Thoughts That Prevent You From Psychological Freedom

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We’re not taught how to manage our attention and emotions in school. It’s a topic I find invaluable for the time we live in. If, after reading this, you have any feedback or you would like to provide examples from your life please share them in the comments =)


Reality Distortion Fields
If we’re living in a world where the scarce resource is moving from capital to attention, then learning how to attain psychological freedom is more important than ever.

What we pay attention to affects how we perceive the world. That perception then affects our emotions and our behavior.

Steve Jobs understood this process. While he was famous for the products and companies he helped create, I’ve always been fascinated by what Apple employees called his “reality distortion field.”

The term was coined by Bud Tribble, an employee at Apple in the 1980s, to describe Jobs’ charismatic effect on the Macintosh developers. Tribble said the term came from Star Trek. It was used to describe how the aliens created their own world through mental force.

Like those aliens, each of us has the ability to create our own world through mental force. Our minds create reality distortion fields that are influenced by our attention. For example, take a look at the following image. What do you see?

What is it?

Some people see a vase. Other people see two faces looking at each other. You can switch back and forth between the two images once you realize the trick.

The face vs vase image is emotionally neutral, but some external stimuli elicit strong emotional responses. For example, watching a video of a police officer killing an innocent person on Facebook, is likely to elicit a negative emotional response.

Understanding how the external world affects our emotions is important because we are creatures who rely on our emotions to make decisions, to be motivated, and to find meaning in life.

We live in a world that is informationally abundant (hence attention is scarce). And the amount of data is increasing at an exponential rate:

That’s a lot of data

What information you’re paying attention to matters. The Kardashians, the rich kids of Instagram, police killings, inspirational videos, expert cooking, and cat images will affect your emotional state whether you’re aware of it or not.

You have a choice though. You can choose what to pay attention to and you can choose how you wish to perceive the incoming information.

Take a look at the following image from the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

Process of Perception

For external events to have any emotional meaning, you have to give them meaning through your thoughts. Psychologists understand this fact today, but it isn’t new knowledge. Philosophers like Epictetus and Yogis in India understood this process thousands of years ago.

You ALWAYS control how you interpret the outside world even if you can’t control the events happening around you. So you decided how you want to interpret external events, the things you are told, and the feedback to the things you do. This is the reason why one person can dance outside while it’s raining while someone else sits inside and complains.

You Can Create Things
The greatest investment you can make in yourself is learning how to manage your emotions by managing your attention. Doing so will help you rediscover the child-like freedom to explore life and find the right job, go travel, build a company, create art, or start a new hobby.

Once you understand managing your attention and emotions you can take advantage of this fact:

Let that sink in… every thing in our society was created by other humans who were no smarter than you. You can create things that other people will use. You can change the way things are done. You don’t have to accept life as it is.

That’s great new because this is the best time in human history to be alive. It has never been cheaper or easier to create the things you want to create. All the information is sitting right there on the internet.

What is Stopping You?
You might be familiar with some of the following thoughts:

  • “I’m not smart enough.”
  • “I’m lazy.”
  • “I never finish anything.”
  • “If I try it, I won’t be as good as those other people who’ve been doing it for a while.”
  • “I’m too old to do that.”
  • “I need to have a job, so I don’t have time to learn something new.”
  • “I don’t have the right skills.”
  • “I have so much more to learn.”
  • “I feel anxious, so I won’t talk to her/him.”
  • “If I was only better looking, stronger, smarter.”
  • “If I only had more time, then I could learn how to dance.”
  • “I should be better or smarter.”
  • “I can’t do it because my parents/friends/co-workers wouldn’t approve.”
  • “If I only had better people in my life. All these people are dragging me down.”

These are the thoughts that are forming your reality distortion field and they are probably happening automatically, out of habit.

Steve Jobs understood the power of thoughts and how they can cause you to get stuck in life:

Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.

Learning to Get Unstuck
You can learn how to get out of the grooves. I had to learn how to do it. Hell, I’m still doing it because it became a habit.

Psychologists have categorized the following thoughts patterns, they call them cognitive distortions, through studying patients suffering from depression (These are mostly from the book Feeling Good):

  1. Perfectionism (All-or-Nothing Thinking): You see things in black-and-white categories If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative even as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Mental Filter (Focusing on the Negative): You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that colors the entire beaker of water.
  4. Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your every day experiences.
  5. Jumping to Conclusions (Assuming): You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    • Mind Reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.
    • The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your predication is an already-established fact.
  6. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections).
  7. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
  8. Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements towards others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a weirdo” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.
  11. Blaming: The opposite of personalization. You see everyone else as the cause of negative events in your life.

Even when we’re not depressed, each of us exhibit some of these cognitive distortions from time to time. Which ones we use and how often we use them depends on how we were raised, our culture, our habits, and our experiences. Our habitual use of them turns creates the “scaffolding in your mind.” They create our reality distortion field. Fortunately, we can learn to catch them and change our responses to more productive thoughts and take control of our reality distortion field.

I especially struggled with perfectionism, should statements, emotional reasoning, mental filter(focusing on the negatives), and disqualifying the positives.

I was afraid to start things because I was worried that I wouldn’t do a good job. I was afraid to be playful socially because I thought I would say something stupid and people would think I was weird. I thought I should be able to learn things quickly, so I became impatient. I thought I should be able to talk to all strangers, but wouldn’t because I was scared. I’d look at all the cool things people did and posted on the internet and think “I should be doing that.” I didn’t consider the thousands of hours of hard work that people put in and don’t share online.

