Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Self anchoring

I wrote a few months ago about what it means to be selfish.  I shared my belief that we are all a little selfish because we naturally view things from our own perspectives; adopting the perspectives of others requires conscious and intentional effort.  It turns out that there is a name for this pehnomenon: it's called self anchoring.  Self anchoring refers to using your own beliefs and personal characteristics as a reference point for determining how other people think and feel.  When we try to estimate what another person thinks or feels about a given issue we begin by deciding if his or her point of view is similar to or different from our own.  If we have some sort of connection with the person we tend to assume that his or her beliefs are similar to ours. 

Everyone uses self anchoring to some degree.  In our efforts to understand others we start with what we know - ourselves.  We determine how others see the world by using ourselves as a starting point and making incremental adjustments. 

The problem is that we tend to underestimate the degree to which others' perspectives differ from our own.  Thus, we often make the mistake of assuming that people who are "like us" hold the same opinions, beliefs, feelings, and values that we do.  In other words, most of us are not very good at putting ourselves in someone else's shoes; we also tend to be clueless as to how bad we really are.

Unfortunately, the more power a person has the more likely he is to use self anchoring when making decision that affect a large group of people.  Thus you see heads of corporations, organizations, and other large entities enacting policies they claim are good for their members or employees but that actually create hardship for the rank and file.  "If they really want to make our lives easier why don't they ask us what we need?" we complain.  (And indeed, this would seem to make more sense).  The truth is this: they don't ask because they think they already know. 

I see examples of self anchoring on a much smaller scale, with my patients.  Sometimes patients assume that because we have a connection I share their beliefs and opinions.  I have, on many occasions, had to listen to impassioned political rants endorsing views that differ significantly from my own.  These rants are usually followed by an implied invitation for me to validate what has just been said.  It is probably easy for patients to assume I share their beliefs because I so often validate the thoughts and feelings they express, even if I later propose alternative ways of seeing things.  They expect me to affirm and validate because that's what I usually do. 

I believe the best way to avoid making inaccurate assumptions is to try to avoid making assumptions at all, whenever possible.  In reality, there is only one way to know what another person thinks or feels: ask him. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Identity and attachment

Watching, listening to, or reading the news is often depressing.  Still, I want to have some idea of what's going on in the world so I try to keep abreast of current events.  This past week there has been a lot of talk about the flooding in Colorado.  Initially the rain was a welcome relief after a long drought.  But the rain kept coming...and coming and coming.  Several people have been killed and others are unaccounted for.  Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes. 

I was listening to coverage of the flood on NPR the other day.  A correspondent interviewed a woman in her early 20s who'd sought refuge at one of the evacuation shelters.  The woman had fled her home with her mother and their two cats.  She described trudging through waist-high water, cat claws digging into her shoulder, trying not to be swept away by the current.  She concluded the interview thus: "They're saying we can't go back to our houses for two, maybe three months...or if the dam breaks, maybe never.  I'm just glad we're alive and safe."

Whenever I hear stories like this I try to imagine what it would be like to lose everything you own.  How would I feel if faced with such an obstacle?  I'd probably be numb from shock at first.  And then I think I'd feel...completely lost.  If I had to start over with nothing where would I even begin?

My logical side reminds me that possessions - a house and what's in it - are just thingsThings do not make life meaningful.  Things can be replaced.  In fact, there are people who willingly give up their possessions to live a life of contemplation or devotion.  There are people who never stay in one place for long and who carry everything they own in a backpack or duffel bag.  So why is it that I cannot imagine my life without things

I know the answer almost as soon as I ask the question: attachment.  I am attached to the things I've worked hard to afford.  In my mind, these things have become part of who I am.  I think of these things as part of a life I have built for myself: a part of my life and so a part of my self

I am not a Buddhist but I agree with a lot of what the Buddha taught, especially about suffering.  The Buddha spoke of four noble truths.  Among those truths is this: attachment causes suffering.  Everything changes.  Nothing is permanent.  When we become attached to something - or someone - we cling to it; we want it to stay exactly as it is.  This is, of course, impossible because everything changes; nothing is permanent.  And so, when whatever we cling to changes, we suffer.  Sometimes we cling tighter.  Sometimes we cling instead to the memory of what was, of what we had, of what we lost.  We tell ourselves it shouldn't be this way.  And we suffer.

These are things I know but have forgotten.  Going forward, I will try to remember to accept what is without clinging to it.   

