You Are Not the Sum of Your Parts
When I was a kid there was a toy I loved, a kaleidoscope of sorts, where you looked in one end and by turning the other end, sifted grains of multi-colored sand to make different patterns. You couldn’t add any new grains, you couldn’t change the colors. The only thing you could do was change the speed with which you turned the one end. We have a tendency, as human beings, to attempt isolating one or another grain or color and believe by doing so we become capable of seeing the entire image. In fact, not just the entire image, but every potential image.
When was the last time you felt shame? Doubt? Self-criticism? Do you remember what it was about? Now, do you remember what it wasn’t about? That last question may be rather jarring. Let’s put it another way: what are you not thinking about right now? Hmm…. yeah, likely even more confusing. Let’s try something different. Pick an object, any object, around you and stare at it. Now, without looking away, describe what’s behind you. Obviously there are shortcomings to this as you may be in a familiar place, but I hope the point is made. There is an entire reality living, breathing, existing outside of your momentary perception, both in sight and in mind. So why the isolating focus on any one thing?
To have our focus be easily swayed would have really put a damper on our survival potential as a species. Were we the proverbial dog gallivanting after every ‘squirrel,’ we’d have walked off a cliff, got eaten by an animal or missed out on catching our food. In other words, we’d have died. To survive we needed the capacity to focus, which came with the tangential skill of ignoring everything else. So next time someone points out that you were ignoring them, just blame your biology. I’m kidding. Really.
A Perspective Reminder
Let’s come back to the shame and criticism piece. Or, if you’d like, the self-congratulatory and joyful piece. It really doesn’t matter, because you can participate in the focus/ignore process with any of the above and more. Within ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), this is called fusion, which I’ve written about here. The difficulty with fusion is that the whole of who you are and the surrounding extent of reality gets removed from consideration. And that contributes to a whole host of problems.
Depression? Focus on self-doubt and criticism and ignore the vast majority of time you’ve lived without failure. Anxiety? Focus on what has or could go wrong, ignore the vast majority of events that were either neutral or went correctly. Relationship difficulty? Focus on what she/he did wrong, ignore the majority of behavior that was loving or neutral (as a strong caveat, this is not about when abuse is occurring and if such is happening, absolutely should you remember that and use the reminder to get help).
Step outside the typical mental health therapy categories for a moment. Ever considered yourself incapable because of who you are, your gender, your family, or some other part of yourself?
Notice that as you focus on a trait, characteristic, event or identity, the ‘self’ or who you are gets more and more hidden. This doesn’t mean we get rid of these things, it does mean we consider more carefully what we’re doing when we think this way. It takes practice. That practice begins with the simple acknowledgment: “I am more than any single thought, feeling or behavior.”
As soon as shame, self-doubt and criticism occur, we can learn to reflect on what is being hidden by those labels. Here are three skills to work on:
- Asking yourself: What am I not noticing? The question may seem counter-intuitive, but that jarring feeling may get you outside of the rut you find yourself in.
- Change focus: bring your attention to physical sensation, like the feel of your clothes against your skin; or to an object in your immediate experience, noting as many characteristics as you can; or if you’re stuck in a memory, deliberately and imaginatively place yourself as an observer instead of a participant.
- Shift perspective: pursue a different story, like the old choose your own adventure novels; imagine how someone from a different socio-cultural background would think; or deliberately change the thought/feeling by singing it or mimicking it as the voice of your favorite actor or fictional character.
Who you are is more than the sum of your parts, it’s perspective too. What we considered life-ending as children, we can usually laugh at now. Our thoughts about love and hate have gone through many evolutions as our lives have unfolded. Our smiles have gotten deeper. Our concerns have gotten broader. What we consider important has changed. This is all for the good, because the world is a lot bigger than any one of us and that means there’s always room to grow.