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Getting Caught in a Mental Trap

How we become the inventor and the invention of our actions.

Key points

  • Our own unique reality changes according to the point of view from which we perceive it.
  • There is often no logical connection between how a problem is formed and how it can be resolved.
  • If a solution to a problem fails, we tend to either do more of the same or the total opposite, which leaves things unchanged. 

Reality is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you.

—A. Huxley, The Art of Seeing

Source: Behind-the-Lens/Shutterstock

Resilience, well-being, and the pursuit of happiness seem to be available to anyone willing to seek out a way to achieve them, and there are nearly as many proposed ways of achieving each as there are people on the Earth. In this blog, I will be exploring an alternative way of thinking about common (and less common) problems humans encounter such as panic attacks, bulimia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Our own unique reality changes, according to the point of view from which we perceive it. Every sight we see alters according to how we look at it. More importantly, we can have very different reactions to the same events, depending on the different meanings that we make of things, and no two people have the exact same view of reality.

How to Successfully Create a Problem

It appears common sense to believe that there is a direct connection between how a problem was formed and how it persists. While this seems kind of obvious to us, it is not a trivial point. This belief is a consequence of a longstanding linear scientific approach, which has been replaced in the natural sciences but unfortunately not in psychology. Following Isaac Newton’s approach to science, we came to believe in cause and effect or linear thinking. Adopting this logic, if we want to know how to solve a problem, we need do nothing more than look for the original causes, and, in doing so, we could then solve the problem once we understand how it began.

However, if you study most problems that arise in human systems, we have observed that there is often no logical connection between how a problem is formed and how it can be resolved. There is, however, a "circular relationship" between how a problem persists and the ways in which people try and fail to solve it. As I will show in this blog, if we wish to make a change, it is important to concentrate on the dysfunctional solutions that are being attempted by the person or human system if we want to overcome or solve the issues at hand. If we can manage to successfully block these dysfunctional solutions, we can interrupt the vicious cycle the person has become trapped in. Once this negative cycle is interrupted, change becomes inevitable. Using a strategic problem-solving mindset, we can adopt a seemingly simple logic to solve problems and liberate the person from their difficulty. Using effective stratagems, behavioral distraction, and helpful mental deceptions, people can liberate themselves from even the most complex of human difficulties.

Groundhog Day

Humans, a bit like most animals, can’t reinvent and rediscover the world anew each day, and so we tend to apply and reapply strategies that have worked well in the past, and we look to apply them to problems we currently face. If the solution fails, we tend to do one of two things; we either do more of the same or the total opposite, which leaves things unchanged. These failed attempted solutions, when applied and then reapplied, usually involving more people and increasingly different places, eventually become more rigid and end up trapping the person in their problem. When we get to this point, our reactions to the problem have become spontaneous and no longer require any mental effort to trigger them. It becomes the way things are.

Escaping the Mental Trap

The way humans react to reality, which generates some of the most common disorders we treat, is not only a phenomenon of everyday life, but it can also (and often does) happen to professionals who cling to their solutions even when they show little effect for patients. It can be far too hard for professionals to drop or modify ideas or theories even if they fail to be effective for their patients. What professor of psychology or psychotherapy wants to admit that their hard-fought-for and diligently researched strategies are found to be incorrect or ineffective? When humans create a stable view of the world, they tend to keep moving their experience of the world closer and closer to the perception we want to hold of it. We essentially fit reality to the belief we have of it. In this blog, I will explain ways we create and how to escape these self-feeding and often despairing situations.

About the Author

Padraic Gibson, D.Psych, is a Consultant Clinical Psychotherapist and is the Clinical Director of The OCD Clinic®, and director of Training and Organization Consultation at The Coaching Clinic®, Dublin. He is senior research associate at Dublin City University.

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