I want you to think about a persistent negative thought you have.
Maybe it’s about someone you dislike.
Maybe it’s about something you think you’re bad at.
Maybe it’s even about the DMV!
You probably find it easy to think of a long list of evidence that supports that thought. My boss pushed past me on the way to the elevator and didn’t apologize (evidence that they’re rude), or I stutter every time I make a work presentation (evidence that you’re a bad public speaker), or the clerk made me go to the back of the 45 minute line to just get one question answered (evidence that the DMV is literally the worst).
As much as I hate defending the DMV, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: your negative thoughts are literally changing the way you perceive the world.
I think of this as the opposite of rose-colored glasses, where you don’t quite see things clearly because your brain makes everything appear a little better than it really is.
I call the negative version of rose-colored glasses “skepticals.”
Allow me to explain.
I have a dear friend/fellow life coach, Rachel Hart, who loves puns (it’s tough on our friendship but we make it work). The other day, I shared my theory on the negative version of rose-colored glasses – that when we have certain negative thoughts, we see everything through the lens of those thoughts.
And suddenly, Rachel yelled “IT’S LIKE YOU’RE WEARING SKEPTICALS” (instead of spectacles)!
It’s a bad pun but I love it, because it’s backed by science and provides a helpful way to think about our long-held negative beliefs.
Let’s dive into the science behind this by conducting a little experiment. Try to look down and see your own nose. You can’t see it, can you? Even though it’s literally right in front of your eyes. Now put your finger on your nose. You can see that, can’t you?
Trippy, right? This occurs because your brain knows your nose and filters it out of the representation it creates from the signals your eyes send you. Your eyes see your nose all the time. But your brain literally disregards that stream of signals so you never see your own nose. It deems these signals not useful, and poof! It filters out your nose.
What you need to know is this is happening all the time. Your brain filters out things that don’t match what you believe or have told it to see. It has to, because essentially our sensory systems are exposed to an endless amount of stimuli every day. If your brain had to sort it all out from scratch every time, you’d never leave the house because you’d spend 5 hours everyday just trying to figure out what a table is.
Instead, your brain uses past experience to fill in what it expects to be there. If there’s always a table in your living room, it fills in the table for you.
And your brain does this with thoughts, judgments, and reasoning as well. It takes shortcuts, which are called heuristics. Often, this is helpful because it means we can get through the day without total informational and sensory overload (aka The Table Dilemma). But often it’s really damaging in ways we literally can’t see because it means our skepticals – those negative lenses we use to see the world – are literally invisible to us.
Let that sink in.
Most of us think our brains record reality like a documentary movie live-streaming the world. But they’re constantly editing, revising, and filtering your experiences and feeding you a highly interpreted version of reality.
What does this mean? You may believe something negative about the world, and you may have a long list of evidence to support your belief, but that is only because your brain literally filters out evidence that goes against your negative belief. Your “skepticals” are biases created by your thoughts and they will color everything you see.
This is why asking yourself whether a thought is helpful is so much more productive than asking yourself it is true.
Does that freak you out? Do you feel like you just took a hit of something way too strong?
It can be scary to think that you can’t trust what your brain is saying to you, but you don’t have to be afraid.
Instead of thinking “oh my god, I can’t trust my brain at all, nothing is true and life is meaningless” I want you to think of your brain as a computer. The brain-computer follows whatever program you put into it. So, you have to be sure that you like the operating instructions you give it, and want to keep them.
How? By using your conscious intentional brain to examine what your unconscious unintentional brain is doing, and questioning all of your long-standing belief systems based on new criteria. Rather than thinking “is this true,” I want you to think about whether your beliefs are helpful to you or whether they’re unhelpful to you.
Because here’s where you’re going to want to argue with me:
The fact that you have a lot of “evidence” for a belief has literally nothing to do with whether or not it’s true.
Allow me to put my lawyer suit back on momentarily – in the court of thought work, all evidence gathered by your brain in support of your thoughts is inadmissible because the witness – your brain – is biased.
All that evidence doesn’t prove your belief true.
All it proves is that you have had a biased investigator looking for evidence to make your unconscious brain’s case. It’s been gathering – and even manipulating – the evidence to fit its existing beliefs. And it’s been ignoring and suppressing any evidence to the contrary – literally filtering it out of your conscious perceptions of reality.
You have been wearing your skepticals, and that is coloring what your brain is willing to even tell you it sees.
The good news is that means that you can swap out your skepticals for ones you consciously choose any time – and you don’t even have to make an appointment at the optometrist.
You can choose what beliefs to hold based on what’s helpful to you, not what you’ve always believed to be true.
So next time you are busily finding evidence for your negative beliefs, pause and remove your skepticals. You’ll be surprised what you can see if you learn how to look.