by Charlie Bloom
The mind is an extraordinary thing. It can solve problems, imagine amazing ideas, help us meet difficult challenges, transform our capacity to comprehend previously incomprehensible experiences, and, in uncountable other ways, bring greater clarity and understanding into our lives. As we've all undoubtedly recognized, however, there is a shadow side to the mind that can activate experiences that leave us feeling diminished, hopeless, frightened, and impotent.
Yet neither the positive nor negative perceptions that we hold represent an absolutely accurate reflection of reality. They are, rather, interpretations of ourselves, other people, and our world produced and shaped by our mental software.
The difference between what is and what I think is can be an incredibly difficult distinction to make, because our thoughts can be extremely convincing when we are trying to discern the truth.
My favorite bumper sticker says, "Don't believe everything you think." It reminds me that my thoughts are not necessarily the most reliable source when it comes to the truth. Yet it's so easy to forget that. When I do, I become rigidly fixed in my perspective, closed to seeing things any other way, and very attached to being right.
Often, the ideas that I am attached to do not make me feel better about myself or the world, but confirm limiting, negative beliefs that leave me feeling hurt, frustrated, angry, or overwhelmed. It's not my circumstances or reality that is frightening, overwhelming, or unfair—it's my thinking that makes them seem so.
Of course, the mind is just as capable of providing interpretations that are unrealistically or impossibly optimistic. These positive distortions can be just as dangerous or damaging as negative ones, similarly setting us up for disillusionment, disappointment, and feelings of hopelessness and resignation.
And then there are those occasions—hopefully more common as we grow in maturity and wisdom—when our mind offers us an accurate reflection of things and enables us to create a useful blueprint for planning and taking effective action.
The problem, as I said, is that you can't always believe what you think, and it's sometimes quite difficult to know where the truth ends and where our own distorted interpretations begin. The bumper sticker doesn't tell us not to believe anything we think; it warns us not to believe everything we think.
It's up to us to determine how much of what we think is worth believing.
If this seems confusing, it is. What I have discovered, though, is that it's not always necessary to figure out exactly what is and isn't true in order to prevent "analysis paralysis" or "hardening of the attitudes." When you don't reflexively believe everything you think, you can meet your thoughts without a rigid attachment to a single perspective, but with an openness to seeing things with some degree of, if you will, open-mindedness.
The opposite of being self-righteous is not assuming you're wrong, or knowing exactly what's true—it's being open to the uniqueness of any given situation and bringing curiosity, along with a willingness to learn something new, to it. In practicing this non-attachment to our beliefs, thoughts, and views, we're not admitting that we're wrong; we're simply expressing an openness to looking at our conclusions from other perspectives. This can liberate us from defensive patterns that no longer serve us, and enhance our lives in innumerable ways.
It can also create unexpected challenges.
Relationships provide us with an unlimited supply of opportunities to practice this form of reflection. I haven't always taken full advantage of the extensive growth opportunities to expand my thinking that my marriage has offered me. There have been times when I actually went so far as to try to convince my wife, Linda, that my thinking was more accurate than hers on a given subject, even trying to give her evidence to validate my correctness. To her credit, most of the time (not always) she has respectfully rejected my offers to help her see things "correctly."
Fortunately, I eventually came around and began to see that it wasn't a matter of figuring out who was right—or even proving her wrong—but rather being open to considering her views and seeing if there was anything in them that might have a degree of validity. There almost always was.
Unfortunately, it took me years of arguing and coercing to come to that realization, but the good news is that I have finally stopped believing that I'm always right and have started looking for the validity in what Linda is saying rather than trying to poke holes in her point of view.
Most of the time.
Old habits take a long time to die. There are still times that I forget that it's not about being right, but it happens with decreasing frequency and it doesn't take long for me to loosen my grip on my attachment to being right and ask Linda to run her view by me one more time so I might really hear what she is trying to tell me, rather than focusing on my strategy to win the argument.
Practicing open-mindedness and reflection is enormously valuable in our close relationships. It can be very difficult for those of us who have long been so attached to being right. It's freeing, but humbling—strong medicine, but just what the doctor ordered.