Let’s say your sweetie is feeling anxious or stressed or blue or just plain cranky. Would you help her?
Of course, you would. You might start by asking simple, straightforward questions, like: What’s going on? Why are you feeling down? How can I help? Simple, direct questions are effective because they’re thought provoking. They can cover a lot of mental territory. Ambiguous questions help as well. They allow your sweetie to frame her response based on her needs, not yours.
Now, let’s change the frame. If you were feeling anxious or stressed or blue or just plain cranky, would you ask yourself the same questions? I’ve asked this of many people and the most common response seems to be: I don’t think I would think of doing that.
The trick here seems to be the ability to convert a monologue into a dialogue. We all have a little narrator in our heads who comments on what’s going on around us. I call mine the play-by-play announcer because he (she? it?) serves the same function as a sports announcer – narrating the action.
When I watch a sporting event on TV, I just want the narrator to explain what’s going on and why. I want the same of my internal narrator. I don’t normally question the sports narrator; I just go with the flow. I do the same with my internal narrator.
The narrator – whether sports or internal – is in a monologue. It takes an act of imagination to question the narrator. When I’m speaking to my sweetie, it’s natural and obvious to create a dialogue. When I’m speaking to myself, it’s not at all obvious. I don’t naturally think about my thinking.
I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to teach myself a new trick. When I notice certain cues, I ask myself simple, direct questions to better understand the experience. What are the cues? There are at least three clusters:
Cue 1 — when I’m feeling anxious or stressed or blue or just plain cranky. I’ve learned to take note of this condition and use it as a prompt to ask a simple question: Why am I feeling this way? This helps me bring my feelings and desires to a conscious level and sort them out logically. In Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, I’m using my System 2 to check on my System 1.
Cue 2 – when I’m feeling really good, energetic, or enthusiastic. I’d like to feel this way more often. So, when I’m in a great mood, I prompt myself to ask: How did this happen? I’ve discovered some interesting correlations – not all of which I’m going to share. The best correlation may be obvious: Suellen is often around.
Cue 3 – when I have a good idea. I like having good ideas. I feel productive, creative, and smart. So, when I have a good idea, I prompt myself to ask: What was I doing when this idea popped into my head? Again, I’ve discovered some interesting correlations. Most frequently, I’m moving rather than sitting still. I don’t know why that is but I know it works.
I could probably apply the same introspection to other cues as well. At the moment however, I’m just trying to master the trick under these three conditions. What about you? When do you think about your thinking?
Yesterday, Suellen and I went to our yoga class, just like every other Monday morning for the past three years. We enjoy the class and especially like our teacher, Natasha. Unfortunately, Natasha wasn’t there.
Natasha had been called away on short notice so, without warning, we had a substitute. She swirled into the room, asking lots of questions about what we could and couldn’t do. Frankly, I wasn’t prepared and was a bit annoyed. Who was this person and why was she interrupting the routine that I was so comfortable with?
Though somewhat off balance, I thought about the three basic mental functions: thinking, feeling, wanting. Here’s how I was doing on each:
Feeling – I was feeling irritated and out of sync. My morning routine had been upset and I was barely even awake.
Wanting – I wanted Natasha to return and get things back to normal.
Thinking – I was thinking that the status quo was disrupted. Beyond that, I wasn’t thinking much. I was just feeling and wanting.
In my critical thinking class, we describe the thinking-feeling-wanting triad as our most basic mental functions. For me, feeling and wanting are deep down in the engine room of a big ship. The thinking system is the Captain’s bridge. When things are going well, the bridge controls the engine room.
Sometimes, however, the feeling/wanting system runs out of control and unhooks itself from the bridge. The engine room is running but nobody is steering the ship. Suellen calls this “getting your undies in a wad” and it’s a fairly common occurrence.
So, what to do when your undies are in a wad and the engine room is boiling over? (Yes, it’s a mixed metaphor). Too often we focus on what we’re feeling and wanting. The trick to regaining control is to return our attention to the thinking function. Feeling and wanting are about emotions, not about control. Only by returning to thinking can we regain a sense of control.
My go-to questions in such situations include, “Why am I feeling this way? Is it logical to feel this way? What assumptions am I making?” When I thought about these yesterday, my internal monologue went more or less like this:
I’m being biased. I don’t want anything to change. It’s the status quo bias. I like our Monday morning routine. It’s very comfortable. Change is uncomfortable. But it’s silly to be biased. Think about the opportunity. Change can be exciting. Get with the program.
I know that I’m describing a very minor disruption. Still, I think it’s instructive. The way to regain a measure of self-control is to understand the differences between feeling, wanting, and thinking. When your undies are in a wad, think about thinking.
By the way, we had a great yoga class.
(The engine room is better known as the limbic system. The bridge is the executive function. Just like the engine room and the bridge, the limbic system really is lower – physically and conceptually – than the executive function).