“You are not the voice of the mind—you are the one who hears it.”
(Michael Singer, author of The Surrender Experiment)
Recently, I received a message from a reader who said that although two years had passed since the end of her traumatic relationship with a psychopath, she is still significantly stressed, depressed and anxious. Metacognition might be just the thing that helps her–and others–who’ve hit a road block on the path to healing.
Our brains do a lot of things automatically, out of our awareness. One of these things is to subconsciously assign meaning to everything. Nothing has any inherent meaning, but our brain is designed to be a “meaning-making machine.” One of the ways it creates these meanings is to look for patterns. For instance, if you stub your toe, lose your keys, spill your coffee and then the printer breaks, it means you’re having one of those days when everything goes wrong. When you’re trying to fix the printer and your coworker asks you what’s wrong, you sigh and tell her you’re just having a bad day. Actually, you’re just fixing the printer; anything more than that is just the meaning your brain has given it.
Likewise, underneath our awareness, our brain gives meaning to our traumatic experiences. The meaning it creates can have profound and long-lasting effects on us. It can control how we feel about ourselves, the choices we make, and the quality of our lives.
Michael Shermer, PhD, author of the book The Believing Brain, explains the neuroscience behind our beliefs: The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. He calls the first process patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. Shermer says we form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large, and that after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman says, “Consider that whole beautiful world around you, with all its colors and sounds and smells and textures. Your brain is not directly experiencing any of that. Instead, your brain is locked in a vault of silence and darkness inside your skull. All it ever experiences are electrochemical signals coursing around through its massive jungle of neurons. Those signals are all it has to work with and nothing more. From these signals it extracts patterns, assigns meaning to them, and creates your subjective experience of the outside world.”
Why do our brains automatically find patterns and create meanings? Our brains are designed first and foremost to help us survive. “Brains have to reduce prediction errors if we are to perceive the world correctly – a must for survival. They can, of course, do this by finding the predictions that best accommodate the current sensory inputs,” explains Andy Clark, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at Edinburgh University in Scotland, and author of Surfing Uncertainty.
Another thing our brains do automatically—and continuously—is to generate thoughts. Like our hearts beat and pump blood, our neurons fire and pump out a steady stream of thoughts that deliver a running commentary on our likes, dislikes, fears, anxieties, hopes, dreams, predictions of the future, judgments, assumptions, interpretations, worries and analyses of people and events, along with memories of all kinds including disappointments, failures, losses, injustices and regrets. Your brain even generates thoughts when you’re asleep; we call that dreaming.
If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you know that inner voice never shuts up. And you know something even more important–your thoughts are something you can observe, instead of just experience. In other words, a space opens up between your thoughts and you. Instead of being immersed in and entangled with each and every passing thought, you simply observe them spontaneously arise and then pass by, endlessly replaced by new thoughts. Instead of swimming (or drowning) in this river of thought, you’re sitting on the bank watching it go by. Every once in a while a thought will “hook” you and pull you in for a swim, and when you become aware of it you simply disengage and go back to focusing on your breathing. Don’t worry if you aren’t interested in formal meditation (I’m not either); it is not necessary for metacognition, so keep reading.
How often do you get upset by what you are thinking? Thoughts create our emotions. One of the most liberating skills to develop is a “witness consciousness.” As a neutral observer of your thoughts, you then have some choice of which thoughts to engage in, and which to let pass by.
This awareness and understanding of your own thought processes is what’s known as metacognition. It does not involve suppressing your thoughts, nor is it about changing your thoughts (“thinking positive”); it involves changing your relationship to them.
“Identifying with your thoughts means you place meaning on your thoughts… you think if the thoughts are there, you must respond to them. They must have something important to say. They must be true or need to be dealt with. Once you learn to observe your thoughts with neutrality instead of identify with your thoughts, you’re closer to freedom because you finally have access to choice.”
(Angela Savitri, “Your Thoughts are Never a Problem–Here’s Why”)
In other words, you are not your thoughts, and just because you have a thought does not mean it’s real or true, or that you have to engage with it. Having thoughts–which happens automatically–is different from thinking.
If you’re in the midst of acute trauma, it’s very important to deal with the things you’re thinking and feeling: What happened? How did it happen? What emotions are you experiencing? How has it affected you? etc. In fact, if you’re anything like I was, you won’t be able to detach from your thoughts and emotions. There are many things to work through and to learn in order to heal.
But if you believe you’ve already done that, and yet still experience ongoing depression and stress when you feel you’re at a point where you could be feeling better than you do, three things are possible: 1. There is still more to work through and learn, and the help of a qualified trauma therapist could be helpful. 2. If that’s not the case, you might want to practice metacognition to disengage with thoughts that no longer serve a purpose (except to upset you). 3. You may have developed a harmful metacognitive belief:
We can develop beliefs about our thinking that are persistent and problematic. These are called metacognitive beliefs, and they are different from metacognition as I’m writing about it here (an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes). An example of a metacognitive belief is believing that ruminating (letting a problem replay over and over in your mind) about your experience is a good coping strategy. Another metacognitive belief about rumination is that it is driving you crazy. Both of those beliefs–in addition to the rumination itself –support ongoing depression and anxiety.
There is actually a type of psychotherapy called Metacognitive Therapy, which aims to identify and change harmful metacognitive beliefs.
“One of the features of psychological disorders such as anxiety or depression is that thinking becomes difficult to control and biased in particular ways that lead to a worsening and maintenance of emotional suffering. Many patients report that they feel that they have lost control over their thoughts and behaviours. Another important feature is that the persons thinking and attention becomes fixed in patterns of brooding and dwelling on the self and threatening information. Metacognitive therapy recognises this change in thinking patterns and believes it is very important. It gives it a name: the Cognitive-Attentional Syndrome (CAS).
This pattern consists of worry, rumination, fixation of attention on threat, and coping behaviours that the person believes are helpful but many of which backfire and keep emotional problems going. The CAS is controlled by metacognitions and it is necessary to remove the CAS by helping patients develop new ways of controlling their attention, new ways of relating to negative thoughts and beliefs, and by modifying metacognitive beliefs that give rise to unhelpful thinking patterns. This approach has been developed into specific ways of understanding and treating disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, depression, and health-anxiety.”
To learn more about Metacognitive Therapy, read “A brief interview with Prof. Adrian Wells on the distinctive features of Metacognitive Therapy (MCT)“
What I want to ask my struggling reader is this: What thoughts are you having about your experience that are perpetuating your stress, depression and anxiety? Which thoughts do you think most often, repeatedly? Which ones bother you the most? From these thoughts, what meaning have you created about your experience? What meaning have you given it about yourself? About life? About people?
It’s essential to become aware of the meaning you’ve given to your experience of having been involved with a psychopath. To learn more about that–which is so very important–please read my post, Want To Reclaim Your Power? Re-Write Your Story!
Metacognition, or the “witness consciousness,” is something that must be deliberately practiced.
After you become adept, you will notice if you’re having thoughts–and the emotions that come with them–that you’d rather not be involved with. I still have thoughts about the psychopath I knew, but they no longer upset me because I simply let them pass by instead of immersing myself in them. And I don’t get upset that I’m having a thought about him, either; I simply notice it without judgement and let it go. Yes, part of it is because I’m not in the throes of trauma any longer, but part of it is because metacognition gives me a choice.
To get started with metacognition, please read “3 Mindfulness Practices That Blow Meditation Out Of The Water.” The author suggests three fun challenges you can do to develop a metacognitive mindset.
♥ Thank you for reading.
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