I think a lot about our very human need to create certainty: from our earliest moments we are learning machines that are constantly gauging Cause And Effect, pulling together an increasingly complex framework in our heads about how everything works. If we can effectively navigate our environment then we are more likely to survive, and so we are hardwired to start making those connections as soon as possible. Before you know it, we start seeing the concrete “I know how everything works” views of adolescence emerging.
As we mature past adolescence, our thinking may develop (or not develop, as the case may be) along several pathways:
- Pathway One: We live out our lives in a comfortable routine where nothing shocking happens, we are never really challenged, and our thinking is not encouraged to evolve. We pick friends that are like us, watch programs that support the views that we have, and continue with the traditions that our parents passed down to us.
- Pathway Two: Over the course of a full (but reasonably steady) life, our views on how the world works evolves as we move through a variety of life experiences and come into contact with a variety of different people. This is when you might hear people say things like, “He’s mellowed with age”.
- Pathway Three: Something shocking happens (death of a young person, our own unexpected diagnoses of terminal illness, war etc), and it causes us to reevaluate the ways that we thought life worked and what’s genuinely important. Our thinking quickly evolves in the face of the unexpected occurring. This can happen at any time, but it’s often most noticeable in young people who appear to have learnt lessons that won’t naturally come to others until their later years.
- Pathway Four: Something shocking happens, and we refuse to let it move our thinking – instead, we dig our heels in, more convinced than ever of the rightness of our convictions and paradigms. Our thinking stagnates in the face of the unexpected occurring. Indeed, one could argue that it goes backward. I’d posit that the longer one stays on Pathway One, or the more you are surrounded by people that are on Pathway One, the more likely this response is.
So, what causes some to stay rigid within their frameworks, and others to evolve?
- Our meaning making frameworks are formed by a series of value judgements which we have learnt (and accepted) over time about what is ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
- These value judgements can be challenged by evidence which suggests that there is a flaw in the framework that we have created. For example, if I believe that "good things happen to good people" and I spend my life trying to be a good person, but then I got cancer, does it mean that I'm a bad person, or that I might need to revise my belief to "shit things can happen to anyone, and there really isn't much discernible rhyme or reason in the world"?
- The moment when we let our meaning making frameworks get challenged is necessarily a moment of existential crisis. It is a moment of existential crisis because a challenge to our meaning making frameworks goes to the heart of how we think the world works and to who we have become in response to that – that is, it is a challenge to our very selves.
- The severity of the existential crisis depends on the size of the challenge. For example, I might more easily navigate a change in circumstance which makes me uncertain about whether I’m in the right job, than I might navigate a change in circumstance which makes me question whether or not I have anything valuable to offer the world. One is more surface (“Am I in the right job?”) and one goes to the heart of my existence (“Am I worthy? Do I matter?”).
People stay rigid in their thinking for several reasons:
- For some people, they have been taught that to move away from the ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ rules that they have learnt is to put themselves in terrible physical, emotional, or spiritual danger. For example, one might be strongly disincentivised to evaluate the efficacy of one’s religion if it meant that one would be persecuted by their state, or that they might go to hell. At a less extreme level, one might feel just as disincentivised to evaluate the efficacy of their lifestyle choices if they feared that they would lose all of their friends by giving up drinking or by becoming a vegan.
- To the uninitiated, an existential crisis feels a lot like death, and we are hardwired to avoid death at all costs. And it is a death – an ego death. It is the bear losing its weight while it sleeps all winter; it is the caterpillar locking itself into a cocoon while it transforms into something else entirely. It is a period of loss - of you losing a way of thinking and being that you’ve realized no longer serves you or the world – and loss is always painful.
- In order to avoid the existential crisis, we refuse to see evidence that should challenge our meaning making frameworks. We simply block it out, or repress any part of ourselves that wants to respond to it. We are comfortable on Pathway One, and have no intention of getting off it.
Evolution in our thinking becomes possible when several factors are present:
- We accept that it is impossible for us to truly know anything. We can strongly believe things, of course… but absolute knowledge does not exist. We are too tiny to accurately comprehend the incredible complexity and incredible vastness of the universe that we operate in, and of the universe that operates inside of us. That being so, we should carry a very large grain of salt alongside all that we think that we know about how the world, and ourselves, work.
- We embrace a healthy dose of curiosity about the world, and about ourselves. Curiosity is the antidote to judgement. When we are able to move from “I know how it works!” to “I’m open to seeing multiple options for how this might work”, quite incredible shifts in thinking can occur. Powerful perception becomes possible when judgement is suspended. Similarly, when we stop thinking we’ve got ourselves ‘pinned down’ in our own minds, we create space for our ongoing evolution. Keep track of this by asking yourself each month, “How am I different from 30 days ago? What’s shifted?”.
- We are adequately supported to deal with the ego deaths that are necessary for the evolution of our thinking. We have believed the things that we have believed for a reason. We have attachments to those reasons, and a whole lot of supporting emotional experiences. Letting particular beliefs go can be painful, even if we know it is necessary. Getting support to evolve – either with friends, a trusted counsellor, or a therapist – has certainly been the greatest investment I have ever made in my own life.
Taking it a step further, you can also force the evolution of your thinking on at quite a rapid rate by:
- Consistently seeking out new learning and new experiences. Some of my greatest learnings have come from doing some really unusual challenges – things that I initially thought “Why on earth would anyone ever do that for?!”… but where I decided to suspend my judgement and see for myself. I now have a “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it” rule because it is amazing what has come out of those experiments;
- Creating a “Things I would be doing if I was living a fearless life” list, and start working your way through it. The things that you fear are very often the things that you really need to do in order to make those big breakthroughs. And they can be small things – for example, a number of years ago I used to have this real blocker about fishnet stockings (“only xyz girls wear fishnets!!”), until I forced myself to wear them one day in public just to explore the fear I had about being judged. I realized how entirely irrational the fear was, the judgement disappeared, and it became step one to me feeling entirely free to wear whatever I want (whatever my size or shape) without reference to other people.
- Developing a supported practice of introspection. It should be supported because you will have blindspots when it comes to observing your own thinking/feeling, and having someone else witness your thinking/feeling processes and engage with you on that will get you through those blindspots more quickly. Again, find a great mentor or therapist, and take one hour out for introspection every fortnight - you won't know yourself in a years time, if you do.