One of my strong beliefs is that each person’s individual experience of the world is a function of where we put our attention, and the stories we create around what we perceive. This awareness brings with it some great opportunities; a simple shift in attention or reframe of a story can have a powerful and lasting impact in terms of the possibilities we may experience. Other times, keeping our attention fixed on a goal or prize even under challenging conditions can give us the strength and motivation to push through.
As with any tool, though, what is useful can also be misused. Our drive to feel safe or happy can lead us to put our attention on what we want to see and to ignore that which is uncomfortable. We can also create stories that make us feel good about ourselves, all the while ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently performed a study on a widespread trait we have as humans to avoid information that challenges our current perspective on the world. These scientists put forth a comprehensive accounting of the variety of ingenious ways we create our own reality by consciously or subconsciously selecting what information we take in. We may choose not to obtain the information at all, by not asking for it, or by choosing not to study it. Or, when presented with information we don’t want, we may choose how we interpret it. By debunking it, rationalizing it away, or twisting its meaning, we can keep the unwanted data from upending the present experience we enjoy — but it often comes at an eventual cost.
My friend Janet experienced this dynamic acutely a few years ago. She was working in San Francisco and dating a young man in Portland, named Kohl. After three years of a long-distance relationship, she found an opening for her dream job in Portland, applied and got the offer.
When she shared the good news with Kohl, she asked him if he would support her decision to take the job — even though deep down, she knew she was taking it anyway. His response: “Of course, as long as you are making this decision based on what’s good for your career and not just to be with me.”
With hindsight, she realized it was the first red flag of many that were to come. But at the time, she was excited about the job and living closer to him, and didn’t register that his commitment to their relationship might not be as serious as hers. In the moment, she rationalized that he was simply taking an unselfish position.
Within about three months of Janet’s move to in Portland, Kohl began distancing himself from her. When he declined to spend time with her, Janet concluded he was just busy with his work and family commitments. At his birthday party, he danced with a lady friend just a little bit too close, but she trusted him completely and excused the behavior thinking, “It’s his birthday, so why not let him has some fun?” Later that summer, he bought a house with a buddy of his, that was an hour’s drive from her apartment. Janet had hoped they might live together, but she liked the idea of him owning property and thought, “when my lease is up, I’ll move over there.”
More red flags came and went. Finally, six months after her move, Kohl walked Janet to her car on the streets of downtown Portland, and instead of kissing her goodbye he said, “I want out.”
Janet was floored. “I felt like an atomic bomb had just gone off in my life. I remember thinking, how dare he drop this on me with absolutely no warning!”
Of course, she had received many warnings — likely more than she can recall five years later. With each one, Janet realized how, she performed impressive feats of intellectual acrobatics, found excuses and rational explanations for Kohl’s behavior, or pushed the information out of view. If she had been able to courageously and consciously honor the signs all around her, no matter how uncomfortable the data was, she might have realized — even before moving to Portland — that Kohl was not serious about their relationship.
Janet, like many of us, valued a specific story she wanted for her life above the actual information she was receiving about her current situation. She was so dedicated to forcing a specific reality to happen that she allowed her brain’s avoidance strategies to shift into overdrive and find a way to comply.
It takes constant vigilance, open mindedness and courage to actively thwart this automatic behavior of the brain. We can utilize it to avoid information that contradicts what we want to know, and makes us feel uncomfortable about ourselves or the world around us, but doing so only prolongs the inevitable and can often make the final outcome worse.
Not only is information power in the business world, it’s also a powerful tool for our minds. Our world gives us all of the information we need to make powerful positive choices in our lives. But if and how we receive that information, view it, interpret it and act on it can help move us forward or hold us back.
Rather than hiding our heads in the sand, we can choose to face things that are true and honor the present state of our lives. While it might be a bit uncomfortable to recognize things we would rather not, being brave about embracing the current state allows us to make informed, responsible decisions. By doing this, we actually give ourselves more options in life — options that ultimately set us up for more success in the long run.
Janet took a year to get over her “atomic” break up with Kohl. After spending a good deal of time “dating herself” — doing personal development work and learning to accept and appreciate her life — she eventually started dating a man she’s still with today; someone she would have never met, had she not moved to Portland.
How might you be trying to force your life, or people around you, to conform with your idea of what should be? Or, conversely, how might you be trying to reshape yourself to fit someone else’s idea of who you ought be? For just one week, can you commit to listen and pay extra attention to any new (or not-so-new) information you receive regarding this topic, whether from outside or within? How might this information better inform your actions and viewpoint?
“When you start hiding things away, that’s when the darkness creeps up. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” — Steve Kazee