Sunday, October 21, 2012

Best of Hurts

I was recently in a conversation with someone about personal work they were doing to better understand and manage the litany of psychological damage they had sustained over the course of their lifetime—not because this person had suffered spectacularly—but because they had come to understand how important (though difficult) it can be to move beyond the scars and traumas we accumulate over time. This person was becoming aware of how susceptible we are to being trapped in the stories we remember of what happened when we were wronged.

In particular, each of us carries within us a "Best of Hurts" highlight reel that we trot out for impromptu viewing whenever we're in a difficult exchange, thereby subtly (or even blatantly) increasing the likelihood that we'll have that experience again (and again).

I laughed when I first heard this, because it's both an engaging metaphor and apt! (At least it's something I do at times.)

Recognizing the potency of those stories, and the influence they have on how we view reality in challenging moments, my acquaintance was actively working with psychodrama and playback theater as techniques for uncovering the stories, for the purpose of trying to change them—and thereby achieve escape velocity from their gravitational pull into the abyss of misery. Pretty interesting stuff.

In essence, the more severe the damage, the more accessible the film; the more likely it is that current events will evoke the bad memory and start to superimpose the past experience onto the present one—whether it's a good fit or not. It's work—sometimes a lot of work—to recognize that projection is underway and that the past is not necessarily prologue; that history is not necessarily destiny.

As I sat with this insight, I realized that I could distill a large chunk of what I do as a professional facilitator into trying to accomplish two things: a) helping people accurately hear and see what's happening in the moment (as distinguished from what we absorb through the distorted lens of our damage); and b) offering a plausible, innocent motivation for why people around you do things that you don't like (in the hope that once a person takes that in that they'll be able to let go of they're-out-to-get-me thinking). What this boils down to is offering people a way to step out of their personal projection room for the purpose of participating with what's actually happening in real time.

Through working with my wife, Ma'ikwe, I've learned the concept of "free attention," which refers to the portion of our consciousness available to notice and interact with what's going on around us. It turns out that a startlingly large fraction of the time most of us are distracted by memories (triggered by something going on around us), and thereby miss or distort a lot of what's happening. Maybe we catch the headlines, yet miss much of the nuance.

Because our abilities to access memory, recognize patterns, and draw inferences are powerful cognitive tools, I am not suggesting that anyone block out or ignore their past. Rather, I am trying to make the case for learning how to stay out of your internal theater when engaging with others—for learning how to bring as much free attention as possible to interactions.

While I have a lot of fondness for movies featuring William Hurt (The Big Chill, Broadcast News, Altered States, The Accidental Tourist, Children of a Lesser God), being obsessed with those is a lot more innocent than sneaking into matinees where the main feature is your Best of Hurts. Besides, who needs all that popcorn.

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