If there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting my self-discovery journey, it’s that my brain is a complete and total asshole. Sure, it’s pretty good at keeping me alive (all brains are, or else the human species would have killed itself off by now), but in no way is my brain equipped to keep me happy… and your brain probably isn’t either.
It’s not your brain’s fault. It’s probably a very nice brain, as far as brains go. It’s just that most of the ways your brain tries to help out often lead to negative thinking (and negative feelings), because unfortunately:
- Your brain evolved to identify and focus on threats (which self-help gurus would now call focusing on the negative)
- To conserve energy, your brain uses mental shortcuts (what psychologists call heuristics) to make quick decisions, commonly leading to distorted thinking and mistaken assumptions
To develop emotional resiliency (and ultimately lead a happier life), you need to understand how your brain works so you can harness its powers for good and not for evil:
- Your brain doesn’t see reality.
- Your brain thinks it’s being a helpful problem-solver when it’s really just being a pain in the ass.
- Your brain is cruel, especially to you.
- Your brain can’t tell the difference between your opinions and facts.
- Also, your brain tends to only notice and remember things that support opinions it already has in place.
Yeesh. And we like to think we’re so logical.
1. Your brain doesn’t see reality.
Your brain likes to view things as entirely one way or another (generally good or bad), with nothing in between. This black-and-white thinking is a comfortable space for your brain, because it doesn’t have to expend too much energy navigating those scary gray waters in which reality actually exists.
The problem with black-and-white thinking is that it doesn’t leave much wiggle room for real life. The real world doesn’t fall into neat categories. If you view the world as entirely one way or another, you’re going to make yourself miserable because you’re never going to fall in the “good” category 100% of the time. You’re also bound to make mistakes occasionally–we all do, it’s the human condition, and black-and-white thinking leaves no room for “I made a mistake and that’s ok.”
For example, if you view “being a good parent” and “focusing on your career” as diametrically opposed (which many people–especially women–do), you’re always going to struggle with feeling like you’re doing well in both. Anytime you take time off work to focus on your children, you’ll feel guilty about not giving work 100% of your attention, and anytime you work late, you’ll feel guilty about not being there for your kids. It’s a lose / lose situation, unless you completely sacrifice one end of the spectrum for the other.
Here’s an example that’s closer to home for me: minoring in public affairs at a major left-leaning university, my professors indoctrinated in me the belief that if you’re not actively working towards being part of the solution to a problem (as in “employed and paid to be part of the solution”), you’re actually part of the problem. This is obviously a HUGELY absolutist statement which I can recognize as probably being untrue because that’s not how the real world works. (But when did liberals ever worry about the real world, amiright? HEY-O, get your liberal living in Texas jokes here!)
More seriously, though, as someone who pursued a white collar career partly for financial reasons, I daily struggle with the guilt of “being part of the problem” and not “part of the solution.”
So what should you do about seeing things in black-and-white?
Ultimately, you need to get more comfortable with uncertainty. Black-and-white thinking is just your brain’s way of trying to fit a messy world into neat boxes so it can pretend that everything is ok without expending too much effort in doing so.
First, recognize when your brain isn’t acknowledging the messiness of reality. Monitor your thought processes for absolute statements and black-and-white thinking. Instead of viewing parenting and your career as diametrically opposed, view your career as supporting your ability to provide for your children and give your focus to whichever situation needs you the most at the time. Trust yourself to prioritize between work and home life when you need to.
You may even want to explore the world of logical paradoxes, which often make Westerners uncomfortable but which have been a staple in Buddhist and Asian thought for thousands of years. By helping your brain accept when two contradictory statements are both true, you can begin to move away from black-and-white thinking. Plus, it’s just a mind-fuck that can be kind of fun if you let it.
For me, this means that I have started to acknowledge when my own beliefs about life are contradictory:
- It is important to me to feel as though I’m part of the solution and not part of the problem, BUT
- It is also important to me to be financially secure so I can take care of myself and possibly my family in the future.
