The moment we perceive something, our brain begins to recreate what it already knows. We live our life as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is especially true in relationships where we act out dramas that have nothing to do with the person in front of us. Let’s assume I was severely criticized or rejected by my parents when I was a child. My brain stays on high alert and picks up any signals of criticism or rejection from my environment, however faint, as a means to avoid future damage. When I enter into a romantic relationship, my brain will skilfully remain oblivious to all the wonderful things my partner has to say about me while detecting and overemphasizing even the slightest trace of disapproval. Every raised eyebrow, curled lip, or pitched question will be interpreted as a mortal attack, to which my amygdala responds with fight, flight, or freeze. If I employ this response pattern often enough, I am sure to create the very thing I am most afraid of: criticism and rejection. Eventually, I may succeed in driving away the person I was once so enamoured with, to be left once again with the bitter confirmation that women/ men/ pets/ bosses/ friends/ politicians (take your pick) cannot be trusted.
In effect, I am creating a continuous loop that only factors in information confirming what I already know. In the process, I actively dismiss discrepant information (that could lead me to a different conclusion). The reality I know and the reality I see are the same thing. I only see what I know.
A few years ago, I coached a manager in a manufacturing plant. We spoke for a long time about how our thoughts create our feelings. As homework, I asked him to observe himself observing and notice the feelings following his thoughts. To make the connection between thoughts and feelings as transparent as possible, I instructed him to focus on two specific employees — one he liked because he thought of him as skilled and friendly and one he disliked for being lazy and unhelpful.
When my client returned for our next session, he reported on the outcome of our little experiment. ‘It’s Monday morning 9 a.m. and I’m sitting at my desk. When l look outside the window facing the parking lot, I see two people walk towards the building. As luck will have it, they are the two employees I was supposed to focus on. At our plant we normally start the workday at 8 a.m. — so 9 a.m. is about an hour later than usual. I watch the good employee and think: he is unusually late but probably had something urgent to take care of this morning. I hope everything is okay. Then my eyes wander to the bad employee and I think: I can’t believe he is this late and doesn’t even pretend to be in a hurry to get to work. Typical! I wonder what his excuse is going to be. At this very moment, I noticed my own thoughts and the feeling they created in me. My thoughts about the good employee resulted in genuine concern and a warm feeling, my thoughts about my bad employee in annoyance and anger. I actually had to laugh at myself when I realized this.
‘Now, of course in both cases I have a history with these guys and whatever my issue is with my bad employee goes back much further than him coming to work late once. However, I do have to admit that at that very moment, they were doing exactly the same thing, and there was no way for me to know why they were late. But the story in my mind unfolded automatically and in a very biased way. It did make me wonder in how many instances in the past I saw something that could have meant anything and immediately created a feeling of frustration in me because of how I thought about it.’
Different people likely trigger different memories of past experiences in us. Either way — what we are experiencing is not Reality but a creation in the present based on our interpretation of memories.
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