Don’t Believe Everything Your Brain Tells You

Steve Peer

“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”  -Emo Philips

Many of us believe everything we see, hear, and experience. It doesn’t occur to us that we never really perceive the world outside of our own brain. Unfortunately, our brain’s best guess can land us in trouble.

The Brain Makes Mistakes

The brain can perceive inaccurately on it’s own. The world we see, for example, is really just a hologram in our brain. It is made up of some data from our eyes, and mostly from “visual best guesses” from our past.

We don’t necessarily hear any better than we see — ears can also “get it wrong.” On an episode of Candid Camera, an actor-playing-patrolman stopped drivers to tell them that they had just made a great left turn. Everyone argued with him.

Self- talk is another way our brain plays tricks on us. Would you tolerate others talking about you the way you talk about yourself?  Though we can’t turn off our self-talk, we can begin to notice it and become more intentional around what we choose to say to ourselves.

Factors external to our own brains can exacerbate our interpreting-things-wrong, too, such as:

  • gossip (if we are foolish enough to believe it)
  • anything spoken in a bar
  • comments from X-spouses
  • optical illusions
  • magical illusions
  • personality differences*

More than 70% of workplace issues are found to stem from interpersonal differences. Negotiation expert Ed Rowney argues that our biggest mistakes stem from the assumption that others are like us. In fact, our brains interpret the world differently from others. Awareness of Emotional Intelligence allows us to understand our styles and the styles of others.  As we master this we can let go of trying to convert those around us to be more like us.

Our Brain on Losing & Limiting Beliefs

Not only shouldn’t we believe everything we see, hear, taste, and touch, but we also shouldn’t believe everything we believe.  Our brain uses old beliefs to convince us that it would be foolish (even dangerous) to do things that would clearly benefit us.  Limiting beliefs are one example of this.

It’s no coincidence that You Mean I’m Not Crazy, Lazy, or Stupid is one of the bestselling books on ADHD. What happens to the child experiencing the world through the limiting belief of “I am stupid”? Some unconsciously become expert at detecting even the slightest hint that someone is insinuating stupidity. Others find it even when it doesn’t exist.

Unattended emotions

Emotions are another way that our brains can deceive us. Anger, for example, is result of unrecognized and unattended emotions. People who are angry all the time likely felt some other emotion prior to the anger, and are no longer interpreting the emotion accurately. There is an old saying, “If you don’t know who the sucker is in a poker game, it’s you.” It is not unusual that everyone except us is aware of our emotional state.

Some of the key emotions we address are overwhelmed, helplessness, embarrassment, confusion, and sadness.  When we define and detect original emotions, it helps us uncover whether a particular emotion is warranted and, if so, how to act on it.  Unique emotions each have a unique need, such as:

EMOTION    NEED

Helplessness    Seek help

Frustration Try something different

Overwhelmed Prioritize

Grief Expression over time

As we pay attention to our state of emotions, we can act on them before they degrade into anger. The most common emotion I see ahead of anger is frustration, especially in those with ADHD. So common are frustration issues that Albert Ellis coined the term low frustration tolerance (LFT) which has since been embraced by the ADHD community. ADHD has other key features that impede emotional management: difficulties with working memory, time management, delayed development of internal language, emotion regulation, diminished problem-solving ability, and impulsive behavior. That’s why handling one’s ADHD is critical for any of this to work.

New behaviors

Communication and confrontation models teach new behaviors that are key to emotional management. The communication model is a simple, two-step model:

  • How do I feel?
  • What do I need?

While simple to remember, it’s not always easy to do. A great deal of work is often necessary to detect one’s feelings and needs. Additionally, it often takes great courage to open our mouths and say something new.

How does all this work?

Ten years ago, I started anger management programs. I was faced with court-mandated individuals, often with limited introspective skills, and too-often plagued with financial distractions. Happily, I was wrong. The program does work. What I’d overlooked was that these folks are in pain, and nothing encourages change like pain.  That goes for our children, too; as they are in pain, they are ripe to learn new behaviors.

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