Sunday, 10 May 2015

Stop Thinking Yourself Unhappy: Reality, Perception and Attribution

Faces, or a vase?
The other day, I stumbled onto - let's say a "heated debate" online. The argument was this; one man was letting the world know that he did not believe in good intentions, that everything happened for purely selfish reasons and that all humans were fooling themselves if they thought that they cared about each other. Others argued that he needed more joy in his life, that reading negative news stories all the time would of course make him think that, that people are ultimately good and that unhappiness comes from perception, not reality.

To that last comment, he responded with "What kind of hippy bullshit is that?" - and it really got me thinking. It is part of Buddhism, I believe, that states that suffering comes from perception. What does that mean, though, in a real, modern sense? Was our friend right in claiming it as "hippy bullshit", or is it, in fact, a profound sentiment? Is the world full of bad, nasty, selfish people, or is it full of goodness and light? Well, both things are true, and that fact alone illustrates the importance of perception.

Let's say that Jill met Jack one night in a bar. They really hit it off, shared a few cocktails and then he walked her home. At the door, Jill was about to invite Jack inside, where he politely kissed her on the cheek and said he had to be up early the next morning. 

Jill texted him the next day, but he didn't reply. She was devastated. She had thought they'd got on so well - but at the door, he'd shown that he wasn't interested. Perhaps she had said something wrong. She spent hours analysing the conversation, looking for something that might have scared him off. When he didn't reply, she told herself that it must be because she was so unattractive, so boring and stupid that he never wanted to see her again. Come to think of it, this happened all the time with men. There must be something wrong with me, she thought. Other girls seem to have boyfriends - even the really horrible ones. I must be really ugly. She told herself this so much that she stopped talking to men in bars, didn't bother putting make-up on when she left the house, and even started avoiding meeting new people in general. 

Has this ever happened to you? Jill's reaction might seem extreme, but to her, Jack's lack of interest showed her not only that he wasn't interested, but that nobody was ever interested in her. She further deduced that this must be due to something wrong with herself, and saw everybody else as being happy. 

Do you think that was really the case? Do you think that Jill was ugly, stupid or boring? Or could there have been another explanation?

Let's look at Jack's side of the story. He was a nice guy, not looking for a one-night stand but just for a nice conversation with a girl. One night, he met a girl called Jill, and they hit it off. She was pretty, intelligent and very funny, and he came to like her more and more as the evening progressed. However, she was knocking back those cocktails pretty furiously. By the end of the night, she was starting to slur her words, and he thought that it would be best to take her home. Being a gentleman, he walked her to her door, making sure to get her phone number beforehand. He told her his, too, but he was worried that she might have been too drunk to write it down properly. At the door, Jill clumsily invited him indoors. Considering her state, he didn't want to take advantage of her, and so he gave her a polite kiss goodnight. The next day, he tried to text her to see how she was doing, but the message bounced back. It seemed that she had given him the wrong number. Jack wasn't sure whether she had done this on purpose, or whether she had simply been too drunk to remember her own number. 

So, it seems that Jill had been completely unaware of one thing - how she came across when drunk. What she mistook for disinterest was actually respect, and when she received no reply to her message it was because she had typed it into her phone incorrectly. 

A silly accident, or a sign of the apocalypse?
Do you see how much unnecessary suffering Jill put herself through? Can you see how unhappy we can make ourselves if we always make our own conclusions? In this example, Jill took the perceived rejection as a rejection from all men. In a similar way, the angry man at the beginning of my story took a bunch of stories about nasty, selfish people to mean that all people were nasty and selfish. 

Sometimes, we don't find the evidence to contradict our beliefs, or when we do, we ignore it. Perhaps our friend met plenty of nice, pure-hearted people, but took their smiles to be signs of falsehood, attempts to deceive him (or themselves). It's sad to see this, because he is (however unwittingly) closing himself off from a lot of positive experiences. It can work the other way too - somebody convinced that everybody means well might let all kinds of unpleasant people con them, while they smile and believe that if they are nice enough, they will change that person - but it is often not the case, and they might soon find themselves being taken advantage of. 

