Photos: Konstantin Stepanov via Flickr
Every now and then, life punches below the belt. How can you be resilient when times get tough and you feel bad?
There are all kinds of strategies for feeling happier and showing grit. But most of them are very conscious and deliberate. And the truth is, most of what we do every day isn’t all that conscious and deliberate.
Ever since Freud, we’ve known that a lot of our behavior is unconscious. If that’s the case, shouldn’t you leverage your unconscious mind to get through the tough times? Only makes sense, right?
Now I don’t know much about my unconscious mind. (I mean, it’s unconscious, right?) So I called an expert on the subject. Tim Wilson is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious and Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By.
Tim has some, well, mind-blowing insights about how your brain really works. You’re gonna learn a lot about how that grey matter functions, how to fix it when it can’t cope, and you’ll even find out how to get to know yourself better to avoid future messes, how to stay happy when things suck, and even how to become a better human being in the process. (Now how’s that for value?)
But I do need to make a disclaimer first: I’m gonna have to shake your confidence in yourself a bit before we fix it. We need to correct some myths — and some of the truths are a little disturbing. Hang with me. We’ll get you back to the Shire, Frodo.
Alright, forget what you think you know about how your mind works. You’re wrong about a lot of stuff. In fact, you’re wrong about you…
Your conscious mind is an overconfident storyteller
Okay, tough love time: you don’t know yourself as well as you think. Who you think you are, your personality traits, why you do things… your perception of yourself can be way off.
Think your friends would agree with you on what you’re really like? Actually, they would agree more with each other on your personality than you would agree with any one of them.
From Strangers to Ourselves:
First, the correspondence between people’s ratings of their own personality and other people’s ratings of their personality is not very high. It depends somewhat on the trait; for example, people tend to agree with others about how extroverted they are, but on most other personality traits the level of agreement is modest (correlations in the range of .40). Thus, Suzie’s judgment of how agreeable and conscientious she is correlates only modestly with how agreeable and conscientious her friends think she is. Furthermore, other people agree more among themselves about what another person is like than they agree with that person’s own ratings.
Some people would immediately push back on this, “I know what I’m really like! I can see me from the inside! Nobody else has that information!”
Yes, you have a lot more info about yourself than a stranger does but your conscious mind is kinda like the internet: tons of great information and an awful lot of inaccurate information as well.
In some areas you’d have more insight into yourself, but in others you’d be way off. When you average it all out, the information you have about yourself is about as accurate as a stranger’s read on you.
From Strangers to Ourselves:
Averaging across several studies, there seems to be no net advantage to having privileged information about ourselves: the amount of accuracy obtained by people about the causes of their responses is nearly identical with the amount of accuracy obtained by strangers.
I know: pretty shocking, isn’t it? Why is it so shocking? Because your conscious mind is basically an overconfident storyteller.
Your conscious mind doesn’t have any direct access to everything going on in your unconscious mind.
How do you determine what others are like? You watch and guess and make up a story. Well, your conscious mind does the same thing with your unconscious mind. Except your conscious mind is very overconfident about its stories.
From Strangers to Ourselves:
The analogy I favor is introspection as a personal narrative, whereby people construct stories about their lives, much as a biographer would. We weave what we can observe (our conscious thoughts, feelings, and memories, our own behavior, the reactions of other people to us) into a story that, with luck, captures at least a part what we cannot observe (our nonconscious personality traits, goals, and feelings).
Think about it for a second. You lash out at someone. You say they deserved it. Then you have something to eat. And you feel much better. You realize they weren’t being awful, you were just cranky because you were hungry. We feel emotions and our conscious mind scrambles to figure out why. And sometimes it’s wrong.
You think the voice in your head is in charge, that it makes every decision. But that’s true a lot less often than you think. Ever been so wrapped up in your thoughts while driving that you barely remember the ride home? You didn’t crash the car. You made the decisions that allowed you to arrive safely without consciously thinking at all about them. In fact, you’re on unconscious “autopilot” most of the day. But your conscious mind really loves taking credit for everything.
Some people are gonna get freaked out at this realization: “AHHH! I can’t trust myself! I’m not in charge! Why is my brain like this?”
It’s okay. Your unconscious mind is still “you.” But it’s not the “you” that is the voice in your head. To be fair, the voice in your head, your conscious mind, has a really really tough job. Actually, it has two jobs — and they’re often at odds with one another:
- Job 1: Provide as accurate a vision of yourself and the world as possible.
