Mindsight: The Unexpected Value of Getting to Know Yourself

With everything in the world from our language to our LinkedIn networks growing bigger, more complex and moving faster, it’s easy to feel like we are no longer in control. Our career path, our relationships and our futures are all victims of circumstance. Whether we are bowing to the will of a boss, a paycheck, a parent or a profile on Match.com, it’s important to remember that when it comes to directing our lives, we are still very much at the wheel.

How we perceive ourselves and the world around us largely shapes how we are seen by the world. Truly knowing ourselves can mean the difference between creating the life we want and yielding to the life we lead. And while it’s empowering to acknowledge that we are the strongest source for real change in our lives, it is admittedly scary to realize how much of our lives is in our own hands.

A friend and colleague of mine Dr. Dan Siegel, who also happens to be Executive Director of The Mindsight Institute and a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, defines people’s ability to understand what is going on in their own mind and the minds of others as “mindsight.” Mindsight is a method of self-understanding through which people can gain insight and empathy by exploring the workings of their own mind. Practicing mindsight entails an openness, observation and objectivity that can help us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them. In this sense, it allows us to reshape and redirect our future and become the author of our own story.

Most people don’t consciously recognize how much the lessons of our past shape our current actions and reactions. Mindsight helps us make sense of who we are and how we see the world by allowing us to reflect on our own story and gain insight into how that story informs our perceptions and emotions. By creating what Dan Siegel refers to as a “cohesive narrative” of our life, we can understand how our past is subconsciously influencing our present and make conscious decisions about how we want to lead our lives.

The situations we adapted to as kids can leave us with old ways of thinking and behaving that hurt us as adults. That stubborn streak we formed as a child may have resulted from feeling constantly controlled by a strict upbringing, but it can become problematic in the context of our careers. An interaction with our child that sends us flying off the deep end may have more to do with our own experience as a child and less to do with how we really feel toward our own children. When emotions feel especially intense, misplaced or out of character, this can be a warning sign that the heightened reaction has more to do with our past than our present. Mindsight can help us separate these old emotions from current circumstances.

When we don’t apply mindsight, we run the risk of getting in our heads and acting on destructive thoughts. The stream of brutal, self-loathing , and second-guessing thoughts we all live with are what psychologist and author Dr. Robert Firestone refers to as the Critical Inner Voice. The Critical Inner Voice is created from experiences we had as children that caused us to turn against ourselves and develop negative self-perceptions. When left unchallenged, this inner critic can dictate our lives. A perfect illustration of this takes place in the classic film “Annie Hall.” When a young couple (Annie and Alvie) first meet, an awkward dialogue takes place between them, while subtitles explain the actual thoughts going through their minds.

In their first conversation in Annie’s apartment, Annie tells Alvie she “dabbles” in photography. At the same moment her thoughts appear on the screen as ” I dabble? Listen to me — what a jerk!” When Alvie compliments her work, she tells him she wants to take a “serious photography course,” at which point the subtitles reveal, “He probably thinks I’m a yo-yo.”

While Annie is wrapped up in criticizing herself for being unintelligent, Alvie is fumbling to impress her by speaking about photography as an art form. As he stumbles over his words, he has thoughts like, “I don’t know what I’m saying — she senses I’m shallow,” and, “Christ, I sound like FM radio.” Even as both Alvie and Annie forge a conversation in an attempt to get together, their own internal dialogues are simultaneously ripping them apart. This is a common scenario in the early stages of a relationship, and it plays out through all phases of forming a connection to another person.

When couples are attuned to this inner dialogue or Critical Inner Voice, they are better able to separate from it. A healthy relationship is formed when each partner can reflect on their own sense of self and form a connection without falling under the influence of an inner critic. For example, rather than tripping over their words or sounding like people they aren’t, Alvie and Annie could have been themselves in their early interaction and challenged insecurities that later plagued their relationship.

Dan Siegel writes of ideal relationships in his book “Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation” that “[a]ttuned couples link together in a mental lovemaking, a joining of minds, in which two people create that beautiful resonant sense of becoming a ‘we.’ The intimacy that blossoms can be amazing, but the journey to get there and remain there can be rough. To become linked as a ‘we,’ a couple needs also to become differentiated as two ‘me’s.'” To illustrate this point, he describes the process of losing one’s identity in a couple relationship as forming a smoothie, whereas when each person brings their individuality to their union, their relationship is like a fruit salad. Unfortunately, in creating an illusion of connection (or “Fantasy Bond“), a couple destroys their true feelings of compatibility and love. Only when a person is self-possessed can they live more harmoniously with their partner.

The same principles hold true for any relationship, be it with our spouse, our children, a family member or a co-worker. As Siegel points out in his book, “The brain is a social organ, and our relationships with one another are not a luxury but an essential nutrient for our survival.” The purpose of mindsight is to attain self-understanding that can help us put a halt to the harmful behaviors that impair our relationships. When we have insight into ourselves, we also form compassion and empathy for another person. We can uncover why we are the way we are, and become who we’ve always wanted to be.

As Robert Firestone wrote, “Perhaps the single most important life affirming human quality is the ability to feel love — to feel compassion and empathy for and express kindness, generosity and tenderness toward other people. Learning to love others requires first valuing oneself.” This is the foundation upon which all human relationships are built.


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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