Scene I: My long-suffering wife said to me, “I want to talk to you about your giving money away”. “Here we go again”, I thought. I immediately got quiet, withdrew a little, and hoped that she would forget.
Scene II: I was attending a workshop, led by a gentleman that I had never met, but whose work I had long been positively affected by and admired. At significant expense I had arranged to hear and be with him in-person for a week. The first evening was great. Just what I had hoped for. Very early the next morning, I was sitting alone in the cafeteria reading a book he had written, when, to my surprise, he walked in. I looked up at him and said, “Good Morning”. He glanced at me and kept on walking as if he had not seen or heard me. He got his coffee, walked back towards me, looked at me again, said nothing, opened the door and left. My immediate thought was “I guess I am not worth acknowledging or saying hello to”. That was quickly followed by my next thought, “He’s a jerk and a fraud”. He promotes all this connecting to others stuff, and he doesn’t even acknowledge my presence”. I felt angry and stopped listening to what he was saying. As you might guess, the next four days of the workshop weren’t a lot of fun for me.
Scene III: I was making a presentation, and someone important to me was attending. They were sitting in the front row. Every time I happened to look their way, I noticed they were looking down, obviously doodling on a piece of paper. The thought that went through my head “they are totally bored and don’t agree with anything I am saying.” I felt rejected and hurt, I felt angry and embarrassed, went cold and distant.
Scene IV: I saw that I had received a text from someone who rarely contacts me. My immediate thought was “something must be wrong.” I was scared and quickly opened the message.
Scene V: I had sent a text to a loved one. They usually reply within an hour or so. I didn’t hear back from them all day. I thought, “Something terrible must have happened, I hope they haven’t been killed”, I got frightened and began imagining my life without them.
You’ll notice that I underlined the word thought in each one of these scenes. Science suggests that our brain makes 70,000 decisions about what it thinks is happening every day. Obviously, most of those decisions we are totally unaware of making, but some of them we become aware of when those thoughts create feelings that grab us. 70% of the time, what the brain thinks it is experiencing, isn’t accurate. What it perceives as happening is not actually happening. Our brain doesn’t care if it is accurate or not, it is just trying to relieve the anxiety caused by the awareness that SOMETHING is going on that needs our attention, and ultimate actions in that moment.
As you can see, each of those thoughts I underlined above, led to feelings. And because we as human beings cannot stand to stay in a state of high levels of feelings arousal (anxiousness/anxiety), we are compelled to do something to relieve those intense feelings. Those “somethings that we do” are our behaviors.
The thoughts I made up, triggered feelings and that triggered behaviors. The whole thing, from the beginning of what happens to how I react, takes about 1/3 of a second. In other words, what I made up about what happened, ultimately resulted in what I felt, which was quickly followed up by what I did. As you can see, my original thoughts or interpretations about what I saw, felt, heard; created my ultimate experience. My destiny. If my original thoughts or interpretations would have been different, I would have ended up having a totally different experience.
You’ll also notice that those thoughts were negative. That’s a human tendency. It has a name in psychology. Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTS for short. Evolutionarily, it serves a purpose. Negative thoughts allow us to begin protecting ourselves. In that moment. They are not necessarily good for long-term relationships (as mine weren’t), but that decision-making part of our brain is not concerned with anything other than survival in that moment in time, which includes relieving the spike of anxiety we feel.
In each one of those scenes above, I could have “thought” or made up something else. I call that part of us our MSU part, or Making Stuff Up, or “Maker-Upper”, for short.
If you would have interpreted the things above in the same way I did, I’d suppose you were my friend. I have jokingly said that my friends are my friends because they share the same delusions that I do about what I am seeing, hearing, experiencing. If there were enough of us, we could form a political party, or go to war with our shared delusions. Those who would dare question what I make up, well, they just don’t get it. I will cherry pick collateral data to support what I originally made up. My experience of the current political mess is exactly this.
So, what’s my point? Let’s go back to each of those situations mentioned above.
Scene I: I could have made up that my wife wanted to talk about an idea about setting up a “No questions asked” Ted gift fund, that I could use to feel free to give away money when, where and to whom I wanted to.
Scene II: I could have made up that this leader was exceptionally socially phobic, and he was surprised by seeing me and didn’t know what to do; that if he wasn’t in a position of delivering information he didn’t know how to relate to other people.
Scene III: I could have made up that my friend was doing what they needed to do so that they could pay attention and focus on what I was saying.
Scene IV: I could have made up that they were just reaching out to tell me that they had been thinking about me, loved me and wanted me to know.
Scene V: I could have made up that they were unexpectedly, unusually busy and that they were just fine.
I use those examples as alternative thoughts I could have had, because when I got around to finding out what was REALLY going on, that’s exactly what was going on in each case. If I had made those things up, I would have had a totally different experience. Those thoughts would have triggered different feelings which would have resulted in different behaviors. Because I made up a negative narrative, I had a bad moment, sometimes stretching into days. Such situations can turn into a lifetime of misunderstanding. All based on what I thought or interpreted was going on based on the “evidence” before my eyes. ANTS in action.
Sometimes I do things inefficiently. I say things that don’t represent, as clearly as I would like, what I am trying to say or what I am experiencing in the moment. I write things imperfectly. When someone sees what I do, or hears what I say or reads what I write and reacts to how they experience what I have done and swear that is the truth, because it is their truth (and usually add an “anyone” and “everyone” would agree) it is incredibly hurtful and destructive.
Sometimes other people do, say and write imperfectly also. What I have learned is that if I have the good sense to stop and check out what my “maker-upper” (knowing that I have an active one) has done with what I have experienced, and ask if what I believe I heard them say, or seen, or read is what they meant, most of the time, it is not even close to what they intended.
I am always glad when I remember to check out what I think is happening. It always makes my day better, because what I tend to make up comes from that ANTs place. It is amazing too, when people do that for me. I call that “giving grace” or “assuming good will”.
So, I would hope for all of us that before we allow ourselves to get too far down the road with our thoughts-which automatically trigger feelings that in turn-automatically trigger our subsequent behaviors, that we give the person the benefit of the doubt and check to see if our interpretation of what we think happened, was their intent. The more I do that, the better my world becomes.
A tool I teach and try to practice is when I am having a lot of feelings as result of something that I have heard, seen, or read, to say to the person, “Ok, what I am making up is…..” Doing that changes things. It reminds me of my Maker-Upper. It is a great ANTS trap.