So there I was, complimenting a work colleague as you do, (or perhaps don’t depending on where you work I suppose), as part of the feedback I was giving and encouraging him to think about where he could use similar verbal communication techniques to maximum effect.
Obviously, in an effort to ensure that all relevant future-scuppering spirits were appropriately warded off by my apparent blasphemy at actually telling him he was good at something, (which he really was by the way), he spake unto me thusly: ‘Oh now you’re tempting fate! It’ll never go like that again’. He paused for a moment. ‘Mind you, if I pretend you never said it, maybe I’ll get away with it. Touch wood.’
Now I could ramble on here about the origins of wood touching and fate tempting but that’s not really the point. Habits are habits and depend an insanely large amount on cultural heritage. Being from the UK, my cultural heritage includes seeking safety from the vagaries of the eternal Fates by hugging trees, although these days that’s been diluted into finger tip contact most typically with dead trees which have been turned into furniture thereby saying little for the fate avoiding ability of the tree sprites and spirits of dead ancestors whose power we’re trying to evoke, seeing as the particular tree in question couldn’t. Avoid its fate, that is.
I’m not entirely certain how well touching wood travels in terms of its warding off meaning. It’s entirely possible that in some places touching wood carried other connotations entirely, given that getting wood doesn’t always entail stocking up your fireside fuel store. At this point I find the teenage boy in me smirking. Never mind. Maybe I’ll grow up one day.
I find myself wondering, (and as you already know, in Cog-Hyp Land, it’s good to wonder), why we are so bent on trying to avoid or control fate in whatever manner is appropriate to your heritage, although personally I draw the line at pretending my own head is the wooden object in question unlike some I know. It’s one of the relatively few things which really bug me. Trust me. It’s not endearing. Your head is not made of wood. Please cease and desist. I know the confidence leaching power of self-deprecation even when it’s supposedly humorous. (I apologise if I seem to be talking about you. I really ought to find out why it bugs me. It could be quite enlightening. Maybe I should get some therapy).
What’s actually going on, now that I’ve stepped off the mini soap-box, is a couple of making-sense-of-the-world tactics. We humans love patterns, event sequences which make sense of our lives. Cause and effect. Complex equivalence. Our brains are designed to seek them out. Without them we’d be lost. Even when they don’t exist we see them. They’re everywhere. If you’re late for work, its red lights and traffic-jams tail-backs all the way; if you take a chance on the weather, it’s sure to rain; I’m British, I have to talk about the weather; successful people are always lucky; bad things always come in threes; I always find a parking space, even though I’ve repeatedly tempted fate by telling you.
Some are so deeply ingrained that they’ve become folklore. Broken mirrors, black cats, Friday 13th. They all help us make sense of the purely random. They help us feels as though we can predict the future. And here’s the strange thing. They’re almost always negative. A reason for something to go wrong. Why is that? Weird isn’t it? Why haven’t we developed a folklore for making everything go right?
Well there are potentially loads of future posts wrapped up in that one so suffice it to say that for now, I’ll go along with the notion that from an evolutionary point of view, most of us are better off if we can be in control when things go wrong. If you feel prepared for the worst, because lets face it according to old wives tales most everything you do or say could herald some negative potential, then you are more likely to survive and pass those genes on to the next generation. If you’re only ever prepared for the good times then you’ll die at the first sign of frost, or the appearance those not-so-cuddly toothed beasties of yore.
And in this light perhaps it makes some sense. If we seek out patterns, cause and effect sequences, then even if a lot of them are red herrings and totally unreal, some of them will turn out to be absolutely for real.
It’s far better to take avoiding action many times for things that turn out to be irrelevant and totally uncontrollable, (if you were going to live or die, you’d have done so anyway, whatever you did), so that you actually do take avoiding action for the one thing that could be controlled. In this one vital case, you live. Onwards with those genes.
Interestingly, our protagonistic chappie at the beginning of this post was covering both cheeks so-to-speak, so that whatever happened he would prove himself right all along. If he tried his smooth-talking verbals out and it all went wrong then of course that was entirely my fault for tempting fate, wasn’t it?
But if he tried it and it did work, well hey, he’d touched-wood hadn’t he? (Stop smirking). So of course it was going to work!
In a way, this double-control tactic actually let’s him try the techniques out again without taking any personal responsibility for its success or failure. If it works it’s all down to calling in the tree spirits and if it fails it was all my fault. And therein lies the rub, to coin that somewhat Elizabethan phraseology once more.
