A while back, I wrote a post called “Feeling Trapped in Hamlet’s Prison.” The point of it was to show that how we perceive something can have a profound effect on how we feel. By recognizing that we have the ability to change our perceptions, we can change how we feel. I’ll elaborate on that in this post and discuss the practical side of how to do it.
Just to briefly review the main idea, the root of the problem that leads to overeating and other unwanted behaviors is the feeling of being controlled in some way. Obligations, responsibilities, expectations, and demands can feel like a threat to your sense of autonomy and control over your own decisions. Letting go of behavioral control, whether it’s through eating, drinking, sex, or anger, is the exaggerated reaction to reassert that control. But what is it about those demands that causes that sense of being controlled?
How we interpret any experience is a product of previous experiences in life and our hard-wired tendencies that together determine who we are. The same is true of an experience that makes you feel controlled. The good news about that step in the process is that even though you can’t change what happened, you can change how you interpret it.
This image is from a magazine ad not long ago. When I saw it, it struck me as a perfect illustration of what I tell my patients about filters. Imagine three people walking down the street and they see a wallet on the ground. Even though they all see the same thing, each person has a different response to the experience.
The first one looks at it and feels sympathy for the person who dropped it, thinking, “Poor guy, lost his wallet.” The second person feels a sense of obligation to do something about it, and thinks, “I’ve got to find out who it belongs to so I can get it back to him.” The third person looks at it and thinks, “Hey, cash!”
Putting aside the question of which response is morally preferable, all three can be described as accurate observations of the same experience, yet the responses elicited are very different.
I think of these tendencies that shape our perceptions as our personal filters because they work in much the same way as filters that are used on camera lenses to create certain effects. Camera filters distort the image being photographed in order to enhance the effect of the image. Sometimes these artistic distortions can be so unique to the photographer that they can become an instantly recognizable signature of the artist. Think of Andy Warhol and his way of processing images that are unmistakably his.
The way that we interpret things can be equally personal and unique to us. It can reflect our own signature perception of the world. While two people may disagree about whether the proverbial glass is half-empty or half-full, both views are accurate reflections of reality. One person may have a tendency to view most things in a more positive or hopeful way, while the other has a more negative, cautious, or skeptical filter and will see the glass through that filter.
The good news, though, is that we’re not stuck with our initial interpretation. There are situations that could cause us to feel controlled or restrained and we may not be able to change the situation itself, but we are able to change how we filter it. The catch is you first have to recognize that you’re doing it.
Here’s an example from a conversation I recently had with a patient. She was feeling very stressed because she was about to graduate from law school and was waiting to hear about a job that she had applied for. She had worked at a prestigious firm the previous summer where they valued her and encouraged her to apply for a job. That fall she did apply and interviewed with the senior partners who told her that she would hear from them within the next few months. It was now almost February, and she had still not heard about the job. She said that she felt like her entire future was on hold and that she had no power over the situation. She did not want to call to find out about her status because she was afraid of how that would be perceived and was advised by everyone she asked to just sit tight.
When we discussed the problem, I asked her why she was willing to wait for them to respond rather than move on to other firms who were hiring. She said that they were a big-name firm, the people there knew her and liked her, and she felt that she would fit in well. I agreed that those were great reasons, and it was understandable that she would want to wait to hear from them. On the other hand, there were many firms in the city that could potentially offer her the same thing. She agreed but felt that she would rather wait a while longer before exploring other options.
“So you’re choosing to wait?” I asked.
“Yes – I really have my heart set on this firm,” she replied.
I told her that certainly sounded like a reasonable approach to the situation, and in spite of the stress this situation was causing her, she must have felt that the trade-off was worthwhile.
“Absolutely!” she said.
“So you agree that it is your choice, and that no one else is pressuring you to make it?”
“I guess that’s true. I wasn’t looking at it that way.”
Suddenly, just by changing how she looked at the situation, she realized that she was not nearly as powerless as she had imagined.
In fact, she saw that by making the choice to wait, she was evaluating them as much as they were evaluating her, which gave her an even greater sense of control. She could always reconsider her decision to wait. If they didn’t communicate with her soon she may have a different view of them and might decide not want to work there after all. After recognizing this, she felt much less like a powerless pawn waiting for someone to determine her fate, and more like the empowered, independent person that she had always seen herself to be.