Category: Perception

Looking to live your life with greater calm, courage, and confidence? Get ideas to help from posts related to perception in The Thought Tonic Blog.

Are You "Shoulding" on Yourself?

Are You “Shoulding” on Yourself?

Many of us may be familiar with the idea of “shoulding” on ourselves as telling ourselves that we have an obligation to do something different than what we’re doing. When we “should” on ourselves in this way, we often end up feeling guilty, but this sense of guilt doesn’t necessarily help us; frequently, in fact, it creates even more of a problem. We begin to feel bad about ourselves (i.e., our guilt morphs into shame); rather than feeling more motivated, then, we feel more hopeless. Today, I’m introducing what I think of as a variation of this problematic “should-y” thinking. In this variation, we get in our own way of reaching goals not because we tell ourselves that we have an obligation to do something different than what we’re doing, but because we tell ourselves that we have an obligation to do exactly what we’re doing — even when what we’re doing isn’t working.

“All Roads Lead to Rome”

A week or so ago, I went running one morning after we had had stormy weather the evening before. On my run, I encountered a couple of downed trees across the trail I usually take. The first tree didn’t give me much trouble — I could just high step over the trunk in order to pass. The second tree was significantly larger, and posed more of an obstacle. I ended up having to duck under the trunk and then sidling through an opening in the branches to continue along my way.

On my return trip — I had run up the trail a couple of miles, and then doubled-back — I found a work crew on the scene of the larger fallen tree. The two crew members were starting the process of sawing the tree into smaller pieces for removal. One worker was standing in the opening that I had passed through previously, lopping off branches with a power-saw. As I approached, the other worker spotted me and caught her companion’s attention. The worker with the saw looked up, noticed me, turned off the saw, and stepped to the side to let me pass. As I ducked under the trunk and slid past, he said something that he might have been instructed to declare to anyone in my position, or maybe he was trying to be funny: “You’re proceeding at your own risk!” Because I wasn’t sure how to take this statement, I tried to be humorous in my own response. I shrugged my shoulders, and replied in a tone of comically over-dramatic resignation, “I came this way — there’s no other way for me to get back!” In hindsight, I’m not sure that my response was very funny, but my intent must have clear enough, or was funny in itself, because the other worker laughed; of course, she might have been laughing at the other worker!

As I continued my run, I found myself reflecting on the reply I had given the worker with the saw. I started by wondering why, in that moment, I thought I had to be funny, and even if I had been funny, but I ended up focusing on how inaccurate my statement had been: “I came this way — there’s no other way for me to get back!” Had I not been able to return the way that I had come up the trail, I surely could have found an alternate route to get back. I would have had to backtrack my steps a bit, but there were other places to get on and off the trail through neighborhoods that connected to streets I could follow back home. The way would have been much less straightforward, and I would have experienced it — at least initially — as frustratingly more inconvenient, but I would have ended up at my house all the same. I did not have to go back the way I came.

An idiom I’d heard before came to mind: “All roads lead to Rome.” I understand this idiom as referencing the days of the Roman Empire when so many roads radiated from the capital city that it didn’t really matter which one a person took to get there — any road would do! Nowadays, we tend to use this phrase to mean that many routes can lead to the same result. This idea is one that marriage and family therapists (like me) often learn when we’re studying systems theory: equifinality.

Feeling Stuck? Think “Equifinality”!

In my work as a therapist, counselor, coach, and supervisor, I frequently hear people talk about feeling stymied when the plans they have made don’t pan out. Because they have had in their heads that they have to take a certain route to get where they want to go, they sometimes feel stumped and discouraged when things don’t go as planned, or as things “should,” and the path they expected to take is blocked. When they encounter obstacles that they just can’t seem to get past, they can end up feeling stuck, unable to move forward.

I’ve had this experience myself — when writing, for example. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve worked myself into a state of frustrated paralysis because I’ve been struggling with the introduction or initial paragraph of a paper or a blog post until I stop to think, “Who says that I need to write the introduction or the initial paragraph first?” Once I have prompted myself to remember what my goal really is — to write a paper or blog post, and not to write a paper or blog post in a particular order (since the order in which I write the piece is ultimately inconsequential!) — I have been able to get myself unstuck and moving forward again.

