Human beings have pretty impressive brains. (The elephants and dolphins might have something to say about that, but until we can chat with them I’m pretty comfortable making this claim.) You don’t have to take my word for it – if you’re reading this you have your own experience with how cool your brain is.

Think of all the things we can do with these brains! We can create art, manage complicated relationships, solve problems (more about THAT particular skill in my last blog post), juggle multiple priorities, master complex physical skills, remember stuff that happened years and years ago, build remarkable pieces of technology – lots of cool things. Perhaps, most importantly, we can make cookies – surely one of the highest expressions of human genius…

There are, however, some challenges with having these mighty brains. The one I want to talk about today is the risk we run of assuming that if we think it, well, then it must be true. In other words we tend to take our thinking way too often at face value, without calling into question the thinking we’re doing.

I’m going to talk a LOT more about this in upcoming blog posts, but all I want to do today is to get you started thinking about this: what are you taking for granted in your thinking? Do you question your assumptions, beliefs, attitudes even a little bit?

I Wouldn’t Think it if it Wasn’t True – Right?

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I know, that sounds silly. Most of us are able to acknowledge that just because we think something doesn’t mean it is automatically true. But the way we ACT is another thing altogether. We charge along, interacting with our world, making decisions, taking action (or avoiding taking action), evaluating information, trusting or distrusting situations or people, and doing most of it without really considering what we’re basing those decisions and actions on.

Why is this important? Because, as I find a way to say here almost every blog post, anxiety starts in our thinking. That includes in a giant way our expectations and assumptions about the world, our behavior, what is useful or not useful.

So if we’re going to be effective in our work to overcome and master our anxiety we’re going to have to become somewhat skillful at examining and questioning our thinking. We have to become skeptics – skeptics about what we take for granted in our thinking. We can’t really afford to continue just taking our thinking/assumptions at face value…

I Believe…

Two little words – so much power to control our thinking and behavior. Let’s see how I do coming up with examples –

Let’s say that you believe that being a good friend (or spouse, or parent, or you name it) means you can never, ever be angry with someone you love. You might have a host of reasons for believing that. You might have grown up in a house with a lot of shouting and fighting – or you might have grown up in a house where anger was strongly punished. Whatever the origins of that thinking you think any display or expression of anger is BAD.

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But while there are certainly less useful ways of expressing our anger (like attacking someone physically or kicking your small fuzzy dog) that doesn’t mean that anger is categorically evil. In fact (as I’ve argued before in this blog) we HAVE to be able to acknowledge and admit our feelings to ourselves – and that includes being angry.

That’s nice and all, but you might be reading this and going “sure, that’s fine for other people Erik, but I KNOW that anger is always wrong, or dangerous, or scary, or…” whatever you’re thinking to yourself. Here’s the rub: you’re wrong. It isn’t. Very few things in the natural world are right or wrong by themselves or in all circumstances. It is mistaken thinking – not useful to us.

Yet if we don’t call into question such a fundamental belief it will continue to drive all kinds of thinking and behavior that is also not useful to us. This is the kind of thinking, for example, that leads someone to endure selfish or ignorant behavior with a forced smile and silence until that ugly hour comes when we blow up at something tiny – because we’ve had ENOUGH and we’re PISSED AS HELL!

(You’ve never had that happen, right?) 🙂

So where are your beliefs getting YOU in trouble? What “bedrock truths” are in need of at least a pulling-off-the-shelf-and-dusting experience in your thinking? What do you believe that needs some review? They might be family articles of faith, or lessons you learned at work that you’ve taken too much to heart, or just the voices of your fears, steering you away (or towards) behaviors and thinking that promise safety…

Speaking of which, here’s another one –

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Good Work Means Perfection

This is a pretty insidious thought for us anxiety fighters. Good isn’t good enough – no sir. Nope, good is only good when it’s exactly right, or perfect, or completely free from errors or risk… like THAT ever happens! Again, there are a variety of possible origins for such a wacky thought, but that isn’t my interest here – my interest is in getting you to challenge that crazy thinking and get skeptical about the truth of such an assumption.

Sure, there are times and places where something akin to perfection is feasible and desirable. I like my brain surgeons to be pretty close to perfect, for instance. I like my pilots to be all but error-free when they land and take off.

But that’s not the same thing as saying EVERYTHING we attempt has to come off perfectly, or that we shouldn’t make mistakes with whatever we’re doing. I think this is one of the most dangerous thoughts a person can carry around in their skull.

So many smart risks, so many chances to face down fear and anxiety, so many opportunities to learn something new or shake free of old and destructive habits are shut down and passed by with this little virus of a thought. We HAVE to risk and even make mistakes to learn. We have to try experiments that we’re not certain of the outcome. I know, that’s crazy talk, right? Who in their right mind would take chances that they can’t control?

Anxiety fighters – that’s who. One of the life-sucking results of anxiety is that we get more and more risk-adverse. We become addicts to safety, listening to the siren song of our Flight or Fight reactions and the Comfort Zone those reactions are building. To win our freedom we have to be willing to push past our Comfort Zone walls, challenge our fears and take chances that might succeed or fail – THIS time.

And that’s another thing about seeking perfection or perfect safety – we need to take a longer view. We need to see that learning takes time, that getting skillful takes time – that we can only even hope for superior or close to error-free IF we’re willing to make mistakes, mess up, have good days and bad days (or even good hours and bad hours) if we’ll roll up our sleeves, be willing to get dirty and risk getting our knees skinned, metaphorically speaking…

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We All Need a Little More Science in Our Lives

One of the gifts that scientific thinking brought the world is the notion that it is GOOD to question our assumptions. Scientists make their living in large part by questioning why and how things happen. They look for clear root causes. They build theories about the world (or some small piece of it) and then, if they’re doing their jobs right, test those theories again and again to see how accurate those theories really are.

We need to do more of that with our thinking. We need to be better, skeptical thinkers. Here are some samples:

“I can’t do this.” Really? Why? Is that fear talking or is that something you already know? Are you basing that on past experience that may or may not be valid anymore? Were the circumstances under which you tried this the last time the same as this time? Do you know more now? Could you try it several times before you decide you really can’t do it?

“I’m going to fail.” So now you’re able to see the future? HOW do you know you’ll fail? You MIGHT fail – I’m not saying you’re guaranteed success by virtue of trying – but on the other hand, how the heck can you really know if you DON’T try? Probably some basing this on past experience, when you knew less or were not as capable as you are now…

“I know someone will feel this or that way if I do this or that.” Not only are we pretending to be fortune tellers, but we also act as if we were telepaths. Yes, history might tell us that a person could have a particular reaction. Again, are we basing our assumption on repeated experience or one ugly response? Has that person gotten any older or wiser? And just how dangerous IS that person’s response anyway – what makes it so scary in the first place? Heck, maybe it’s time to risk a less-than-super-happy-response anyway – maybe you BOTH need a little honesty and shaking up of your thinking…

We’re going to do a lot more of this kind of thinking here at the blog in the months to come. For now, just consider this notion: we all need to question our assumptions. It is difficult to do, especially when we’re just starting out. It is tiring. It is sometimes world-shaking. But it is also vitally important in the fight to beat anxiety.

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