Sitting by the edge of the indoor pool on a winter’s day, I swung my feet into the water, feeling the full-on rush of cold water against my feet and ankles. “Boy, is this water cold,” I thought to myself. Not quite ready to plunge in, I dipped my fingers and then hands into the water, surprised to discover the warmth of the water against my skin. “Wait, actually the water feels nice and warm.”
This phenomenon struck me as very curious. My feet, having been in my warm shoes, would have me believe the water was cold. My hands, having been in the cold air, would have me believe the water was warm. The water temperature was the same, it hadn’t changed. But my experience of it, my perception of it, was quite different depending on which part of my body was submerged in the water.
This perceptual illusion can occur not only with one’s physical senses but with one’s thinking and cognitive processes as well. We can experience the same situation very differently, depending on our perspective and the narrative we tell ourselves about a situation. This, in turn, can affect how we feel and how we react. This concept is at the core of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Think about a situation such as your co-worker walking past you with their head looking down in their phone, not even acknowledging you. If you are already in a bad mood or stressed from experiences that occurred earlier in the day or week, you might interpret that your co-worker was ignoring you, was upset with you, or was being rude. In turn, you might feel hurt or become more irritable.
Now imagine another day when you were in a fabulous mood, feeling peaceful and content. When you notice your co-worker walking past you without acknowledging you, you might wonder if they saw you, if they were unusually preoccupied, or perhaps stressed. You might say “Oh, well,” and go on with your morning, or perhaps call out hello, or ask how they are doing.
Same situation, very different interpretation and subsequent reaction. Nothing changed about your co-worker’s behavior in these two scenarios; the only difference is your own perception and interpretation of the situation, filtered through the lens in which you are looking.
Foundational to our well-being is the recognition that our cognitive perceptions are not fixed, solid truths but are in fact viewed through an interpretive lens. We can’t necessarily choose our split second, initial reactions and emotions, but when we practice bringing greater mindful awareness to those initial reactions, there is a space in which we have greater choice about how we proceed, what we tell ourselves going forward, and ultimately where we focus our attention.
I have a friend who recently was recovering from a concussion. She relayed to me that at times she found herself focusing on her perceived lack of progress, how long it was taking her to recover, and how she wished she were further along with being able to do more. At these times she noted that she felt subsequently frustrated, disappointed, and upset. However, there were other times (even within the same day) when she chose to focus on the small but incremental progress she was making, the tiny but noticeable improvements that were occurring over time if she really looked. At these times, she felt a profound shift in her body and mood — a sensation of lightness, a feeling of optimism, and a sense of gratitude. By choosing where she rested her mind and by taking conscious control over her narrative, she experienced a dramatic shift in her emotions.
A Practice: Notice, Accept, Inquire, Shift
The following short practice involves four steps you can try when you feel stuck in a perspective that may not be serving you. To illustrate below, imagine a person who works from home the majority of the week whose house sustained water damage and has to undergo construction for the next two months.
1. Notice. Notice what it is that you are telling yourself about a given situation. How are you interpreting this situation? What narrative are you telling yourself? Is what you are saying accurate? Is it the absolute truth? What happens inside your body when you believe this interpretation or story to be true? Don’t judge yourself, simply notice the workings of your mind with curiosity and openness.
This is going to be so stressful! I can’t stand when things are in disarray, and between the banging and daily upheaval, I think I’m going to lose my mind! I don’t know how I’m going to handle this! This is awful! (Body feels tension, tightness, sense of being closed in.)
2. Accept. Accept whatever your initial feelings are about the situation. You don’t have to put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine if you are feeling hurt and angry inside or upset. It is OK to acknowledge whatever you are feeling and accept the emotions that are present.
I am feeling anxious and unsettled. This is difficult for me.
3. Inquire. Inquire as to whether there might be alternative ways of looking at the situation. Imagine moving around a room and viewing the same object from multiple angles. Try on different narratives. Is there one that feels authentic and accurate and is more helpful to navigate the challenge at hand?
No question this is a challenging situation and not one I would have chosen. But thankfully this (the water damage) is a fixable problem and the repair does have an end date. There was another time I had to go through something similar when my house was under construction and it was difficult but bearable.
4. Shift. Shift where you choose to focus your attention. Shift the lens from which you are looking. What happens in your body and mind when you do that? (This is not about burying your head in the sand or pretending something isn’t there or pushing away feelings. It is about inviting in something new, in addition to what already might be there, and noticing what happens as you rest your attention there).
I’m resilient in the face of change. This likely won’t be easy and I may need to be creative about finding places outside of the home where I can work. I can make sure to take care of myself by reaching out to people who I know will be supportive and who I can call on for help. I’ll get through this. (Body feels a bit more relaxed, at ease, sense of more breathing space).
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