I am I plus my circumstances. Jose Ortega y Gasset
While it’s true that the way we perceive and interpret events impacts how we experience them, it’s only part of the story.
Too much emphasis has been placed on our ability to withstand the environment as if it were somehow separate from us.
Instead, we are a continuation of our environment, visible and invisible forces within it profoundly impact how we behave.
Of course, how people see and construe things differs.
We know that perception is influenced by expectations and unconscious biases. Prejudices we may not be aware of profoundly impact what we pay attention to and recall.
For example in eyewitness testimony we know if someone tries to introduce false information about a person of the same gender we can resist that more easily than for the opposite gender.
There are many other examples of how memory can be altered and we can construct realities that don’t exist.
People also respond to the same event in radically different ways. What’s water off a duck’s back to one can be deeply offensive to another.
That is in part determined by history and temperament but also changeable minutiae like the argument we had with our spouse.
Being aware of all of these biases, to the extent that we can be, helps us mitigate them and become fairer, more aware people.
For example, we can practice gratitude and train the brain to scan for what’s good, creating what Shawn Achor calls a happiness advantage.
We can also accept that we and other people make mistakes (lots of them), give others the benefit of the doubt and let some things go through to the keeper rather than revving up the cortisol engine each time life does not go our way.
In this way, it is true that the mind builds pain and we have a role in shaping reality, irrespective of what happens to us.
The broader environment
But this is only a part of it.
The environment, which includes the space we live in, the people we surround ourself with and the experiences we endure impact us deeply, irrespective of how we attempt to frame it.
There is no point dedicating ourselves to a toxic environment because we’re sure that if we work hard enough on seeing the silver lining, we will come out okay.
An environment can undo us.
Zimbardo’s infamous prison experiments show that even healthy adults who are forced to live in destructive environments suffer breakdowns (although we should understand the limits of his findings.)
While this is a dramatic example, an object or symbol in a room or even the weather sways us to act this way or that.
We must take this into account when working out how best to spend the limited energy and time we have on this earth.
Once we do, creating a beautiful space to live in is not trivial or a vanity but a decisive act.
Telling people that they can withstand any situational obstacle is disempowering; it teaches them to accept dysfunction, it promotes inaction.
It’s great to be resilient, but there is a difference between facing difficulties and refusing to see the wood for the trees of our environment.
For example, genuine workplace bullying can lead to depression, anxiety and other physical dysfunctions. It’s the same at home, abuse has an intergenerational effect and causes multiple health problems.
(Of course I am aware that all sorts of family, social and political regimes strip these choices from people and they are the most toxic of all.)
How we’re impacted
Instead, people should consider the following.
People unconsciously synchronize with each other. Over time we mimic each other’s expressions, emotions and even beliefs.
Ever noticed how people –
- Start to look more similar?
- Take on each others’ driving habits?
- Behave more alike?
We do this as individuals but also at a group level.
The desire to belong to the group is so strong, as Asch demonstrated in his conformity experiments, that individuals will yield to a majority view even when it is blatantly wrong – i.e. – a person will say that there are three lines on a page when there is only one if enough other people disagree with them.
Even strong people struggle to withstand the pressure of a group. If you’ve ever been at a dinner find you’re the only one who doesn’t share a particular view, particularly if it’s an emotive issue, you’ll know what I mean. The discipline required to withstand the siren song of ‘join us’ can be huge.
Having said this, modern revisions of these experiments are showing that acquiescence is neither immediate nor certain. What’s reported less often about the Asch experiments is that he also showed how easy it is to snap people out of groupthink, ironically perhaps given the subject of this piece, by behaving sensibly.
Nevertheless, contagion creates empathy and cohesion with the ‘other’, useful for forming social bonds.
But what happens when –
- An accommodating mindset goes head to head with a domineering one?
- A person who is happy to yield is confronted with rigidity?
- The boss is bent?
- A partner is violent?
- An intolerant political leader comes to power?
It’s all very well to yield, or blend or compromise if it’s a two-way street.
But if the only way to achieve synchronicity is to give in – does it create your optimal environment?
Because of the mirror neurons in our brains we react to an action we observe as if we were doing it ourselves.
Some simple examples –
- We wince when we see someone else being hit.
- We grimace when someone tells us they bit into ice.
- We salivate watching someone eat a delicious looking meal.
The upside of this brain system is that we get insights into people by observing them, learn new things through imitation and develop empathy.
But as with emotional contagion, what serves us can also turn against us.
What when –
- A colleague is always angry?
- We see people discriminating against certain groups?
- We live with people who are at loggerheads?
We start to experience these situations as if they are happening to us.
‘Get me out of here’, we think, a much healthier reaction than trying to find the words to reframe it.
Because your brain reacts to the actions of other people as if you’re experiencing them you need to think very carefully about the people you spend the most time with.
We know from years of research that the impact of abusive relationships, workplaces or family systems can create lifelong damage.
These are not places you want to recreate.
Your body language shapes you
The way that you position yourself over a coffee, in conversations, at a meeting, during an interview releases hormones that directly impact the way you behave.
The fidelity with which the body mirrors the mind is extraordinary.
With her colleagues Amy Cuddly showed that faking power postures for as for as little as two minutes increases people’s testosterone, decreases their cortisol, increases their appetite for risk, and causes them to perform better in job interviews.
We are as we act.
It’s worth thinking about the kind of postures you take on automatically or that your environment triggers in you.
- Do you wince when your boss walks in the room, ready to ward off the next attack?
- Do you need to take a deep breath before you walk through the door of the warzone you call home or work?
- Do you have a patronizing or nasty partner whose biting remarks cause you to shrink back into yourself?
These things are shaping you.
And yes, you can strike a power pose, the bodily equivalent of the mental reframe, or you can change the environment itself.
No amount of positive thinking or reframing will enable you to flourish in an environment in which you are exposed to poor values, unacceptable behaviour or in which you are constantly under attack.
You are an extension of your environment and part of the ecosystem of others’.
There are ways you shape the world through your mind and they count. But realistic self-awareness means taking into account the powerful shaping impact the environment has on you too.