Source: Jastrow, J. (1899). The mind's eye. Popular Science Monthly, 54, 299-312.

What Do You Choose To See?

What do you see when you look at the featured image for today’s post?  A duck?  A rabbit?  Both?  If you see the image as one of these options — a duck, let’s say — are the other ways in which you could see the image — as a rabbit, or as both a duck and rabbit — somehow “not true”?  If multiple ways of seeing the imagine are possible, which one of them do you prefer?  Which one works better for you, in a manner of speaking?

While these kinds of questions may seem a bit silly when we’re talking about an image (“Do I see a duck, a rabbit, or both … what does it matter?”), the thought that I want to offer in posing them is that such considerations actually have significant implications in the context of our day-to-day lives.  In my own experience, what I choose to see in myself and the world around me, including other people — what they say, and what they do — has a profound influence on the ways in which I’m able to respond and interact; seeing multiple possibilities for meaning gives me a wider range of possible responses, more flexible interactions.

Imagine, for instance, that I am standing at the counter in a coffee shop placing my order and paying for my purchase.  The cashier doesn’t smile, greet me, inquire how my day is going, or thank me for my business.  I could, in this situation, see the cashier as “rude” and feel slighted, or succumb to my anxious thinking in the form of self-doubt, and worry that I have done something wrong.  With these interpretations as context, I might snap at the cashier for being “rude,” or keep my mouth shut and leave the coffee shop disgruntled, either way muttering under my breath as I stride out the door, vowing never to order from that person again.  I might feel embarrassed, thinking that I did something to offend the cashier, and accuse myself yet again of being a “loser” in social situations as I shuffle back to my car, berating myself.

Alternatively, I could see the cashier as not having been as courteous to me as I would have liked.  Perhaps the cashier is feeling unusually stressed, or distracted by her own worries.  If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I just don’t know what is going on for her.  Even if I did know the cashier’s story, I wouldn’t know — without asking, anyway — how the cashier would explain her own sense of her behavior in this moment.  If I could allow myself to see the cashier’s behavior as something less offensive to me than “rude,” I might wish her well — regardless of my discontent — and decide to address the issue of unsatisfyingly perfunctory service if I experience it again.

From my own perspective, one of these ways of seeing this experience at the coffee shop works better for me than the others.  If I give myself the opportunity to choose the option of softening my gaze — not looking so harshly, or even looking kindly, on the cashier and myself — I will leave the coffee shop in a better mood, feeling good about myself and how I have responded, with a sense of calm and confidence, happier all around — with my whole world!  While I will be aware of my disappointment in the cashier’s behavior, in the service that I received from her, I will not be consumed by the gap between this experience and the expectations that I had for the interaction, or by a negative way of seeing the cashier, her behavior, or myself that foments feelings of anger, indignation, resentment, or anxiety.

There is always more than one way to look at things.  In any given situation, we can choose to see in the way that works best for us, given the kind of experience that we want to have, how we want to live our lives, the type of person that we want to be, and more.

In your life, who or what are you seeing in ways that don’t work for you?  What would a different way of seeing be? If you saw differently, what would the benefits be?  What would support you in making this shift in perception?  Why are you waiting?

For more ideas about anxious thinking, and how we can respond in ways that help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence in our lives, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP, at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Thought Tonic via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed.  Thank you for reading!

Image credit: derejeb / 123RF Stock Photo

Feeling Blue (or Anxious)? Want Some Glee? What Makes the Difference?

A couple of weeks ago, as I was doing chores around the house, I decided to turn on the television.  While I wasn’t sitting down to watch a program, I did want something on the TV “in the background” that I would enjoy tuning into now and then, and there wasn’t anything in the regularly scheduled line-up that was appealing to me.  I scanned the selection of previously-aired shows that my cable provider makes available on-demand and free-of-extra-charge, and chose an episode of Glee.  The title of the episode, I noticed, was “Guilty Pleasures” — entirely appropriate, I thought, feeling a bit sheepish (and anxious!) all of a sudden that I had picked this particular show.

In this episode, Mr. Schue is out with the flu; in his absence, Blaine and Sam come up with an assignment for the glee club – to sing songs that are “guilty pleasures.”  “We all have some musical shame,” Blaine contends, as he works to sell the idea to others in the group, “You know, that secret love we dare not speak, but when it comes on the radio, we can’t help but turn up the volume and sing along!”  With “Wake Me Up before You Go-Go” playing in the background, then, I folded laundry on the coffee table, and found myself musing, once again, over the notion for a blog post that I had been entertaining for a while, but had not yet been able to bring myself to write.  I had a song that I wanted to use to illustrate an idea about the kind of relationships and conversations that make a difference for us when we’re feeling stuck, but wasn’t sure how to do so without admitting to a “guilty pleasure” of precisely the kind that Blaine had just defined in Glee.  Me, the guy who can’t get from my front door to the mailbox in icy winter weather without limbs-flailing incidents of losing my footing every two steps – that’s just how coordinated I am (The Wild and Precious Present, 2013) – has long loved grooving to the beat of electronic dance music.  One of my favorite songs in this genre is the 1999 debut single, “Blue,” from Europop, the first album by the Italian Eurodance group, Eiffel 65.

