Part 3: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum: Befriend Your Alien Brain

In Parts 1 and 2, I wrote about the thinking-feeling spectrum and how our tendency to prefer T or F leaves a shadow tendency that seems to play a strong but invisible role in how we feel and behave.    I likened it to an ambivalent, sometimes hostile alien that resides within us, sometimes exerting a negative influence on us, without our knowledge.

Your alien thoughts/feelings can actually work for you, but you have to befriend it and become its ally.  Like a temperamental child, the alien within wants to be recognized and heard.  Failure to do so means the alien will ramp up the stakes, screaming and thrashing at me until I acknowledge its needs. Like an unruly toddler, that internal tempest wreaks havoc and damage until it is heard.

The hardest part is acknowledging the alien’s existence and dysfunction.  But have you noticed that when you listen to a toddler and truly try to understand their world, they get strangely calm and cooperative?  You can then negotiate with them, “I know you want to go have an ice cream sundae but we don’t have time to do that now.  How about I give you an apple right now, or a cookie when we get home? Which do you want?”

Our inner alien is the same way.  “I know the way your co-worker talks to you makes you feel unimportant and inferior, just the way your parents did when you were a child.  You can believe it and feel angry and resentful, or you can go to the gym and work through your frustration and realize that this isn’t about you.  Which would you prefer?”  Suddenly, inner alien is cooperative, because she just wants to be heard and acknowledged.   She’s your Lifelock monitor who alerts you issues (have you seen those commercials?) but it’s your responsibility to deal with the problem.

Make no mistake: she will scream in my head until I do.  Furthermore, I’ve learned that she’ll scream at others through my tone, behavior, perspective and choices without my knowledge.  Others can sense her, even if I can’t.   Others refer to my alien as the b***.  Now you know what I’m talking about.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way as I’ve spent many years in denial about my aliens.  I don’t always know they’re there, or if I do, sometimes I just can’t quite wrangle and calm them.  It gets easier with practice and time.  Now, I feel like I mostly have cleaned house, though I do still relapse and invite those crazy little devils back into my life.  Living without them though is an amazingly light and freeing feeling.  There are few things that I have done that have had such a profound impact on the quality of my life.  And like all things I have been afraid of, shining a light on them always seems worse at first than it really is.  They’re not scary in others.  You see them.  You know what they need to do.  Do the same for yourself and exorcise that troublemaker.

Part 1: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum: Our Self-Concept

Who are you?  Really?

Do you believe that you are the sum of your thoughts, knowledge and beliefs? That your identity is entirely dependent on those thoughts?  If so, what happens when you change your mind, beliefs or knowledge?  Are you the same person?

Or do you believe that you’re a feeling, emotional being who happens to have thoughts and ideas?  What happens if you don’t have an emotional reaction in a given moment or are stuck in depression? Who are you then?  What does it mean if your emotional reactions are context-dependent?  Are you still you?

One way to think about the questions above is from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator’s T (thinking) and F (feeling) personality types.  We are on a T-F spectrum in terms of how we tend to make decisions, whether using our head or our feelings. I also think about the T-F spectrum as the mechanism by which we interface with reality.   I’m guessing that T’s tend to use their head to take in information, both about themselves and others, and use that information to decide who they are.  Similarly, F’s view themselves and the world through the lens of their feelings, using that information to define themselves.  (After all, I’m a T and this theory makes sense.)

However, I don’t really like the binary nature of that scale.  We all think.  We all feel.  Trouble is, we may not be very aware of the end of the spectrum that we are unfamiliar with.  Ts are often unaware of their feelings and Fs are often unaware of the thoughts and beliefs underlying their feelings. This is where we get into trouble.

Thoughts and feelings are interactive and synergistic.  Our feelings are profoundly influencing our thoughts, and visa versa, even if we don’t realize it.  That complex dynamic then determines our behavior  (I’m feeling more F-ish today, and this feels right.)

Being in touch with both our thoughts and feelings help us to have a more complete understanding of who we are, how we feel, why we think what we think and why we feel what we feel.  Our habits of thought, feeling and behavior that define our personality, in the end, are really just habits.  We can break and change those habits, yet we’re still the same person underneath, aren’t we?

I like the person you are – that combination of your hidden and portrayed self.  It’s one of my gifts to see the best in others, including that hidden part of you.  I also hope for your growth and improvement in your life’s satisfaction, sense of authenticity and empowerment.  Changing habits that are maladaptive does not change who you are, it merely helps you be a better version of you.  You can be happier, more peaceful, have better relationships, and improved health by taking a holistic and appreciative view of yourself and your world.

All that being said,  the question of Who am I? remains unanswered especially if you acknowledge that most of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are malleable.  I am not a theologian or philosopher, so I will leave that question to those wise scholars.  As an applied positive psychology practitioner, I reflect on that T-F dynamic and how we can use that self-knowledge to create the best possible life.

