Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How can things get so off-track?

Before I go on with further statements, it’s important to establish some basic ideas.

• This paper describes a model. “The map is not the territory” is a phrase coined by philosopher Alfred Korzybski. It suggests that a model of something (the map) is not the real thing (the territory) but a limited representation of the real thing. Many of us have had the experience of using a map only to learn that since the map’s publication, new streets have been added while others have been eliminated. In this brief essay, I’m presenting a model. The model does not explain every nuance or permutation of real and dynamic situations.
• Further, this essay is inherently absurd and hypocritical. I say this because I will go on to assert that some ideas advanced are “true”. I place the quotation marks around true to indicate that I fully appreciate that while I think the proposed model has usefulness I’m hesitant to assert that it is true in a concrete or absolute sense. Just as “the map is not the territory”, the ideas I suggest don’t explain all situations.

Too often, a therapist’s beliefs and statements have a valence of authority that is undeserved. Therapists don’t have special powers of discernment or wisdom. We just have our beliefs but like anyone else; we sometimes however state them as if they are irrefutable facts. Please take what follows with many grains of salt. If you find it useful; fine. It’s sometimes said, “Eat the chicken and spit out the bones.”

I have a belief (right or wrong) that all of us (whether we admit it or not) believe we are “right”. I believe that if others disagree with us, we usually believe the other person is either not as informed as we are (i.e., ignorant of the “real” facts that we have), or they’re in denial of the “facts” that we have, or they are suffering from diminished mental capacity (i.e., they’re stupid), or they are being intentionally obstinate. If they were “right”, they’d agree with us because we are “right”. I’m reminded of an argument I had with my son when he was 17. I forget the disagreement but I remember him saying, “You’re not listening to me.” I replied, “I’m listening; I’m just not agreeing.” He answered, “If you were really listening, you’d agree.”

Perhaps we’ll smile knowingly and say, “Yes, that’s the attitude of teenagers.” But I think that attitude persists for quite a long time. If we have a lot of money, that attitude may continue ‘till our dying day. Most of us have seen this insistence on “being right” in others, but can we see it in ourselves?

Why do we all seem to suffer from an insistence that “I am right”? Is it because our egos can’t face the reality that we may be wrong? Often, we continue a course of action even in the face of mounting evidence that our beliefs that led to the action were incorrect. Who among us ever believes in the moment, that we are wrong? Is being wrong so intolerable? Most would agree that in theory, we are all fallible. But in the moment when there is a disagreement, we seem to tenaciously cling to our rightness, sometimes even fabricating corroborating ideas (usually presented as “facts”). Have you noticed that sometimes our governmental leaders fall prey to this?

I do a demonstration with patients (usually couples). I first go to great lengths to explain this is only a demonstration of an idea – that, “…in this demonstration, I will say unkind things which in reality I don’t believe but I say them only to demonstrate an idea”.

I hold up a book showing the front cover to a patient. I ask them to tell me what they see.

They report what they see, “I see a book with a photograph of a screen door with a flag in the distance and the title, Independence Day.”

Looking at the back of the book, I say, “Gee you are such a liar. I’m asking a simple question, there’s nothing important a stake here but you have to lie. Let’s try again and this time, please tell the truth.”

Usually, the patient is a bit confused. Tenuously, they offer, “I see a paperback book about 6x8 inches that has a photograph of a screen door with a flag in the distance.”

In feigned disgust I say, “You are a pathological liar! Even with a simple request, you choose to lie. I think there’s no hope for the therapy until you’re able to be honest.”

I then show the patient the back of the book which has a small photo of the author with a few publisher reviews. I say, “We are looking at the same book but you see it from your perspective and I see it from mine. Just because you see something different, that doesn’t make you wrong or a liar. Just because I see something different, it doesn’t make me “right”. You don’t have to agree with what I see in order to be “right”. Being able to see different perspectives brings greater richness to our understanding of something.

I like to stay in fancy hotels – my wife prefers something more modest. Neither of us is “right”, neither is wrong. Which hotel we agree on should come from a conversation which includes valuing each other's perspectives. Perhaps we should flip a coin to decide – we should avoid the counterproductive and hurtful exercise of acting as if there is a “right” or “wrong” decision.

Returning to the original question; how do things get so off track? They get off track when we believe that our perspective is “right”. More derailment occurs when others have a different perspective but instead of allowing our own view to be broadened by theirs; we label them as “wrong” thereby maintaining our own myopic view.

What is the solution or cure? An old teacher used to say, “It’s better to be curious than furious.” It’s helpful to develop an attitude of appreciative inquiry and openness; our own beliefs should be viewed as tentative, pending more information. We should accept that we are developing a delusional disorder when we begin believing we are “right”.

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