“Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for your self—and there isn’t one.”
― Wei Wu Wei (a.k.a. Terry Gray)
Bring to mind someone who is not nearby. Got them? Ok, notice from your perspective right now they exist only as an idea in your mind. Your thought of them is present while they are not physically there.
Now, what if someone is thinking of you? Similarly, right now, you are an idea in their mind.
Remember, despite the felt experience of being solid, whole and real we are constantly constructing that experience – we are an idea in our own mind. Similarly we are an idea in the minds of others. Versions of ourselves are being constructed in multiple places, each one coloured by the author’s filters (experience, stereotypes, judgements, gender, age, education, organisational role, etc). It follows that each of these versions is different because the author’s filters are different. Which one is the “real you”? Well…. all of them … and none of them!
I am not trying to “do your head in” – there are important implications for this which I explore below. The idea that we and the people around us are real is our felt experience. However, when we stop to think more deeply we realise the experience is a story we create about other people. The matter and energy that is them has to be mediated through our senses in order for us to have any experience of them. Our experience of them is, therefore, a metaphor for them – our construction of another person “stands in for” their physical reality. Even when another person is standing right in front of us we can only interact metaphor to metaphor. All we have to go on is what is in our mind after our senses and sense-making has finished filtering and processing the light, sound waves and touch. It is the same for the other.
When we say we are certain about another person, whether it be their motivations, intentions or even their actions, remember that what we feel certain of is the story we have made up about them. What is your evidence? This is where the Experience Cube® and Multiple Perspectives are essential tools.
If a person is certain about you, to what extent might they have tested their evidence? If you think they are operating on faulty assumptions, what conversation can you have to test your assumptions about the veracity of their story of you?
Categorisation – unconscious / implicit bias; hidden assumptions
Human beings make categories of things. It is part of the way we make short-cuts in order to operate efficiently in the world. With repetition, or “education”, we internalise those short-cuts to maximise their effectiveness. In other words we make an habitual (automatic) thought process that usually operates out of conscious awareness. It is helpful to remember that a short-cut we make about another person is just that – a symbol in our mind representing that person. Ask yourself: “What judgements and interpretations have I made into a short-cut for this person? What is my evidence? Have I tested the evidence? How do I know it is true?”
Cultivate the habit of curiosity. What is your story, metaphor or shortcut for the other? What is theirs of you? Jumping straight to one’s assumptions rather than exploring them is where most conversations go off the rails. Our propensity to make short-cuts is a double edged sword – a highly functional and efficient evolutionary adaptation on one hand and a misleading and unhelpful process on the other! Slow down and think “What story have I made up and what is the likely impact if I act on it without checking it first?”. We adopt short-cuts to save time and energy; and using them without question can waste enormous amounts of time and energy. Getting the balance right is an art – we must approach it mindfully, knowing we will sometimes get the balance wrong.
Even more versions inside …
The above implies there is only one version of us within. Of course, philosophers and scientists have pointed out from the earliest writings that we have multiple versions of ourselves. Each context calls us to be slightly different. We generally call each of these an “identity”.
Your work or professional identity will differ from your home identity. Your identity as a partner is different to that of being a mother or father. Your identity at your favourite team’s grand final will be different to the one you adopt in a sacred space. It is still the same “you” inside. All these subtle (or none-too-subtle) variations are created as one changes social contexts (or even imagines different contexts). I am probably stating the obvious here.
Yep, so what?
One source of conflict with others arises when someone makes a comment or does something that we perceive as an attack – we find ourselves in a defensive reaction. We generally do not enjoy being in this threat state and “fight back” to defend ourselves.
See My reactivity is a doorway for more on defensive reactions and for a way to benefit from them.