But I think I’m out of space.  I feel I must finish this discussion in my next blog, Part 2: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum – Our Alien Brain.  Perhaps the outcome of your thought-feeling dance will be for you to join me.

8 Tools For Thriving During Change

fish escape concept

Embrace change!  Photo credit

The only constant is change, yet we often fear, dread, or fight change. It’s a natural tendency since, as a species, we tend to be wary of threats to our wellbeing, and change is just as likely to bring challenge as opportunity.

In addition, we have a certain change style, where our affinity and comfort with change ranges from low to high. Conservers prefer to take a measured and incremental approach to change, whereas Originators like rapid and broad change. In the middle are Pragmatists who prefer change that is practical and effective. Each style has its advantages and disadvantages; respect for and understanding of our own and others’ change styles can help change occur more smoothly and effectively.

We do not always have the luxury of the pace and extent of change matching our change style.   Often change is faster or slower, broader or narrower, than our comfort would dictate. When change is not under our control, it will feel challenging.   As with any challenge, I use my main Go To Tools to help turn that challenge into an opportunity:

  • Be mindful and present – Plan for the future but don’t dwell on it. Worrying about the future creates anxiety. The present moment elicits neither sadness, regret, nor anxiety.
  • Take care of yourself first – Rest, exercise, a healthy diet, and time for play are good antidotes to stress.
  • Reflect – Change is scary. Acknowledge your fear, anxiety, distress, or sadness. Feel it. Put a name to it. Feel it some more. Then let it dissipate.
  • Identify and challenge your belief or schema – What is the belief that is causing your emotion? If it’s a negative emotion, then name and challenge your belief or schema.   Introduce doubt into that belief. If it’s a positive emotion, then savor and amplify your optimism.
  • Identify the downside of the status quo – What’s bad about maintaining the current situation? What opportunities will pass you by if you resist change? What damage can occur by failing to grow?
  • Find a positive perspective – Your negative feelings result from focusing on the worst-case scenario. Instead, consider what is the best possible outcome.   Imagine it in full detail. What does it look like? How does it feel? What did you learn? How did you grow? What is the pathway to this outcome?   What challenges might you encounter, and how would you surmount them? What would your future self, who is enjoying this positive outcome, say to your current self?  Say it to yourself. Repeat as necessary.
  • Identify your strengths – Given this ideal outcome, identify what strengths (either StrengthsFinders or VIA) that you can use to achieve this outcome and surmount those obstacles. Make a plan.
  • Identify your support – Who can help you on this journey? Maybe you need a sounding board, a sage, a playmate, a home team, a cheerleader. Enlist their support, and be specific about what you need from them. Continue to communicate with them so they understand what their roles are as the situation evolves.

Now, go get ‘em! You have a positive future, go create it!

Letting Go and Forgiveness

In Anatomy of Peace and Leadership and Self-Deception, the Arbinger Institute describes the process by which we unknowingly contribute to relationship problems. They describe it as the Problem We Cannot See. By becoming aware and alive to that contribution to conflict, Arbinger says, we can put an end to the collusion and beliefs that keeps conflict alive.

Arbinger does not use the word forgiveness in this process, yet if we look up the word forgive, the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary defines it as to stop feeling anger toward (something) or about (something).   Arbinger helps us to let go of feelings of anger but also entitlement, superiority, resentment, depression, or envy by increasing our awareness of and owning our own role in a conflict or relationship dysfunction.   Therefore, this ongoing and lifelong process of letting go is so much larger than forgiveness since we are releasing many feelings beyond anger. We replace resistance to reality and others with acceptance.   As we see how pervasive the resistance mindset is throughout our day, self-acceptance also becomes required to make this important and ongoing change.

Forgiveness is a difficult process. It is not solely driven by our cognition: understanding the benefits of or wanting to forgive are simply insufficient to release those feelings of anger, contempt or resentment. In my own experience, I believe that forgiving others for their faults or mistakes is really the same as forgiving myself since I share the same struggles and challenges as everyone else. Hating someone else’s controlling, compulsive or condescending nature means that I hate my own; accepting their humanity (imperfection) requires that I accept my own.

One of my favorite quotes is from Suzanne Sommers: “Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself.” Imagine all those negative emotions that accompany being the Problem We Cannot See. It’s like Christmastime, folks, all year round.

Control Freak Antidotes

Though I was blind to it for many years, I think it was pretty obvious to most people that I am/was a control freak. I was in denial, hating and criticizing others’ control freak tendencies but unaware of my own.

One clue should’ve been my StrengthsFinders list with Adaptability dead last.

