Suppose you’ve been working hard decorating a room. By the time you finish you’ve been over every square inch of the room. You’ll know the room in great detail. In particular, you’ll be aware of its imperfections.
Later when you sit in your room you can let your eye be drawn to these imperfections. Instead of seeing these as unimportant you can judge them as mistakes and failures on your part.
But you can take your thinking one step further and decide that this means you haven’t done a good job.
You can go one stage further and draw a bigger conclusion. You can tell yourself it’s not just this occasion you haven’t been as careful as you should’ve been; you can convince yourself you’re not a good decorator.
But maybe it’s not just decorating you do badly. Maybe it’s anything practical you turn your hand to; you’re just not a very practical person; certainly not as good as you should be.
Now you are just one short step away from drawing an even bigger conclusion. After all it’s not just practical things but it’s most things about you as a person. You’re not the person you should be.
If you sit in your room and you do this sort of thinking there’s only one way you can feel; unhappy about the room and unhappy about yourself. Having talked yourself into this frame of mind the chances are that your thinking will gather pace. Soon, without even trying, examples from the past when you’ve messed up will pop into your mind. Similarly you might find yourself making gloomy predictions about how things will turn out in the future.
Thinking has momentum. It is as if you’re a barrister in the court of human competence being paid handsomely to make a case against yourself.
However, let’s pause for a moment.
As you’re sitting in your room a friend comes in. It’s the first time they’ve been since you decorated and they’re keen to see how it’s turned out. They remember how it used to look and how it was a little tired and old fashioned though they never said. They look around. They don’t see the imperfections. What they see is the overall look; the clean fresh look, the colour scheme; the way the room is laid out etc.
What do they think? Well, they judge that what they see looks good, certainly an improvement on the tired old room they’d last seen. They decide you’ve done a good job; that you must be a good decorator; that you must be a practical person; that you’re an OK person.
This is all a bit different from what you had been thinking. So how would it be if you thought the same as your friend? How would you feel then?
Obviously you’d appreciate how the room looked and you’d feel pleased with yourself. If you talked yourself into this alternative frame of mind, different, happier memories will pop into your mind; if you thought about the future you’d most likely make optimistic predictions about what you could do and how things would turn out. In this frame of mind you’d be a barrister for the defence.
So what can we take from this thought experiment?
Well, firstly, there’s only one decorated room and however good a decorator you are there will always be imperfections. Secondly, the room does nothing to make you look at it in one way or another. It is you that looks at the room in a particular way. While you may be unaware you’ve made any choices, it is the way you have chosen to look at it (not the room itself) that determines how you feel as you sit there.
When we look at something even as simple as a decorated room we are actually doing a lot of choosing. We are choosing what to focus on, how to judge it and what it means or how much it matters. The more we make something matter the stronger our feelings will be – good or bad.
All our thinking starts with a choice about what to focus on. Once up and running, as our thoughts get bigger, it can be harder to stop. If we want to pay more attention to how we are thinking and to manage it better, a good place to start is by asking; “What am I focusing on now? Do I really want to? What else could I be thinking about?”
We can use The Decorated Room to remind ourselves just how rich and complex thinking is. If we want to understand our feelings we can use it to help us deconstruct the thinking we are doing at the time. This is especially helpful if we want to understand any times we’re not happy with how we are feeling. It is after all the meaning and intensity of how we are making things matter that is the source of our feelings. With practice we can recognise this and reduce the detail and intensity of our thoughts or rediscover other ways of looking at the situation. As we change our thoughts our feelings inevitably change because our feelings are embedded in the judgements and conclusions we are making.
[There is a much longer discussion of The Decorated Room and its implications and uses in Thinking Matters on Amazon.co.uk]
“The mind at once sees a thing as positive and in the next moment the same thing as negative.” John Milton (1608 – 1674)
“The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” John Milton