In these kinds of situations, the block that I experience is a product of my own limited thinking about how I “should” do whatever I’m doing, how things are “supposed” to happen. I fall into the trap of thinking that there is a certain way, even just one way, to meet my goal. Many of us may be familiar with the idea of “shoulding” on ourselves as telling ourselves that we have an obligation to do something different than what we’re doing. We could identify what I’ve described as a variation of this thinking. In this variation, we don’t get in our own way of reaching our goals because we’re telling ourselves that we have an obligation to do something different than what we’re doing; instead, we get in or own way because we’re telling ourselves that we have an obligation to do exactly what we’re doing — even when what we’re doing isn’t working. If the way that we’re trying to do something isn’t working, let’s try another way! There’s more than one road to Rome!

Are You “Shoulding” on Yourself?

What are the ways in which you find yourself stuck by this kind of “shoulding” on yourself? What helps you get yourself unstuck, and moving forward again?


Featured image: Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

An earlier rendition of this post appeared in a previous version of The Thought Tonic Blog.

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Anxiety in Slow Motion

One Moment: Anxiety in Slow Motion

“And this will be/The one moment that matters.” — OK Go, “The One Moment”

One of the most disorienting aspects of anxious moments is the way our thoughts and physical sensations can race ahead of us.  In these instances, we typically can’t quite catch up to our minds and bodies long enough to make sense of what we’re experiencing, which only serves to add to our already heightened feelings of worry and distress.  Frustratingly, while everything is moving quickly on the inside, we often simultaneously find ourselves paralyzed on the outside.

A powerful strategy for overcoming anxiety consists of learning to play back these internal hyperspeed moments in slow motion.  We’ll look at how to do this, but first let’s examine why this is so effective.  For an illustration, we turn to a brilliant music video by the always inventive band, OK Go.    

In their video, “The One Moment,” OK Go takes 4.2 seconds of footage and extends it in slow motion across the length of their song, which lasts nearly 4 minutes.  When you first watch those 4.2 seconds in real-time, it’s almost impossible to make sense of what you’re looking at.  It’s a head-spinning, chaotic blur of colors and explosions.  But when you see the same moment slowed down, you begin to experience wide-eyed awe and wonder at every detail as it unfolds gracefully in time with the music.  

Take a minute, watch it right now.   Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

At the end of the video, the same 4.2 seconds plays again, in reverse.  When you see this “one moment” the second time around, suddenly it begins to make more sense.  You can now pick out and appreciate individual elements (like bursting water balloons, shattering glass, and exploding guitars) to an extent you couldn’t before.  

The same thing can happen for us after we’ve practiced putting our moments of anxiety into slow motion: we can begin to make better sense of all the fast moving pieces in ways that shift our entire experience and empower us to generate new responses.

Back to the question of “How?”  Just as we can only put a moment caught on video tape into slow motion after the fact, we can only put anxiety into slow motion retroactively.  In a calm, quiet moment, we can return to a recent experience of anxiety and review each detail of what happened, effectively slowing it down before our very eyes.  

I created an easy format to help you practice this, you’ll find it here.   

Once we’ve replayed the details of one anxious moment in slow motion, we begin to find a new ability to attend to all kinds of aspects of our experience that might have moved too quickly for us to observe before.  The next time an anxious moment comes to visit, we are better prepared to pick out individual elements — even as they play out in real-time speed.

This gives us a new competitive edge in the games anxiety likes to play, because now we can more quickly make sense of what we’re experiencing.  We gain a greater sense of control and mastery amid the chaos when we can say, “Aha, I know what is happening here!”  As we feel more sure of ourselves, anxiety loses its grip on us.  Disoriented and powerless feelings move to the background, replaced by a growing confidence that enables us to step forward into new possibilities for calming our thoughts and feelings.  

Your most recent anxious moment can be the “one moment” that matters.  Go ahead, play it back in slow motion.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.    


Featured image credit: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

Enjoy the Holidays

Paint the Elephant: Daring to Enjoy the Holidays

“Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

A couple of months ago, I found myself painting an elephant.  It was one of those events with an instructor taking a sizable group of us through the intricacies of elephant portraiture stroke by stroke.  You can see the end result for yourself — this canvas will not be finding its way into any fine art galleries any time soon!

paint-the-elephant

But you know what?  I enjoyed the heck out of creating that ill-proportioned, awkward-looking behemoth.  I savored the feeling of the brush squishing in fresh paint and the whispering sound it made as it whooshed across the textured canvas.  I marveled at the colors I created on my paper plate pallet; the way such a tiny drop of white could shift the entire vibrancy of a hue.

