Opening possibility in self-talk 3: suspending judgement

Another way that our self-talk can lock us into stuck and unresourceful states and patterns of behaviour is by how we put events, other people, and ourselves, into categories which have an implied judgement.

(NB this article follows on from the previous articles Opening possibility in self-talk 1: what doesn’t work and Opening possibility in self-talk 2: time-shifting – you will probably want to read those first)

For example, if you say to yourself “I hate that **** over the road” (for ****, insert the worst word you can bring yourself to say), you are pretty much locking yourself into an unresourceful state with regard to that person for the foreseeable future. Another way of saying this is that you are giving that person power over how you feel (although to be fair they may be completely unaware of this); it’s as if they take up residence in your thoughts, and you feel anger, hatred, disgust or fear, none of them resourceful states, every time you think about them.

If you do some time-shifting on that statement so it becomes “I hated that **** across the road”, it only loosens things up a bit. Why? He’s still a ****, so it’s unlikely that you are going to have pleasant or productive interactions with him.

If we categorise someone as a ****, or as a fool, a racist, greedy, cold, stupid, or whatever, we are taking one aspect of them and using it to stand for the whole person. You can never fully know another person, even someone you love and are close to; you can only know your internal representation of them.

You know how when you are in love with someone, they can do no wrong? Similarly, if you place someone in a category that has some judgement about them built into it, and they you identify them primarily by that category, then confirmation bias means it will be very hard for them to get you to see them as anything else, no matter how many other good qualities or worthwhile actions they display. You will interpret whatever they do and whatever else you find out about them through the lens of that judgemental categorisation, and it will take something pretty significant to overcome that impression.

So what can you do to free up your perceptions, opening up the possibility of seeing the person in a different way, and maybe improving or renewing your relationship with them? Or – and this may be a more attractive option in some cases – allowing you to continue to ignore them, without them invading your thoughts?

Try this: broaden the category, until it is not characterised by judgement. Instead of “I hate that **** across the road”, try “I hate that guy across the road”. This statement does not contradict your experience, but now that he’s a guy rather than a ****, it opens the possibility for change.

What if you believe that all men are ****? (not a helpful belief to have, in my opinion, particularly as there are so many of us around). Try “I hate that person across the road” which pretty much covers all cases.

Broadening the category when we think of someone tends to take the emotional charge, positive or negative, out of our thoughts. We feel more detached and less emotionally ‘invested’ the broader and vaguer the category is, because we don’t form as precise an internal representation of the person in our mind. Another example of how this principle works is in criminal trials; the defence lawyer will refer to the person in the dock using their name, to encourage the jury to see them as a human being and therefore identify with them or feel more compassion for them, while the prosecution will call them “the accused” to dehumanise them in the eyes of the jury and reduce them to just a category.

When you add in time-shifting: “I hated that person across the road”, you’ve really got some possibility space for change opening up. Of course, a lot would depend on the tone in which your inner voice says “person” – I’ll deal with this in the next article.

The definitive work on categories is Steve Andreas’ ‘Six Blind Elephants‘ vols I and II; I have it on good authority that ‘Of Women, Fire and Dangerous Things‘ by George Lakoff is also excellent.

© 2011, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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