- Job 2: Keep you happy.
You can compare this to giving advice to a friend about their bad behavior. You want to be accurate enough that you can help them course correct but you don’t want to make them feel like a terrible person. It can be a tricky balancing act.
Sometimes you need to hear, “You’re right. Everyone else is wrong.” But other times you need to hear, “You are being a jackass and should get your act together.”
Seeing yourself with rose-colored glasses — within limits — is a good thing. Keeps your self-esteem up and depression away. But too rosy and you start saying things like, “I bet I’m a natural at skydiving! I don’t need lessons!”
Your conscious mind doesn’t have perfect information about your unconscious mind, so it guesses. On top of that it also needs to try and keep you happy. So at times it comes up with very inaccurate stories about you and the world. Stories you often unquestioningly accept as “truth.” And that’s why sometimes you give its tales more credence than your underlying feelings and end up in the kind of job you think you “should” love — but don’t. Or you end up involved with the kind of person you think you “should” love — but don’t.
So what does all this have to do with resilience? (In fact, you may be feeling a lot less resilient now that you realize the voice in your head can’t always be trusted.)
(To learn the 7-step morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
When life gets hard and you’re feeling really bad, knowing how inaccurate your conscious mind can be is actually a big help.
1) It’s not that bad. Really.
Tim and Harvard professor Dan Gilbert have done a lot of research on what they call “affective forecasting.” That’s a fancy term for “predicting how you’re going to feel in the future.”
Turns out, you’re terrible at it. Feelings come from your unconscious mind. But predictions come from that overconfident storyteller. Turns out that all of our storytellers have a tendency to exaggerate.
What’s that mean? When times are tough, your storyteller says, “WE’RE GOING TO FEEL BAD FOREVER! THE PAIN WILL NEVER END!”
Don’t believe your storyteller. Here’s Tim:
We tend to exaggerate the impact of future events on our happiness and how lasting that impact will be. We tend to think that if something bad happens to us, that we’ll feel terrible forever, or at least for a very long time. The truth is, good things do make us feel good and bad things make us feel bad, but for not nearly as long as we think. We’re very resilient creatures who recover as quick as we can from the pitfalls in life.
Next time someone tells you you’re overreacting to a bad situation, don’t get angry with them. They’re probably right. Your storyteller has a tendency to be way too creative — and way too confident as well.
(To learn how 5 post-it notes can make you happy, confident and successful, click here.)
So knowing you have an unreliable narrator in your skull can be a good thing. The pain isn’t as bad as you think… But there’s still pain. What’s the first line of defense? Actually, it’s your unconscious mind. Like a superhero, it will come to save the day.
How do you send up the Bat Signal to let it know you’re in trouble? Here’s some more good news: you don’t have to do anything at all.
2) You have a “psychological immune system”
You’ve felt awful before. Your overconfident storyteller said the pain would never end. But it did. As the maxim goes, “Time heals all wounds.” Actually, that’s not true: your “psychological immune system” heals all wounds.
Think about your body. You get the flu. But after a few days your immune system gets to work and knocks the hell out of the bug that infected you. Tim’s research shows that your unconscious mind actually does a similar thing when life throws you a curve ball.
It will put things in perspective. It will help your conscious mind rationalize, and tell a happier story. Here’s Tim:
When something bad happens to us, we try to make ourselves feel better. That happens, often, psychologically, behind the scenes. Just like there’s a physical immune system that tries to ward off disease and cure us from physical ills, so there are a number of psychological processes we engage in to make us feel better about negative events. We might think in advance that if a romantic partner left us, that our hearts would be broken and it would take us years to get over it. But that psychological immune system kicks in sooner or later and we begin to have thoughts like, “Well, maybe she wasn’t the one for me. She did, after all, have these annoying habits.” It enables us to recover more quickly than we think from negative outcomes.
Have hope and hang in there. Your unconscious mind needs some time to get its emotional white blood cells going, but they will kick in.
(To learn how to stop being lazy, click here.)
Now I know what some people are thinking: “Weeks have gone by. Months have gone by. I still feel awful. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m psychologically immunocompromised. I’m not feeling better.”
Yes, some emotional problems, just like some illnesses, don’t heal on their own. A bad breakup. Losing a job. The death of a loved one. They can be devastating and difficult to bounce back from.
