Why your focus doesn’t determine your reality, why you can’t choose how you feel, and why you are most definitely not self-made

There are times that I read things on LinkedIn that cause my insides to have a small, irritated melt-down, and they’re inevitably these little slogans which appear innocuous, but which can’t stand up to scrutiny. (Incidentally, the comedian Joe Lycett does a funny sketch on #bullshitquotesIjustmadeup that captures this kind of thing quite well, if you wanted a laugh).

Three that I’ve fizzed out over recently include:

  • “Everyone is self-made, but only the successful will admit it”;

  • “Your focus determines your reality”; and

  • “You can choose what you feel”.

They sound like truth, but they’re actually only half of the truth, if that. They’re compelling to us because all three of them assert that we actually have, or can have, something that we always want a lot of - control. But they’re actually dangerously incomplete ideas for us to put our agency behind, because of what they mean for the way that we live our lives and the ways that we respond to others. 

How much control do we have in life, really?

Stephen Covey released the 7 Habits of Highly Effective people in 1989, and it has gone on to sell over 25 million copies. Whether or not we see it directly, many of the ideas in that book have been accepted into popular culture, and anyone interested in self-help or leadership development will have been exposed to them in some fashion. 

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This book is relevant to today’s article because in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey outlined a concept called The Circle of Influence and The Circle of Concern. Basically: we all have numerous things that we could be concerned about (they live in the circle of concern) but only certain things that we can influence (they live in the circle of influence, which is typically smaller than our circle of concern). Covey asserts that proactive people spend most of their energy influencing things in the circle of influence, not the things outside of their circle of influence.

That’s all fine and good - I agree. 

The issue I take with these slogans is that they state that certain things that sit across the line of influence and concern, actually sit wholly within our circle of influence: that is, that we have complete influence over who we are in the world, our reality, and our feelings

This simply isn’t true, for multiple reasons.

Breaking down why these ideas aren’t complete

1. Why you’re not self-made (but you're also not devoid of responsibility for your adult self, either): 

There was a study done back in 1995 - 1997, called “The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study”. You can check it out here. It is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect, and the impact of that on later-life health and well-being.

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It found that if a child was exposed to an Adverse Childhood Experience, then it would significantly effect that child’s physiological and psychological development, and thus their later-life opportunities. If a child was exposed to 6 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, that child would, on average, grow up to live a life that was 20 years shorter than average because of the profound impacts to their physiological and psychological development that happened in childhood. 

The astounding thing about this study is that 67% of people have been exposed to an Adverse Childhood Experience. That is, the majority of people have, through their childhood, been set-back from reaching their full potential, both physiologically and psychologically. 12.6% of people have been exposed to 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, and thus are extraordinarily set-back. (Here's a great TED Talk on the ACE study, which is quite an easy way into it, if you were interested).

The notion that we’re self-made is literally impossible because: 

  1. Someone else creates us in their body;

  2. Someone else keeps us alive during our vulnerable developing years, and may very well have done enough damage to us during that time to seriously stunt our physiological and psychological growth (to a point where we might live 20 years shorter than someone who had not been exposed to that kind of damage);

  3. In the western world, we are constantly invested into by our government in the form of mandatory schooling, infrastructure, and medicare;

  4. We have access to books and other forms of information which house someone else’s ideas, which we can choose to let affect us and the way that we live our lives, or not; and

  5. There will have been countless people who have interacted with you, and influenced you, in some way or another - teachers, aunties and uncles, friends, bosses that saw something in you, lovers, significant others… even randoms who have smiled at you in a cafe on a day that you really needed it.

The small grain of truth in the slogan is that, as an adult, you are capable of making choices about how you are going to live your life, and you are responsible for the outcomes of whatever choices you do make. These choices are within your circle of influence.

But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re all starting from the same starting point: our capacity to make ‘good’ choices for ourselves is directly referable to the ways that we were facilitated to develop during our childhood. So, some people’s circle of influence will be much smaller than others, through no fault of their own.

This deserves our empathy and our support, not our judgement or our censure.

2. Why your focus does not determine your reality (but your focus can help you cope with your reality):

When I was seven or eight there was this “Troll Doll” craze that happened. The way that these Troll’s were advertised on TV was that you could wish for things and the Troll doll would make it happen - I particularly remember this because the little girl in the advertisement wished for curly hair, which is something I already had, and I thought she wasn’t all that imaginative. So, via the troll, your focus would determine your reality. But, as you can all imagine, the wishing I did on my troll doll made absolutely no difference to my reality. 

The notion that we are somehow able to cause outcomes as a result of our thinking is what psychologists call Magical Thinking. It’s predominately displayed in children between the ages of 2 and 7, and you’re expected to grow out of it. 

The reality is that our reality determines our reality. The reality of people stuck in refugee camps, or people suffering through a terminal illness, or people unable to conceive a child, has nothing to do with their focus. 

