The World According to YOU

The World According to YOU

At Christmas time, my mom took a trip that had been postponed for a year due to COVID. She was full of concerns. What if she got COVID while traveling, had to quarantine and didn’t have enough medication? What if the streets were slippery? Should she pack her winter coat or carry it on?

Seriously, even that last one was a subject she lost actual sleep over.

I told her to take the precautions necessary to feel fully prepared and then STOP worrying. My mom is a gold medal winner in the worry Olympics though, so my favorite quote on the subject:

“Worry is a meditation on shit”

fell on deaf ears.

Guess what happened?

Weather delays caused my mom and her traveling companions to miss their cruise departure. Everyone’s luggage got lost and my mom had packed her winter coat in her suitcase – and it was FREEZING. The high-speed train they took to catch up with the boat ran out of juice – or whatever causes those things to stop in the middle of nowhere and strand passengers for hours on end. And she brought a raging case of COVID home for Christmas.

Coincidence?

If you say so.

Although I’ve made enough trips around the sun to have noticed a pattern.

Positive, optimistic people lead easy, breezy lives. Folks who expect the worst often get it. That doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen to upbeat people sometimes, but it does illustrate this point:

You Create Your Reality

For fans of self-development, this is yesterday’s news.

For cynics, this is bullshit. Woo. Toxically positive.

But consider this:

Cognitive bias – defined as a systematic error in thinking that affects the decisions and judgments people make – reveals that each of us creates our own “subjective reality” from our perceptions of our circumstances. We do this to control our experience. As a result, we each live in a mental model of reality, not in reality itself.

So each of us comes to the table with our own construction of the world, meaning that the very same “facts” that you see may look completely different from what I experience, colored as they are by my own memories and ingrained beliefs. A person’s behavior might seem irrational to you, but make perfect sense to them given the lens through which they view their life.

But wait, there’s more.

It’s How We Stay Sane

There is just too much noise in the world, amiright? We would go crazy if we didn’t filter out almost all of it. So our brain uses certain cues to decide what to keep and what to forget.

We notice things that are already primed in our memories or repeated often. The more you think something, the more it defines your world.

We are drawn to details that confirm our existing beliefs. And therefore, we have a tendency to ignore details that contradict our beliefs.

We have a negativity bias For survival purposes, it makes more sense for our brains to prioritize memories of dangerous things over pleasant things. This tendency is built into our biology. But it becomes a problem when you’re lying awake at night perseverating over everything that could go wrong.

So information comes into the brain and is filtered by the biases above. Now we have the broad strokes of an idea (the brain prefers generalities), and we fill in the gaps with stuff we already “think” we know.

Our Brains Are Like CGI-Loving Visual Effects Supervisors

It helps to think of the gaps like the blind spots in your left and right visual fields. Your blind spots don’t look like empty holes in the world; it looks as if something is there, but what is actually there can only be seen if we turn our heads. In the same way, the brain fills in the gaps where there is no information with the equivalent of CGI in a movie.

Buddha’s Brain author Rick Hanson explains it best: only a small fraction of the inputs to your occipital lobe [Footnote: The brain’s visual processing center.] come from the outside world. Most of them come from your memory stores and the parts of the brain that process perception. Therefore, each of us lives in a virtual reality of our own making, close enough to the real thing that we don’t bump into the furniture.

Learning this was a defining moment for me.  Here’s an example from life to illustrate how this works.

Imagine that you’re single and you just don’t believe there are any good men [Footnote: women / humans / aliens] left in the world. You can’t remember when you lost your idealism, but the belief that he just doesn’t exist has been part of your story for a long time. You want to find a partner, but a voice in your head always reminds you that all the good ones are gay or taken.

(Wait, who am I kidding? They are all children. But I digress . . .)

Anyhoo, it’s Thursday night happy hour, you’re at a bar with friends and you notice there are about 15 guys there. In reality, there are 20 guys – five of them “good guys.” But those five gems are in your blind spots. Think of it as men-shaped holes in the scenery. The men are there but your brain doesn’t identify them because they don’t exhibit any cues it recognizes from its no-nice-guys-left programming. Instead it fills those black holes with velvet ottomans and potted trees.

Remember that our (virtual) realities are made up of the stereotypes, generalities and prior histories already present in our minds. So let’s say you actually interact with one of the good guys – he comes out of your blind spot and strikes up a conversation while you’re both in line for the bathroom. You might enjoy your conversation but subconsciously tell yourself that he has a girlfriend, lives in his mom’s basement or isn’t interested in you. Without meaning to, you’re sending out a vibe that this won’t go anywhere. So it doesn’t.

We Project Our Current Mindset and Assumptions Onto the Past and Future

As my favorite manifestation guru Dr. Joe Dispenza says, “if you keep your attention on the known, you keep creating the known.”

Which is fine if you want nothing about you to change. [Footnote: Bear in mind, your outer world will always change. The only thing you can control is the “you” in this equation.] If you replay the same film reel about past events day in and day out, your future will be a carbon copy of those events. If you analyze your life within the emotion that you’ve memorized, you’ll create more of that same emotion.

And you will keep unwittingly shutting down cute guys in the bathroom line.

We Edit Memories After the Fact

During this process, memories can become stronger, but details can get swapped. We sometimes accidentally inject an element into the memory that wasn’t there before. The kicker is that the brain then forgets which parts are real and which have been filled in. Recent research on memory says that 50% of what you talk about in your past isn’t even the truth.

So to summarize, what we’re all doing is creating a present and a future based on predominantly negative beliefs about past events that might not even be true.

