Chapter 6 Positive Perception: Learn to See the World You Want: Self Regulation of selective perceptual filtering. Taking Control of Creating A Positive Attitude and A Positive Way to See the World,
© Rob Kall, 1996
by Rob Kall
It's not what happens, it's what you pay atention to and the way you interpret what happens that dictates your happiness response. Dark rain clouds mean happiness to a farmer whose fields are parched, but to the mother of the bride at a garden wedding they mean something quite different. One group of clouds: two opposite emotional interpretations.
You can't wait for positive experience opportunities to grab you. You have to seek them and make yourself as open to ready to see them as you possibly can.
Nothing you experience has any meaning until you filter it through your background, your memories, and your immediate needs. These become your touchstones of frames of reference that center your sensations and attitudes from moment to moment. Each person's memory store is vast, deep and constantly changing, like the ocean. And like the ocean's ever shifting surface, the most active, accessible part of our memory filters our raw sensory experience, only allowing us to become aware of a small part of our environment at any moment. Still water becomes stagnant. We have to keep making waves to keep our filters in motions, to stir up what's below and keep it vital. Why not even expect and help the best perceptual filter patterns to surface? Attitude and point of view are everything when it comes to creating meaning and memories, to seeing the best in each moment.
Bite into Life's Happiness Cookies
Billy, four, and Sarah, six, are elated about making cookies with Daddy as a surprise treat for Mommy when she gets home from shopping. A key turns in the door lock; they wait, with cute, icing-smudged smiles, eagerly anticipating Mommy's delight at their happy surprise. Dana, upset after getting stuck in traffic enroute, rushes in, and is greeted by the cookies and the kids' and Daddy's glowing faces. Then she sees the sticky hands, the messy mixing bowls, and the cluttered kitchen counter. ``Oh no!''she exclaims irritably.``What a disaster! Who made this mess?'' In a fury she starts cleaning up immediately.
Dana's reaction is understandable, but it costs her what could have been a very special moment. This is a situation she'll probably laugh about in a week, but she won't let herself experience the fun of the moment. Her hurry and irritability act as filters that darken her attitude instead brightening it so she can laugh and smile, hug her family and grab her opportunity to feel great. Opportunities to clean the house come far more often than chances to immerse yourself in joyful, gleeful family moments. Try to make the filters that color your experiences bright, optimistic and flexible.
When your filter gets locked into a negative attitude, cranky, irritable, disgusted or afraid, you develop an undesirable, rigid approach which cannot successfully respond to changes. Dana was stuck with a stagnant chunk of memory about her miserable ride home that became a negative filter. With the ability to make a slightly faster, more flexible filter change, Dana could have enjoyed a heartwarming moment and warm cookies with her loving family. Instead, she emotionally locked herself into an irritating hassle that pushed her loved ones away, reinforced and perpetuated her negative attitude. Faulty filters can make trouble in many other ways too.
At age 35, George started experiencing chest pains and other tell-tale signs of a heart attack. He rushed to the hospital. When the emergency room doctor greeted George, he asked, ``Who do you know who just had a heart attack?'' ``The minute the doctor asked that question, I felt okay.'' George remarked later. And tests proved he was fine. But George's 35-year-old friend, Jim, had recently suffered a major heart attack, and the emergency room doctor had recognized the signs of a sympathy syndrome. By filtering his symptoms through the memory of Jim's recent experience, George had convinced himself that he had been stricken in the same way.
Your Memory Runs Your Life
Your nervous system processes every experience that touches your senses before you ever realize it. Pre-conciously, before it reaches your awareness, the raw information is matched up with your memory patterns, filtered through your mood, then translated by your currently active drives and needs (food, rest, achievement, warmth, sex, etc.) Then you might become aware of it, or it might never come to your conscious attention.
Without that automatic filtering system which selectively links you to parts of your environment, you would be totally overwhelmed by information. It would be impossible to consciously, systematically sort through all the raw stimuli and information that reach your sensory organs each day, just as it would be impossible to go through life, learning how to walk and talk all over again on awakening every morning. Your memory helps you determine what to pay attention to. Recognizing faces is a simple way to distinguish friends from strangers without a thorough background check each time you encounter someone. You tell weeds from flowers that way too. But you can't afford the emotional investment it takes to look at every new face expecting to see Jack the Ripper, nor do you look at every plant expecting to see poison ivy or poison mushrooms. Past experience can set your filters up to see in either a positive, optimistic or negative, pessimistic light. Automatic filters are necessary, otherwise, your life would be bogged down in the need to resolve every minute doubt, prepare for every possible contingency. But maladaptive filters can make you miserable. Positive, automatic filter patterns will make you happier and help you to see the best in life.
