As we grow and develop schemas, or cognitive frameworks of organised information, we create shortcuts in our brains for more efficient everyday function. However, sometimes our own schemata can work against us and I’ll offer one such example. Imagine, you’re headed into school, uni, work, a presentation (any anxiety inducing scenario), or anywhere, and the last time you were there in that place, or with that person you had a bad experience. Because of this, your schema, or blueprint for this person or place means you are not looking forward to the encounter, in fact you might even dread it because you pre-empt a recurrence, or just because you have negative feelings associated to the last time, which are then transposed to the next encounter. It is easy to see then how schemas can actually work to taint experience because an attempt to fit experience into preformed expectations is made, which can lead to frustration for various reasons, reinforcing negative schema of this person/place. Moreover, these preconceived ideas can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e., by expecting a negative encounter, we actually facilitate it by affecting the situation with our defensive demeanour, temperament, and therefore behaviour.
Furthermore, the event will likely affect wellbeing before you have even had the encounter, this could be physiologically (e.g., anxiety induced palpitations, sweating, breathlessness, etc), emotionally, and psychologically, affecting our mood beforehand, on the day, and for a length of time afterwards. So this schema or blueprint has actually become unhelpful. What can you do? Well, I’m going to tell you about an amazingly simple, yet astonishingly effective way of tricking your brain and possibly overwriting unhelpful schemas.
Now this may sound overly simplistic but hear me out. I’ve been reading esteemed Psychologist, and founder of the humanistic person-centred approach, Carl Rogers’ On Becoming A Person and found this wonderfully valuable little nugget:
Treat each encounter like a new experience.
Because, in fact, the encounter will be new, it cannot be exactly the same as what went before.
The idea is to let go of unhelpful associations about someone, somewhere, or something because these limit thinking to what went before in such a way that we allow these preconceived notions to distort future experience, rather than treating them as new ones. Indeed, going in naive involves letting go of our desire to control the situation, the need to manage ourselves within it, and this is, as I’m sure you’ll find, astonishingly liberating. However, that’s not all. Not only is it liberating and great for wellbeing because it can remove unhelpful ways of thinking, it will likely impact situations or interactions in a positive way – at the very least it will mean your own experience will just feel easier, less taxing in many ways, but more than this, it can actually disarm the other person in the situation, to such an extent that they react more positively to you because they have let their guard down as well.
I tried this and was so shocked at just how efficient it is that I shared it with my husband; he also found the same when going into a meeting with his new manager, who he had experienced some earlier tension with. Now I understand that this is something that may require practice, however, it really is worth trying, so I urge you to attempt this ‘brain hack’ the next time you find yourself in a less than desirable situation, and see how simply allowing your experience to develop in real time, from a somewhat unbiased position affects it. Indeed, you have nothing to lose and so much to gain.
This is truly how one lives in the moment, harnessing a kind of flexibility which enables a way of being which, in the long term can reconfigure personality, and therefore improve wellbeing – but only if you remember to consciously apply this before entering into situations.
Rogers argued that living fully entails being open to new experience in a non-defensive way and he witnessed this quality to be taking place in people he deemed to be ‘living the good life’, his term for the process of moving towards fulfilment.