This week, we're talking marbles. This has nothing to do with the idea of "having lost your marbles" (though that is a joke that clients regularly make when I bring this up). Alternatively, this is an image I use to help explain how the brain sorts, categorizes, and stores information about the world.
As we've talked before, the brain strives to be incredibly efficient (if not sometimes a bit lazy) in how it functions. Due to the amount of sensory information we take in on a moment to moment basis, there is a need to be able to form and hold generalized/stereotyped images of different objects, people, experiences, and feelings within the brain. These mental short cuts are necessary but -- as with most things -- can get unruly if not observed. Too much complexity leaves the brain having to individually identify "couch" every time you walk into a living room but too much simplicity leaves us unable to differentiate a chair from a couch.
In a simpler form, we can think of it like the brain looking at the picture of the marbles above. The task to separate them into two jars would be incredibly easy -- one for the black ones, one for the white ones. In the brain, things are of course not this simple, but the brain still tries to get as close as possible. As discussed last week in The Anthropologist, the brain routinely makes judgments. These judgments and labels are some of the ways in which we separate and store information of the same kind for later recollection and use. Bad experiences and good experiences need to be separated -- the light from the dark -- and experiences of a similar nature need to be stored together. This allows us to form stereotypes in the brain of different aspects of our life -- anger looks like/feels like this. Unfortunately, the things our brain is tasked with separating are not nearly as clean cut as black marbles and white marbles. Take a look at the image below and imagine being charged the same task -- to separate these marbles into two jars: one for white marbles and one for black marbles.
This would leave you with a much more difficult set of decisions to make. None of these marbles are all white or all black but forced to decide which is the closest fit, they would mostly be a fit for "black" because they're certainly not white. These would be inexact divisions based on things not fitting into an easy category but it would be close enough. If it's not clear, and I have rigid labels to adhere to, I will do my best to make things fit in the best way I can -- even if it's imperfect. This is similar to how the brain works. When thinking about the events in our lives, it can feel desirable to reduce their complexity and label them as good times and bad times. This is simpler, requires less work, and is based on our personal history of what is good and bad.
People begin to see themselves, their actions, and their life in these terms. What starts as a bad conversation with my partner becomes a bad day becomes a bad week becomes being bad at my job becomes being bad at the relationship, and ultimately that I am bad. This is, of course, an extreme overgeneralization based on only having two real categories to choose from in addition to other personal factors. If when I reflect on a situation, I see aspects of it that are bad or wrong, I may begin to discredit the parts of it that were good and label the whole thing as bad. This simplified version of looking at situations, actions, and ourselves skews us to put more and more marbles in the "bad" jar and fewer and fewer into the "good" jar. The judgments of "good" and "bad" are also based on my own personal history and valuation of what those mean. And to be clear, most of us are way more critical of ourselves than anyone else in our lives so we tend to skew far more toward our dark. Over time, this process can lead to rigid and concrete personal views, low self-esteem, and the type of thinking about people and the world that can be incredibly difficult to change.
So what does any of this mean for us? First, it is of critical importance in as many ways and times as possible, to put things on a spectrum. The ease of black and white thinking is a trap that ultimately leads to unhappiness. Very, VERY few of us use black and white thinking in a way that skews positive. The primary reason being that if there is any streak of color in a white marble it's not technically white. We like to keep a pristine and pure image in our mind of what it would be like/look like for everything to go "right" but this is not an actual possibility given that we're humans dealing with other humans in an imperfect world. Putting what we feel and experience on a spectrum and getting honest about the facts of a situation is a first step. On the scale from my worst anger to my most at peace, where does this feeling fall? On the scale from my most depressed to my most happy, how am I feeling now? This was a complicated situation -- what different emotions were present? If I grant myself more hues and more latitude to sort and organize, then I tend to be less stressed and unhappy overall. Engaging in this type of sorting initially takes longer, requires more conscious thought and effort but it will provide better results and lead to more mindful awareness of your emotions. This mindful awareness is an important part of accessing our non-judgmental Anthropologist stance which helps us feel better and have more balanced relationships to others, what we feel, and how we react.
Beginning this process, as with anything, can be incredibly frustrating. It requires us to
s l o w
d o w n
and really use both our emotion mind and logical mind at the same time. What this offers us is more mental space to hold challenging emotions and better integration in the brain. Even our biggest and scariest emotions can be mitigated by putting things into a clearer perspective that honors the multi-faceted nature of the experience. When you're feeling insecure about yourself or a situation, it's helpful to not rush to quickly label it with an easy, simple label without thinking about it. It may not seem significant but there is a difference between labeling a feeling as sad vs. disappointed. Finding the word that feels most right in your nervous system to describe a current state unlocks a deeper connection to our emotions.
Accessing a wider range of our emotional understanding and allowing ourselves to speak about and believe alterations in previously held truths is a massive step toward growth. If things aren't black or white, then I can see a shade of grey and focus on how close to black it is or how close to white it is. That's my choice. If I'm looking at the range of imperfect to perfect, I can always find ways in which I skew more toward imperfect which I might associate with being bad, incompetent, unworthy, or unlovable. If I focus on having done the best I can even if not perfect, I am able to acknowledge growth, progress, strength, and resilience. Any guesses as to which one leads to higher self-compassion, confidence, self-esteem, and personal worth in the long run?
Of course, this process is often aided by having someone there to help us catch when we're over simplifying or using more destructive lines of thought. It takes patience and training to have this skill become more natural -- try to not get discouraged. Personal growth and expanding our emotional bandwidth takes time but the benefit will be worth it.