More shaken foundations

That moment when you double-check something that you confidently started in conversation, but as soon as they expressed doubt, you suddenly were not so sure yourself. But you clung to your vanishing certainty. Now you’re anxiously searching online to verify that you were right about that fact, or that pronunciation, or that thing that has no real importance but which nevertheless currently represents your ego.

Yes, your ego. That’s what’s at stake here. You’re not keen to know a fact; you’re keen to know that you were not wrong. Why are egos so traumatized by being wrong? Because one instance of being wrong is a crack in the dam that threatens to break and whose flood will destroy their very identity. One error implies the possibility for more errors, which implies the possibility that foundational beliefs you’re built your life on may be lies.

And you would not actually feel so much anxiety if your subconscious were not aware that you do believe untruths. Like a child hiding under the blankets, you think that by not acknowledging the present problem, it does not actually exist. Head in the sand–boom, your problems are gone. It’s a defense mechanism. You can’t live life second-guessing your every belief.

But you might be able to tackle one.

Embrace the mental dissonance. Look them square in the eye. Fight them and resolve them. Because now that you know you are wrong about some things that are in your very foundation of beliefs, you have nowhere to go but up. Do the difficult thing because it will, dinner rather than later, yield abundant returns. Part of your house’s foundation had collapsed, whether you see it or not—get up, dust off, and start building.

Ants, and shaken foundations

Adventures in psychology!

I’m reading a book by Dr. Daniel Amen. It definitely has an element of self-help, although I’ll leave the negative connotation behind. Learning about how the brain and the mind work together has been fascinating, but I didn’t expect that the learning would shake my very sense of identity.

The beginning of the book concerns itself with the biological. Your mind can only do as well as your physical thinking organ allows it. Basically, only a healthy brain enables you to make full use of your mental capacities. Diet, exercise, and specific supplements and medicines influence the brain’s health.

Later in the book, practical psychiatric topics are discussed. One thing that has really caught my attention is what he calls Automatic Negative Thoughts. These are bad mental habits that most people tend to have without making a conscious effort to note and counteract them. Some examples:

  • “You never listen to me.”
  • “Just because we had a good year in business doesn’t mean anything.”
  • “You don’t like me.”
  • “This situation is not going to work out. I know something bad will happen.”

From an article on ANTs

Do they sound familiar? They do to me. I have thought like these all the time, and I never noticed. I have always had an unwavering belief that everything in my mind was right. Sure, sometimes I’d admit being wrong, but only because I was given wrong or insufficient information, and not because my brain could arrive at the wrong conclusion from the right evidence.

Well, from reading this book, I now know that I can, indeed, think poorly or wrongly. And the revelation has had an extreme effect on me. After noticing more and more of my personal ANTs, I can’t help but to question myself. How much of my thinking is just plain wrong? I had had confidence in myself, but now I cannot even trust my own mind.

(Of course, the book does share a number of mental strategies to correct ANTs (ANTeaters, haha), which are also briefly described in the article linked above. Those have been super-helpful, but they’re not what this article is about)

These discoveries have had a significant emotional impact. I lost a piece of my identity. That’s not something you experience without turmoil. I’ve experienced dazes while surrounded by friends during which I have silent little panics. What are people doing? What am I doing here? It’s as if I forget every social convention and have to figure it out by observation all over again. Eventually, the loss of confidence in my mind brought some humility. I have a much greater ability to have an opinion and be willing to re-examine it or abandon it later.

Through that humility I have found some emotional comfort as well. To dispel these recurring negative thoughts, I tell myself that I can’t trust my mind. And to soothe the emotional distress of losing assurance in my own thoughts, I tell myself that I am not my mind, but that it is a part of me and that it is (partially) under my control. That thoughts pass. That reality is not what it seems. And that, thank God, the world goes on despite my inability to be a perfect thinking machine.

Also, happy new year, everyone!