In The Universe Has Your Back, Gabby Bernstein asks us to imagine that we’re watching a horror film in a cinema. We know that the main character is about to walk into a life-threatening situation and we want to scream “don’t do it!”.
Our lives can be like that. Time and time again we seem to get stuck in the same situation where we experience the same negative outcomes. The same things always seem to happen to us. We just want to change the outcome of the film, but it doesn’t seem possible.
Gabby says that “our projection is our perception”. She argues that what we project into our lives is what we perceive. How we look at life will determine the outcomes.
Psychologists call this tendency “confirmation bias”.
It’s the tendency of humans to have a theory and to look for the evidence that supports the theory. It’s a way of making sense of all the different stimuli coming into the brain. This information will be organised according to previously held beliefs and understanding of the world.
Unfortunately, this means that evidence which does not fit tends to be ignored or downplayed.
It can become a problem when the initial theory is faulty in some way: especially if that initial theory is about ourselves.
From a counselling perspective, an example of the problem of confirmation bias is with someone who has low self-esteem. They will believe that they are unlikable and then they will look for the evidence to support this view.
A classic test for this is to imagine yourself walking down the road. You see someone walking towards you and you smile and greet them. However, they do not respond and walk by, ignoring you.
What do you feel? What do you think?
Someone with low self-esteem may well feel rejected and assume that they have done something wrong. Why else would someone behave in this way?
Someone else with higher self-esteem will feel concern for the other person. What could possibly be wrong that they are so pre-occupied? Has something happened, are they upset?
It’s interesting to understand what makes people respond so differently when faced with the same stimuli – the person walking down the road – and why it happens.
Research into the brain shows that as children’s brains develop they go through a process known as “synaptic pruning”. The synapses are responsible for passing on messages between brain cells. As messages are passed through the brain, the areas that are less well used have fewer synapses. Connections are not made as easily as in areas where there is a lot of stimulation.
This matters in terms of how people interpret the world. Where a child has been exposed to difficult emotional circumstances they become very good at recognising threat and adapting themselves to abuse. Similarly, a child who is exposed to kind and loving attention becomes adept in managing loving relationships.
Confirmation bias can therefore be something as natural as breathing. It is something that is not questioned. It is based on a series of assumptions, on a “rule of thumb”.
In our example of the person walking down the road, what happens because of confirmation bias? The person with low self-esteem may well feel rejected, hurt and angry. They may well feel guilty even though they don’t know what they’ve done. They will feel fearful of asking because they fear more rejection. As a result, the next time they meet their acquaintance they may ignore them in turn or treat them with distrust or resentment.
The person with high self-esteem will respond differently. They won’t leap to the conclusion that they’ve done something wrong. They may well immediately greet their acquaintance and ask how they are. They will not take their acquaintance’s behaviour personally and their relationship will not be harmed.
And the acquaintance? How would you respond to the person who was sulky, angry or distrustful? You would not want to be friends with them, thus confirming their view that they are unlikable. Your relationship with the person of high self-esteem would continue, thus confirming their view that they are OK.
Often the process of counselling is about examining the truth of assumptions. There’s an oft-quoted sentence about it:
“When you assume, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’”
It’s a rather clumsy description of how misguided assumptions can be. It shows how people can be beguiled by their beliefs.
It is only by bringing assumptions into conscious awareness that their validity can be questioned. Counselling is an opportunity to probe internal theories and views of the world and to challenge long held beliefs about ourselves and others. Essentially it means changing the reel of the film we’re watching to something different - so we’re not watching the same horror scene repeatedly.
It is in this way that counselling can bring long lasting change.
If you’d like to think in more depth about your assumptions and beliefs about yourself, please contact me to arrange an initial counselling assessment.
The following video expands a little on the subject of perception. If you can't see it here, you can see it at www.thegoodenoughmum.com