doing things in my own, idiosyncratic way, or that I derive from it certain benefits that are not apparent to her. An example might be people who decide to walk up the old-fashioned stairs instead of taking the escalators: they rarely get up any faster, but perhaps they enjoy and/or need the exercise!
So why do I have this urge to tell people how to do things more efficiently? Note that I’m not talking about correcting people’s spelling mistakes, that is a related but separate issue that is worthy of its own blog entry in the near future. I’m talking about getting annoyed when people persist doing such things as typing with 2 fingers, using only the mouse to copy-paste text from one document to another, or hand-scoring a MCMI-III manually instead of using a scoring software.
For a while I hypothesised that I had developed this habit as a result of my work as a programmer. After all, the main job of a programmer is to reduce the amount of repetitive, error-prone work humans need to do, by writing computer algorithms that take care of these tasks. Not only must these algorithms take over repetitious work, but they must do so in an efficient manner, making smart use of resources such as time and computer memory. When I’m working, every day I solve a multitude of small-to-large problems involving efficiency. I remember finding it difficult to get my mind around the basic principles of programming, in my early days. Perhaps my obsession with efficiency comes from that?
On the other hand, it’s also possible that my attraction to efficiency pre-dates and even triggered my interest for programming. I distinctly remember getting excited about the possibility of writing bits of text that could get understood and used by the computer to complete (often useless) tasks at a speed that dwarves human capacities. I think it’s quite likely that this is one of these “personality traits” that have been rather stable throughout my life, and I need to work with it.
Thankfully, another one of my personality traits is openness to new ideas. I’m becoming more open to the idea that people might like to do things their own way precisely because it’s their own way!
Something interesting happened tonight while I was driving back from a home teaching visit in South Yunderup. I was driving on Lakes Road, not far behind an ambulance (Peel Hospital is on Lakes Road), when I felt a rather strong, positive emotion in connection with the ambulance.
St John's Ambulance
Immediately my mind started making attempts at labelling the emotion, and making sense of it. My first reaction was to think about the future, and how this feeling may have something to do with my future career. Perhaps I will have more to do with hospitals than I thought. That was my line of thinking: I was trying to find meaning in the emotion I had just felt, and to use that meaning to anticipate my own decisions and path in the future.
A few seconds later I remembered some of the things I had learned last semester at Uni about a style of thinking called “Crystal Ball”. It is much more likely that my emotional reaction was linked to my past experiences, such as my childhood illnesses, Joshua’s birth, his heart surgery, my two hospitalisations for hypoglycaemia or Anne-Marie’s miscarriage, than to a future event. In each of these situations, ambulances and ambulance officers represented protection, safety, relief and comfort. Each time they alleviated my fears of the unknown future surrounding stressful or even traumatic experiences. It is quite natural that I would get a nice feeling when I see an ambulance.
It's so comforting to know the future... Or so they say!
However, it took a fair bit of thinking to arrive at that conclusion, and I don’t think I would have been able to reach these conclusions a few years ago, when I knew far less about the way people think. As I said, my first reaction was to interpret this emotion as an “omen”, a sign of my future vocation, and it is quite probable that, should I have decided to retain that interpretation, it would have influenced my future decisions in a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, why did I have this initial reaction? Do I have a strong need to know what the future holds for me?
I definitely think that most people are anxious to know what the future holds, to varying degrees and for slightly different reasons. We might be afraid of growing old or dying, of developing a disease that is prevalent in our family, of getting hurt in a freak accident, or of not achieving much and remaining a nobody throughout our life. These are common fears, and there are many others, because, let’s face it, none of us knows exactly what the future holds, not even what will happen tomorrow.
Even more relevant to the story I just told, we don’t know our own future decisions. We might feel certain that we will never do or say something (“I would never do anything to hurt you!”), or we may be extremely confident that our chosen career as a marine biologist best defines us and suits our interests, and that we will never change, but the truth is that we don’t know. People change daily, and are often unaware of the general direction towards which their character and personality are evolving. Most people are at least vaguely aware of their own changeableness, and this can cause anxiety about the future.
Hence, to avoid the darkness of an unknown future in which our own self is a stranger, we seek meaning and purpose through religion, good causes and the occasional self-fulfilling prophecy. The nice thing about self-fulfilling prophecies is that they shift the locus of responsibility for our decisions away from ourselves: we’ve received some sort of “sign” or “clue” as to what we should do, we then act as if that sign were a fact, our interpretation of the meaning of the sign is then more likely to occur, and when it does we see confirmation that an external source has benevolently guided our decisions.
Once in a while, it’s good to be able to let go of absolute responsibility for every single choice and mistake we’ve made. Mistakes, though abhorrent to our society, are a normal, healthy and necessary part of life and are required for growth, learning and personal fulfilment. My religion doesn’t teach that all mistakes are sins and require repentance and guilt, in fact only very few mistakes fit that description, compared with the infinite variety of ways in which we can mess up each day.
Crystal ball thinking, however, can be a problem when it completely shifts the balance of responsibility away from us, and we start blaming all our problems or giving credit for all our blessings on external influences. If I do well at a very difficult exam, it wasn’t 100% a fluke, it wasn’t 100% God’s work, and it wasn’t 100% through my own merits.