Changing the Way You See the World

We’ve all experienced those major shifts in our outlook that drag our mood in new directions. One minute, we’re in a groove at the office, believing in ourselves, and excited about the outcome of whatever we’re working on. The next minute we’re full of doubt, insecure, and ready to toss anything we come up with straight in the bin.

These odd, often abrupt, perspective shifts can influence any area of our lives. In our relationships, thoughts like “I feel so good about where we’re at” can quickly turn into “Something’s wrong. This isn’t going anywhere.” In a single hour, our self-perception can change from, “I like the way I look today” to “You look so ugly/ old/ fat/ tired, etc.” These shifts can take us by storm, and yet, we’re all too willing to believe whatever point of view is dropping in at any given moment.

The question is what causes us to vacillate between two such dramatically distinct perspectives? Which do we trust, and how can we cultivate an attitude that’s kinder and more “on our own side?”

To answer these questions, we must first look at why, we, as humans, are so divided. Many years ago, my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, developed the “Division of the Mind,” to help explain how each of us is split between our “real self” and our “anti-self.” The temperament we came into the world with impacts both sides of this divide, but our earliest experience and the adaptations we made to them contribute a great deal to the nature and degree of this division in our personality. On one side, we are optimistic, realistic about our abilities, life-affirming, and goal-directed. This side of ourselves (our “real self’) believes we are worthy of love, trust, responsibility, and good experiences. It is created out of positive early life experiences and attitudes, i.e. the love and nurturance we received from a parent or other caring adults, the support we got for our efforts, the security we felt, the resilience we were helped to build, etc.

However, on the other side, we have a vicious anti-self, a side of us that is self-critical, self-denying, sneaky, suspicious, and even self-destructive. The language of this internal enemy is referred to as our “critical inner voice.” This “voice” is like a running commentary in our heads criticizing, casting doubt, and often making us feel anxious, depressed, or uncertain about whatever’s going on in our lives. Just as our real self is born from positive experiences, our anti-self is shaped by negative early life experiences, i.e. the hurtful ways we were seen or treated in our family, rejections, neglect , mis-attunement, or even abuse.

These destructive early experiences help shape our inner critic and color the way we see the world. A critical parent can cast a shadow of doubt on our abilities throughout our lives. An unreliable caretaker may make us less trusting of others. It’s a worthy endeavor to look back and explore how the negative overlays of our childhood are shaping our current perspective and negatively impacting various aspects of our life. However, the next step is to separate our real point of view from these destructive attitudes and strengthen our real self.

So, how do we do this? First, we have to embrace the idea that how we see ourselves and the world around us is made up of these two entities. We can try to notice when our mood or perspective shifts suddenly for the worse. We may notice ourselves reacting in an intense emotional way to circumstances that don’t quite fit our super-sized reaction. At these times, we can simply acknowledge that a negative filter has colored the way we’re seeing things and question whether this represents our true point of view.

It’s important to realize that these “throwback” reactions are rooted in our past. For whatever reason, a contemporary event has triggered old feelings, and in turn, we’re likely seeing things through the lens of our child self. As young children, we’re only able to see things from our own perspective, and therefore, see things that happen as being caused by us. The moods and behavior of adults around us have a strong impact on us, because we are so vulnerable. We also absorb and internalize many of the negative attitudes to which we’re exposed.

Perceiving our adult life through this child’s lens is always a distortion, because we are no longer a child. As adults, we can have the perspective that not everything that happens is our fault, that we are no longer at the mercy of others, and that many of the negative attitudes directed toward us were distorted or outright false. Yet, when current situations are reminiscent of our past, we may perceive them through this filter.

This can lead us to misinterpret or assign meaning in inaccurate ways. For example, we may think our partner doesn’t care about  us, because she didn’t call us back right away. We may feel victimized by a co-worker, because he didn’t acknowledge us in a meeting. We may feel exaggeratedly embarrassed when we call someone by the wrong name or accidentally grab the wrong coffee order from the counter.

There are all kinds of ways we can distort ourselves and others to fit into an old, negative perspective, which is why we must familiarize ourselves with how our anti-self operates and notice when it’s taken the wheel. Once we do, we can meet these harsh attitudes with self-compassion. We can have compassion for the critical ways we see ourselves, the pressure we’re putting on ourselves, and even the unpleasant feelings being stirred by our negative reactions.

If we’re riled up, we can take a break, avoiding rumination and allowing ourselves to calm down. Taking a walk, counting backwards from 10, or even taking several deep breaths can really help in heated moments. We can allow ourselves to feel whatever emotions are being stirred up, be it anger, fear, or shame, but still choose how we act based on our real self and our principles. As Dr. Pat Love puts it, “Feel the feelings but do the right thing.”

Once we’re in a calmer state, we can try to meet any “critical inner voices,” or mean, negative thoughts we’re telling ourselves with a kinder, more realistic point of view. As we do this, we should remember that we’re human, and that not every thought or feeling we experience in a moment must be accepted as truth. When we’re able to be open to possibility that our perceptions are misleading us, we can gently shift our perspective and start to see the world through fresh, more honest, and more compassionate eyes. Whatever circumstance we’re facing, being able to cultivate this attitude can help us connect to our real self and remain on our own side.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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One Comment

steven hancox

Every one interprets what ever, our feelings are based on experience. To rearrange one,s thought,s will only encounter the same problems because whats around us could also be in the wrong. Even when inner feelings are powerfull and they guide you to what you believed you still can be wrong. Humans are complex and complicated, maybe over developed in the brain and we are all just guiney pigs. Steve.

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