Meanwhile, all around me, my table mates could be heard grunting and grumbling, with mounting frustration and discouragement.  Harsh self-judgments, embarrassment, comparison, and shame echoed all around.  I found myself feeling sorry for these disenchanted artists.  They were so busy holding themselves to lofty standards of elephant painting that they were missing out on all the joy I was relishing.  But I could well identify with their plight: how often have I found myself similarly criticizing my imperfect efforts when I could have been having fun with my shortcomings instead?

It was a moment that crystallized for me the importance of focusing on being present to the process over evaluating the outcome.  The difference between me and the grumblers wasn’t that I was a better painter or a more naturally cheerful person, it was simply that I had set a different focal point for my experience.  Being present to the process set me up for joy and wonder; focusing on the outcome set them up for frustration and disappointment.

The holidays are coming, and with them increased opportunities for grunting and grumbling.  Between social pressures and self-imposed expectations, we often hold unexamined, lofty goals that turn our attention toward evaluating outcomes.  Such an outcomes-over-process perspective sets us up for anxiously trying to avoid perceived failures and harshly criticizing ourselves when we fall short, both of which make it more difficult to relax and enjoy the (supposedly) “most wonderful time of the year.”

What might happen if we could apply the same principle that leads to joyful elephant painting to our holiday endeavors?  As you anticipate upcoming holiday plans, which ones are most likely to bring out anxious thoughts or self-critical feelings?  What are the outcomes on which you might tend to focus, distracting yourself from opportunities for finding joy?  Now take a moment to shift your focus to aspects surrounding the process of those activities that you are most likely to enjoy.  Imagine what it might be like to hold those life-giving elements of your experience in the forefront of your attention.  How might your experience shift as your focus shifts?

As Elizabeth Gilbert aptly stated, enjoying anything in life is often a courageous act that sets us apart.  When the expected stress of the season arises within and around us, “paint the elephant” can serve as a motto that redirects our thoughts and restores our sense of calm.

“Paint the elephant.”

Bring your attention to being present to the process instead of worrying about outcomes.

“Paint the elephant.”

Relish whatever goodness you can cling to in your experiences, even when they fall short of your hopes or expectations.

“Paint the elephant.”

Allow yourself to make mistakes, to get it wrong, and yet … to have a grand time anyway.


Featured image credit: RhondaK / Unsplash

Pacing Change

Sailing Into the Wind: Pacing Change

As a young child, I once darted away from my parents and gleefully jumped into the deep end of a pool.  I had done this many times before with my water wings on to keep me afloat, but this time was different: I jumped in bare armed with no inflated support to buoy me.  Fortunately, my folly was spotted quickly, and I was fished out of the water before I could quite comprehend what had happened.  In time, with support and swimming lessons, navigating the deep end on my own became second nature.

As adults, few of us would jump into the deep end of a pool if we hadn’t learned to swim, and yet we conceptualize change as requiring that we “take the plunge,” ready or not.  We often view change as an all or nothing prospect, requiring grand gestures that lead to dramatic results.  Once we are fed up with the way things have been, we can can trick ourselves into believing that the only way forward is to dive immediately headlong into everything different.

When we approach change this way, we unintentionally set ourselves up for frustration and self-doubt.  If we try to take on too much change too quickly, we may end up thrashing about haphazardly while gasping for air, like a child in the deep end of a pool.  Once we’ve experienced that kind of unpleasantness, it becomes a lot more appealing to sit by the side of the pool than to get back in it.  We start to tell ourselves that change is too scary, or that we don’t have what it takes, or that it’s not really going to be that great after all.

That’s why it can be helpful to think about making change a little bit at a time, like dipping toes into the shallow end.  Once we get a feel for the water, we are more comfortable wading in a little deeper, and a little deeper, and a little deeper.  Perhaps we can even find a trusted teacher or friend to model strokes for us.  If we take our time, not only are the changes we are making more enjoyable, but we might even take off swimming before we are fully aware that we’ve learned the motions.

