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?
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:
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.
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):
- 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.
- Overgeneralization: You see a single negative even as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.
- 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:
- I learned how to manage my attention in order to catch the cognitive distortions.
- 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.