You Are More-Than, Not Less-Than, You Think

Changing the habits of the mind

Posted Sep 30, 2014

It seems nowhere are we more apt to exercise our negativity bias than when it comes to ourselves. It is this tendency that can amplify our insecurities, drive our arrogance and keep us tethered to a past rife with regret, both real and imagined. The opportunity for change at the heart of this pattern is the recognition that, when it occurs, it is our thinking—and our thinking alone—that fuels the engine of the less-than mentality.

Negativity bias refers to our propensity for recalling the less savory moments of our past with greater facility and amplitude than our more positive experiences. In truth, this tendency is something of an evolutionary holdover that would have us on the alert for threats to our safety and survival. For our ancestors, a hard scrabble slope might be remembered as a great cliff, or a fast-moving stream as an uncrossable river.

Although this kind of vigilance no longer holds the same sort of imperative, the instinct has not lessened. Neither, would it appear, has the egocentrism that has us attending to our survival.

While many of us do still live with the threat of imminent mortal danger, most of us are focused on a different kind of survival; the hard scrabble slope has been transformed into the social gaff that keeps us away from the company holiday party, and the fast-moving stream might be the one-time error in judgment that has us constantly second guessing ourselves.

This tendency for us to amplify a negative experience such that “not ideal” is transformed into “really bad” is the place where the less-than mentality takes root. Once those roots are set, they are often nourished by the misguided notion that bad behavior makes for bad people, then branch off into the insecurity, shame and regret we so often visit upon ourselves. What’s curious here—and this is where we can get stuck—is that we are often not very likely to step back from our circumstances and gather perspective. Instead, we remain bound by our distorted perceptions and mired in our ensuing ideas of self. Here’s the good news: just as we think ourselves in, we can think ourselves out.

The less-than mentality is a belief system and like any belief system it is predicated on a habit of the mind. We believe a certain thing and that belief never really shifts because we continue to think about that thing in the same way every time. If we want to change our beliefs—and that includes our beliefs about ourselves—we need to change our habits of mind.

Now, that’s not to suggest we can do so through the power of positive thinking, or the recitation of Pollyanna affirmations. Change takes action and, in this case, that action means gathering evidence to the contrary of our belief that we are somehow less-than.

One of my favorite, albeit somewhat absurd, examples of this notion is that if you were six feet tall and raised by pigmies, there is a very high likelihood you would develop the belief that you, too, were a pigmy and be hard pressed to see things any other way. Once you found a differential point of reference that allowed you to gather evidence to the contrary, however, that belief would probably begin to shift, if not change altogether.

The same can be said of less tangible ideas about ourselves, particularly the negative ones. Once we find a differential point of reference that allows us to gather contrary evidence, we can change our mind or, more properly, our habits of mind, moving us out of a less-than mentality and toward the basic goodness where we started. Changing the way we think about something changes our experience of it and, in turn, changes our experience overall.

Central to any change is the notion of letting go. Here we are letting go of the limiting beliefs that can keep us stuck. First, we need to identify our beliefs, then the habits of mind that feed those beliefs. These may be broad—like, “bad behavior makes for bad people”—or more narrow and you-specific—like, “I’m unreliable because I’m always late.” Either way, this unpacking can open us up to an entirely different experience of who we are and how we can engage our world more positively, re-envisioning ourselves by re-envisioning less-than as more-than.

Sound impossible? Nothing is impossible; the word itself says, I’m possible1. The question is which possible do you want to be?

© 2014 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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1Audrey Hepburn