Cognitive Shifting, in 3 Easy Steps

As I learned during my research for Happily Never After, it IS possible to do some cognitive shifting, and to change our very own thinking habits. Elizabeth Loftus proved this to us with her studies on false memories. In her famous mall study, Loftus’ and crew took people, asked them questions about getting lost in a mall as a child, and eventually, discovered the people would make up stories, believing they got lost in a mall, even though they never did. So, our brains can shift, and perhaps what we know as “truth” isn’t necessarily always truth.

Step 1: Define the Problem

We can’t do any shifting if we don’t know what the problem exactly is. Sometimes, we find ourselves stuck in these ruts because we just don’t realize that it is happening. Gossip, for example, can often find us is terrible, terrible situations, but if we do not necessarily know WHAT we constitute as gossip, then we can’t really monitor ourselves for WHEN we gossip. So, the first thing we must do is define the problem. In my opinion, gossip counts as any time I share information about someone else in order to gain power on my end. Of course, as humans, its impossible to NOT talk about people, and there certainly are many times when we talk about people that isn’t gossiping about them: when I tell a story about my weekend I spent with my room mates, when I share a student’s accomplishments, when I update my friends on my other friends happenings. Those are fine situations to talk about other people, but its when I talk about other people in order to further my own positions that it turns into gossip.

Step 2: Locate the Problem

Once we decide what the problem is, the next step is to locate it in our lives. This takes some introspection, some reflection, some mindfulness to recognize the problem’s influence. Something I am currently working on is my very jealous ego. Oh boy do I get jealous, especially when I perceive someone else’s success trumps my own. Just the other day, I was reading a piece a person, written by a person I don’t even know, and found myself getting jealous when I looked at how many comments HER post got, wondering why MY posts didn’t get at many (when, of course, I think mine is way better). So, if I think jealousy is when I wish I had something someone else had, I start paying attention to those tendencies in my everyday life, and simply just start noticing where those tendencies come up. I notice in staff meetings, at family dinners, while I am trolling on the internet, and I target those thoughts as “jealous thoughts”.
Step 3: Shift Your Thinking

What will probably end up happening is, by Stage 3, you will start realizing all of the places you see yourself seeking power over others, all the situations you find yourself getting jealous, all the times you allow yourself to be manipulated, and then you will start beating yourself up. Stop.  You will have to remind yourself that we are human, we are supposed to be imperfect, this thing we called life is called a ‘journey’, and we must forgive ourselves of our own trespasses. Forgive yourself, because you didn’t know any better at the time, and now that you DO know better, you can work to correct it. So the next step is to shift our thinking.

Of course, change always comes in small amounts. No one is ever going to solve world hunger in one night, but by sending a sandwich here and buying a pair of Toms there, we can slowly hack away at the issue. I may notice myself gossiping, recognize its gossip, and then the next time a gossip thought comes up, I try to deter the subject. I may notice myself getting jealous, recognize its jealousy, and then try to curve my thinking to non-jealous thoughts. Eventually, I will train those tendencies away.

Pick your venue. I personally think driving is an excellent place to practice cognitive shifting, because you likely don’t know anyone on the road so you have no personal attachment to them. Right, like when we are walking in the mall, we automatically judge everyone we see: “What IS she wearing?”, “That is so disgusting when people kiss in public”, “Did that person even shower this morning?”. But, if that same person were to introduce themselves to us in the Starbucks line, we have now expended our personal resources on them (our time), we feel some kind of investment, so we are less likely to be so judgmental. We can also practice cognitive shifting when waiting in line at the grocery store, in the doctor’s office, on the bus–anytime we are surrounded by people we do not know. And, we watch these thoughts come up in our heads, and train ourselves to think differently: turn, “She looks like a hot mess”, into, “I wonder if her washing machine broke and that’s why she’s wearing mismatched clothes; turn, “That’s not fair he won”, into, “Maybe he needed that confidence boost in his life”; turn, “I can’t believe she is letting her child act like that”, into, “Maybe that child has an ear infection and that is why he is screaming so loud”. At the end of the day, its not necessarily the truth that is important to us, but rather, what WE believe is “truth”, and I personally like to believe the kind of “truth” that is less harboring to my ego and my emotional state.

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