2. Your brain thinks it’s being a helpful problem-solver when it’s really just being a pain in the ass.
Your brain “enjoys” problem-solving. It’s what brains are supposed to do, so if something isn’t perfect, your brain thinks there must be a way to solve the problem and will spend a lot of time and energy trying to do so. Most modern-day problems don’t have neat solutions, though, so you ultimately just keep cycling through the problem.
Psychologists call this rumination. (More women than men tend to be ruminaters, by the way.) If you ever find yourself awake in the middle of the night cycling through the same thoughts about a situation with no ultimate resolution, that’s your brain trying (and failing) to work through a problem.
I definitely fall into the ruminator camp if I let myself. Here’s an example of a thought process I still occasionally cycle through, despite my best efforts (color-coded so you can see where it starts to charmingly repeat):
- I always wanted to have a job that helps people HOWEVER…
- I tried to work in the nonprofit sector and didn’t enjoy it, so now I have a corporate job AND…
- My job is not helping people THEREFORE…
- I should quit my job, because I always wanted to have a job that helps people HOWEVER…
- I tried to work in the nonprofit sector and didn’t enjoy it, and now I have a corporate job AND…
Etc. etc. etc. It’s exhausting.
You may even combine rumination with what psychologists call forecasting (predicting events will turn out badly) or even catastrophizing (blowing expected consequences out of proportion in a negative direction), in which case you might lie awake in bed and agonize about how your present choices will ultimately lead to WWIII. Or is that just me?
So what should you do about rumination and forecasting?
Set it aside.
Believe me, I KNOW this is so much harder to do than to say. But you have to get yourself to the point where you can recognize when rumination is happening and deliberately put it away. For me, that means asking myself, “Am I able to do anything about this right now?” or “Is the current situation (not my imagined future situation) bad enough for me to do anything about it right now?” Generally, the answer is no, so I have had to develop trust in “future Lindsay” that she will deal with the issue when she needs to in the future… which is not today. So I set it aside.
3. Your brain is cruel, especially to you.
Does this sound familiar to you?
Yep. Me too.
Our brains looooove to judge and label things and people, generally negatively. Again, it’s easier for your brain to assign a label to yourself (or others) rather than acknowledging that people are complex and multi-dimensional. Labels generally lead to blame (often self-blame), because we find comfort in the idea that things happen for a reason, even if the reason is that we brought it on ourselves. We would rather think that we’re bad people instead of acknowledging the world is unpredictable and things may happen for no reason.
I struggle with this BIG TIME. A recurring thought for me when I’m in a tough situation is, “You made the choices that brought you here. You don’t have anyone but yourself to blame.” On the one hand, I’m glad I don’t try to blame others for my own mistakes, but on the other hand, blame tends to lead to shame, which research has shown doesn’t lead to constructive action or course correction.
So what should you do to fight judging, labeling and self-blame?
Be kind to yourself (or to others, if you’re assigning labels and blame to others). Acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can and that not everything that happens to you is your fault. Work to develop loving-kindness for yourself.
Also cue in to your use of terminology around the way you think things “should” be–words like should have, must, and should not have can let you know when you’re starting to tip into the judgment zone.
4. Your brain can’t tell the difference between your own opinions and facts.
Part of those heuristics mentioned earlier is your brain’s tendency to assume that if it believes something is true, it is. This may come in the form of believing feelings are facts. For example, if you don’t have plans on a Saturday night and you feel lonely, you might assume it’s because no one likes you.
So what should you do about believing feelings are facts?
Recognize that your feelings are just feelings, and they don’t reflect the world as it actually exists. Instead, recognize that your feelings are your mind and body’s response to the world around you, and try to dig into the cause of your feelings. Ask yourself why you’re feeling a certain way and what evidence actually supports that feeling. Only once you know the true cause of your feelings can you start to remedy the situation.
5. Also, your brain tends to only notice and remember things that support opinions it already has in place.
It’s called confirmation bias, yo. Look that shiz up.
Seriously, though, it’s a real thing. As discussed earlier, our brains are lazy AF and don’t want to have to change their understanding about things they already believe. So much work! Wouldn’t you rather just torture the facts to fit a model you’re already comfortable with?