If there was just one, clear-cut reality, then wouldn't everybody be able to see it? We only need to look at happy, laughing people living in poverty and compare them to stressed or depressed "rich" people to see the importance of our perception of events. To one person, life might be hard, but they are blessed with a community of people who love them and the sight of the sun rising each morning. To another, they might have all the material comforts they want, but when the bus is late or the computer crashes, it feels like the end of the world. Having more money, a better house etc doesn't automatically equal happiness. That comes from inside you, and from how you perceive events.

Did you fail that test because you are stupid, or because you didn't revise enough? Or perhaps because the test was unusually hard? Are you not succeeding to land your dream job because the economy is in a bad state, because you're useless and undesirable, or because you could do with a hand editing your C.V. and working on your communication skills? Did your last relationship fail because he/she is a jerk, because you are <insert horrible words here!> or because you need to address how you communicate with those close to you?

Taking a step into my university subject (Psychology); researchers have found an association between how people attribute events, and depression (article here). In the study, those who made global, stable and internal attributions were more likely to be depressed. What does that mean? Well, like Jill, she assumed that Jack had not replied to her because of something wrong with her, not because she had the wrong number. If you find yourself taking the blame for things that could have been down to a bunch of other factors (other people, the weather, technological problems etc) then you might be doing this without realising it. That's the internal part. The stable part comes from thinking that one mistake means "always" - you fail one test, so you deduct that you will fail every other test in the future. One relationship goes wrong, so you decide that all future ones will, too - and perhaps you drag up extinct events from the past to support this. You tell yourself things like "I just can't work under pressure" and decide that this will never change. The global part means that you over-apply a rule - so, Jill thought that rejection from one man meant rejection from all. Our friend decided that all people were bad, as many of us might after an unpleasant experience. Perhaps you don't succeed the first time you try skiing - so you tell yourself that you suck at all sports, or perhaps at all new things

Do these patterns of thinking sound familiar to you? I know they do to me! It can be difficult to switch your thinking, but why make yourself unhappy when you can think a different way? In Life Coaching, we often use a tool called "reframing". So, right now, our friend reads a news article about some awful human being and thinks "The world is a horrible place. Humanity is disgusting. People who pretend to be nice just want something from me." What other ways are there of looking at the situation? How about "There are horrible people in the world, but their stories sell more than those about nice people. There are plenty of good, kind people out there, too." He could try telling himself this every day - it will feel unnatural at first, but like exercising a new muscle, it will feel a little more comfortable every day. Switching, slowly, to a more positive source of news would help, too, just as surrounding yourself with people who support and respect you (and ditching those who don't) can have a huge effect on the way you think. In the study I mentioned, the happiest people were those who thought things like- "Well, I failed the test, but it was a very hard test, a few other people struggled and I'll just have to study harder next time." 

Now, I know that some of you want to know what happened to Jack and Jill. Well, two weeks later, Jack was at a cafĂ© where he saw an unhappy looking girl, her hair a mess, her face pale. It took him a few moments to recognise her - Jill! He was worried that she would not remember him, but he approached her anyway. Jill was taken back, of course, and her first reaction was anger - how dare he talk to her now, after ignoring her text? Fortunately, Jack was a nice guy, and when he explained the situation she found herself believing him. Of course, then she felt embarrassed, and silently beat herself up for jumping to conclusions and for getting so drunk. Jack, by the way, thought that she looked beautiful without make-up, bought her a latte, and they started dating. It was hard, at first, due to Jill's insecurities, but Jack was a patient and understanding guy. 

Not all stories go as smoothly - we humans are complicated creatures, and as you can see, we each live in our own little world, where we decide the reasons for why X and Y happen - no matter how far from the truth it might be. Jack might have had his own mess of skewed perceptions, thinking that Jill had deliberately given him the wrong number, or taking her drunken state of mean that she could never hold her drink. This search for explanations in the midst of chaos, of course, is what makes advancement and discovery possible, but it can also lead you into telling yourself some very unpleasant things about yourself and the world that are not the one and only truth. I could ramble for days about how we each create our own reality, but for now I'll just say - if any of things sounds familiar to you, then I'd love to hear from you. Hopefully I can help you to re-write your internal narrative into something more constructive and more positive.


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