For example: It helps to recognize subtle changes in the sound of your car's engine, but you don't stop every mile to check the slightest unfamiliar sound. You have a sense of what's dangerous. In the same way, it's good to be aware of weather warning signs so you can dress properly, but you don't always carry boots, an umbrella, and a heavy coat in case a cloud appears. Your judgement should tell you they are unlikely to be needed. It's even more difficult to interpret the subtleties of social interaction or self evaluation. there are no black or white, right answers. Overly negative interpretations can be burdensome, or worse, they can impose obsessive or self punitive over-reactions. When the guidelines and definitions aren't clear, you're more likely to make mistakes interpreting situations. You draw upon your recollections of past experiences every time you assess the meanings of complex or unclear situations. Even the unconscious effects of past experiences put a filter on your way of interpreting ambiguous moments. The richer your experiences and the clearer your recall of them, better you will be able to make quick judgments and interpretations that help you maintain a positive attitude.
Happy or sad, exciting or dull, challenging or defeating, you interpret every moment you spend in the world. And your world is what your mind says it is. Mood, energy level, attitude, and experience all exert powerful influences on your assessment of events. Your autobiographical memory defines who you are, maintains continuity, and determines how you perceive the world.
This memory of your life is ``the source of our sense of self: the feeling that over time we are the same person with the same abilities, values and personality,'' according to psychologist, David C. Rubin. Yet he has found that these autobiographical memories can be changed by viewing them through the light of later events. This can help your attitude and way of looking at the world if you load up your filters with positive memories, or hurt if you collect negatives.
Who Do You Think You Are?
We tend to revise our old memories as we pass them through the filters of our newer experiences and our present life. We routinely re-write our autobiographies, to reconstruct our memories of the past by creating ``self theories'' of how we believe we were likely to act. Based on our current view of ourselves, we tell it as we expect we would have acted, not as it really happened, as a video recording of it would show. It's strange, but reprogramming your memories is useful. This flexibility of memory can let you systematically create positive memory filters which produce a positive attitude, or negative filters which carve a miserable point of view. It is preferable to consciously determine, to take charge of molding the shape of this flexible, ever changing and evolving memory.
Jot down a brief autobiographic outline. Write just ten brief sentences or paragraphs that describe various parts of your life starting as early in your life as you like, coming back as close to the present as you wish. Do this exercise quickly, without any analysis; that way you get more material from your subconscious. Just get the brief notes down,
You might decide to cover totally separate, un-related experiences spread randomly throughout your life, or consider a specific phase or pattern in your life or time period. Instead of listing ten, you might quickly spin off a few from one summer or six or seven from a phase of your life. By limiting the number you force yourself to be selective as you poke through your memories. Many variations will emerge as you deal with different parts of your life.
Each autobiographical memory list you put together will help you recognize the perceptual filter patterns you use now or that you used before. If you find a list contains lots of negatives, memories that weaken your self esteem or depress you, then your mental filtering system at the moment leans toward the negative. Take a careful look at those old, negatives. Do you have new strengths and more recent experiences that balance the old ones out? Have you grown or changed since then. You can re-write those old negative memories in a more favorable light.
Repeat this exercise regularly, without referring to previous autobiographical sketches. See if your perceptions change. Try to use both positive and negative lenses to dig up memories--negatives, so you can get a handle on them and more positively re-interpret them, positives to counterbalance the negatives and strengthen your positive attitude filter, .
The first time I did a brief autobiographical sketch I remembered a spelling bee in which I won second place, at age eight or nine. I misspelled the word ``o'clock''. Who knows? Maybe my chronic lateness problem started at that point. My self esteem was definitely enhanced. Perhaps it planted the seed of the idea that I could be a writer.
To See Or Not To See; Necessary Blindness and Ignorance
In Vital Lies, Simple Truths, Psychologist Daniel Goleman writes, ``The brain...has the ability to bear pain by masking its sting, but at the cost of diminished awareness.'' He goes on to describe how people selectively, but systematically, ignore parts of their past and parts of their experience that are painful or contradictory, `` creating blind spots; zones of blocked attention and self-deception.'' That way, says Goleman, they seem better able to cope with stress, pain or life's adversity. Also, our body's endorphins and the other internally produced opiates soothe anxiety by letting us deny attention to the stress.