You have probably heard that change is difficult and that we have a human tendency to resist anything new; yet, some schools of thought embrace change as a natural process and view people as inherently wired for transformation.  Solution-focused therapists, for instance, believe that change is “inevitable” and “always happening” (Gehart, p. 337).  Similarly, collaborative therapists observe that “we are never at a standstill; our meanings, our bodies, and so on are always in motion” (Anderson & Gehart, p. 11).  In other words, perhaps change is already in us, and all around us — not something “out there” that we have to “make happen.”  In fact, an underlying thread throughout postmodern methods of counseling is the notion that we are likely already living into the changes we wish to make to a greater degree than we realize.

A favorite metaphor of mine for change is sailing into the wind.  When sailboats are heading in the direction that the wind is blowing, they can move quickly and easily toward a destination.  But often a sailboat needs to move against the wind.  It seems impossible, doesn’t it?  Yet experienced sailors tackle this feat regularly.  How?  The practice is called “tacking upwind,” and you can watch a quick illustration of it here.

When a captain tacks the sailboat upwind, she moves the ship forward in a gradual zigzag pattern — back and forth, back and forth, a little bit closer to her endpoint with each turn.  Click here for a diagram.  If the captain were to attempt to sail directly upwind, she wouldn’t move an inch; she would be stuck.  Sailors have a name for this experience: “caught in irons.”

Whatever the change you are wanting in your life, it may help you to make your way forward one zig or zag at a time.  Be patient with yourself and with those around you.  Take a moment to notice and celebrate even the smallest steps you make; recognizing one experience of success, however small, lays the foundation for your next move.  If you have already found yourself floundering in the deep end, or “caught in irons,” that’s okay, too.  Step back, calmly take stock of your surroundings, and look for a gentle entry point to try again.  If you don’t see a way forward immediately, allow yourself to rest and come back to your goal in a few days.

Wherever you are at right now in the process of change, congratulate yourself for being brave enough to start the journey.  You have already begun to make a change, just by deciding where you would like to go.  Keep at it, no matter which way the wind may blow — the change you are seeking is already unfolding.


Featured image credit: aragami12345 / 123RF Stock Photo

A Phantom Menace

Assumptions: A Phantom Menace

“You assume too much.”


 — Nute to Amidala, and Padme to Qui-Gon, Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

In a previous blog post, “Through a Glass Darkly,” I proposed the notion that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses. The lenses in these glasses, which impact what we see, are composed of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. Some of theses thoughts and beliefs are helpful to us in that they have an anabolic or positive influence on our mood, energy, and actions — they expand what is possible for us. Others limit our view, and so our experiences of life — they resonate with catabolic or negative energy that can have distracting, draining, and even destructive effects on our sense of ourselves; our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health; our work lives; and our relationships. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider identifies what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as four kinds of “energy blocks” that prevent us from making conscious choices in our lives, and reaching our potential; he calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic) (129). In my last blog post, I explored limiting beliefs; today, I’m turning our attention to the next menace in the list — assumptions.

Schneider defines an assumption very specifically — as “a belief that, because something [has] happened in the past, it’s going to happen again” (134). To provide an example, Schneider references a scenario in which he has asked someone on a date, and that person has declined; he believes (assumes) that because this one person has said “no” that anyone else he may ask will also turn down his invitation. As a result, he may either decide not to try again (since he already “knows” what will happen), or to allow his expectations of “rejection” to affect the energy with which he asks the next person, potentially setting himself up in a kind of self-sabotage, then, for the very experience that he fears. When we permit our assumptions to determine what we decide to do in our lives, we let a past experience control what is possible for us in our present and future. With this idea in mind, I have come to think of an assumption as a ghost or phantom of a past “negative” experience that we allow to haunt us, to intimidate us out of taking positive action in our lives.

