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How to Identify and Remove Hidden Barriers That Limit Us

Pop the bubbles, check the filters, leave the echo chamber, change the water.

Key points

  • There is a reason for all those expressions referring to the ways we limit ourselves in the interest of short-term comfort.
  • We need filter bubbles to regulate exposure to certain experiences and information. But, as with car filters, they should be changed regularly.
  • Voices singing in harmony with our own can be reassuring, but a little dissonance can be enlightening, invigorating, or at least interesting.
  • You change the water in your fish tank; do yourself the same favor.

Expressions involving bubbles, echo chambers, and various ways fish relate to water call attention to how we often shelter ourselves from certain kinds of experiences. Of course, we must be selective in the activities we pursue, the situations to which we expose ourselves, and the information we consume. But the colorful figures of speech underscore the potential advantages of identifying, evaluating, and occasionally changing up certain habits and routines. Familiarizing ourselves with the expressions and their meanings can be a first step toward freeing ourselves of unnecessary limits so we can learn, grow, and get more out of life.

Source: Pixabay/Pexels

The Trouble With Bubbles

Among many expressions that involve bubbles, we have “living in a bubble,” a self-protective state in which a person avoids exposure to certain unwanted experiences. There are as many ways of living in a bubble as there are thoughts and situations that might make us uncomfortable.

In social avoidance, a person might minimize social contact because interpersonal interactions are expected to be unpleasant. This may involve social anxiety or shyness. It also might be seen in a person with a medical condition, such as heart disease, who finds the prospect of social interaction stressful and believes it will exacerbate their condition.

Social avoidance might be adaptive in the short run, or with respect to certain interpersonal interactions, but over the long term, across multiple possible social contacts, it can cut us off from valued friends and family members, and even strangers, who might otherwise offer positive interactions and provide advice and support.

Another health-related bubble constrains the activity of people with painful conditions. If physical movement exacerbates pain or is merely expected to do so, a person with pain may severely limit movement. This pain behavior can be counterproductive. It may hinder physical recovery, cause deconditioning, and even promote muscular atrophy.

Another rather salient example of a health-related behavioral bubble entails the major changes many of us have made in our routines to protect ourselves and others from COVID. At some point—and many believe we have now reached that point in many localities—it will be time to reassess some of those routines.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Echolocation Is for Bats and Dolphins

While some bubbles separate us from people, and others limit physical activity, “information bubbles,” sometimes referred to as “filter bubbles,” allow us to be exposed to preferred facts and ideas while shielding us from other unwanted information. Examples include the habit of only acquiring news from outlets that share one’s political orientation. This metaphor is closely related to the “echo chamber,” which emphasizes the way that discourse expressing a preferred perspective is amplified by like-minded people. The "echo chamber" expression is more often used pejoratively than "filter bubble," though both can have disadvantages.

Water, Water, Everywhere

Among “fish-and-water” expressions, perhaps the most common is “like a fish out of water,” the state of being "out of one’s element" (to use one expression to define another). For example, a person attending a particular type of social event for the first time (anything from speed-dating to ballroom dancing), or who is on their first trip to a foreign country. It is interesting how this expression works so well, compared to the more literally appropriate (for humans), “like a person without air to breathe."

Another less often used fish-and-water comparison calls attention to the idea that fish most likely are not aware that they live in water because it is a constant, (literally) immersive state of being. Here, the implication is that we can be too comfortable with our surroundings, to the point where we are not alert to important cues. We therefore risk adverse consequences from lurking threats, missed opportunities, or negative effects of our own actions on others.

Samarth Singhai/Pexels
Source: Samarth Singhai/Pexels

By contrast, “feeling like you live in a fishbowl” refers to being self-conscious about others observing us out of concern that they might evaluate us negatively. Although often associated with the public scrutiny that is invited by fame, anyone can feel this way. It is an occupational hazard in certain lines of work; for example, those that require public speaking, in which one's performance is subject to computer monitoring, or that are set in a semi-enclosed cubicle in an open-plan office. Outside of work, it can occur upon entering into a social situation such as a party or reception. And it is a stereotypical feature of living in a small town. Feeling like you are in a fishbowl might inhibit actions that, in fact, would be well-received.

To Know Your Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Fishbowls Is to Know Yourself

It is a simple matter to take small steps around these kinds of barriers, or at least take a peek over or around them. A social bubble might be popped by contacting a friend or relative with whom you have fallen out of touch, perhaps beginning with one you last interacted with not all that long ago, so that reaching out doesn't make you too uncomfortable. Or, by inviting a co-worker with whom you have only a superficial acquaintance out for a cup of coffee, obliging you to interact for only a short while.

Regarding a behavioral bubble associated with a medical condition, it is best first to seek the advice of your healthcare provider. You may find that engaging in additional moderate physical activity is both safe and recommended. In the case of painful conditions, physical therapists are often able to provide specific guidance as to how much movement or exertion is advisable, and what degree of physical discomfort should signal a halt to the activity. Depending on your risk profile, vaccination status, and local infection rates, it may be a good time to begin to bend the routines you put in place in response to the pandemic. In doing so, be mindful of the recommendations of trusted public health authorities and be sure to have a plan for testing and treatment-seeking should you develop symptoms.

With regard to information exposure, try a different news outlet, perhaps one with a reputation suggesting a bias toward views with which you might disagree. Or, just look at news topics other than those on which you generally focus, whether that takes you to the sports, entertainment, financial, science, technology, health, or house and home sections of your preferred news source, or gets you to browse a different category of blogs or podcasts from your usual.

But, prior to venturing out of your comfort zone, just characterizing your bubbles, echo chambers, and fishbowl might be a useful exercise. They are an important part of who and what we are. Tweaking them may be a way to change yourself in desirable ways.


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