Cognitive Distortion at the Door Please
(This blog is dedicated to my main squeeze and managing partner WCB. Your hope and happiness float me along when mine's missing.)
I had a boyfriend once who could drive his BMW through the jammed San Francisco Sunset District at 5 p.m., stoplights and all. He could get us across the Golden Gate into the open-er spaces northward; to Mt. Lassen Park for a quick camping weekend. He didn’t drive competitively to beat others. He didn’t cut people off. But he spotted lane openings and used them safely, and the whole Friday night escape thing was more like gliding out of town, less like battling one’s way through the muck. Greg was a CPA and had a thing for efficiency. And he knew what he could control, and bad drivers weren’t within that circle.
Another boyfriend loved to drive on the weekends, in an aimless, “Let’s discover a truck stop,” kind of way. We always had the best tunes from his seemingly infinite library of cassette tapes, which he’d swap out during the week. Slow and strange drivers would thwart our efforts at aimless driving nirvana. He’d coach them along with phrases like “Come on, Darlin’….you can do it,” like he was talking to a stubborn, but loved, horse. Ira was a Fed Ex driver during the week and knew how to kick ass on the road, Zen Master style. He would glide in and out of lanes, avoiding the incompetent, the troubled, the distracted driver. Yet he, too, did this while avoiding the hackle-raising so common to territorial drivers.
Which brings me to the musings of Duke Stump, a top brand builder, formerly of Nike, now principal of NorthStarManifesto. Stump says that we’ve forgotten the focus on how we think, rushing instead to some seemingly righteous judgment comprising what we think. He arrives at this conclusion following attendance at his first-ever TED conference (Technology Entertainment, Design…but so much more than that).
“Have you ever noticed how there is this insatiable urge on behalf of all us to dictate what to do whenever there is an issue? Asking questions has become a lost art. [Itals. mine] Why did this happen? What is the systemic cause? How can we reframe the issue to consider the whole? It was therefore refreshing to attend a conference that shared HOW TO THINK versus WHAT TO THINK. Nice.”
If you want to really see the maturity (or what I call spiritual generosity) of a person, Maya Angelou provides a handy lense. “You can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights." We reveal ourselves in traffic too. Not to mention restaurants.
Cognitive Distortion is big name phrase for the kind of self delusion that makes us feel injured or harmed by others. It means we distort the situational facts as we let them into our cognition, into our consciousness, into our head and heart. A Buddhist might say, “Remember compassion, remember that much of what is out there is suffering, when you let it in, try to detach and lessen that suffering for yourself and for others. Use compassion to do this."
A Christian might say, “Remember the master plan and the puppet master out there. It is all is part of our divine reality. Try to have compassion for the jerk-meisters among us, and pray for them. Remember, don’t participate in the madness, which merely escalates it. Use compassion to do this."
Matthew McKay in his seminal 80s classic, Self Esteem, discusses techniques for coping with the pathological critic--a nasty mental beast who uses cognitive distortions of all varieties like a terrorist uses plastique. Somehow, it is the rapidity of the cognitive distortion that leads us to the rapid-fire (yes pun intended) judgment/misunderstanding that stresses us, or worse. Again the technique is to recognize and separate from the auto-judgment. Compassion for self and others is a useful tool for accomplishing this mental judo.
Sounds easy to do in the isolation of reading and Internet browsing, where critical thought has room to romp. But in the hurly burly of human and mechanical interaction--driving, office politics, producing deliverables, getting the kids to school on time, yada yada yada--it’s something else completely. Or is it?
A fish doesn’t see the water it swims in. We ought to do better and try to see the influence of cultural modernity upon us. We’re swimming in a sea of strong, silent, jump-to-action heroes. Sam Keen writes beautifully of the ethos and pathos driving masculine archetypes. Consider Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Stallone’s Rambo, and even the slightly more multi-dimensional Jack Ryan of Tom Clancy’s novels and films portrayed by Harrison Ford or Ben Affleck . Take orders or don’t; but either way the acceptable options revolve around a jump-to-action bias. The assumption is that rapid-judgment shows confidence and provides for accurate situational interpretation. Heck, even Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade can do that. Correcting for cognitive distortion sounds downright effete.
So looking at the how of our thinking process isn’t exactly heroic in today's goldfish water. Quieting the pathological critic when alone or questioning the assumed course of action in deadline sensitive situations…we don’t exactly see those behaviors modeled all around us in the cultural modernity we’re swimming in. But we can look for it and find it if we try.
Change is far simpler than we think. Eastwood has been doing it with his choice of roles—check out Gran Torino for the come to Jesus moment on all this supposed heroism stuff. Let's remember what we're already quite certain of; kids are always watching what we do; they’re not listening to what we say. So let’s do better, let's model the brainy compassion that keeps us sane, and tamps down the madness. Use compassion as your tool. Gently question the deadline. Carefully explore someone else's randomly bad behavior. Ask more. The rest will come.