Read Time: 12 minutes
“Man can know himself only in so far as he can become conscious of himself.” -Carl Jung
One of life’s truths is that voice in our head. Really, it’s more like Pandemonium. We each have hundreds of people in our head. Mom and Dad are the loudest, but our teachers, coaches, idols, celebrities, and heroes are in there too. This article is about how to begin ordering the chaos into a choir. Modern psychology has found that one of the greatest predictors of life satisfaction is what overall style these voices talk to us. It is called our explanatory style. It is teachable and improvable. This post will show you how.
If we are humble and perceptive, we’re aware that a staggering majority of our lives are unconscious. Much of our unconsciousness stems from the way we think. We each have that voice in our head, the continuous commentator and critic. Positive psychologists call it our Explanatory Style, Psychoanalysts call it the Superego, Transactional psychologists call it The Parent. Greeks called it their Daimon and Christians call the voice a Demon.
The name doesn’t matter much. What does is recognizing that you are not alone in the house of your psyche. This voice powerfully affects how you view the world, the action you take in the world, and how the world engages with you.
“We make the unconscious conscious by examining our patterns.” -James Hollis
This article has 5 parts:
- The current metaphor scientists use to understand our minds and this voice
- The evolutionary reason this voice is in our heads
- The scientific support for the technique
- The philosophical foundations
- The technique
If you’d like to skip directly to the Technique, start at The Foundation.
The current popular metaphor scientists are using to teach how the mind works is The Rider and The Elephant. Our minds are divided. We have a slow, rational, and conscious mind (The Rider), and we have a fast, emotional, unconscious mind (The Elephant). For more information, check out Dual Process Theory.
Our Elephants and Riders are infected to the degree that our Rider automatically generates negative (non-adaptive) thoughts to deal with emotions coming from our Elephant.
To help visualize how our automatic thoughts influence our lives, I’d like to add to the metaphor.
Have you seen Princess Mononoke? Do you remember the boar at the beginning? That is what most of our Elephants are like when we realize the hundreds of automatic negative thoughts we are programmed with.
In the movie, Nago is shot with a lead bullet. This wound mixes with his hatred for the human who shot him and this allows him to be possessed by a demon. This is an archetype. This is a metaphoric life truth. We are each like this.
Our elephant has lodged inside them a few poisonous thoughts (I’m not worthy. I can’t change. Life is meaningless.) And it is from these early life wounds that our negative thought snakes emerge. By using the empirically tested technique I am going to explain below, we can catch these snakes, defang them, and in the process, learn a great deal about ourselves.
It isn’t easy, it isn’t a quick fix, but The Rider can heal The Elephant.
Before we get to the science, let me cover the most common question asked at this stage.
Where do negative thoughts come from? How do we get them?
This is a fascinating question. It involves biology, genetics, the psychology of learning, cognition, and evolutionary biology. These thoughts come from our parents, teachers, coaches, peers, and culture. Many of our primary wounds were embodied before we were six (this is the consensus among psychotherapy, clinical psychology, depth psychology, and, it’s worth noting, many New Age books.)
My view of reality is influenced by Empiricism and Darwinian Evolution. So, when I went looking for answers, this is my admitted bias. Many researchers, notably Daniel Gilbert, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, believes that the fundamental purpose of our minds are to enable us to predict what will happen.
The fundamental reason we hear that voice is because our brain is attempting to adapt.
Your brain is always trying to accurately predict the future. The voice in our head is that fundamental process flailing and failing, trying to help us adapt. The unattractive truth is this skill can become very skewed. But, like most things, it can be improved.
Here is a simple example how this kind of programming begins:
If, when we started walking as a child, our parents reacted excitedly at our first steps, we’re being rewarded for success and learning. Our nervous system is being shaped to view success as adaptive.
If, our parents only react when we fall, with a laugh or gasp, we are being rewarded for our failing. Our nervous system is being shaped to view not succeeding as adaptive.
The nervous system cares about adaptation, and we learn to adapt to what our parents needed.
