Some thoughts on the complexity of our minds, by Gideon Killion, MA, LPC, counselor and coach in Denver, Colorado.
Not long ago, a client said to me, “Sometimes it feels like I’m more than one person inside. I worry that maybe I have a little bit of that split personality thing.”
“That’s actually really normal,” I told him. “I often feel that way myself. I think most people do.”
There is a rare, but real, and very serious psychiatric condition called disassociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder or split personality disorder. This client had none of the symptoms of that condition. More on that, at this end of this post.
I went on to tell my client that, at least in this culture, we often believe that a mind is, or should be, a single, unified, coherent thing. Sometimes people talk about “figuring out what I really want” or “finding my true self.” It may be an innate way to perceive ourselves, or it may be a holdover from religions and philosophies which have taught us to view the person in terms of body, spirit, soul, and so on.
This view can create a lot of stress when you have thoughts and feelings that don’t fit how you see yourself or the person you want to be.
Yet at other times, we appear to be intuitively aware that there is more going on between our ears. It’s very common to hear someone say something like, “Part of me wants this, but another part of me wants that.” And this awareness is closer to reality.
I recently read a fantastic book by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, called Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. The author reveals that our brains are collections of systems that work somewhat independently to process data from our senses and from other parts of the brain.
Most of these systems operate outside of our awareness, have different priorities, and often do not agree with each other. These parts make their votes known to our conscious selves through instincts, intuitions, emotions, and unbidden thoughts. When we have the experience of being stuck, unable to act, or of going back and forth between different attitudes and behaviors, it reflects a real conflict between these systems.
Understanding this can help you. First, it gives you permission to accept parts of yourself that are inconvenient, embarrassing, or dark, because you know that everyone has their own. You can focus on meeting the needs of these different parts in healthy ways, rather than ignoring or disowning them and having these unmet needs make life more difficult.
Of course, as I said at the beginning, “disassociative identity disorder,” aka multiple personality disorder or split personality disorder, is a real thing. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5, a person with this condition has more than one personality state that can involve distinct behaviors, emotions, memories, and so on. If you are concerned that you, or someone you care about, might actually have this condition, please contact a professional mental healthcare provider.
Denver counselor Gideon Killion shares some insights about the impact of anxiety.
We all have moments of anxiety in certain situations, whether it’s a performance review at work or waiting to hear the results of a medical test. But for some of us, it goes beyond that, with anxiety showing up much more often and in more ordinary situations. When it does, this kind of anxiety can have a real impact on your relationships and work (not to mention your ability to enjoy life). If this sounds like it might be you, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 18% of Americans over 18 have experienced the effects of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is something that I have struggled with, so I know what it’s like. I’d to share with you some of the signs of anxiety to watch out for, as well as what you can do to get a handle on it.
Signs of anxiety to watch out for
Here are some of the most common signs that anxiety is interfering with your optimal functioning. One or two of these experiences could be due to other factors, but if you find that multiple items are relevant to you right now, anxiety could be the culprit.
Things to watch for at work:
- You have intrusive thoughts about your own shortcomings, in which any mistake becomes a catastrophe.
- You avoid normal interactions with people, such as by procrastinating on returning voicemails.
- You feel overwhelmed, “out of control,” or like you can’t cope with job expectations.
- You are extremely nervous about meetings, presentations, etc., to the point of having physical symptoms (such as nausea) or being unable to participate.
- You find yourself arriving late or leaving early in order to minimize the time spent at work.
Things to watch for in your close relationships:
- You feel annoyed by or suspicious of the other person with no particular trigger, or your reaction seems out of proportion to what the other person has done.
- You make excuses to be alone rather than with the other person (for example, saying that you don’t feel well or have to work late).
- You are rarely able to relax with your partner or have fun together.
- You are so focused on your own thoughts or worries that you feel emotionally disconnected from your partner.
- You have feelings of dread or pessimism about the relationship, even though it has previously felt stable and supportive.
If several of these descriptions apply to your experience in a relationship or at work, you may be seeing the side effects of anxiety.
Things that Don’t Help When You’re Anxious
It may be hard to know what to do when anxious feelings come up. These are a few of the most common — but also least effective— responses to anxiety.
Ignoring it: For many people, the natural tendency in trying to cope with anxious feelings is to minimize or deny the problem. You may find yourself hoping that anxiety symptoms will just go away on their own. What often happens, though, is that trying to ignore anxiety can make it worse—either more frequent or more intense.
Isolating: A common side effect of anxiety is self-consciousness. You may worry that you’re acting strangely around others (or that they will guess how anxious you’re feeling). Although trying to stay away from others provides a short-term solution to this problem, isolating yourself can make coping with anxiety more difficult in the long term.
Self-medicating: It’s tempting to use alcohol or drugs to take the edge off your anxiety symptoms, but they come with their own problems, like dependency. There are healthier ways to address the problem.