In “Blue,” we hear that an unnamed “little guy” — whom I will also call Blue — “lives in a blue world”; everything that he sees around him, all the time (“all day and all night”), is blue – his house (“blue … with a blue little window”), his car, the street, the trees.  Even his girlfriend and “the people … that walk around” are blue.  That Blue perceives, or interprets, the world as blue seems to explain his experience and the description of it as such – “everything is blue for him” (emphasis added), the narrator tell us.  In addition, this monochromatic view of the world seems related to how Blue sees/experiences himself, as “everything he sees is just blue, like him” (emphasis added).

While there is a sense of correlation, then, between Blue’s view or interpretation of the world, and how he sees or experiences himself, the narrator goes one step further, I think, as he contextualizes Blue’s plaint, and offers us a kind of cautionary tale in the process (“Yo, listen up, here’s a story … “).  He suggests that Blue’s current relationships, and the kinds of conversations they presently engender and support, do nothing to expand (and so, effectively, sustain) the “blue little window” through which Blue sees/interprets/experiences “his self” and “everybody around.”  After all, even with a girlfriend and others in his midst, Blue “ain’t got nobody to listen (to listen, to listen).”  The echo of the words “to listen” in this portion of the song creates just enough ambiguity — “to listen” almost becomes “to listen to” – to suggest to me that Blue may not only need somebody “to listen” (to him, and to his story), but also somebody to whom he can listen (“listen to”), for his experience to be any different, any less hue-restricted and mood-restrictive.

How could having someone “to listen” and “to listen to” make a difference for Blue?  While various characters in the “Guilty Pleasures” episode of Glee voice the view that relief comes from opening up to others about what we have kept to ourselves (As Blaine says to Sam about being a fan of Barry Manilow, “Once you stop hiding it, you’ll feel so much better!”), I’m going to propose that change comes more specifically from the experience of a certain kind of relationship and conversation in our lives.  In this kind of relationship and conversation, we have someone “to listen” to us, and so, the chance to feel heard, to experience a sense of empathy and validation, and we have the opportunity “to listen to” how someone else processes our experience, to entertain other ways of seeing/interpreting, talking about, and responding to it that may be helpful to us.  The word “conversation” comes from the Latin, “turning about with,” a phrase that describes my own sense of what happens in certain kinds of relationships and conversations – a “turning about [of an experience] with [another]” that helps us see the experience differently, often in terms of other parts or dimensions, or – we could say – colors.  Some relationships and conversations help us see things in a polychromatic versus monochromatic fashion, and this shift in perspective and interpretation opens up a wider range of possible emotional and behavioral responses for us.  We feel less stuck!

In Glee, Blaine’s ultimate “guilty pleasure” – that one thing that Blaine is so ashamed of liking that he refuses to admit it for a long while – is not Wham! but his “bestie,” Sam.  Blaine feels so anxious about how Sam might respond to learning about his crush, so worried about freaking Sam out or jeopardizing their friendship, that he can’t bring himself to talk to Sam about what he’s feeling, despite invitation after invitation by Sam to do so.  When Blaine does allow himself to be vulnerable, he discovers that Sam is not weirded out at all by his feelings; Sam says that he is flattered by the attention, and would feel a bit put out, in fact, if Blaine did not like him!  In this conversation, Sam shares perspectives – that Blaine’s crush on him is no big deal, not a threat to their friendship, etc. – that Blaine was just not able to imagine before.  His own fear, his sense of shame, colored his perspective on his feelings in a limiting way.  Sam introduced Blaine to different meanings for those feelings.

The kind of relationship and conversation with Sam that made a difference for Blaine, that could make a difference for Blue and for us, when we’re feeling stuck (whether “blue,” or anxious), is not an experience that we can have only with others – we can also have it with ourselves.  How does the relationship that you have with yourself support you?  How do the conversations that you have with yourself in your own head limit or expand your sense of possibilities?

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

Taste the Rainbow

Challenging Interpretations? Think the Rainbow!

In a previous blog post, Through a Glass Darkly (2013), I proposed that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others — they restrict, rather than expand, our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these particular thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic/negative energy, which breaks us down, rather than anabolic/positive energy, which builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider writes about catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us reaching our potential (129); he identifies four of these obstacles, and calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic). In past blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefs and assumptions; today, we explore interpretations.

