By Marlis Jansen
One of the most amazing things to me about the human mind is the ability to have complex thoughts and then to link them together to create stories, also known as narratives. There has been much research in cognitive science supporting the power of our thoughts and narratives to define our experiences. Cognitive behavioral therapy has helped many people to become more aware of their thoughts and the feelings that correspond to them.
We have all had pivotal moments in our lives — moments (or experiences) after which we gained a new perspective that had a powerful impact on us going forward. For me, one of these was at the age of 14 when I joined our local public high school orchestra on a trip to Germany and Austria to compete in an international music competition. I had not started high school yet and was very nervous about whether or not I would be able to make friends on this trip. Throughout elementary and middle school, I believed that I wasn’t cool, did not know how to make friends and actually did not deserve friends. I manifested that — I had very few friends. The night before the trip to Europe, I cried all night because I had JUST realized that I would be overseas with 50 other kids, none of whom would want to be my friend. That was terrifying. After crying all night, I got on the airplane barely able to see, my eyes so swollen. By the time I landed in Frankfurt, I was having fun with the group, having forgotten that no one was supposed to like me. When I got home (after winning first place in the high school symphony orchestra division of the competition!) I had found my group of friends and could not believe that had happened. I came home believing that I was likable and that it was possible to find people who would like me exactly the way I am. It is impossible to overstate the power and impact this change of perspective had on my life.
What changed? The same kid who was ugly crying all night in abject terror had a good experience and decided that reality wasn’t as it had seemed beforehand. Kid developed a new story based on new thoughts. Kid’s life changed profoundly for the better.
Our earliest experiences of learning are based on imitation of parents, caregivers, teachers and the world around us. Babies learn to walk, talk, eat, relate, dress themselves, the list goes on. My oldest daughter taught herself to swim by watching other kids at the pool. There are many stages of life, starting as young as toddler, when children realize that they have their own bodies and can make independent decisions. The stages of increasing independence continue throughout development and into adulthood.
The idea that my thoughts are optional and that I can choose different thoughts if I want to have a different experience is one to which many adults never ascribe. And it might just be one of the most important indicators of emotional maturity. What does this perspective allow us to realize? First and foremost, it allows us new and rapid access to wellbeing. It helps us to manage stress by knowing that wellbeing is inside of us and that healthy thinking, while it might not always happen, is possible. It also allows us to tolerate negative thinking and disappointment by seeing these occurrences as transient.
It is important to note that this is not a suggestion that we can use our thoughts to invalidate or get rid of feelings. The challenge is to fully accept our feelings as real and important mental informants while also understanding that thoughts are the primary driver of the nature of our experiences. As we reflect on our feelings and experiences, we use thinking to develop insights. Insights lead to narratives. And more thoughts.
When I was in graduate school, a professor commented on the power of culture by saying “Culture is doing you.” There is so much that we internalize without even realizing it. Much of what we do with our clients at Graddha is to build awareness around the aspects and impacts of culture of all kinds — family, peer, societal, ethnic. We all have narratives that have come from culture. These narratives form large parts of our identities in many cases. They are the context in which we know ourselves. But it is certainly possible to create culture intentionally. This starts with awareness of what we have taken from what has been offered.
One might argue that this absorption of beliefs and identity is not optional when we adopt them outside of awareness. But there is much evidence to the contrary. One simple example would be a friend who decided at the age of 4 to be a vegetarian — the only one in her family. Victor Frankel is another example having found inner resilience by choosing a unique perspective that allowed him to survive with dignity his incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. His perspective allowed him to transcend the atrocities that were all around him each day. Leveraging thought, he formed a narrative of resilience that came from within and, because he wrote about it, has likely inspired many hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Beliefs, identity, perspective and culture are all products of human thinking. Fundamental to the evolution of each of these elements of humanity is the knowledge that we are in charge of our thoughts. Not only can we change our thinking, but it is almost guaranteed to happen over time. And this will necessarily lead to some difference in life experience.
Belonging, Acknowledgment and Community
Humans are social animals. If Abraham Maslow is correct, aside from physiological needs and safety, we prioritize belonging over individuation. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Not too long ago, being thrown out of the tribe meant certain demise. Today, we might find another tribe should we be rejected by our original one, but we don’t want to be cast aside by the communities we choose. One can easily see why a person would make the choice (even if it is outside of awareness) to follow cultural norms.
We signal belonging by acknowledging those we are with. When we positively acknowledge their thoughts, feelings, actions, and contributions as valid and valuable, they are seen as members of a tribe. Membership provides psychological safety. Psychological safety makes it easier to access the courage to make our own choices. But that courage is there inside us in any case, just waiting to be tapped.
In families of financial wealth, it often happens that the rising generation struggles to be positively acknowledged as individuals with their own legitimate ideas, activities and ambitions. When this happens, their feeling of belonging in their families wanes. This is disorienting.
We often change our thinking after being recognized or acknowledged in some way by others. In my case, I was validated by the other musicians on my trip. Recognition might take the form of getting the job, successfully selling your company, or simply being given a compliment. When our experiences don’t fit with prior beliefs and assumptions, we use thinking to reconcile the conflict. But we always have the option of changing our thinking without outside stimulus. The impetus might be internal — like a physiological change of state. Have you ever had a big realization about something important while out on a hike or run? This has happened quite a lot in my life. When I am struggling with negative thinking, I try to get out and move.
Think back to some of the pivotal moments in your life. What were you thinking before they occurred? What changed? How were these experiences acknowledged by your family and friends? Your professional community? And finally what choices did you make to think differently?
We are constantly deciding what we think and making sense of our experiences and the world around us. We are not defined by our thoughts. Rather they are defined by us.