Whilst evolution gave us a cognitive ability which ensures we seek out patterns to over-sensitise us to taking avoiding action in order to ensure that the one time we really need to we actually do, it has also dropped us neatly into our relatively secure, (for most of us with access to WordPress blog-posts anyway), present with the propensity to see doom laden options all around us. Maybe this is why newspapers are so much more interesting when they’re full of bad news. Maybe this is why governments somehow ensure that whilst there is always a fundamental threat to our way of life, they somehow seem to be able to ration them out to having only one enemy at a time. Maybe this is why most of us feel as though the world is happening to us. It absolves us of responsibility for what goes on, for how we decide to deal with our lives. It quite simply isn’t my fault. It’s nothing to do with me.
External Locus of Control.
For most of us, if we’re stuck in a job we don’t like, we feel we have to keep it because let’s face it, we need the money. If your partner does that weird thing they do of ‘looking at you in a funny way’ it can ruin your day, make you angry, insecure, worried. You walk into a room and people stop talking and look at you, you know they’ve been talking about you. If you’re ill, it’s up to the medical profession to fix you except they can’t because you’ve got a chronic illness which just isn’t going to go away. The world decides how we feel, how we live our lives. It’s just not fair. Really.
As always, there’s another way. A paradigm shift if you will.
In a very real sense, (sense being a very appropriate word), the world is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. (Well Morpheus hasn’t said much for quite a few posts and needed to get in again). Emotions are the interpretation your body gives to the ebb and flow of multi-peptides slooshing their fundamental communication between every single cell you own, each letting all the others know what’s going on. It’s how your entire body knows whether it’s living in a healthy, growing, secure environment or is hunkered down in protection, focussed on getting past the next threat that’s on its way. Each and every cell reacts to the environment it’s living in and behaves accordingly, letting every other cell know how it’s behaving so that they can do the same. Majority rules in this complex flow.
There are peptide receptors everywhere. Organs, intestines, brain, blood, muscle and bone. Each cell sends and receives. It’s thought to be the most fundamental communication method of living creatures. The brain controls most of the relatively recent electrical signalling but everything controls the peptide flow. Your body affects your brain because of how it feels. You know this to be true. You think differently when you’re angry or scared or sad or happy, hungry or full.
Here’s an interesting thing. How you think affects how you feel. If you try to deliberately relax, a conscious process, you can with practice or guidance not just relax your muscles but your mind and vice versa. You can take an anger or a fear and sooth it. Change the peptides flows within your body. With practice and guidance you can take some fundamental beliefs which have guided how you react to life and change them. These fundamental beliefs, if they’re negative, tend to keep your body in protection mode, vulnerable, constantly on the lookout for threats. And that pattern hunting skill will seek out everything it can to confirm that it’s view of the world is right. And trust me, it will find whatever proof it can.
If you could find a way of turning it on its head. Realising that if the world is how you interpret signals, then perhaps there’s a way of choosing what reaction is best for you and your future. Consider the options and discard the ones that work against you. Move from protection into growth. After all, most of our threats are emotional rather than life threatening. Give your mind and body a chance to reconnect and start deciding your own future rather than leaving it to the profound negativity that exists out there in digital communication land.
Even if there’s a real problem, an illness that won’t go away, perhaps there’s a way of deciding how you live with it. Defining your world by how well you are, rather than how ill. With practice and guidance, you can change which parts of your life get your full attention, so that by the end of the day looking back, the snapshot memories of your internal photo-album are mostly of the things that went your way and the ones of the times that were less than good are fewer and stored as faded images that carry less power.
Even chronic pain can respond. Pain is your body’s way of warning you that you are in danger. It’s a vital signal. It keeps you alive. Pain is your friend in a very real way. It keeps you alive.
Here’s a thing though. If you can let your body know that you know that it’s been in danger. If you can let your body know that the danger has either passed by or is under control, let it know that you know and that there’s nothing to be afraid of, then that pain begins to understand that it has done its vital job. It isn’t necessary to alert you because you already know. The signals can reduce, returning only when the situation changes and you need to be alerted again. It can take time because by its nature chronic pain has been around for some time. It may take time to set up something that convinces a process that’s become embedded that it has done its work. But it can be done.
Where does all this lead? Internal Locus of Control.
Whilst you can only influence your surroundings and what happens to you to a limited extent, you absolutely can decide every single time how you choose to react to it. In a very real way, no-one can make you angry, sad or happy. You really can choose. This doesn’t mean that you will live the rest of your life in some blissfully ignorant nirvana, rather sometimes it will be absolutely the best thing for you to decide to become angry or sad. Or happy.
The point is, you really can choose instead of letting everyone else determine how you feel about your life.
It might take some practice or guidance. It’s one of the key changes that I look for in clients. It’s a key indicator that the work is almost done. Once you take your life into your own hands, your destiny becomes your own. Once that happens, therapy has done its job.
Your world becomes exactly what you choose it to be.
If you like, I could show you how.
Choosing where to look
© Tony Burkinshaw 2013