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What If the World Isn’t as It Seems?

Noticing the sea of thoughts you're swimming in.

Key points

  • Our minds are built to look out for threats.
  • We tend to treat ambiguous information as evidence for something bad.
  • We rarely notice we are doing this.
  • Defusion can help us notice this process.

In a famous commencement speech given in 2005 by David Foster Wallace, he tells a quick story about two young fish swimming along together. They come across an older fish who calls out to them, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish keep on swimming, as it were, and after a bit one looks at the other, puzzled, and says, “What the hell is water?”

Samarth Singhai/Pexels
Source: Samarth Singhai/Pexels

Our thoughts can work just like that. We think we are seeing the world as real, as true, as absolute—like what we see and experience is all there is. But the truth is that we see the world through the lens of our thoughts. This process is so ingrained that we don’t notice it at all, in the same way that the two fish have no idea there’s such a thing as water. Let me give you an example.

Living in the Water

You text a few of your friends and ask them to meet you somewhere for coffee. You wait. No response. The hours go by. You start to feel anxious, with growing certainty that they must have planned to do something without you. Or perhaps they don’t care enough to respond. Maybe they don’t really like you.

Your anxiety gets bigger, and louder. You consider sending a snarky text about their lack of a response—or, no, maybe just give them the cold shoulder. You’re not sure. You feel stuck in a spin of anxiety, trying to problem-solve the situation.

 mikoto raw/Pexels
Source: mikoto raw/Pexels

The thing is? You’ve just spent much of your day tangling with thoughts that feel real and true. It may be that your friends simply didn’t get your text or were out of town. Nonetheless, your mind wove a different story of why your friends didn’t return your texts, and you bought it. Hook, line, and sinker. Because, although you don’t realize it, you are in the water—or, seeing the world as filtered through your thoughts.

Looking Out for Threats

We all get caught up in our thoughts sometimes, especially when those thoughts are unpleasant, painful, or uncertain. Our minds tend to be overinclusive about what might be a threat—and again, that’s on purpose too.

Consider our above example, about how our minds tend to fill in the blanks with things that are rather negative. What would be better: seeing danger where there wasn’t any, or missing danger when there was? Our minds have evolved to be champion threat detectors—so they can help us avoid dangers. The only problem is that our thoughts about potential threats are not always useful.

The downside of this amazing capability, unfortunately, is that we can often get caught up in the spin of our thoughts—and forget that our experience is not the world as it is, but rather, is tinted by whatever mood or personal history we might bring to that experience. And when we start struggling with our thoughts, we can get ourselves into a whole lot of, er, hot water.

Getting Out of the Water

A useful way to navigate the water is called “defusion.” We first described it, without using the name, in our last blog. Defusion is the skill of disentangling from the content of your thoughts and noticing the process of thinking and its impact on you. In other words, getting out of the business of figuring out whether or not your friends have ignored you and instead treating your thoughts as what they are: just thoughts.

Here are some ways you might do that when you’re having a tough time. They can be practiced in isolation, or in any combination. (Before you can use them, however, you have to notice that you’re thinking. If you have any trouble with that, go back to our last blog.)

  1. Describe the thought. Label what’s going on in your mind using descriptive, nonjudgmental words. For example, you might say, “My mind is imagining reasons why my friends didn’t respond to my text.” You can preface your words with a phrase like “I’m having the thought…”, as in “I’m having the thought that my friends don’t like me anymore.”
  2. Notice if it’s a habit. Ask yourself if this kind of thinking is habitual. For example, when something is uncertain—like silence, virtual or otherwise, from someone you care about—does your mind start weaving a narrative about something going wrong? Humans are not very original—we tend to think the same kinds of thoughts in similar situations. You can also give thoughts like this and others with similar themes a collective name, like “This is that ‘nobody actually likes me’ story again.”
  3. Ask yourself if it’s useful. Rather than trying to figure out whether the thought is true, ask yourself whether it’s useful. This is different from what we usually do, which is to question the accuracy of our thoughts. This sometimes helps, but it can also pull your mind into a debate: “It’s highly unlikely that my friends don’t like me anymore.” “But it sure feels like it. What if it’s true?” Instead, ask yourself if the thought is helpful. The answer doesn’t have to be no, even if the thought is negative. Sometimes scary thoughts can be quite useful, like when you are procrastinating on your taxes or your dog is running around biting your neighbors.
  4. Notice if there are any actual threats. Your body might be revved up, offering you adrenaline and a fast-beating heart to prepare you to fight or flee. Most of the time you don't need to. Sometimes reminding yourself of the origin of this kind of thinking and the body sensations that go along with them was to prevent literal threats to our lives and help you disempower the "realness" of these kinds of thoughts.
  5. Take action that is counter to the thought. It’s very easy to feel like your thoughts control your behavior, and to fall into doing what they tell us to do. Ask yourself, “What would I be doing right now if I wasn’t so concerned with this story my mind is telling me?” Then do that: engage more deeply in the conversation you’re having with someone, get started on that tiny household task you are putting off, or finish writing that email.

These strategies won’t make your thoughts go away. We don’t have the technology to do that. But they will hopefully make them just a little bit lighter, a little less sticky, and a little bit less powerful.

Teeny Tiny Practice

The next time you find yourself stuck in the water, do the following teeny tiny practice:

  • What is the thought?
  • Is this a habitual path your mind likes to take?
  • Is this thought useful?
  • Are there actual threats or dangers here?
  • What meaningful action can you take?

This might not make the thought stop hurting, but it may give you a little bit of freedom to take the next step in your life consciously aware of when you’re in or out of the water.

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More from Matthew S. Boone, LCSW, Jennifer A. Gregg, Ph.D., and Lisa W. Coyne, Ph.D.
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