My theory about Brontosauruses (or why most of us never really grow up)

This entry, I’d like to talk about why most of us (myself included) take so long to figure out how to be human. In previous posts, I’ve talked a lot about the “inner monkey” (here)– the fact that it’s particularly difficult to be human when we’re programmed to listen to an outmoded part of our brain that evolved to enhance our survival (but which is superfluous and, often, downright useless in the modern world). I’ve also talked about “software incompatibilities” (here), our inability to take on new concepts and information because, often, we don’t have the appropriate software in order to comprehend or even process the information presented to us.

Put simply, most of us struggle in our lives because we aren’t instinctively ready for the modern world. It takes, therefore, a lot of work to become the sort of human that most of us would (or maybe should) aspire to be – one who is aware of the world, the flow of experience, and is capable of experiencing empathy and compassion for those around us.

This human inadequacy can be compensated for, but is compounded by another major issue – our inaccurate sense of self. It’s hard to talk about this without introducing theories of consciousness (coming soon in an upcoming post) but, for now, I’d like to cover a few areas that aren’t immediately obvious to most of us – but which are particularly important for those hoping to be more human…

When most of us are asked to describe what we mean by “me” or “I”, we generally assume that we have a solid and stable sense of self. After all, our only viewpoint to the world is through our own senses and experiences and we quite naturally assume that this is pretty even and constant. But when you stop and think about it, the concept of self breaks down pretty rapidly. Think about the different “personas” you adopt in different situations and with different people; you’re often completely different depending on the context of your environment. You might be confident and outgoing among your close friends, but shy and awkward in new social situations. Or you might be outspoken with colleagues at work, but timid around your boss. It’s highly unlikely that you will behave in the same way in different contexts – your sense of self might feel consistent but, in fact, it’s highly fluid and dependent on your surroundings.

In fact, it’s more than this. Your sense of self is nothing more than a collection of behaviours that you’ve learnt to present in different contexts. The problem is that, because it feels consistent from our internal perspective, we assume that our sense of self is permanent and real – and this is where we get in real trouble.

Actually, many of us become highly “fused” with our self-concept. For example, if you believe that you’re a shy person, that belief will often influence the way in which you behave. Similarly, if you believe (are fused to) the notion that you are extremely competent, chances are you’ll try less hard in many situations because you think you’re better than those around you. The only consistent things about the self in these examples are the stories that we repeat to ourselves (e.g., “I’m a shy person”, or “I’m awesome!”), and which result in a very narrow repertoire of behaviours when that story is challenged. For instance, the “I’m awesome” person might get highly defensive and angry when her story of awesomeness is challenged – this will ensure she doesn’t take on critique and make it highly unlikely that she’ll ever change her behaviours. Likewise, the “I’m too shy” person will make sure he avoids social situations, reinforcing his notion of shyness…

These narrow ideas of self are sometimes referred to as “schemas” – effectively self-scripts that are (most probably)  programmed early on in childhood, and which are activated whenever that aspect of self is challenged – usually resulting in a narrow or stereotyped pattern of behaviour (often manifested as “negative” emotions, such as anger, frustration, jealousy, envy, anxiety or fear). Because this response is usually not consciously available, it makes us very resistant to change. Put simply, you can’t change something that you’re not aware of…

In fact, it’s quite likely that, for many people, we simply stop maturing at around 15 years of age. After that, we get very good at refining our behavioural repertoires, and coming up with increasingly sophisticated rationales for our narrow behavioural responses (over and over again). This is why many of us repeat the same types of mistakes throughout our lives (e.g., picking the wrong type of partner or job and always feeling dissatisfied, or getting angry whenever we’re challenged, or simply acquiescing to the, often unreasonable, requests of those we’re close to simply to avoid conflict).

We really are at a disadvantage in trying to be modern humans. Not only do we have an inner monkey that constantly tries to hijack our behaviour, and inadequate software for dealing with the complexities of the modern world, we also have a highly inaccurate notion of the consistency of self, which results in very narrow bands of (often dysfunctional) behaviour, and makes it very hard for us to grow or change – we get stuck in our teens, and refuse to grow up, doing the same dumb things over and over, but convincing ourselves that we’re making the right decisions.

In other words, humans can be really dumb (and I most certainly count myself in that category on regular basis)…

OK – like with our inner monkeys there is actually something we can do about all of this: learning to change. It involves “defusing” from our fused self-stories, and increasing our behavioural repertoires across a variety of situational contexts. Allow me to translate…

Pick a situation that usually results in you responding stereotypically – like getting angry when someone challenges you or giving in whenever someone makes a request. Chances are this happens pretty much automatically and that you’re pretty good at coming up with a whole load of reasons as to why your response was correct or justified (i.e., rationalisation). Now think about some of the other things that could happen in that situation. For instance, you could identify your thoughts (usually negative ones directed at someone else) for what they are: thoughts (see here for an earlier discussion about how and why thoughts and feelings aren’t actually real). Or you could correctly identify the feelings in your body (“my body is experiencing the temporary sensation of anger”) and accept it for what it is. You could become aware of your current experiences (“I’m here in this moment, with a stream of thoughts and feelings that were probably generated automatically. What else can I feel or notice?”). You could attempt to understand the situation from another’s perspective (“if I was her and she was me, what would I be feeling right now?”). Or you could recognise that your mind has activated the same schema/story yet again (“great, my mind is telling me that ‘I’m completely awesome and have to be right all the time’ story, thanks mind…”).

The point here is that you actually have a wide variety of choices in situations where you believe (through years of programming) that you have only one (the automatic reaction). It takes a lot of practice to change these automatic responses but, to begin with, making yourself (i) aware that your “self” is usually a set of preprogrammed responses, and (ii) exposing yourself to the possibility of alternate reactions (a wider behavioural repertoire), is the first step in allowing yourself to break free of our shitty software limitations, and autoupgrade to human 2.0.

So that’s it for this time – beware of theories about Brontosauruses (they’re often pointy at one end, thicker in the middle, and then thin at the other end).

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