There are several ways for us to challenge any assumption that we make. These ways may sound very familiar to those who are already acquainted with cognitive-behavioral responses to kinds of anxious thinking like catastrophizing and probability overestimation — what are often called “cognitive distortions.” The first step, I suggest, is to remind ourselves that we do not have to believe everything that we think, that our beliefs are not facts, though we often proceed, of course, as if they do reflect a natural order of things (when we say to ourselves, for example, “That’s just how it is!”). When catching ourselves in the midst of making an assumption, then, we can ask, very simply, “‘Just because that happened in the past, why must it happen again?'” (136). In posing this question to ourselves, we open space to examine the evidence for the assumption that we have made, and to find evidence that contradicts it, that reminds us that other outcomes are possible. We actually give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, I contend, in being less unconsciously dominated by our anxious thinking. If, after we have examined the evidence, we decide that our assumption still has merit, we can then shift into strategies of response that echo those that are useful for countering catastrophic thinking. We can ask ourselves, “So what if that happens?” and “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?” In the process of responding consciously to an assumption, whatever tactic we take, we may want to keep in mind that we have been seeing through the particular set of lenses that supports this assumption for a long time, and we may still initially tend to see (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. Schneider notes that because assumptions are based primarily on personal experiences, they are “internalized” and more “emotional” than limiting beliefs; as a result, they can be difficult for us to release (136). He suggests that validating our own perspective as absolutely “normal,” given what we have experienced and how we have learned to think about what we have experienced so far in our lives, can help us loosen our grip on the belief that is holding us back (136).

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to examine the lenses in your own invisible eyeglasses of perception for the “phantom menace” of assumptions. Look for thoughts and beliefs related to what has happened in the past that you expect to happen again, that restrict rather than expand your sense of what is possible for you and in your life as a result. These thoughts and beliefs will be ones that contribute to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic or negative energy, which breaks you down, instead of anabolic or positive energy, which builds you up. Once you notice an assumption, question it, ask yourself what thoughts and beliefs would be more helpful to you, and decide how you want to “clean your lenses” so that your invisible eyeglasses of perception work for you rather thanagainst you. These glasses can support you in taking positive action with a sense of calm and confidence — in whatever direction you want to go.

Bon Voyage!

“The Force will be with you, always.”


 — Obi-Wan to Luke, Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Featured image credit: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo

Limiting Beliefs

What’s Limiting You?

Our thoughts and imaginations are the only real limits to our possibilities.


— Orison Swett Marden

In my last post, “Through a Glass Darkly,” I introduced the idea that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses. The lenses in these glasses, which impact what we see, are made up of the thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. Some of these thoughts and beliefs are helpful to us in that they have an anabolic, or positive, influence on our mood, energy, and actions; other thoughts and beliefs have a catabolic, or negative, influence. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider identifies examples of what I’m describing as the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses as four kinds of “energy blocks” (129): limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic). In my post today, I’d like to explore the first of these blocks — limiting beliefs.

Limiting Beliefs

Schneider defines limiting beliefs as ideas that we have about our situations, surroundings, other people, or the world that restrict our sense of what is possible. Most often, we have come to accept these ideas as true because they are communicated to us as true by some source that we have invested with authority — someone we know, the media, or a book we have read, for instance. As an example of a limiting belief, Schneider references the idea that before 1954, running a mile in under four minutes was considered “impossible” for a human being, and even “dangerous” to attempt (129). On May 6, 1954, at a meet in Oxford, England, a 25-year-old junior doctor named Roger Bannister ran his way into the record and history books with a time of three minutes and 59.4 seconds. Schneider contends that such an achievement required Bannister’s rejection of a prevailing and limiting belief of his era, and the creation of a new belief for himself — that running a mile in under four minutes was possible. While I do not know enough to claim that a sub-four-minute mile was considered impossible and dangerous at the time, it does seem to me that Bannister would have had to believe that breaking the four-minute mile was possible for him (no limiting belief there!); otherwise, would he have even tried?

From my own perspective, another example of a limiting belief that may resonate with many of us who identify ourselves as anxious is the view of our anxiety as a curse or a wound, something “bad,” a way in which we’re broken (and so “bad” ourselves, perhaps). In terms of a limiting belief, this view of anxiety is complicated because it is often not simply based on something that we have been told, but on our own unpleasant personal experiences of the emotional and physical pain of anxiety; moreover, our gremlin or inner critic frequently gets involved. As absolutely valid as this take on anxiety as a curse or wound may be, given what those of us who experience anxiety can go through, it is not helpful to us. This particular way of seeing sets up a relationship between us and our anxiety that is dominated by feelings of antipathy, resentment, and fear. In this kind of relationship, we tend to polarize with our anxiety, identifying it as an enemy and taking up a defensive position against it; as we do so, we generate an even greater amount of tension (catabolic energy) for ourselves, and not the increased sense of calm, courage, and confidence that we desire. Personally, I wonder how our experiences of anxiety might be different if we were able to see anxiety not as a curse or a wound, but as a blessing, a source of healing — a gift, even. While I acknowledge that this idea may strike some as sounding ridiculous, at least initially, I get very excited thinking about what a different kind of relationship between us and anxiety this energetically anabolic perspective makes possible, and with this different relationship, what becomes possible for us. You can read more about this idea of mine in my post, “The Gift of Anxiety.”

