Moving Beyond Mind Games: Tools for Healthy Thinking

You have likely seen this excerpt below before, but I want to share it with you and some insights about what it means beyond being a fun and interesting exercise for the brain. Please read the quote below:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Now let me ask you a few questions:

  • Did you have any problem reading this sentence?
  • Did you read what it actually says, or what you thought it said?
  • What does that reveal about the way the mind works?

What became stunningly apparent to me after seeing this paragraph was the natural inclination of the mind to create meaning where none exists. In actuality, this paragraph doesn’t make any sense – if you read the actual words. Yet our mind quickly juxtaposes the words and interprets it in a logical way.

When we communicate with others, how often do we take what they say and interpret it to make sense to us, instead of hearing what they are actually saying? When we think our private thoughts (especially negative thoughts), how often do we distort what is actually happening or being said, and instead interpret something in a way that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the meaning?

Let me give you some examples of how this works in our daily lives.

A woman is working on an important project at her job. She is behind and due to personal circumstances she hasn’t progressed in the way that she desires. She is in her office on Monday morning when her supervisor comes in and asks for a status update. When she reports her progress, which is further from her goal milestone, her supervisor stresses the importance of the project and then quickly walks through the next steps and ideas to assist her.

There are two ways the woman could interpret this:

  1. The supervisor is displeased with her performance and does not think she is capable of doing a good job, thus getting defensive and not truly hearing the help or message that is being conveyed.
  2. The supervisor needs this project completed and is trying to assist the woman in that goal, since ultimately the goal affects not only the woman, but the supervisor.

When we aren’t in a “positive place” or monitoring and checking our thought patterns, we all too frequently have a tendency to go a line of thinking similar to that in example 1.

Let’s look at another example:

Your husband comes home from work on Friday evening. You are utterly exhausted from a difficult week of juggling acts and a child that was sick. He comments that you haven’t been out of the house much this week and that it would be great to go for a walk or do an all-day activity on Saturday as a family. You, however, have been waiting for your husband to come home so you can sleep in on Saturday and catch up on sleep. How might this be interpreted?

  1. You might think: My husband does not appreciate how hard my days are at home. Maybe he thinks I’m lazy… if only I could go on a week’s vacation, then he would realize how challenging and exhausting these days can be!
  2. Or you might think, Wow, my husband is concerned about my well-being and probably knows that even though I am tired, getting out would be a good and healthy option for me.

In both of the above examples, which thought pattern is “correct”? That’s a difficult question – one for which there is no direct “right answer.” However the examples and exercise do reveal three components that content and happy people use to evaluate situations. These components are:

  1. Disengage auto-pilot
  2. Ask good questions
  3. Remain objective

When we let our minds run on autopilot (by autopilot, I mean that we don’t ask questions or attempt objectivity) we too often “assume” we have the right meaning or interpretation. We forget what we learned in the beginning of this article – the mind tends to give meaning where none actually exists. Over time, this can create a reality that is based very little on fact and a lot on assumption. This is a self-centered way to live, because instead of seeking out actual meaning, we interpret everything only through our direct experience, giving very little weight to the people whom we are communicating with.

Don’t worry, if you find this is a pattern you too often succumb to, there is a solution.

First, turn off autopilot long enough to be objective and ask good questions. Learning to be objective and ask the right questions is one of the single most valuable skills we can add to our tool box. How do we do that? First, we stop assuming and start questioning.

Consider a scientist for a moment. When a scientist is working to discover a solution do you think they take the first solution they stumble across as definitive fact? Of course not. If they did, their credibility would undoubtedly be in question. Instead, they use this as a starting point. Then they remain objective and ask questions to “test this hypothesis” and look at it from different angles. This objectivity often leads to further discoveries and understanding. We can replicate this skill in our own lives.

Let’s look at how this might work in example one with the women and her supervisor.

First, the woman would turn off autopilot, meaning she would suspend judgment about what is being said until she could ask some good questions and be objective. This would allow her not to react defensively and create a problem where none currently exists. After the supervisor left, she could spend 5 minutes brainstorming by being objective and asking questions. Here are some questions she might try:

  1. Did my supervisor say anything directly about my work performance?
  2. Is there something going on in my personal life that would allow me to interpret her words in a negative way? Whose responsibility is that?
  3. What do I know she factually said or relayed?
  4. If I was standing in the shoes of the supervisor, with the knowledge she has about the project, my performance and capabilities, can I see where she is coming from?
  5. Was the purpose of the communication to benefit our company goals or was it to hurt me?
  6. What is happening in my life that is causing me to interpret something that isn’t negative, as negative?
  7. What facts have I gathered?
  8. Given the facts that I have gathered, what is an objective conclusion I could reach about this exchange? What would be a positive and healthy next step?

You can quickly see that by asking these questions, we stop the auto-negativity and assumption program that often runs in our brain. Instead of automatically assigning meaning to an event or communication, we objectively evaluate and ask questions to make a more accurate and healthy interpretation.

Your Challenge: Think over the last week. Where have you reacted to a situation in a self-defeating way because you automatically interpreted the event, versus remaining objective and asking questions? Use the skills relayed in this article to encourage more balanced decision-making.

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