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


I used to think of myself as ambitious.  After graduating high school I hit the ground running.  I had goals I wanted to achieve and I immediately set about working towards them.  My ambition was a source of pride, both for me and for my family.  My sisters and I were encouraged to aim high.  Ambition was a value in my family and it was one I readily embraced.

So I worked hard and achieved my goals.  I earned my master's degree in five years and became licensed as an independent practitioner of clinical social work two years later.  I bought a house and settled into a job I enjoyed.  I got married at 28 and was ready to enjoy a comfortable life with my husband.  I was content.

And so I've continued to enjoy the life I've made for myself.  I am actively pursuing two goals (in partnership with my husband): selling our house and buying a bigger one and having a baby within the next one to two years.  Perhaps these aren't as lofty as the goals I once had but I'm okay with that.

I am, for the most part, satisfied with my life.  Unfortunately, my husband is not.  He is firmly convinced that we need to make more money if we're going to live comfortably.  He devotes a significant amount of his free time to buying things, fixing them up, and selling them for a profit.  He has also taught himself photography and occasionally takes jobs photographing weddings, family portraits, private events, etc.

I don't have a problem with my husband's extracurricular endeavors and I only interfere when I notice that we're running out of room to store his current projects.  My husband believes, however, that I should devote as much time as he does to earning extra money.

This has brought me to the following realization: I am not as ambitious as I once beleived.  I have no desire to spend my free time trying to earn extra income.  I enjoy having time to relax, to wake up on the weekends and have no obligations.  To me, the luxury of not having to work all the time is one of the hallmarks of a comfortable life (and I'm living it already)!

As it turns out, ambition is not one of those things that tends to decrease over time.  In their 2012 article, Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller explain that ambition is a trait that remains stable throughout life; it does not disappear once a person has acheived a certain level of success.  From this I conclude the following: if I am not ambitious now then I probably never was. 

Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller define ambition as striving for "worldly success," things like status, rank, and material wealth.  Ambition is not, they are careful to stress, concerned with less tnagible achievements like wellbeing, sense of purpose, or happiness. 

So now I must admit to myself that I am not, nor have I ever been, particularly ambitious.  I strove for a certain level of attainment - a college degree, a career in mental health, a comfortable home, a sufficient income - and I achieved it.  I've never wanted to be "rich" (whatever that means these days).  Yes, I enjoy having a certain level of comfort but I don't need a bunch of expensive toys to be happy. 

Lately this has been a point of contention between my husband and I. In fact, we discussed it again last night.  "You have absolutely NO ambition!" he exclaimed in frustration.  And I guess he's probably right.     

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A distracted society

I went to a concert with a friend last week.  We could see the stage from where we were standing but from our distance the performers all looked about six inches tall.  Fortunately, there were two large video screens positioned above us on either side; we looked at these when we wanted to see close-ups.  Periodically, the screen also showed shots of the audience.  At one point, the screen showed a sea full of people with their smart phones held up to capture the moment on video.  My friend turned to me and laughed.  "All those people taking videos are actually missing the show," she said.  "I know," I replied, laughing.  "That's our entire society these days.  Nobody lives in the moment anymore."  We turned back to watch the performance.

In that brief exchange, my friend and I captured a profound truth about our world today: people are distracted.  I realize I'm not the first to make this observation but my experience at the concert really drove it home.  We - I guess I mean we as a society -- are missing out on life!  Sometimes we even miss out on life in order to share with other people what we're doing at the moment - to text a friend, to snap a photo, or to record a video to prove we were there.  Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of experiencing the moment, of being in it, of enjoying it for all it's worth.  Maybe that's why so many of us stay constantly on the move - each experience is really only half an experience.  Nothing we do leaves us feeling fulfilled.  Being half present means we have to do twice as much to get the same amount of enjoyment.

I'm not against the advancement of technology, not by any means.  I am grateful for the virtually immediate access to knowledge and information that technology makes possible.  I value how easy it is to stay in touch with the people I love.  I enjoy taking advantage of the ease with which I can identify and connect with other people all over the world who share my interests.  I even appreciate having instant access to mindless entertainment.  We are all fortunate to live in an age where these things are possible.

Technology should enhance our lives, not distract us from them.  It's not possible to have a conversation with the person next to you while simultaneously playing on your phone -- you can't fully engage.  I've seen people doing things on their phone while they're supposed to be listening to their children read.  People have been hit by cars because they're looking at their phones or Ipads instead of at their surroundings.  I've even seen children ask to play on their tablets instead of playing with other children sitting right next to them.

I really hope we start paying more attention... 

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