Challenging our Limiting Beliefs

There are several ways for us to challenge our limiting beliefs, whether the beliefs involve how we think about anxiety or anything else in our lives. These ways may sound very familiar to those who are already acquainted with various cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking.

  • First of all, we recognize that we do not have to believe everything we think, that our beliefs are not facts, though we often proceed, of course, as if they do reflect a natural order of things (when we say to ourselves, for example, “That’s just how things are!”).
  • If we inventory and evaluate the influence that a particular belief has had on our life (look at the cost, and ask ourselves, “Is that all right with me?”), and decide that we want to change what we have been experiencing, we can begin by choosing an alternate belief for ourselves, a way of seeing that helps us rather than hurts us.
  • We can then examine the evidence for the limiting belief (question the proof of its “truth,” in other words), and ask ourselves questions like, “How true do I believe this idea is … really?” and “Where did this limiting belief come from for me?” (Schneider, 134). In answering the first question, we may realize that our buy-in to the belief is not as complete as it had seemed; in answering the second, we allow ourselves the opportunity to create a context for the belief, which may help us conceive that we need not see it as fact, but simply as something that we have come to accept as true (and so, as something that we can decide to reject). We can also explore supporting evidence for the alternate idea that we have developed.

In the midst of all of these responses, it may be helpful for us to keep in mind that we have been seeing through this particular set of lenses for a long time, and we may still initially tend to see (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. Change takes time. Or is that just another limiting belief … if it’s not helping us?

What’s Limiting You?

Over the next few weeks, I invite you to examine the lenses in your own invisible eyeglasses of perception for limiting beliefs. Look for thoughts and ideas that restrict rather than expand your sense of what is possible, that contribute to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic energy, which breaks you down, instead of anabolic energy, which builds you up. There are times that all of us could use an extra “someone in our corner” 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. I would like, in some small measure, to help you in this way; perhaps, one day, you will pass the help along to someone else!

How is the way that you are seeing things influencing what is possible for you? What are alternate thoughts and beliefs that would be more helpful than some of the ones that you are currently using? How can you “clean your lenses” so that your invisible eyeglasses of perception work for you rather than against you?

Here’s to your increased calm, courage, and confidence!


Updated: 03/13/2019

Featured image credit: arcady31 / 123RF Stock Photo

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 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 anything 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.

We See the World through Lenses

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 that 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.  These latter lenses 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.

Our Lenses Make a Difference

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 perhaps regular sunglasses with smudged lenses, 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 would imagine, 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.”  We may be so used to looking through dirty lenses in our invisible glasses, however, that we do not even realize how much these lenses — the often unconscious thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world in general — dim our view, and so our experience of life, with the effects of a very different energy.  We can call this latter energy catabolic” since it is often constrains us, drains us, and “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 of “energy blocks”: limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and “gremlins” (with “gremlin” being one way to reference what we also often call our inner critic).

Are Your Lenses Helping or Hurting You?

Sometimes, as happens in the story in Schneider’s book, we may find it helpful to examine our lenses with the support of another person 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 we want to go.  With this idea as inspiration, I will be addressing in the weeks that follow each of these four obstacles to our experience of anabolic energy as topics for this blog.  I will offer further definitions and examples, explain how I see these obstacles relating to the kinds of anxious thinking identified in cognitive-behavioral therapy (as another way of thinking and talking about them), and explore ideas for how we can respond when we notice ourselves feeling out-of-focus or 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 perception.  I hope that you will feel free to join me by reading along, and by offering your own thoughts as comments on the blog posts, if you are so inclined.


Updated: 03/02/2019

Featured image credit: anaken2012 / 123RF Stock Photo