or ‘How to Know if You are Thinking Your Own Thoughts or Someone Else’s and What to do About it!’
Fireworks, beer and barbecue were on the agenda for most Americans last week when we celebrated Independence Day. When the U.S. defeated Great Britain over 200 years ago, we won the right to govern ourselves…a great source of pride and celebration. And with good reason! Living in a Democracy means we have more freedom and more rights than many other nations on earth. It means, in short, we Americans have the right to think for ourselves, to express our thoughts, and even vote in accordance with our thoughts.
But are we really exercising our hard-won right to think for ourselves? Hmmm…
Maybe, maybe not.
From the time we are born, ideas, behaviors and values are downloaded into our brains and incorporated into our being, similar to how apps are installed into computers. Scientists who’ve argued for decades whether we are influenced by our genetics or by our experiences and surroundings in the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture…now agree the answer is…. ‘Both!’.
You and I were raised by humans so therefore we suffer (and also benefit) from the ideas, opinions and experiences embedded by our social environment. When socialization (the technical term for learning social norms and mores) is beneficial is to learn things like when to shake hands, when to say, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. But when it starts to go awry is when we learn what to be afraid of (ie. Stranger Danger!). Much of the info being downloaded into our brains as we are growing is useless, damaging or both. For example, are all strangers dangerous? Of course not! All of our friends were strangers at one time. Dr. Gwen Dewar says, “I am struck by how many people seem content to impose unreflective, conformist thinking on children.”
Even more important than teaching children to follow society’s conventions is to raise humans who can think and identify real events, make decisions, and recognize their own power in doing so. Actually, it serves them better to operate this way, rather than to adopt our distilled and sometimes-delusional world views and methods of interacting.
How do we teach this important skill to kiddos even while protecting them from danger? First, we can improve our own ability to think and make decisions, then share a little at a time what we are learning…like osmosis.
For example, I recognize that I am sometimes lazy in my thoughts and let others’ opinions creep into my consciousness. Also I have a bad habit of letting other people make assumptions about me without correcting them. In other words, sometimes I’m guilty of operating on autopilot. Does this sound familiar? I believe I am not alone. Usually we are not aware of when we do this though, so becoming aware is a big step forward.
For decades, social psychologists have known about a phenomenon called ‘groupthink’. It occurs when a group of people values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. It can be any group (a family, company culture, team…), we are all susceptible, and it’s happening all the time. Groupthink has lead to some of the worst decisions, the most famous being the epic failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. It occurs when every individual in a group makes an assumption that other people are exercising critical thinking so they don’t have to question or engage in any decision-making.
Maybe it’s because of a fear of what people will think of us if we don’t agree, or maybe it’s because we don’t want to take responsibility for the outcome, and would rather hide behind a collective decision, rather than make a stand. Neither scenario puts human tendencies in a very good light, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel!
Last night some friends and I were at a restaurant listening while a waiter was going over the specials…speaking very rapidly. My friend stopped him and said “I don’t know what you’re saying.” In that moment I felt how trustworthy my friend is. To you, this may seem like a small detail, but it takes courage to break another person’s reality and state clearly how yours is different. In fact, self-actualization is defined by ‘reaching one’s potential through …a thorough grasp of the real world.’ Small steps like my friend letting the waiter know he was not reaching his goal of communicating bring us all closer to self-actualization. She pointed out her reality, knowing it was different than his assumption of it.
Young’uns who are not encouraged or allowed to experience the results of their choices…and in this way connect with reality.…cannot hope to ever reach self-actualization. Many parents are so frightened for their children, they constantly step in to manipulate the consequences of their children’s decisions. Such a child will surely struggle later in life (and perhaps struggle even now!) to distinguish why the world does not respond to his or her ministrations like mommy and daddy do.
If upgrading your thinking processes sounds to you like not the funnest project, just imagine the benefits. If you train yourself to make true and accurate observations, to allow yourself and your children to enjoy the results of your choices, and recognize you are in control of every aspect of your life, then you will really be a great model to your friends and children!
