Man Cleaning Glasses

Through a Glass Darkly

Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.  — P. J. O’Rourke

I was in my freshman or sophomore year of college — it is all just a blur, now — when I got my first pair of eyeglasses.  I had been sitting in a large, lecture-style class when I noticed that I could not make out the words that the professor was writing on the chalkboard in the front of the room.  My peers were not having the same difficulty.  I tried sitting in a number of different seats, hoping that a change in lighting or in my distance from the front of the room would help, but nothing made much of a difference.  The course was one in music history and appreciation, and for a couple of weeks, I was playing my own game of musical chairs!   When it was clear that moving around the room, developing a French-Stewart squint, wasn’t helping me decipher the writing on the chalkboard, off I went to see an optometrist.

Because I knew that both of my parents had gotten glasses as children, I was not surprised by the idea that it might finally be “my time”; truthfully, however, I had been hoping that I had escaped any genetic predisposition to need corrective eyewear, and had even managed to pride myself on getting through my childhood and teenage-years without the slightest indication of trouble with my vision (as if I had something to do with it!).  As much as getting glasses was a blow to my pride, though, wearing them was a greater blow to my vanity; I did not see myself as one of those people so easily able to pull off the look that we would later call “geeky chic.”  Worst of all, perhaps, was that I had not yet matured out of exceptionally oily adolescent skin, and I was always navigating the world, then,  through lenses that were covered with smudges.

Given my own experience with eyeglasses, I have often found the image of eyeglasses helpful in explaining the idea that, as human beings, each of us views our world through a specific set of lenses.  These lenses are comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have developed over time out of our individual experiences, and in the context of constructing meanings of those experiences in our conversations and relationships with other people.  I think of everyone as wearing a pair of invisible eyeglasses (glasses of perception) all of the time.  Some of the lenses in these invisible glasses (such as the lenses I had in college, covered with smudges) limit our vision, restrict what we’re able to see, and so reduce the range of ways in which we’re able to show up in our lives; other lenses (think of those that are clean and clear) augment or otherwise expand our vision, help us to see more of what is possible, and support our focus on whatever we decide matters most to us in our lives — by opening up options of conscious emotional and behavioral response to situations that we encounter.  Please understand that I am not proposing the notion that we can have direct, unmediated (godlike?) access to the “reality” of things (which could be one interpretation of having glasses of perception with crystal clear lenses), or even that we judge the “dirty” set of lenses as “bad” and the “clean” set as “good.”  I am suggesting that the clear or unsmudged set of lenses (having thoughts and beliefs that help us rather than hold us back) offers us increased opportunities to perceive a wider range of possibilities for feeling and responding in any given circumstance, and so the freedom to pick which feelings and behavior we think will work best, or how we want to show up as we move in the direction that we want to go.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are seated in a crowded cafe and think that you may see a friend at a table across the room.  You are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with smudged lenses (or regular sunglasses with smudged lenses, perhaps, if you do not wear prescription eyewear).  You can’t see very clearly with dirty lenses, and feel less certain, less confident, as a result.  You mutter under your breath, a bit perplexed and disgruntled, “Now, is that Susie over there?”  You respond tentatively, even anxiously — finally deciding that because you can’t really tell if that woman is Susie or not, you are not going to approach her, call out, or wave (the cafe is pretty casual!).

If, on the other hand, you are wearing a pair of glasses with clean lenses, you will likely feel less anxious in this same situation, saying to yourself, “Hey, that’s my friend, Susie, across the room there!”  You will move with greater confidence, deciding to get up from your own table to pay her a visit, perhaps, or to call out to her — waving, and smiling widely — “‘Hey, Susie!  Over here!’”

Now, most of us, I venture, prefer the vision of clear, confident energy in the second of these two responses (we can call this energy “anabolic” since we so often experience variations of it as “building us up”); however, if we have gotten accustomed over the course of time to looking through dirty lenses in our invisible glasses, we might not even realize how profoundly these lenses — the often unconscious thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, those people around us, others, and the world — are dimming our view, and so our experience of our life, with a very different energy (i.e., “catabolic” — contracting, and draining since it “breaks us down”)!  In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider talks about examples of what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as falling into four main categories: limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and “gremlins” (with “gremlin” being one way to reference what we also often call our inner critic).

Sometimes, as happens in the story that Schneider tells, it helps to examine our lenses with the support of someone who wants us to be able to see all the possibilities for thought, feeling, and action that are available to us, so that we can pick which among these will help us move in the direction that we want to go — with a sense of calm and confidence.  In the weeks that follow, I’ll be addressing each of these four obstacles to our experience of anabolic energy one at a time as topics for this blog.  I’ll be offering further definitions and examples, explaining the ways in which I find these ideas relating to the kinds of anxious thinking identified in cognitive-behavioral approaches to therapy, and exploring ideas for how we can respond when we notice ourselves feeling out-of-focus, have the sense that the vision we want for ourselves is blurred — not on account of myopia or astigmatism — but because of smudges of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs on the lenses of our perceptions.

To your calm and confidence!

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.

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