Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Changing the Balance of Evidence

In the last blog (Evidence on Your Radar Screen) I discussed how automatic it can become to catch and collect piles of “evidence” that seems to support how we already think and feel. Even though this supposed evidence automatically hits the radar screen and lands on the old pile, we still have the opportunity to mentally grab it off of there, think about it in a different way, and toss it off to the side somewhere instead of letting it stick (Self-talking to Peace and Happiness). In this manner, over time, very little additional evidence will get added to this old pile, which then gives us a better opportunity to shift the balance of evidence in a different direction.

The way to create a new and more beneficial pile of evidence that is counter to the old beliefs is to make a conscious effort to notice and catch any life event, feeling, or interaction that could serve as evidence for this new pile. If a person works persistently at noticing these alternative pieces of evidence, that person can gradually expand the size and sensitivity of their new radar screen and can collect piles of counter evidence that in time can start to feel convincing in its proof of a different and more beneficial set of beliefs.

For example, let’s say that for years, someone’s old radar screen had registered every time that something had gone poorly in their life and that after accumulating so much "evidence", this now discouraged person had come to believe that in fact, things never went well for them and that life was usually miserable.  To change the balance of evidence and create a different belief and feeling, this person would instead begin to  intentionally catch and hang onto every example of something going well (or even reasonably decent) in their life. This is a challenging process, because as I stated in the last blog, people tend to overlook the more minor examples of counter evidence, and they tend to mentally swat away the more obvious examples by attributing them to luck, coincidence, or random acts. It therefore takes considerable conscious effort to both notice and collect this counter evidence and to store it in a new pile.

One way to more quickly build evidence for the new beliefs is for a person to rehearse the messages that they’d like to believe in but don’t currently. For example, a person might feel that little goes well in their life or that they aren’t very good at most things, or another person might constantly tell themselves how stressful their life is, that they’ll never get everything done, and that they are overwhelmed.

Instead of perpetuating these old messages and beliefs, they would intentionally rehearse an alternative set of messages. The first person could practice telling themselves that they do some things well and that there are good things that happen in their life. The second person would rehearse messages that their life is manageable, that they are competent and can get things done, and that they can feel at peace and aren’t going to get themselves stressed about things that aren’t that big a deal.

And the key then is for the person to be aware of anything that occurs each day that could serve as evidence for this new set of beliefs that they are trying to establish, and to catch and hang onto this evidence tenaciously. If somebody stood in front of a mirror and rehearsed 20 times that they felt strong and confident and that things were going to go well that day, this rehearsal could make that person feel at least a little more like this might be true; but if they actually noticed every example during the day of something good that happened or something that they did well and felt even a little bit confident about, they would greatly reinforce their messages and make them land and stick in that new pile of evidence.

Initially, of course, these counter messages that the person is rehearsing and counter evidence that they are collecting often feel like something they are just telling themselves in their head that they don’t really believe. And that is correct…….of course they don’t really believe it…..they will still believe the giant pile of old, false evidence that seems to indicate something different. That old pile is HUGE; it still outweighs the new pile. The key is to stick with this process, because in time, the new pile of evidence starts to get bigger and to carry more weight, the old pile begins to shrink, and the person will make a connection between what they are trying to convince themselves of in their head and will truly believe it and feel it in their heart.

If you did the self-observation I mentioned last time and noticed your old piles of evidence, then this week focus your awareness instead at catching the evidence that could be counter to the old pile. In the manner that I've discussed previously, talk yourself through the old, automatic things that hit you and discard those, don't let them stick on the old pile, and instead collect evidence into the biggest pile that you can for the new messages that you are rehearsing and would like to believe in and feel more deeply.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Evidence on Your Radar Screen

In previous blogs I’ve talked about the automatic thoughts that we tend to attach to life situations that hit us and how those thoughts ultimately determine how we feel much of the time. When we feel a certain way, whether stressed, irritated, down, worried, low in confidence, or happy and encouraged, there is a tendency to notice and to be much more aware of the things that happen in our lives that seem to confirm how we already feel.

It’s like a radar screen that gets increasingly wider and grows more sensitive in picking up what we already believe to be true. If a person believes that people are rude and insensitive, then there is a tendency to notice and to hang onto things that seem to confirm this belief. If they feel depressed or stressed, their radar screen is sensitive to anything that happens in their day or week that feels like proof that things are stressful and depressing. If a person feels generally encouraged and happy they typically notice and hang onto life situations that confirm that there is a reason to be upbeat and to feel good.