This denial can profoundly affect our entire life. For example, some people who encounter a difficulty in life simply surrender to it; they don't even consider trying to succeed because they're convinced they can't succeed. Sometimes a single past experience can beat them down. They've learned to live with failure and unhappiness, eyes closed to opportunities. They accept it. Some become depressed They stop looking for ways to break out of the misery mold. We call this state learned helplessness, and it is a powerful barrier to future happiness.
Depressed, stressed and fearful people tend to dramatically narrow their viewpoints and abilities to creatively see PE opportunity possibilities. Psychologist Harold Sackheim has observed that everyone has depressed, negative thoughts sometimes. Healthy people quickly move away from that state of mind. Depressed people get stuck there. There are many ways to get stuck.
Of course, people can and do recover from learned helplessness. You must identify any learned helplessness barriers in your life so you can work to get unstuck and go past them. Those barriers can appear anywhere--in your self esteem, ambitions, levels of intimacy, education achievements, in all aspects of thought and performance. Work to replace them with risk-taking and perseverance so you can have your share of happiness. Turn on all your positive experience sensors. Believe in your ability to change, to grow and improve.
Fine Tune Your Happiness Dial
It's unfortunate that few of us have skills for self-searching. Our schools don't teach techniques for systematically collecting information about our own psychological behavior. We learn how to look in the mirror to see if our hair is neat, and occasionally we see our results in tests that evaluate our performance or psyches, but that's about it. After leaving school, except for periodic job performance reviews, we rarely engage in any self analysis. Yet self evaluation is such an essential tool for taking control of your life, helping you to continually re-discover who you are and where you are going. You need to know your strengths, to understand why you get negative or positive.
Explore Your Center
What parts of your identity are most centrally you? I thought of that question as I watched a made-for-television movie recently. It was about a woman, Julia, whose body was mangled in an automobile accident. Her surviving brain was transplanted into the body of a young woman who just had a fatal stroke. Julia's most difficult challenge was to get used to the new body--smaller breasts, a plainer face, a higher, softer voice, dark hair instead of blonde. The doctors argued that, in spite of the changes, Julia was the same person because the brain was the repository of the mind.
What do you think? Would Julia's emotional response patterns, her smile reflexes have been the same in the new body? Would her transplanted intellect have retained her original personality? If such a thing happened to you, would your friends recognize you in the new body? Or would the body exert profound influences on your emotional make-up.
Try one or more of these exercises to get a clearer picture of the aspects of yourself you see as most important: Imagine that your brain is transplanted into a very sexy young body, then an overweight, middle aged body, an eighteen year old, and, finally, a healthy, well-maintained 65-year-old body of the opposite sex--and that the racial or ethnic background of each host body is different from yours. How to you feel about your imaginary looks? Social contacts? Wardrobe? Family relationships? Now see yourself in the body of a bed-ridden quadriplegic, and then in the body of an olympic athlete, in the body of someone who angers easily, or who doesn't respond emotionally. How do your attitudes change in each situation? Which of your basic characteristics are most important and helpful and which get in the way? How is the central you consistent? Different?
I asked a 40 year old male to imagine being a female and his first response was, "I'll have big boobs won't I?" I asked, would he be sexually "easy and loose" or more prudent. Would he view his new self as a professional, a potential mother, nurturing or hustling?
Millie, an attractive 35 year old mother of two, said she would rather be dead than be in a hairy, man's body, with a penis. "I like my soft skin and I wouldn't be me without my body," she asserted.
Jane liked the idea of being in a man's body. "It would be the best of all world's," she smiled, adding mischievously, "I could do the things men do that women can't."
What part of your body would you change that might affect your happiness or give you a more positive attitude towards life? How would your interaction with the world and your perception of it be different as a result. There's a lot to consider in understanding how your brain and your body mesh to produce the individual you.
One Brain, Two Views of Life
``If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't,'' wrote scientist Lyall Watson, in Lifetides. When we discuss the brain's functions, we tend to over-simply. This is particularly true in studying the specific functions of each side of the brain. Research clearly proves there are right brain/left brain differences, though they do overlap substantially. And the dominance of one or the other side in you has much to do with who you are.
Each side of the brain processes information in a different way. The right side tends to be more visual and pattern seeking, perceiving the whole forest rather than the individual trees. Some studies suggest that this right side of the brain also tends to process more of our negative emotions. The left brain controls muscles on the right side of the body and face, and vice-versa. The left brain tends to process experience in a more linear, step-by-step, analytical way, using words and numbers, rather than the right brain's images.