Handling anxiety on your own
If mild anxiety is having a negative effect on relationships or causing problems at work, you may be able to counter it simply by providing yourself with in-the-moment techniques to reduce anxiety right away. Here are a few things that can be immediately useful at times when you notice you are feeling anxious:
Count blue things. It sounds ridiculous, but this simple trick can be very effective in calming your nervous system. Look around the room and silently identify each thing you see that’s blue: “the spine of a blue book, a blue highlighter, two people wearing blue shirts.” This technique works because it tricks your brain into shifting gears and focusing on a cognitive task.
Listen to the ticking of a clock or analog watch. This has a soothing effect for most people because a clock ticks at about the same speed as your own normal resting heart rate. You don’t even need an actual clock or watch—a virtual one will do. Search for “ticking clock” on YouTube, or download an app like G Clock that replicates the sound of the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock.
Engage in proprioceptive actions. Proprioception refers to your own physical sense of your body in relation to the things around it. Thus, any action that involves proprioceptive input can help to calm your nervous system. This can be as simple as chewing gum, or as complex as playing a ball game like basketball or football in which your body comes in contact with the ball. Other simple proprioceptive techniques include squeezing a stress ball, pushing your palms against a wall, or eating a crunchy food like pretzels.
Getting help with your anxiety
When your anxious feelings don’t respond to the simple techniques listed above, or if you feel so anxious most of the time that you’re having difficulty functioning in your normal work and home routines, it’s a good idea to get professional help. Anxiety can be treated through counseling as well as through medication, or both.
A medical doctor, like your primary care physician, or a psychiatrist, can evaluate your symptoms and prescribe medication. It can take a few tries to get the right medication and the right dose, and all medications can have side-effects, so it’s important to stay in contact with your doctor during this process.
Counseling is also an effective treatment for anxiety, for most people. Simply talking to a counselor on a regular basis can be helpful for some people, but the treatment can also include things like uncovering subconscious thoughts and feelings, challenging or defusing intrusive thoughts, or practicing mindfulness and relaxation skills. If you are wondering whether counseling might be able to help you with your anxiety, I would be honored to talk to you. Please contact me and we’ll set up a free, 30-minute consultation at one of my Denver counseling locations.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers reasons for America’s deep political divisions in this fascinating TED Talk.
This past election — which feels like it’s still going on — seems different to me than others I remember. I’ve found it harder than usual to understand how the other side could see things so differently. I don’t think I’m alone. Most of the people I’ve talked to, regardless of their political leanings, seem to be struggling with this same question.
I really like this TED Talk. Jonathan Haidt uses ideas from the field of moral psychology to try to explain why and how the US is so divided, and how we recover from this. He touches on a wide range of themes that I’m personally curious about like tribalism, globalism, authoritarianism, empathy, and cognitive bias.
You may or may not be comfortable with all of his conclusions, but it should be fascinating none the less.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
Denver counselor, therapist, and life coach, Gideon Killion, shares some thoughts about the ways our brains skew our thinking.
Like many people, on Friday I watched the inauguration of President Trump. And like many people, I am very much wondering what the next four years are going to be like.
Studying psychology and working as a counselor has changed the way I see politics, especially the way in which we, as a nation, seem to be so divided. (Actually, there is a good argument to be made that the US is made up of not one nation but several. If you’re curious, check out the book American Nations, by Colin Woodard.)
Our brains distort the way we perceive reality
Before, I would have blamed it purely on differences in issues and values, but now I believe that our divisions actually have a lot to do with something we all have in common — the fact that our brains distort the way we perceive reality.
These are called cognitive distortions, and we’re all susceptible to them. Here’s an example: once you form an opinion, your brain — without asking or telling you — starts looking for and emphasizing information that supports your position, and it starts discounting or ignoring evidence against it. This particular distortion is known as confirmation bias. Research shows that the more you care about an issue, the stronger this distortion is.
No-one is immune
We also all share an instinct for tribalism. We have a strong tendency to see the world in terms of us vs. them: to see the group with which we identify, whether it’s a political party, a religion, a nation, or a race, as good, and to see the others as bad.
When you combine tribalism with cognitive distortion, it’s no wonder that we so often and easily divide into Left and Right and wonder how the other side could possibly see the world so differently. And so we draw the conclusion that they must be stupid, misinformed, or ill-intentioned.
Heading into a new presidential era, my hope for my country is that more and more people will become aware of how all of our brains distort our perception of the world, particularly the things we care most about. I hope more people — myself included — will make a habit of looking for and challenging these distortions in our own thinking, not just in those of the people we disagree with.
Of course, being rather cynical, I’m not holding my breath.
But if you want to learn more about our tendency for irrationality and skewed perceptions, I highly recommend the excellent website and blog, You Are Not So Smart.
I would also recommend reading any of the following great books:
- Thinking Fast and Slow, , by Daniel Kahneman
- How We Decide, by John Lehrer
- Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely
- Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert
Ariely has some great Ted talks, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?sort=newest&q=dan+ariely
… as does Gilbert, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?q=dan+gilbert&sort=newest
… and Kahneman, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?q=kahneman&sort=newest
I would love to know what you think about this topic!