Splendid.

The good news is neuroscientists have discovered that we can reprogram our brains to form new neural networks that reinforce unicorns and rainbows instead of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

And how?

By being mindful.

Don’t gag, it’s true.

In order for the following process to work, you’ll have to become conscious of your thoughts. The goal is to not let yourself think anything that you don’t want to experience. To become conscious of your unconscious self. And to decide, once and for all, who you no longer want to be.

This can be accomplished by doing the following four things.

Step 1: Name your negative thoughts Waldo and hunt those suckers down.

Obviously you can only manage thoughts that you’re aware of. And yet the simple instruction to “notice your thoughts” is hard to do. Negative thoughts tend to flit into our consciousness, do their damage and flit back out again, while we barely notice their significance. If we don’t challenge them, they can be 100% wrong but still wreak havoc anyway.

On the other hand, when you become conscious of your thoughts and decide whether or not to empower them, you’re no longer the prisoner of your mental program. Think of it as interrupting the simulated CGI movie that plays on repeat in your mind to, instead, choose your own adventure.

One of the ways to become more mindful of your thoughts is to write down all of the unpleasant things in your life that cause you stress. Include grim beliefs and anxieties, difficult memories and situations that you perceive as negative. If you do this for a week or two, you will quickly notice patterns.

Alternatively, if you already have a mindfulness practice, you likely have experience wrangling errant thoughts and noting when you are judging or worrying. The next time this happens, mentally grab that little bastard and move on to step 2.

Step 1: Name your negative thoughts Waldo and hunt those suckers down.

Remember that time when Kellyanne Conway tried to rebrand Sean Spicer’s claims about the audience size at Trump’s inauguration as “alternative facts?” Whether you bleed red or blue, we can all agree that Conway was uncommonly skilled, earning her the title of greatest spin doctor in modern American history.

As crazy as it sounds, applying this diabolical superpower to your negative beliefs is Step 2. The trick is making it believable. (Sorry, Kellyanne).

“I was let go because I suck at my job” becomes

“I now have an opportunity to find work I really enjoy.”

“My relationship ended because I’m truly unlovable” becomes

“I recognize that I need to work on loving myself before I even think about getting into a relationship.”

“My web designer was a terrible hire. I wasted thousands before I figured it out because I’m an unfortunate soul who can’t catch a break” becomes

“I was pouring all my time and resources into building the wrong website – devoted to my Plan B – and I wouldn’t have stopped until I’d spent thousands more.”

An easy way to do this is to change “I am” statements to “I feel” statements.

It’s incredibly powerful to make the cognitive shift from “I AM scared” to “I feel scared.” “I am” is about your identity, while “I feel” is a passing condition. It’s empowering as hell to stop identifying as a scared person and instead just be a person who occasionally feels scared.

If you find it difficult to look at your negative thoughts objectively, imagine that you are your best friend or a respected mentor. Look at your list and pretend it was made by someone you care about, then challenge the thoughts accordingly.

Step 3: Drop those negative thoughts like a Tinder date.

When someone says “let it go,” to me, I’m extremely unlikely to do it. So let me instead invite you to shorten your emotional reaction. Learning to do this is known as emotional intelligence and it’s based on the idea that if you can’t let go of a certain emotion, you’re addicted to it.

I’m not addicted to paranoid, incessant worrying, you say. That would be crazy! Addictions are for things that make you feel good, like booze or sex, not for things that make you feel awful.

Surprise!

The brain likes the status quo.

Conserving energy. Not changing. Therefore, if your status quo is worrying all the time, the brain likes that. It wants to do more of that; it’s comfortable. Which means – I hate to break it to you – your brain’s a junkie.

Here’s proof – and a story that will knock your socks off. In 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. She observed her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of her life. In the eight years it would take her to recover, Taylor alternated between the euphoria of the intuitive right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well being and peace, and the logical left brain, which no longer held the beliefs and perceptions she had developed in the course of 37 years on earth.

What she discovered was that the physiological lifespan of an emotion in the body and brain is 90 seconds. That’s how long it takes the physical sensations—adrenalin, tightness in the throat, rapid heartbeat — to arise, peak and dissipate on their own. When Taylor’s stories about those emotions – based on her ingrained beliefs – were no longer accessible, she felt normal again after 90 seconds.

90 seconds, y’all.

That’s all it takes to stew in the muck, witness all the fires being set inside you, and then let them flicker and fizzle out.

90 seconds.

IF you can turn off the stories.

Step 4: Become a Daydream Believer

The last step needed to create your own reality is to retrain your brain to visualize yourself at the next level of success.

So  . . . what do you daydream about?

Having more money to travel? Making a living selling your paintings? Tell yourself it will happen. Believe it with your heart and soul. Better yet, take an action step that truly helps you commit.

Because remember, the brain has no idea what’s true and what isn’t!

Isn’t that fun?!!

Start a savings account that transfers a small amount of every paycheck into a future travel account. (Give up the story that you’ll never earn enough to take your dreamy Italian vacay).

Open an Etsy store and put your paintings out into the world. (Let go of the belief that nobody will pay real and actual money for your work).

Because, if you get to choose the wallpaper in your own version of reality, WHYYYYYY would you not wallpaper it with rainbows?

As Wayne Dyer says, (whom I admire so much I have a quote of his tattooed on my body):

“When you change the way you look at something, the thing you are looking at changes.”

So are you ready to create your reality and start living the dream?

Yes?

Then I’ll race you to the top.

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