How Attitude Creates Our Reality

The enduring effect of early experiences.

Posted Oct 14, 2020

“The world, as we perceive it, is our own invention"  —Austrian scientist and philosopher Heinz von Foerster.   

We interpret everything we see or hear in terms of our schemas, our habitual thinking. What we think and feel in a given situation is shaped by our past experience. The awareness of our schemas provides an opportunity to grow (Beck et al., 2014). As Eckhart Tolle (2004) notes, to a great degree our suffering is self-created as long as the stored beliefs in our unconscious mind control our life.

A schema is a thinking pattern for screening, coding, and evaluating events. They are stable and rigid beliefs about oneself and one’s relationship with others. These schemas form the glasses through which we look at the world. We use them to generate expectations about a given situation to assess options and make decisions.  

Self-schemas influence emotional reactions. Emotional feelings are cognitive interpretations of a particular situation in which we find ourselves. For example, what is threatening to you is the accumulation of memories and experiences of things you have learned and experienced about a particular threat in the past. No one else experiences fear exactly the way you do. Consequently, the experience of a given emotion varies from person to person.    

Negative schemas (“I am not a likable person” or “everyone has a better life than me”) are a hidden force (risk factors) that have the potential to lead to sadness and depression. For example, depressed individuals tend to believe that they have no power over events in their own lives. An individual vulnerable to social anxiety will likely interpret ambiguous facial expressions as a sign of disapproval. Individuals who struggle with substance abuse may believe that “life without using is boring.”

Schemas lead to selective attention, such as focusing on one detail while disregarding other information in that context. This explains why a person with social anxiety sees only the one frowning face in a room full of smiles. The fixation of attention on various body sensations is a key element in health anxiety.

Furthermore, these distorted beliefs perpetuate flawed behavior. For example, coping strategies such as safety-seeking behaviors, used by people to avoid or reduce anxiety tend to perpetuate the disorder. Fleeing the room because of fear of losing control is only effective in the short term.

Repeated activation of a schema makes it more durable and less sensitive to new information. With repeated activation (rehearsal), the negative schemas acquire a stronger habitual thought pattern that overtime is more easily accessed by stressful life events. People may know intellectually that their belief is irrational, but they still believe it. They are unable to act on what they know.

Where do these schemas come from? Schemas come from our conditioning and our learning habits. For instance, early attachment interactions are thought to shape people’s attachment patterns later on in adult life. An insecurely attached individual doubts the availability and supports of others and worries about one’s social value (Panksepp and Biven, 2012). The effect works through dysfunctional attitudes about the self, such as “I am nothing if a person I love does not love me.” These distorted thinking patterns leave insecure people vulnerable to distress and at risk for self-destructive behaviors, such as addiction and eating disorders.

The mental habits acquired in childhood can later play out in adult relationships (Ginot, 2015). They tend to treat new partners the way they related to past attachment figures. For instance, insecure adults have a tendency to perceive ambiguous events in interpersonal situations (e.g., partner’s momentarily inattentiveness) as indicators of rejection that quickly trigger automatic defensive reactions (e.g., anger, withdrawal).  

The dysfunctional beliefs are inaccessible for direct inspection and can remain dormant until activated by changes in mood. It is as if we have cut down a tree but have left the roots. The tree may appear to be gone, but it still exists in hidden form in the roots that remain underground. These mental habits can trigger automatic negative thinking, such as feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.

Our self-schema is not static; we change over time. We are not born with such habits. We have learned these patterns of thinking. The task of changing schemas is to unlearn self-defeating old habits and replace them with new, healthier ones. That change is very different from mere intellectual understanding. The change involves the persistent practice of a new way of thinking. The whole process of changing deep schema patterns can take years.

References

Beck AT, Haigh EA. (2014), Advances in cognitive theory and therapy: the generic cognitive model. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 10: 1-24.

Ginot Efrat (2015) The Neuropsychology of the Unconsciousness: Integrating Brain and Mind in psychotherapy. NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Panksepp J, Biven L, 2012. The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions. New York: W.W. Norton

Tolle, Eckhart (2004),  The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Novato, California: Namaste Pub., New World Library.