Also, you may be the next Thomas Edison or Madame Curie. In fact, right now I bet you can point to at least 10 things you enjoy in your world that are the result of someone thinking ‘out of the box’, or ‘against the grain’. If everyone subscribed to their culture’s homogenous thinking, no innovations would be possible.
Recently, I went with a group to the Museum of Science and Technology. Science has come a long way! And progress always happened when someone had the courage to dissent from mainstream thinking. People used to think the world is flat. Then, when they learned the world is round, they still believed the sky was flat, like a vast disc.
Thanks to Copernicus who, through tinkering, created the first crude telescope, came a more accurate grasp of the sky. Then, Galileo took the concept and created a more sophisticated version of the telescope so that he could study the stars. He reported his findings that the sky is a vast multi-dimensional network. Not a flat disc at all.
If we try to change from following mindlessly preprogrammed thoughts, let’s think about the opposite, mindFULness. Experience as many moments as consciously as possible. In a coaching relationship a coach can help discern whether your thoughts are yours or someone else’s squatting in your brain?
Through inquiry, you can discover the origins by yourself too. When you can feel a thought or idea lodged somewhere in your physical body, that is a most sure sign that the thought was installed in you. If it it’s organic, you can know it by how it feels. It is part of you.
One idea I grew up with …as a little girl growing up while the feminist movement gained momentum… is women should be independent. I internalized that so well that I became truly independent as a young woman, and truly alone! It made me sad.
Luckily, I met an incredible coach who helped me distinguish that belief was not mine. Even though I love empowerment and respectful treatment of women, at the same time, one of my biggest strengths is receptivity, so complete independence is not true to my nature. Making that distinction helped me learn to accept and receive help, input, friendship and love from others. At first, it did not feel natural (and still doesn’t sometimes). Prior to questioning my beliefs I could never imagine being as intimate with people as I am now. The gift of intimacy comes from a give and receive exchange. It makes me happy to feel interdependent, rather than independent.
Happiness is a true test of whether you have your own thoughts. When an idea comes through my consciousness that makes me feel excited and alive, that idea comes from my own heart and essence. Maybe someone made a suggestion or planted a seed that caused a connection, but if it feels good it is more likely to be congruent with me…my values.
If you’re still not sure, what you can do is to act and observe. When you take action on a belief how does it feel? How does it work for you in your life? Recently, a client was suffering from the thought that she needed to get a job. I suggested she apply at the TexMex Cantina across the street from where we were meeting which had a ‘help wanted’ sign. She did not light up at the suggestion and her face darkened. The suggestion of course was only a test. Her response told us both clearly that her idea of getting a job was not organic, and not what she needed to focus on in that moment.
Through inquiry we discovered the origin of the belief, released it and then formed a new plan based on her pleasure and coming straight from her heart. You know what? The plan coming from her heart and her essence, the one that makes her feel alive and aglow…that’s the plan that’ll work!
If you want your plans to work, get your thinking to work! Work for you, instead of against you, that is. You can stop being a victim of your own thoughts. But getting your thoughts to work for you does not mean getting smarter. Actually, since the discovery of groupthink and the damage it can do, a new school of thought studying how to raise intelligence in teams, rather than the opposite has emerged.
Studies overwhelmingly show that groups who get the best results and make the most effective decisions are never the groups with the smartest people, but they are the groups with people who listen to each other and give honest and accurate input to each other.
If you don’t believe me, go ahead, test out your thoughts and take action on them…only a small step is necessary to make a test. Our greatest thinkers agree action is key to thinking better. “Happiness consists of activity,” says John Mason Good.
“Activities that give us durable happiness are the ones we have a hand in creating. We don’t just sit back and receive pleasure. We actually generate the pleasure ourselves….that makes happiness ‘renewable.” says Sonja Lyubormirsky
If that doesn’t convince you, Dalai Lama said, “The easiest route to unhappiness is to do nothing…the easiest path to happiness is to do something.”
What beliefs are you questioning? I’d love to hear! Also, what are the 5 best innovations that came about during your lifetime, and what innovations do you want to see happen? I’d love to know!