Now, where we might get confused is that: 

  1. We do have some capacity to influence reality through the choices that we make (but our individual capacity to make 'good' choices will differ, as outlined above, and there are certain things like the country that we're born into which are entirely outside of our control); and

  2. What we choose to notice about our reality is within our circle of influence.

For example, I might be in a refugee camp and having an expectedly crap time of it, but I might also have made some friends who are a deep comfort to me and enrich my life. By focusing on those friendships, it might prevent me from falling into a well of despair, or might simply make the well of despair more bearable because at least I’ve got good company. Or, I might have cancer and be having an expectedly crap time of it, but I might also be experiencing enormous amounts of gratitude for the way it has bought my family together. 

My focus doesn’t determine my reality, but the small grain of truth in the slogan is that: 

  1. I have some capacity to make choices about what my reality includes; and

  2. My focus can help make my reality more bearable.

3. Why you can’t choose your feelings (but you can choose how you respond to your feelings):

Covey quoted Viktor Frankl in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, who said that “between stimulus and response, is the freedom to choose”. 

And that’s partially true. 

The reality is that there are actually four responses that happen in response to stimulus, and we only have the freedom to choose our response to the third and the fourth.

If someone punches you, then several things are going to happen:

  1. Your first response is sensory, and you experience it internally: Your brain will interpret the data it has just received through its 5 senses, and you’ll have a physical response (in this scenario your brain will interpret the outcome of the punch as pain, your body will take a deep breath, you’ll instinctively recoil etc).

  2. Your second response is emotional - you experience it internally and in response to the way your brain has interpreted the sensory data you received: You’re going to feel some form of emotional impact (maybe grief, or anger) as your brain makes sense of the fact that you are now hurting.

  3. Your third response is cognitive - you experience it internally and in response to the emotions that have come up for you: You’re going to make sense of that emotional impact by running it through the cognitive meaning-making frameworks that you have constructed over the course of your life. You link the emotion (grief or anger) to the cause (being punched) and you might think, “It’s wrong to punch someone else, and I’m angry that I was the victim of that injustice”.

  4. Your fourth response is acting - that is, some form of external expression: You might tell the person who punched you to sod off, for example, or if it was your child who lashed out then you might calm yourself and take the moment for a teaching opportunity.

Human beings are firstly sensory, then emotional, then thinking, then acting, beings. When we’re born, all of our senses are already developed enough for us to survive, and sight and hearing continue to develop for the 6 months after our birth. We’re also born with our amygdala in operation, which allows for rudimentary emotional experience… But our right orbito-frontal cortex develops over our toddler years, and it is this part of the brain that allows for more nuanced emotional feeling and expression (note that our brain development can be seriously disrupted by adverse childhood experiences). We don’t fully develop our thinking abilities until much later in life (abstract reasoning doesn’t appear before age 11, for example). 

As a fully developed adult, you have the power to choose how you are going to act in the world, including some power to choose how you are going to make sense of things. Your meaning making frameworks (that is, your thinking) can be adjusted over time through a concerted attempt (and support) to understand them, how they came to be, how they play out in your life, and, if they're not serving you well, then how they could be different. 

But you do not have the power to control how your brain interprets sensory input, or the instinctive, emotional responses that arise in response to sensory input. These things are hardwired in to our biology, and are designed to protect us. 

The grain of truth in the slogan is that you can choose how you act on your feelings - that is, you can deny them, repress them, or find safe ways to express them - but you can’t choose them. You aren’t responsible for your state, but you are responsible for what you do next. 

Why these ideas are dangerous to adopt in their incomplete form

These ideas, in their incomplete form, are dangerous because they ascribed far more control to human beings than we actually have. 

Consequently, they enable one to put aside any empathy for those who find themselves in a painful reality, or dealing with painful feelings, or dealing with a self that had been profoundly injured and set-back by others during childhood. Basically, they enable us to hold people who suffer as completely responsible for their suffering. "They’re self-made, after all. Their focus is in the wrong place, clearly. They’re letting their feelings get the better of them."

But not only does the science not support this notion (we would hardly hold a child responsible for the ways that they have been traumatised), haven’t we all lived long enough to experience the reality that “shit happens”? And also the reality that unexpected goodness happens, too! And while it would be incredibly reassuring for us to feel as if there were some rhyme or reason to this (because if there was, then we could replicate the good outcomes by ‘following the rules’), there isn’t. Healthy, kind people, as well as unhealthy, mean people, get cancer. People who display a profound lack of ethics and empathy, as well as people of incredible integrity, get put into positions of power. As a very old and well known religious text says: “The rain falls on both the righteous and the wicked.” 

We also apply this expectation of control and a corresponding lack of empathy to ourselves, too - we’re harsh, expecting that ‘we should be better’ than we actually are, rather than accepting the reality of what is, and then working with that with kindness and compassion. But tyranny never works to effect transformation in people: as Carl Jung once said, "Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses."

We will be more able to influence our reality when we're actually realistic about the variables that are in play - in this case, the variables are human beings, and human being's capacity to influence their inner and outer worlds. The reality is that human beings are immensely complex machines operating in and interacting with an immensely complex universe. Neither can be easily understood, so we should treat what we think we know about humans, and their inner and outer worlds, with some humility. Let's not dumb things down just because it is convenient, or because it makes us feel more in control.