Some parents need a clumsy child, others need a good-for-nothing child. Some need little heros, and some need their child to never grow and stay home to care for them.
This is an oversimplification, but it highlights how the programming begins.
We accumulate hundreds of thousands of these microprogramming moments from our caretakers by the time we leave for school. Most of us make it deep into our teens or twenties before the programming we learned from our parents begins failing us in our attempts to navigate life.
The Promethean truth is that the moment we choose to, we can start reprogramming ourselves. We do not have to live the script our youth set for us. I think this is the essential work young adults should engage. Become aware of yourself so you can reprogram yourself into who you want to be.
“We all have to ‘kill’ ourselves, often in the most gruesome manner possible, to become more than the bloke produced by the collision of History, Genetics, and Accident on the day we were born.” -Robert Anton Wilson
“It is quite possible to overcome infantile suggestions of the unconscious, and even change the contents of the unconscious, by employing the right kind of technique.” -Bertrand Russell
Science has helped us refine the right technique. They call it “Cognitive Therapy.” But the name doesn’t matter, what matters is that empirical research finds it significantly effective.
This section was originally much longer but as the post grew I decided to trim here but I’ll link to the most robust meta-analysis of the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for those curious.
“The Mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton
The foundational principle of Cognitive Therapy is that events do not disturb us, we disturb ourselves by the way we think about events. This is an old idea, but it is one of the most important ideas I have ever learned. Cognitive Therapy is a modern and pragmatic manifestation of one of the essential tenets that is in both Buddhism and Stoicism.
“People are disturbed not by things, but by the views we take of them.” -Epictetus
“The whole world is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” -Marcus Aurelius
“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” -Buddha
There have been many techniques offered through the ages on how to realize this truth. The technique I am offering is the most robustly tested and effective technique the Western mind has created. It is not the only way up the mountain, but it is a tried and true path.
The Technique: Belief Farming
Here is how the technique works:
- Learn the 10 Cognitive Distortions
- Catch Them
- Identify Them
- Dispute Them
Giving ideas their own names helps me remember them. Here is how I look at this:
- Learn about the 10 Types of Snakes
- Catch Them
- Name Them
- Defang Them
The 10 Snakes: The Most Common Cognitive Distortions
The essence of all the distortions is thinking irrationally and childishly. For each type of distortion I’ll give 2 examples. You’ll notice that a lot of these overlap, which is good news. The more you practice one the more quickly you’ll be able to defang others.
Note: My girlfriend and I are trying polyamory and yesterday I learned she has another lover. This is the first Other in our relationship and I do find it a curious and funny coincidence that the day I write this post is the day I find out. So I will practice what I preach and use this technique to process my feelings.
Action: Write these 10 Distortions down. Physically writing improves memory recall, and you’ll be referring to this often.
Here is a cheat sheet you can print off.
Dichotomous Thinking – Either/or thinking, black and white, absolutest. If you fail at one thing, you’re a complete failure.
Example: I can’t share anything I write until It is perfect. It has to be the best.
Example: My girlfriend had sex with another man. A real man’s woman wouldn’t need another lover.
Over-Generalizations – We take a few data points and make sweeping generalizations
Example: No one read my first three blog posts. I’m not interesting. Why am I even doing this?
Example: She found another lover in just a few weeks. She must not of been satisfied with me while we were dating.
Exaggerated Negativity Bias – you look for, and only focus on the negative.
Example: The last time I posted a scientific post on r/psychonaut no one liked it.
Example: She’s fucking another man. *Thinks about specific acts that make the gut churn.*
Disqualifying the Positive – they not only ignore the positive, they are able to alchemically transform the positive or neutral into negatives.
Example: Yeah, almost everyone who read my post liked it and all the comments were positive, but they’re just being nice.
Example: Yeah, she tells me our connection and intimacy is the best she’s ever had but she’s just trying to make me feel better.
Jumping To Conclusions; aka “Mind Reader” – assuming people hold a belief about you, you let this assumption affect you, and you take no action to confirm or disprove the assumption.
