This week we'll delve into an image that I use to help people find emotional distance from situations that are painful or distressing. Over the course of our lives, we develop a series of internal "voices" that provide a running commentary in the background of our thoughts and actions. Each of us develops our own unique set of these voices. Now, let me clarify one thing. I am not suggesting that the average person hears voices so much as I'm stating that we have a set of internal tapes that play thoughts, critiques, supportive comments, and the general banal ongoing internal experience of our thoughts.
These thoughts are judgmental in nature. The culturally agreed upon definition of "judgmental" has a negative connotation but in actuality, one can state "this is the WORST hamburger I have ever eaten!" or "this is the BEST hamburger I have ever eaten!" and both of those are judgments. With this understanding in mind, it becomes clear that most humans spend most of the day every day making judgments about their environment, others, and themselves. On the surface, these thoughts feel like they are not a big deal -- after all, "they're just in my head. I don't actually believe them, I just think it." Unfortunately, the presence of positive or negative judgments starts to color our world in specific ways. We start to see things, food, people, situations, behavior, and ourselves through specific lenses that can become intractable over time. Due to their insidious nature, we are often unaware of the fact that we are even doing it -- these thoughts become mindless. This is where the real problem begins. To be mindlessly thinking critical thoughts most of the day everyday takes a significant toll on our nervous system, overall sense of self-esteem, and the stories we tell about our lives.
One of the core tenets of mindfulness practice is adopting a non-judgmental stance. This sounds deceptively easy. It requires the capacity to separate out Fact from Feeling and to identify things simply as they are -- not for how we feel about them. In steps the Anthropologist.
Let's take an example: Work today was so TERRIBLE. My boss yelled at me for being 2 minutes late even though everyone else is always late and he never says anything to them. The rest of the morning I was getting frustrated reactions from my co-workers. I was so stressed and upset that I cried in the bathroom for the whole lunch break and everyone just avoided me because they could tell I was being crazy. I was so embarrassed and sad all day. I was so excited to come home because the only thing that I knew could make me feel better was the ice cream in the freezer.
The facts: I worked today, I was 2 minutes late, my boss commented on the time of my arrival, I cried in the bathroom during lunch, there is ice cream in my freezer.
The feelings: Today was terrible, my boss yelled (tone of voice is a judgment), my boss is less strict with other co-workers, my co-workers were making frustrated facial expressions and were frustrated with me, people avoided me, people thought I was crazy, I felt sad and embarrassed, I was excited to leave, ice cream makes me feel better.
In most situations, the facts are far fewer than the feelings/judgments -- but we often misconstrue feelings as factual information. One exercise to help practice getting into the non-judgmental stance is to imagine yourself as an anthropologist -- a student of environment, cultures, circumstance, and yourself. Not someone who is there to judge or criticize a culture for how they do things but merely to observe things the way they are.
Imagine this scenario: It's nearly Thanksgiving and it's been a few years since you went to the big family gathering because the last time you did Uncle Jim got drunk and made your Aunt Carol cry at the dinner table and everyone asked you multiple times why you're not married yet, and because you're not married you still had to sit at the kid's table with your NINE year old cousins, and nobody was talking about my cousin Rick who was clearly high the whole time. You might have feelings of "My family is a train wreck, nothing ever goes well, there is so much tension being there, they treat me like a kid, they devalue me for not being married, I am an outsider, this will be miserable." Understandably, these thoughts would make it more challenging to go and would likely make it truly miserable to be there.
I encourage clients that have recurring difficult situations with family, work, or their own perspectives to imagine embarking upon an anthropological mission when heading into a situation like the one above. If I engage with the situation from a non-judgmental stance, I would be able to observe people and their interactions not for the quality or assumed intent but for their factual truth and for patterns. I would have a bit of emotional distance which can allow for decreased emotional distress and improved capacity to cope, problem solve, and have some renewed compassion for myself and the situation. If we imagine a Western anthropologist going to study a small, secluded Eastern culture that doesn't use technology, it is important for that person to leave behind their judgments about what is "good" or "bad." Making comparisons between things is one of the easiest ways to pass judgment -- "This is better than...." If someone studying another culture couldn't observe non-judgmentally, it would (subtly or overtly) alter the reported information. Think of an anthropologist coming to sit in at your own Thanksgiving dinner and the whole time they are making faces, saying "this is insane, you people are dysfunctional, this is so much worse than other families." Not overwhelmingly helpful for getting a clear picture of what is actually happening. More helpful would be someone being curious about the actions and rituals of a foreign people, recording fact based information, and merely observing the situation without comparison.
One of the barriers to adapting a more non-judgmental stance is that 1. it takes patience and conscious efforts to be mindful and 2. it can feel like someone is telling you that you are not allowed to have feelings about things.
First, yes. Being mindful of how we think and feel and judge things takes a bit of practice in the beginning. It can be frustrating to realize just how often things get labeled, judged, or criticized in our brains. Even the process of being mindful of our lack of mindfulness requires non-judgment. Said in another way, if you notice yourself feeling frustrated with yourself for being self-critical, remind yourself that it's ok. Self-compassion is easier to access when we are operating from our anthropologist stance.
Second, you are absolutely entitled to feel any way that you want about anything that is happening AND it's important to have the knowledge that this is merely one perspective about the situation and may not be fact-based. Adopting a non-judgmental stance is a mindfulness skill. This means it's something we can consciously access and use when it feels helpful and something we can choose not to use. There may be times when you get caught in making judgments and maybe you want to be there but there will also be times when it's helpful to enter a non-judgmental observer stance to reduce distress, increase tolerance, and allow for acknowledging alternative perspectives.
Accessing our inner-anthropologist can help us find greater peace in stressful moments, increased compassion for ourselves and others, and a more balanced perspective on an otherwise emotional situation.
If it's difficult to access your inner anthropologist, it can be helpful to use the following guidelines:
To identify the facts, use who, what, when, where questions. Who was there? Where did it happen? What was said? When did it occur? These questions capture the observable reality of things as best we can perceive.
To identify the feelings, use how and why questions. Why did he say that? How did he say it? These questions capture our judgments of intent, tone, emotion, rationale, and other subjective experience based components.
Practice identifying multiple perspectives. If there is more than one way to interpret a situation, then it's likely that at least part of your recollection of it is feeling based. "The cashier was rude to me because she didn't make eye contact" vs. "The cashier seemed upset because she didn't make eye contact." Same fact, different feeling based interpretations.
The ability to switch between mind states can be powerful for providing inner confidence, greater feelings of empowerment, and the ability to "turn down" the volume on our inner critic. Happy observing!