Avoiding fixating on our flaws

Published 9:00 am Saturday, August 12, 2017

By Erin Smith

I have a friend who is really negative. She plays life’s victim at every turn, constantly fixating on what’s wrong in every situation.

On the surface, she seems to have it all. She’s smart, funny, and successful. She has a lovely family and close friends. Her biggest shortcoming is that she lacks the awareness to realize all of her suffering is only in her mind and under her control. To her, life is a blemish rather than a blessing.

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We all know this person. Maybe it’s a family member or a co-worker, but each of us is acquainted with an energy vampire that is just exhausting to be around. Their pessimism follows them like Pig Pen’s cloud of dust, choking everyone in their vicinity.

It’s frustrating because they consciously choose to only see tragedy, and then feel validated when it befalls. Their world view attracts disaster. Then something unfortunate happens, corroborating their feelings that life sucks and reinforcing their victim narrative. Psychologists call this self-fulfilling prophecy confirmation bias.

In his book “The Happiness Advantage,” Shawn Achor points out lawyers report higher levels of depression than many other professionals. Achor posits this is because they spend their days looking for mistakes. So sometimes they struggle to turn it off when they leave the office; they instead carry this eye for errors with them everywhere. They’re biased toward the negative. When they find it, their critical view of the world is confirmed.

How can we use confirmation bias to our benefit? We can turn pessimism into optimism through mindfulness.

Without awareness, our thoughts can actually take us in the opposite direction of where our heart wants to go. The brain is constantly filtering information, helping us to notice certain things and ignore others. This is a coping mechanism, as the poor brain is normally processing 400 billion bits of information every second.

The trick is to notice our thoughts and steer toward the ones that serve our happiness. Like turning a radio dial to find a better song, we can actively choose more positive, grateful thoughts.

If we’re always looking for defects, we’re sure to find them. But the converse is also true. If we condition ourselves to see optimistically, then we’ll see blessings and abundance everywhere. Expectation is a powerful force.

We see what we’re looking for. A few years back, Harvard conducted an interesting research study illustrating this point. They showed an 82 second video to a group of students. The video featured six people playing basketball, three wearing white shirts and three others in black. The students were instructed to keep track of how many times the players in white passed the ball.

At the 25-second mark, a man dressed in a full gorilla suit enters the frame. He walks through the basketball players, pausing to look at the camera and beat his chest. So of course everyone sees this bizarre gorilla, right?

Not so fast. Over half of the students never noticed that a gorilla was in the video. They were looking for basketball passes, so that’s literally all they saw. (Watch the video yourself at theinvisiblegorilla.com. Show it to someone who isn’t expecting the ape addition and see what happens).

If your default setting is certain disaster is right around the corner, start seeing the world with the eyes of your heart. Our heart is always dialed in to beauty and blessing. When you notice a pessimistic thought, check in with your heart to see if that thought rings true.

I was recently in New York City on a cold, rainy day. As I huddled under a shop canopy, I noticed ugliness everywhere. There was trash strewn along the sidewalk and throngs of irritated tourists jostling for space under the canopy. It was loud, smelly, and cold.

Then I checked in with my thoughts, my breath, my heart. I realized I was the one that was ugly. I was allowing my irritation to color my perception of reality.

I took a deep breath and looked again, this time actively trying to notice beauty.

I saw the homeless man who winked at me, his grin missing a few teeth.

I smelled the delicious aroma of bread right out of the oven from a nearby trattoria.

I heard how the rain and the traffic beat a sort of city symphony.

I felt the warmth of Izzie’s hand in mine and remembered that I had an obligation to help her see with her heart as well.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. She wants everyone to make friends with meditation, eat real food, move their bodies and hit the pillow a little earlier. When she’s not standing on her head, she enjoys being a wife, mother, dancer, reader, flower sniffer, guitar player and wine drinker. Send her a shout out at erin@theOMplace.net or play along at www.theOMplaceChannel.com.