The should-ing would make me feel guilty and bad about myself. Then I wouldn’t start things because it felt like a burden. Then the perfectionism would kick in because I didn’t have the right skills to try something new. I started feeling worse about myself. I’d shrink my accomplishments by saying something like “Ah, it wasn’t that difficult. Anyone could do it.” None of this was productive or healthy.

After a period of intense depression I decided that I could change. That decision came from the realization that I could choose to think in more productive ways. All these distortions were mental habits. If I could catch them while they were happening, I could choose to think something else.

It took learning two things:

  1. I learned how to manage my attention in order to catch the cognitive distortions.
  2. I learned how to choose different thoughts to replace the ones that were effecting me negatively.

The reward is infinite. I feel like Neo in the Matrix sometimes. I can see what I’m thinking and change it to a more productive thought, shaping my world to be the way I want it.

Stay tuned and I’ll share with you the processes, habits, and routines I used to catch my cognitive distortions. Until then, I leave you with this quote from Epictetus:

Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

3 comments

  • Hey man – good stuff here enjoyed your first couple posts. I’m a friend of RV we worked together for a few years, came to realize we have similar views on life.

    That Steve Jobs video prompted me to comment as his message is very similar to a quote I somewhat randomly came across a couple years ago that ended up having a pretty profound effect on me.

    “…you tend to get told that the world is the way it is, and your life is just to live inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much…but that’s a very limited life, life can be much broader…you can change it, you can influence it…that’s maybe the most important thing, is to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there, and you’re just going to live in it…however you learn that, once you learn it…you’ll never be the same again” – Steve Jobs

    I was in a situation that probably is familiar to a lot of people, grinding away at a job I didn’t love that was far from fulfilling. One day after a couple years of this I just kinda stopped for a minute and asked myself, “Why am I here? What am I doing?”

    The answer I came up with, which eventually ended up making a lot of sense, was that more than anything I was just going by the beat of the drum. I was living the life that was expected of me, not necessarily the life I wanted to live. You basically laid out the exact narrative that crossed my mind at the time…You work hard in high school so you can get admitted to college…You study hard in college so you can get that “dream job”…You work hard at that job to show everyone you are successful…

    But do you ever pause to consider whether this is the path you actually wanted to take?

    I think up until that moment of reasoning a lot of my attention and focus had gone towards staying in tune with the beat of that drum, in a somewhat instinctive and subconscious manner, and this in turn impacted how I perceived the world. Play it safe. Choose the path of security and conformity.

    I had failed to recognize how much control over my life I had.

    I finally came around to appreciate the message that Jobs was speaking to, and slowly but surely started down a path towards what you laid out as psychological freedom. I ended up quitting that job and traveling for 6 months. Reflecting back on what led me there, a couple things come to mind that were instrumental:

    1.) As cliché as this sounds, I started thinking about the fact that you are only young once. I was worried that if I stayed on the track I was on, I would one day blink and be 35, probably living in the suburbs, marching along with every beat of the drum. Now there is nothing wrong with this, but there were lots of experiences I knew I wanted to have that frankly would have been far less feasible if I decided to commit to them at 35…as every day ticks by, lots of doors open but certain doors close. This led me to get comfortable with the idea that you are much more likely to regret not doing something you always wanted to do, rather than actually doing that thing and regretting it if it didn’t work out as you imagined.

    2.) I started thinking about the world in the context of a pie chart, where every human represented 1 / 7 billion of a sliver of the pie. I realized that I had really only gotten to know what maybe 1% of the pie was about – almost all of the meaningful interactions I had had in my life were with people who had a similar background to my own. I decided this wasn’t healthy. I wondered what kind of perspective on life the other 99% of people had and convinced myself that I needed to expand that 1% of the pie I was familiar with.

    3.) I was working late one night to finish up a project, had been the only person at the office for a couple hours, and went to the printer to pick up something I had just sent. As I grabbed whatever it was that I printed, I noticed below my stuff was a single page with just a paragraph long quote on it, which for some reason I hadn’t noticed the other times I had been to the printer that night. I normally don’t even glance at the stuff in the printer that isn’t mine. But a single quote on a page was not exactly a normal thing to see in my office. So I picked it up, read the quote, and for some reason it really stuck with me. I stood by the printer and read it a few more times, then put it down and went back to my work. The next morning it was still there, so I grabbed it assuming whoever printed it didn’t need it, and taped it up on one of the walls of my cubicle. I read this quote multiple times a day for the next couple months, thinking more and more about the things I mentioned above every time I read it. One day I read it per usual, probably for the 1,000th time, and it just felt different. I guess I had finally passed the tipping point of achieving a meaningful degree of psychological freedom. That was the day I bought a one way ticket to Bangkok and quit my job, to go see what that other 99% of the world was like.

    “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”– Chris McCandless, from Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild

    When I later told the story of that quote mysteriously appearing on the printer to RV, he just smiled. He printed it and left it there intentionally for someone to find.

    JG

    • JG,

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your story. Classic RV.

      I think humans have a tendency to live in (boxes, bubbles, masks or whatever you’d like to call it) nice little explanations for our reality and existence. Sometimes those boxes are handed to us by society and sometimes we choose to go into them.

      These can be generalized across cultures (father, sister, boss) or self-imposed (adventurous entrepreneur guy).

      If you become aware of the bigger picture… being able to have an “endlessly changing horizon” but stick to an old box out of comfort and convenience, you can end up really unhappy.

      Some people prefer to live in ignorance because the uncertainty of the bigger picture feels overwhelming.

      It’s cool that you listened to yourself.

      Ironically, the reason I started this is not too different from printing a quote to leave for someone to find.

By Dino Mihalopoulos