Life coach Jo Davidson explains how your brain can hinder innovative thinking and sabotage your goals
Have you ever bought a new car — something chic and a little exclusive — and within minutes of paying the deposit and starting your drive home you spot the exact same car? And then another four or five of them along the way? Or found out that you were pregnant and incredibly, discovered yourself absolutely surrounded by pregnant women and little people in prams that seemingly have just materialised from Planet Maternity? Or maybe you had a conversation with a colleague, about a great new opportunity, and all of a sudden realised that everyone around you is already talking about it too, and that you must truly be the last to know.
It’s all to do with sensory acuity or the ability of your senses to accurately reflect back to you what’s going on. So, do you really believe your gorgeous new car just became the most common ride on the roads, that pregnant people fell from the sky, or that your workmates only started talking about that opportunity the day you heard about it? Of course they didn’t, but before that, these things didn’t exist in your version of reality, and so your subconscious found ways to simply relegate them as background noise.
So what do I mean by your version of reality? Well, you’ve heard the expression ‘think outside of the box,’ right? Did you ever stand in a meeting where your boss asked you to do that and wondered, ‘What box?’ Unless you’re particularly creative or have worked and trained in innovation, you’ll find it’s pretty challenging to do. And even though some new ideas might come out in a brainstorming session, chances are that they’re only a tiny proportion of the infinite possibilities that actually exist.
Even though some new ideas might come out in a brainstorming session, chances are that they’re only a tiny proportion of the infinite possibilities that actually exist.
So what causes us to have such boxed in thoughts, and live such boxed-in lives? Well, the challenge is that your senses are bombarded with millions of stimuli, that hurtle towards you every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day, and there’s no possible way that you can begin to consciously sort and interpret every single one of them, so your subconscious mind puts a filter on reality to make it easier for you to cope with. It does this in one of three ways:
In order to make things more manageable, your subconscious will generalise your experiences, to make them fit within your version of reality. So, instead of you having to spend hours trying to understand a seemingly insignificant piece of information, it is pre-allocated to an existing stereotype that you already understand, and quickly filed away, reinforcing your beliefs about that stereotype without you even knowing it. Sound a little abstract? Then let’s take an example:
In order to make things more manageable, your subconscious will generalise your experiences, to make them fit within your version of reality.
You’re sitting talking with a friend and she tells you that she’s going to travel to a part of the world that you’ve visited before. Immediately, your subconscious opens the file in your memory bank that relates to the holiday you had there and you begin to put your own spin on what she’s saying. You remember the hot sunny days and the lazy hours by the pool with your other half, and you’ve virtually stopped listening to what she’s saying because you’re desperate to regale her with stories of the fun you had there.
All the while, she’s trying to tell you that she’s planning something different. Eventually you catch on that she’s planning on going alone to an art retreat in the mountains. You don’t get it. First, you’re not artistic and second, PAINTING IN THE MOUNTAINS? ALONE! All of a sudden, you can’t generalise it anymore. This just isn’t what people do on holiday. So now what?
Sticking with the same example, once your subconscious gives up on the possibility of generalising it will instead try incredibly hard to fit the experience into something it already understands, and in order to make this feasible, if necessary, it will distort what your senses have clearly told you. You begin to question whether she’s fibbing to you and decide that she looked a bit uncomfortable about telling you. You bet she’s really off to some hedonistic orgy, or has met a man online and is off to meet him.
Once your subconscious gives up on the possibility of generalising it will instead try incredibly hard to fit the experience into something it already understands.
You’ll start to ask, ‘Did she really say that?’ and wonder whether there was some kind of hidden meaning in what she said. By the time you sit down to dinner with your partner, you tell him that your friend is off to some hippy commune to find I mean, what the heck else could it be?
If there’s something about her explanation that prevents your subconscious from shoe-horning this experience in to your reality, then your mind is left with two choices. Either it grows to accommodate the new idea (yes, people really do paint in the mountains on holiday), or if it’s too much to assimilate (people perhaps, but my friend: NO WAY), then it simply deletes the offending experience and continues as if it never happened. When she comes back you pay little attention to whether she had a good time, if you even remember to ask at all. And in a few years when she reminds you about that art retreat she went to, you simply look at her blankly, unable to recall it at all.
Don’t think it’s possible that your subconscious can just delete information that’s right in front of you? Then how come you didn’t see any of those cars before you bought one? Where were all of those pregnant women when you were eating for one? And was it really a big conspiracy that stopped you from learning about that fantastic new opportunity?
Either it grows to accommodate the new idea, or if it’s too much to assimilate, then it simply deletes the offending experience and continues as if it never happened.
Overcoming your brain’s patterns
So how can you learn to think outside of your conditioning? Well, if you’ve ever sat down in a brainstorming session, you’ll find that the same old solutions are trotted out. They’re almost always things that people have seen and tried before, because it’s incredibly difficult to stretch your mind around something that’s never existed for you; to come up with something completely unique. And the same is true when you are looking for a new opportunity in your life.
A lot of the women I work with are looking to change careers but have no idea where to start. When we start looking for options they’ll suggest all of the same things that they’ve considered before; things that they’ve tried, things that they know that other people have tried, things that they’ve read about or seen on TV, searching online for business for sale and franchises that they think they could handle. If they come from a retail background, they come up with lots of things they could sell. Come from a service background? It’s all about what kind of service they can provide. You get the picture?
What if money wasn’t an issue? Or you didn’t have to worry about how other people would react?
As a coach, it’s my job to help them see past those obvious options, and to find the sweet spot beyond their conditioned limitations. Because anyone can buy and run a business to make some money, but it’s my responsibility to help them find something that will fuel their passions and give them a reason to keep at it even when it’s challenging. So, how do I do that? Well, by helping them to suspend reality! What if money wasn’t an issue? Or you didn’t have to worry about how other people would react? What if your fairy godmother turned up to give you your dream but whatever you chose you had to stick with it for the rest of your life? What kind of person would you most like to help? What do you know that could change someone else’s entire life? And so on.
So, if you’re seeking a new solution or are involved in brainstorming new ideas and processes in your job, career, or life, consider what reality bending questions you could ask yourself to start thinking outside of your box.
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Jo Davidson is a life coach and Neuro Linguistic Programming practitioner at Live Yourself Happy. She specializes in helping clients overcome their own limiting beliefs and live their lives by their own design.