Example: My friends are pretending when they tell me how good my writing is. Who can I trust?
Example: I haven’t been enough for her for a long time. I lived a lie.
Magnification and Minimization – If you do something “bad,” you catastrophize, if you do something good, you minimize it
Example: Fuck! I spelled catastrophize so badly google didn’t even know what I meant. I am not meant to write.
Example: I’m not a man. I can’t satisfy my girlfriend. I’m just, not enough.
Emotional Reasoning – You equate emotion as truth.
Example: This feeling of unworthiness about the quality of this post is evidence it isn’t good enough.
Example: This indescribable twisting in my stomach is proof I am not meant for an open relationship.
Shoulding and Musterbation – thinking in shoulds and must generate a lot of frustration, guilt, and shame.
Example: I must write a perfect post before I publish it.
Example: She should’ve waited longer before she found another lover.
Labeling and Mislabeling – Essentially, saying “I am…anything.” Your Self cannot be equated to any one thing you do. You’re an ever-changing verbing whirl of action and thought.
Example: I’m not a writer. I’m a fraud.
Example: I’m not a man. I’m worthless. I’m weak.
Personalization – This is the mother of all guilt. When a negative happens, we find a way to conclude that it is our fault.
Example: Because I’m just no good, thats why my blog isn’t more successful.
Example: My lacking as a man is why she so quickly found another lover.
FUCK! You can see how that kind of thinking could send any human into a downwards spiral of depression, apathy, and self-hate.
Not one of those thoughts are rational or reasonable. Each one is distorted and fundamentally untrue.
The exercise below is the meat of this post. This is how you defang those fucking snakes.
Catching, Naming, and Defanging
You’ll need paper and pen.
First, divide your paper into 5 sections; Emotions, Situation, Distortion, Defang, and Emotions.
(I may need to do one of these over my self-consciousness about my poor handwriting lol.)
In the left most box, fill in what emotions you feel and add a 1-100 scale to show intensity. Then, briefly explain the situation.
Next you’ll identify the distortions. There are almost always more than one.
Once you’ve identified the distortions, you can defang them.
I’m typing this because its long. My insecure ass is tripping over almost all the distortions.
Defanging Musterbation: We agreed together to start our open relationship. There was no reason she “should” wait. That is me imposing an illusory restriction so I feel righteous in being angry.
Defanging Labeling: Her and I are beyond any labels. I am not less in any way because the person I love had a positive sexual experience with someone other than me.
Defanging Ignoring The Positive: I am ignoring a mountain of positive. The relationship I have with her is the healthiest and most loving relationship I have had with any human on this earth. I know deep in my bones that she loves me in a way that heals.
Defanging Emotional Reasoning: I understand that this emotional ping in my gut is an evolutionary response meant to help me successfully reproduce. I understood this before embarking on this journey and I know I have the cognitive tools to deal with this.
Defanging Personalization: My girlfriend’s exploration towards other lovers is not due to my shortcomings. We each are free to love as many people as will love us.
Now take a moment to feel your emotions. Write down how you feel after doing this exercise.
Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. This is a practice to start doing whenever you have any strong negative emotions. You’ll find that there are always some cognitive distortions lurking.
This is my longest post. It is a lot of information. But it is one of the most important tools psychology has created. It is hard to do, but it is important work.
We have voices in our heads. Most of these voices are automatic thought patterns we acquired early in our life in our attempt to adapt. Many of them are not helpful, and we can reprogram them. We reprogram them by understanding the common ways they distort reality, we then practice catching them, naming them, and defanging them.
Whatever programming we have, we will pass it on to our children and friends. You are responsible for what you pass on. Metaprogram yourself.
Sharing and Feedback
This is an important idea. This article is a verb. I welcome all critiques and feedback. I want to make this as clear and helpful as I can. Please feel free to share this with anyone you think it will help. This is a life changing practice.
What are your most common cognitive distortions? What situation did you use this technique for? Did it help?
Let me know. I love you and Namasteezy.