Each blip on this sensitive radar screen then gets mentally deposited by the person, like a stone on a pile, with all of the other similar things that have hit their screen, and quickly, there is a giant and weighty pile of “evidence” that seems to confirm what the person believes to be true. Certainly most people don’t intentionally focus on and catch evidence that is depressing, stressful, anger provoking, or self-confidence reducing, but nevertheless, it still happens.

Often these piles of supposed evidence start forming in childhood based on experiences we had, how we were parented, or through the verbal messages that were modeled to us by our parents. Picture collecting hundreds or thousands of stones over the years, each one representing an example that life is stressful or depressing, or each representing something to worry about or to be irritated and angry about, or each one indicating an example that is associated with low confidence and poor self-esteem.

As the years and decades go by, this pile would be huge and the weight of the “evidence” collected by the radar screen and mentally placed onto this pile could feel indisputable. The radar screen also gets incredibly sensitive at picking up anything that could be construed as supportive evidence for this pile, so even life situations that wouldn't land on a normal sized screen can hit the far edges of the expanded radar screen and seem to confirm a person’s beliefs.

While this radar screen is getting bigger and picking up anything, supported by the supposed evidence that confirms it’s existence, the opposite process is often happening to the radar screen that could be picking up disconfirming evidence. There could be, and probably are, countless examples of things that happen in a person’s day that aren’t depressing or stressful and that do go fairly well or that are done more than adequately by the person, but these are typically missed because the radar screen that could pick up this evidence has shrunk so greatly and because very little counter evidence to the person’s beliefs has ever been collected.

It almost takes a direct bulls eye to hit this tiny radar screen, and even then, that blip of counter evidence that hits the bulls eye tends to get discounted and mentally swatted away by the person before it has the opportunity to land on a different pile. As a consequence, very little evidence makes it onto the pile that could actually convince the person that life isn’t depressing or that things often aren’t stressful, or that they aren’t terrible at everything, disliked by everyone, or always confronted with the stupidity of people in the world.

In the next blog I’m going to discuss how to change these radar screens and the piles of collected evidence. Until then, try to be very aware of the life situations that you tend to automatically notice and to hang onto. What is your radar screen most sensitive in catching? What are your beliefs about yourself, others, or life that you have collected evidence for over the years? Do you notice yourself mentally swatting away other evidence that could support a different belief?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What we can learn from survivors………and Survivor!

I’ve discussed the entire process now of how to catch the old, automatic thoughts that lead to stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and self-doubt and how to change those thoughts in a manner that produces more positive emotions and pervasive happiness and peace. It is intuitively obvious that the messages we constantly attach to situations will result, over time, in chronic feelings that mirror this self-talk, and I wanted to press on the importance of this self-talk by discussing the impact it has on how successful people are in coping with extreme survival situations. And if changing our self-talk is beneficial in getting through life or death situations, it can definitely help us to manage the situations we get hit with in our typical lives.

Most survival experts that I’ve heard discussing the keys to making it through a survival situation such as being lost in the wilderness, always state that the mental aspects of surviving often outweigh everything else. Nando Parrado discussed this in his book Miracle in the Andes about the Uruguayan rugby players whose plane crashed in the Andes Mountains. They were there for over 60 days and search efforts had long ceased by the time he and a teammate made it down and got help for the remaining survivors. Not everyone who survived the initial crash lasted the two months, and Parrado felt that those that did make it had been able to maintain hope, minimize discouragement, and keep a calmer attitude and mind.

POWs often say similar things in terms of the importance of not letting negative thoughts take root and using constant encouraging and reassuring self-talk to help maintain hope. Victor Frankl, who survived Nazi death camps, hit the nail on the head when he said, “Everything can be taken from a person, but the last of the human freedoms--- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.” This statement is so true; we always have control of what we think, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

A compilation of research on the mental aspects of survival by the Discovery Channel also pointed to similar mental characteristics in wilderness survivors. The research demonstrated the importance of repeating to yourself affirming statements about surviving, recognizing your negative emotions and addressing them before they took hold, and not blaming yourself for getting into the situation.

There’s no comparison between participants on the television show Survivor and the true survivors in the preceding examples, but it is still incredibly interesting and exemplary to hear the self-talk of different individuals on this show and to see in a matter of days the impact that these thoughts may have on their well-being and overall coping with the lack of food, little sleep, and sometimes cold, persistent rain. During a recent season of the show, all the people were experiencing the exact same conditions, the same lack of food and sleep, and the constant cold rain, but the self-talk and resultant appearance of two contestants was striking in contrast.