If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine.Diana Wynne Jones

Schneider defines an interpretation as an opinion that we create to explain an experience that we have had (137). For an example, he refers back to the scenario that he used to illustrate assumptions, in which he has asked a woman on a date, and she has declined: he interprets her “no” as meaning that he does not dress well enough (138). Cue Sharp Dressed Man from ZZ Top’s 1983 album, Eliminator! If he decides to act on his interpretation, Schneider may spend money on a new wardrobe, which — if his own idea about why the woman has declined a date with him does not reflect the reasons that she herself might cite — could constitute “‘marching off in the wrong direction’” (138), and even set himself up for frustration when she still says “no” as he stands before her in a new (and expensive!) Armani suit. When we allow ourselves to believe that our interpretation is the only possible explanation for what we have experienced, we close ourselves off from other options that may be very helpful for us to consider. Personally, I think of every experience in our lives as generating the “enormous rainbow” of possible interpretations that the late British children’s fantasy writer, Diana Wynne Jones, associated with myth and folklore. I view interpretations as stories that we tell ourselves to help us make sense out of our experiences and the world around us; others may sometimes agree that these stories are “true,” but even this social construction of a certain “validity” does not make interpretations facts.

There are no facts, only interpretations.Friedrich Nietzsche

There are ways for us to challenge interpretive “energy blocks,” of course, and the approaches will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns that are often referred to as mind reading and personalization. The first step, I contend, is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think as “true,” that our ideas about what we experience are not facts (whatever those are), but beliefs based on what we see through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear. When we catch ourselves making an interpretation, then, we can ask ourselves, very simply, as Schneider suggests, “‘What’s another way to look at that?’” (140). Just posing this question to ourselves can defuse the power of our own particular perspective, and diminish what — borrowing from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie — we can call “the danger of a single story”; we acknowledge that other (and potentially more helpful!) meanings are possible. We may even decide to go a step further, and ask another person, whether or not that person is involved, about his or her interpretation of an experience. Or, we can play around with challenging ourselves to argue what we would identify as the exact opposite of our first interpretation. There is a rainbow of possibilities!

I have proposed in previous posts, and will do so again in this one, that we actually give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, with greater balance (which helps foster calm and confidence!), when we challenge our often all-too-automatic anxious thinking. If, after exploring other possible meanings of an experience, we decide that we want to stick with our original interpretation, we can do so, and then shift into conscious consideration of how we want to respond. In the process of responding consciously to any interpretation we have, I suggest that we remember how long we have been looking through the particular set of lenses that supports this interpretation; initially, we may find ourselves still tending to perceive (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. In my own experience, interpretations can be at least as emotionally charged as the assumptions that we explored in the last post, and so also difficult for us to let go. Just imagine a history for Schneider, in his dating scenario, in which he grew up poor and was teased as a child for not having the popular clothes that so many of his peers were wearing! To help us loosen our grip on a “stubborn” interpretation, I suggest echoing the approach that Schneider recommends for responding to assumptions — validating our perspective as absolutely “normal” given what we have experienced previously, and how we have learned to think about those experiences (136). How else could we think — until we challenge ourselves to think differently?

“Experience the Rainbow!” — Skittles

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to notice when you are making interpretations, creating opinions to explain your experiences (I think of human beings as meaning-making creatures — we engage in this activity all the time!). Your boss may come into work and head straight to her office without saying “Good morning!” to you, shutting the door hard behind her. You think that she must be angry with you, though you don’t know why she would be; you steer clear of her for the rest of the morning, trying to figure out what you did to upset her, instead of talking to her about the assignment she gave you, and which you have finished — early! You may be feeling nervous about how a classmate is looking at you as you give a presentation, wondering what he is criticizing about you, or about what you’re doing, as he watches. Consider whether or not such interpretations of your experiences are helpful to you, whether they resonate with catabolic energy, that distracts and drains you, or anabolic energy, that supports you in moving in the direction that you want to go. What are other ways of looking at these experiences? Perhaps your boss has had a tough morning with a sick child, or is grouchy about spilling coffee on herself in the Starbucks drive-through (her mood may have nothing to do with you!). Maybe that classmate is thinking how nervous he is, imagining that you might be feeling similarly, and admiring how you are forging right along in your presentation. The key, I think, to challenging interpretations, is in a variation on the Skittles candy ad campaign — “Experience the Rainbow! Taste the Rainbow!” Your interpretation is only one possible color of meaning for the experience that you have had. Think the Rainbow!

Featured image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skittles-Candies-Pile.jpg

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

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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