The belief that I could control my world allowed me to avoid acknowledging my flaws, and therefore, the possibility of not being OK, lovable, or acceptable. Thus I had to first really accept that I’m never going to be perfect, and that imperfection is not only OK, but it’s what defines us as humans (see How Good Do We Have to Be? by Harold Kushner).

I still struggle with my control freak tendencies, but they don’t have the hold on me that they once did. I can still feel that twinge when something doesn’t go as I hoped or wanted. However, now I’m more aware of that feeling and instead of reacting to it immediately, I usually can observe it and then decide what to do.

Adaptability and acceptance are the opposites of control, and are tools that I consciously practice as antidotes to my control fantasies. First, I reflect on what is really mine to control and what isn’t.   As we know from the Serenity Prayer, this is where we practice our wisdom.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Next, if something is not in my control, then I have a choice as to whether or not to try to influence it.   In other words, there’s a difference between what I can do versus what I should do.   What do I need to fight or advocate for? What is OK to let it go? Here’s where I can be adaptable and wise together, by seeking to influence selectively, and accepting everything else that I can neither control nor influence.

I’ve learned over the years that most things fall into the latter category. Most of the time, my opinions are not really relevant to someone else’s reality even if I feel they should heed my opinion. If they want my help or advice, they’ll ask for it. When it does affect me, my work or others, then I should/could speak up. Otherwise I should just mind my own business.

I’ll always be a recovering control freak, though with practice it’s gotten much easier to find that wisdom. There’s also a certain peace associated with accepting reality and sense of compassion and camaraderie when observing others struggling with the same lesson.

Reversing a Bad Situation

Life doesn’t always go as planned; sometimes bad things happen. Part of us feels like sh** shouldn’t happen to us, a belief that often ensures we stay stuck in the situation. We may not be able to control events, whether deemed good or bad, but we do have control over our response to a situation.

What matters in the end is how we respond to events in our life.   Some people crumble after good fortune. Some people thrive after a setback. Yes, thrive! It’s all a choice.

There are great resources* to help find ways to improve resilience and bounce back after adversity. I strongly rely on my strength of Perspective. First, I ask myself “what’s the worst possible outcome?” trying to be as realistic as possible. Framing the situation in that light allows me to start planning for the worst. The advantage of this strategy is that by doing so, I can see that I can dig myself out of even the worst possible scenario though I might feel feel as if I’ll be forever stuck in this deep, dark forest.

Even more importantly, I ask myself: How might this turn out to be a huge blessing? What lessons might I learn? How might I grow from this challenge? Where can that growth take me? How might I find gratitude for this event? How can I turn my competitor into an ally?

I recently watched the movie Akela and the Bee. In the story, little spelling phenom Akela follows her heart and decides to let her main competitor win the National Spelling Bee since it was his last opportunity to bring home the trophy. He realizes what she’s done and, instead of accepting an unearned win, he asks her to bring her best effort. Next, they realize that if they support each other, they can both win.

That path forward out of a bad situation is not easy to find. The Judge in our head is often criticizing, complaining and whining, and keeps us stuck in a dysfunctional and destructive mentality. Instead, thriving requires that we silence the Judge so that we can hear the whispers of our heart and conscience that guide us to the path out of the dark woods into the light.

*Check out the The Resilience Factor. 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles by Reivich & Shatte.

Are You Fixed or Growth Oriented?

Before you answer this question, it probably requires a bit of explanation.  A fixed mindset refers to the philosophy that we are who we are and that we cannot change.  A growth mindset believes that we can grow and improve.

The advantage of a fixed mindset is that a person is fairly consistent across time and situation.  If you’re marrying someone with a fixed mindset, you’re likely to have the same person more or less for decades to come.  It’s predictable and you don’t have to worry about that person changing too dramatically as you get into your golden years.

The other advantage of a fixed mindset is that you don’t have to worry too much about who you are.  Introspection and self-assessment is a waste of time, as is the notion of trying to change someone else.   A tendency to accept others as they are is an especially nice trait!

The disadvantage of a fixed mindset is that fixed individuals are less resilient.  If you think about it, the ol’ self may work in many situations, but if additional skills or perspectives are needed, it may be more difficult to manage if you believe you cannot rise to meet the new situation or adjust your viewpoint.

I’ll throw out another disadvantage, which is purely from my perspective.  If I had a fixed mindset, I might be stuck as I was when I was 20-something.  Those of you who have been reading my blog know that my 20-something was not someone to brag about.    I guess others were more likely to be perfectly formed and accessorized in their 20’s to deal gracefully with all of life’s situations.  I sure wasn’t.

‘Course, I would surmise if you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably of the growth mindset and I’m somewhat preaching to the choir.  But like the other personality types, you growth folk can use this information to better understand the other half of the world that doesn’t love self-help in some fashion.

I know.  No one is perfect.  J