One initially strong and athletic appearing individual was invariably seen slumping over, head hanging down, and looking miserable and discouraged. When interviewed, he typically said things like, “ This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done; This is so miserable; I’m so cold and hungry; I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” And he sure looked like he might not make it. In contrast, another contestant stood out in the rain, arms crossed defiantly, chin in the air, and said, “This is nothing; This just makes me stronger; I wanted it to be just like this……I didn’t want some resort that I could take my family to on vacation.” And he looked like he would have survived out there forever!

What an enormous difference the encouraging, calming, realistic self-talk can make with participants on Survivor and with true survivors! And then consider again the situations we are getting hit with in our own lives…….probably not life or death survival situations, but definitely times when things initially feel incredibly stressful and overwhelming and we might doubt our ability to manage everything. But we can learn from survivors. We can always choose the attitude of encouragement and reassurance in any situation and not allow the negative emotions to take hold, we can always give ourselves affirming statements about getting through the life challenges, and we can probably even stick our chins defiantly in the air and say, “this just makes me stronger!”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Self-talking to Peace and Happiness

Once somebody gets proficient at catching and putting the brakes on the old, automatic thoughts that elicit those familiar feelings of stress, worry, depression, anger, or self-doubt (The Old Stinkin’ Thinkin’) they can begin to steer their thoughts in a different direction that produces more overall peace and happiness. Remember that the old thoughts don’t control you and that in the same manner that you unintentionally rehearsed them and made them automatic, you can rehearse a new set of thoughts that will become more automatic over time and that will allow you to talk yourself through any life situation and to feel the way you desire. Conceptually, this is a simple process, but in practice, it is very difficult because the old thoughts are so ingrained that they seem to be true. It takes significant initial energy and effort to begin changing the self-talk in ways that will work much better for you.

The question to ask yourself as you try to change the characteristic thoughts that you typically attach to situations, is, “How can I talk myself through this in a more encouraging, calming, realistic way?” There is always more encouraging versus discouraging, calming versus alarming, and realistic versus over exaggerated self-talk that can be attached to a situation that has hit and initially created some negative emotion. I’ll go through several examples of what this process might look like.

Let’s say that a person who often feels stressed and worried looks at their schedule of all the things they have to do that day or week and first attaches the old, automatic thoughts to this, such as, “I’m never going to be able to get all this done; I’m so overwhelmed; Why is my life always so stressful; What if I can’t get the house cleaned before people come over and see it; What if I don’t get that work project done today and my boss gets upset; What if….(these “what ifs” can go on indefinitely and generate more and more stress and worry!).

But……since this person is working on catching their thoughts, they quickly think, “Ah, there go my old stressful thoughts kicking into gear, okay, how am I going to change them in a more encouraging, calming, realistic manner before they get rolling?” And they tell themselves, “There is a lot to do, but I’ll just take it one thing at a time and do the best I can; I can manage all of this….I do it all the time; None of this stuff is life or death and I’m not going to make myself all stressed out if I don’t get something done; I’m not going to what if the future by predicting alarming things….I’ll get most of this to turn out just fine.”

Or another person who often views things as annoying and irritating gets poor customer service help from a seemingly unfriendly and impolite worker. Their automatic, anger inducing thoughts start rolling and they think, “Why can’t anybody be polite anymore in our society; What happened to good customer service; That person is such a jerk; I hate having to deal with people!”

But……again this person catches those old thoughts, observes them neutrally for a second, and reminds themselves to try to look at this in a more encouraging, calming, realistic manner. “This person wasn’t the friendliest, but there are lots of polite people I deal with; Actually, I often do get good customer service or at least somebody that is doing their best to try to help me; This person might just be having a bad day or maybe something happened that has them in a bad mood…..who knows, maybe if my life were exactly like theirs I might have a hard time not acting like them.”

Another example could be of a person who’s typical self-talk leaves them feeling discouraged, self-doubting, and unconfident. “Why can’t I do anything right; I hate how I look; I’m never going to accomplish the things I want; Why can’t I be pretty like my coworker; I’ll never be happy.”

But they catch these thoughts and change them as described before….. “This didn't turn out quite like I hoped but I try hard and I do lots of things well; I may not be as happy as I’d like to be right now, but I’ll keep working at it and I’ll achieve the happiness I desire in time; I can become confident, strong, and I can believe in myself!”

The first time or 50 times that the people in these examples change their thoughts as described might result in them feeling only marginally better, only a little more encouraged, hopeful, calm, and happy. But then picture them sticking with this process through hundreds of life situations over weeks and months, and you can see how it is possible, with enough rehearsal, to permanently change those old thoughts and feelings and to experience the happiness, hopefulness, and calm that you may desire. Give it a try and stick with it!