Okay, enough relying on passive approaches. We need emotional antibiotics, stat…
3) Help your storyteller
So your overconfident storyteller isn’t revising your story properly. The hurt is still there. So you need to help them get your new story right.
For four consecutive days, sit down and write about what’s bothering you for 20 minutes straight. Your spelling can be atrocious. That’s okay. Nobody is going to read it. Even you aren’t going to read it. The magic is in the writing itself. Delete it or rip it up when you’re done.
Research by James Pennebaker shows this simple act can help you make sense of tragedy and set your mind at ease. Here’s Tim:
If there’s something troubling us, some traumatic event that we’ve had trouble moving past, take out a piece of paper and just write about our deepest feelings about this event. Typically for 20 minutes, four nights in a row. The reason it can be so beneficial is it forces us to view things from a different perspective. In fact, there’s some research by others that suggests that one of the best ways to do this is to write in the third person, as an outside observer would, viewing our situation. That encourages us to take an objective look at our situation and often to come up with a somewhat different interpretation of it that allows us to move on.
(For more on how to do the writing exercise that can help you feel better, click here.)
Alright, you aren’t believing your storyteller’s exaggeration of how bad things are and even if your psychological immune system doesn’t kick in, you know you can write about the problem to feel better. But how about a longer term fix for the future?
If your conscious mind doesn’t understand you very well and that’s leading to bad decisions (“No skydiving lessons for me!”), how can you really get to know yourself better so you don’t end up in more rough spots?
4) Actions speak louder than words
So why do other people often know us better than we know ourselves? Because they just look at our actions.
But when you’re thinking about you, you’re focused on that not-so-accurate inside information only you know about yourself. The answer? Look at yourself the way others do. Just pay attention to your actions, not the overconfident storyteller’s tales. Here’s Tim:
How can we better understand ourselves? One way is to take a step back and view ourselves like an outside observer to try to see what we actually do. It’s also important to try to see ourselves through the eyes of others.
Or if you’ve got brutally honest friends, ask them what you’re like. That can be another great source of insight.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
I need to put a warning label on the above: the truth can hurt. Like we talked about, rose-colored glasses can be a good thing.
You will find out the inaccuracies in your personal story that are leading you to make bad decisions… but you might also find out that the more accurate story is “you’re a real jerk.”
Ouch. So how do you get accurate info about who you really are and the mistakes you make without ending up clinically depressed?
5) Do good, be good
You think you’re an awesome person. You get accurate feedback and it turns out you’re not. So now do you need to revise your personal story to say, “I’m a jerk”? Nope.
Do good things. Tim’s research shows that when your behavior changes, often your story changes too. Start doing volunteer work, for instance, and you will start to see yourself as the kind of person who does volunteer work: a good person. Here’s Tim:
Often, if we want to change who we think we are, one of the best ways to do it is to change our behavior first. If we want to become a little more extroverted, then act that way for a while. Force ourselves to act in an extroverted way. If we want to become better, more pro-social, helpful people, well then go out and do some volunteer work. Often, the story follows the behavior change.
(To learn the 6 things the most productive people do every day, click here.)
We’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up…
Here’s what Tim Wilson says can help you be more resilient:
- Your conscious mind isn’t always accurate: And this leads to problems.
- You will feel better: Because you don’t know yourself all that well, you’re terrible at predicting how you’ll feel in the future. Your storyteller exaggerates. Remember this.
- You have a “psychological immune system”: You may feel lousy now but, with time, your mind will rewrite your story with a happier ending.
- Help that storyteller out: You can accelerate emotional recovery by writing about your problems.
- Actions speak louder than words: If you want to get to know yourself better so you can make smart decisions and avoid future problems, pay attention to your behavior, not your thoughts. But the truth can hurt.
- Do good, be good: Your story will follow your actions.
You’re a bit of a mystery — even to yourself. Don’t worry; it keeps things interesting.
When times get tough and you don’t know how you’re going to stay resilient, remember not to trust the doom and gloom coming from that voice in your head. The voice is an overconfident storyteller who exaggerates, not the “truth.”
Your psychological immune system is slowly getting into gear. And some scribbling can help it along. You can get to know yourself better by watching your behavior. And if you act like the kind of person you want to be, you’ll start telling yourself an accurate and positive story about your life.
Be careful though: if you follow all of this advice you may end up becoming a really good person.
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