I first learned about confirmation bias in a Logic and Reasoning class I took in college, so I always associated it with critical thinking about the world around me. If you have a negative mindset about yourself and your life, however, your confirmation bias will work against you.
Discounting and Filtering
If you think only negative things happen to you, your brain will reject all positive experiences you have that don’t fit into your understanding of yourself, writing them off as not being important or meaningful. Psychologists call this discounting. You may reject compliments because you think the person doesn’t know enough about the situation for their words to be meaningful. Or you may think there’s so much evidence to to the contrary that the one positive thing in your life doesn’t actually outweigh the negative.
For example, I work in IT and was told years ago that I was “nontechnical”–which is true. If you need someone to fix your AV equipment, that’s not going to be me. I think technology should be seen and not heard, and I think it should work and not need trouble-shooting. But if you need someone to help you plan a system implementation, or if you need someone to make a kickass spreadsheet and metrics dashboard, I’m your girl.
Unfortunately, I took a neutral observation about my interests and I deeply internalized it, agonizing about whether or not I was respected in the department–despite years of evidence to the contrary in the form of opportunities being offered to me, positive annual reviews, and promotions. Somehow I thought none of the positive feedback “mattered.”
Then, a couple of months ago, I was offered a role as a project manager (my dream job, but one that generally requires at least some degree of technical understanding) and I was agonizing to a director in my department about whether to accept the position and how to address my technical weaknesses. Finally, the director said, “Look, it’s obviously a nonissue because you were offered the job. Stop talking about it, and don’t bring it up again.”
The only person who had been seriously concerned about that label had been me. I had been so convinced it was a problem that I spent a ton of mental energy looking for a solution–even though no one else even thought it was a problem. I took the job, by the way. It’s pretty awesome. 🙂
You may even go one step beyond discounting and completely ignore anything that doesn’t fit into your model of the universe. This is more difficult to deal with because you probably won’t even “hear” the statements you’re filtering out and just make decisions on the evidence you accept. Example: someone tells a friend of mine that a dress looks good on me–I mean, her–because it accentuates my–er, her–curves, and she decides on the spot to never wear the dress again because she interprets “accentuating curves” to mean, “your fat rolls are showing.” Sigh.
So what should you do about discounting and filtering?
Train yourself to recognize the positive. Recruit people in your life whom you trust to gently point out when you’re being ridiculous. You may even want to make a list of all of the positive evidence and all of the negative evidence around a situation.
You should also just practice acknowledging when positive things happen to you. Research has proven that those who view themselves as lucky (vs. unlucky) actually generate good fortune for themselves because they are more likely to spot opportunities to confirm their own bias. Why not put that confirmation bias to good use, if it’s going to happen anyway? 🙂
Thank you for reading this post. If I had to give anyone advice on this stuff based on my own experiences, it would be:
- Learn to separate your brain’s thought processes from “yourself” so you can recognize when your brain’s habits are not being helpful.
- Trust yourself to prioritize and deal with shit appropriately, both in the present and the future, so you can worry about it less.
- Be kind to yourself. You’re doing the best you can, and you deserve to have nice things said to you by you.
As always, if you suspect that you might be suffering from depression, please please please seek help. Part of being kind to yourself is acknowledging that you don’t know everything there is to know and being able to ask for help from those who might know more. In the immortal words of High School Musical, “we’re all in this together,” and you are absolutely vital to this world. Please treat yourself accordingly. – Lindsay
- Heuristics Revealed. Herbert, Wray. Observer. October 1 , 2010.
- Negative Thoughts Trigger Negative Feelings. Exercise XIB.
- Beyond True and False: The Logic of Buddhist Philosophy. Priest, Graham. Aeon. May 5, 2014
- Probing the depression-rumination cycle. Law, Bridget Murray. Monitor. Nov 2005.
- Be lucky -it’s an easy skill skill to learn. Wiseman, Richard. The Telegraph. January 1, 2003.