If you seem to get stuck on details, or repeat the same negative statements to yourself over and over again, you may be stuck in a left brain mode of functioning. On the other hand, if you tend to take one small bit of information and see in it some giant negative pattern that keeps you from acting, you may be stuck in a right brain mode.
Of course, the ideal is to loosen up and get both sides of your brain working together doing a trans-cerebral dance to maximize your own efficiency and your enjoyment in life. One way to do that is to exercise your powers of metaphoric thinking, because such thinking forces the two hemispheres of the brain to interact. The practical and the spiritual (or imaginative) aspects of your mind collaborate.
How to Get Your Brain Together
When philosopher Joseph Joubert says, ``Life is woven wind,'' he doesn't expect the statement to be taken literally. He means that life is changeable, temporary and has many possibilities for different patterns, just as the wind has. Of course, you might take a different meaning from his words, and that would be okay too. A metaphor suggests an idea; it does not intend the literal meaning of the words used in it.
The beauty of metaphoric thinking, perceiving and communicating is that they draw from the resources of both sides of the brain for a single purpose. This connects with more memories, forcing them closer to consciousness, bringing up clumps of memories into manageable strands which add meaning. The process facilitates your insight, vision and understanding. Philosophers and poets use images from nature as metaphors to help us to better understand the human experience. Quotation books classified by subject are really metaphor dictionaries. Try exploring one at your library or bookstore.
As an exercise in metaphoric thinking, apply the idea of a body of water--a lake, river, ocean, or stream--to your life and behavior. Think of a flowing stream as the stream of life, the rapids in it as times of adversity or of excitement. Play with images and interpretations of whirlpools, fast currents, tides, beaches, overhanging cliffs, bridges, cold depths, ice, fog--stretch your imagination. Metaphors can help you clear foggy ideas and wash away fears (clear, foggy and wash-away are water metaphor examples.)
In their book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff, Ph.D. and Mark Johnson, Ph.D. tell us that what we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor. They note that we all use common metaphors like ``up'' for healthy, successful and happy (high spirits, rising success, higher control, and ``down'' for sickness, failure, and death (feeling low, down in the dumps, suffer a drop in popularity). Other concepts that get common metaphors include near-far, front-back, center-edge, on-off, in-out.
Literally, these describe spatial, or physical facts, but used metaphorically they describe feelings and abstract ideas. People fall into the habit of using specific patterns of metaphor that reflect their own pattern of filtering. Think about the way you complain. Do you reflexively use the same category of metaphors in your thoughts and speech (``I'm lost.'' ``I'm a dishrag.'' ``I'm going down.'' ``I'm out of it.") These can weaken you and may be automatically causing you to perceive the world in a way that steals your most pleasurable possibilities.
If you feel ``low,'' or ``buried'' or ``deep'' in trouble, try describing your problems in metaphoric terms that don't have to do with depth. Instead of thinking to yourself, ``I'm going down fast.'' Think of ``spinning'' or ``flooding'' or ``blowing'' or ``going backward'' instead. If these or any of your own ideas for new metaphors sound strange or silly, that's good. The ``wrong-fit'' feeling can help you un-freeze your negative metaphoric pattern by disconnecting your automatic negative filtering reflex. Write down your hassles for the day and, search out any negative metaphors in the description that you can replace with more positive ones.
Put Your Pain or Paper
It helps to record the miserable periods of your life as they swirl about you. Psychologist, James Pennebaker's research showed that even six months after writing down traumatic experiences, the writers were healthier than before they did so, and had a stronger immune system functioning as well. He theorizes that putting painful experiences on paper helps you to clarify and close those experiences. By describing six months' worth of suffering in writing, you bring a seemingly endless period of time into a manageable perspective. Pennebaker observes that most religions and psychotherapy systems use confession or discussion of suffering to ease pain or to make a closer connection with God. Writing out your troubles can help in the same way.
It may seem difficult or impossible to take control of your perceptions, since some of what determines your filters is in place before birth, and even more reacts before you have a chance to take conscious control. Still, you can use your self awareness and self control skills to build dynamic positive filtering reflexes and systematically create, strengthen and maintain a positive attitude that keeps you strong, caring and confident.
END CHAPTER 6.
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Contact me with comments, suggestions, etc at Rob Kall firstname.lastname@example.org