The world is quite complex. In fact, it’s a lot more complex than our brains can handle. A LOT. Consider for a moment where you are right now. Consider the carpet of the floor you’re standing on. Think of the different strands of material in this, think of how many there are. Think of all the molecules floating about in the air. Think about all the different sounds around you. Notice the sounds you didn’t notice before. Now notice the colours, and the different shades.
It’s a lot isn’t it? When you think about it, it’s quite surprising just how much of the world our brain cannot handle. But it’s kinda good our brain doesn’t pay attention to that much detail. We’d never get anything done. We’d also go crazy.
But think as well how our brains have adapted to this complexity. They filter out things that we don’t need to focus on. Somehow you know that all the different fibres in the carpet beneath you are not important. This frees up your brains limited cognitive resources to focus on what is important, like for example reading this, or keeping your eyes on the road in front of you as you come to cross it.
So this narrow focus stops us from going crazy and allows us to focus on important things. But, this narrow focus also causes us a lot of problems, because sometimes it causes us to fixate on things that are not helpful.
Let’s take an example.
You are a person that is really bad at talking to senior people. You are not sure why this is, you just know that whenever you meet someone senior, you crumble. Your voice starts to shake, you get all nervous and you end up saying really stupid things. You try as hard as possible to avoid talking to senior people because you know that you are really bad at talking to them.
Now let’s think about what your brain is fixating on there. When you say to yourself “I am really bad at talking to senior people”, you have actually set your brain’s filters to to focus on things that justify that belief. When you encounter a senior person, you will now be focused on all the discomfort you feel. You will pay more attention to the bad things you said than the good things. You will start to notice more your discomfort, and then feel awkward because you look awkward, and then end up becoming more awkward.
This habit is known as label thinking. You label yourself as “someone that xyz”, which then makes your brain search for things that match up with you being “xyz”. Without intending to, we’ve set ourself a filter. That filter then focuses our attention. And our attention then tells us of our “reality”, which then makes us feel a certain way.
You probably are a victim of label thinking.
Think back to anytime you’ve felt uncomfortable recently. Maybe it’s when you were in an aeroplane, maybe you were giving a presentation, or speaking in a foreign language. Consider what you were telling yourself in those situations. Maybe it was “I am afraid of flying” or “I am a bad presenter” or “I can’t speak foreign languages”.
Stop doing this.
But how do we stop doing this?
It’s easy. Identify that belief, then confront it with logic.
I recently had to do this because I was telling myself I was afraid of flying.
First, I identified the belief (“I am afraid of flying”), and realised that by telling myself this I was setting myself up for a terrible flight weeks before I was due to go flying. I’d tell my friends this belief, I’d say it to myself over and over again (“I hate flying, I’m afraid of flying!”). I’d start to dread the flight, and long before I was due to fly I’d already start to feel nervous.
So I stopped telling myself this. I made a conscious decision several weeks before my next flight to stop telling myself I was afraid. I noticed everytime I wanted to say it, and I stopped myself saying it. Gradually I thought it less and less as well.
Then I confronted it with logic. Everytime that belief created feelings of discomfort in me, I’d paint a picture of the truth. Yes, plane crashes happen. So do car crashes, a lot more frequently, yet I never get scared of taking a taxi. The probability of a plane crash is very low. The pilot doesn’t want to crash. Planes were designed to sustain turbulence.
My last flight from Singapore was a lot more comfortable than previous flights. It wasn’t perfect, I still felt a bit uncomfortable. But by stopping my labelling in advance, I managed to prevent the fear from spiralling out of control.
You might experience similar benefits as well. Any situation where you feel uncomfortable, stressed, or extremely self conscious is probably a sign that you are being driven by label thinking.
So the next time you find yourself in one of those situations, think about what beliefs are driving your thoughts and feelings. Identify them, then confront them with logic.