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The Mental Filter That Will Make Your World Better

Assuming Positive Intent

Alright, kids, quest completed! I’m literally sitting on the beach on St. George Island, listening to Otis Redding piping through my ear buds, drinking cheap white wine. The weather is perfect. I can hear the soft crash of waves over the music. This moment is perfect. If I could bottle and sell it, I’d give Warren Buffett a run for his money!

While a (large) part of me wants to relax and rock out on the beach, the other part of me feels strongly that I need to share a piece of wisdom. I truly believe we would all be a little bit better off if everyone knew this…We’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

Let me say that again. We are all doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

“What we’ve got” refers to mental faculties, intelligence, resources, life experiences, and home training. Sure, there may be shortcomings, better ways to be and more appropriate courses of action. This statement is not a get out of jail free card for anyone for any thing. I’m sure there are people out there who really aren’t doing their best, and are, in fact, doing absolutely heinous things. This isn’t about them, though. This is about you and me and how we move through this world. We’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got is an operating assumption that results in more happiness and compassion, at least for me.

Previously, I’ve written about how thoughts drive our feelings and actions, and today’s musings delve into that a bit deeper. When it comes to thoughts, there are different levels, most notably automatic thoughts (ATs) and core beliefs. ATs are the surface level ones that fire through your mind all the time automatically (hence the name). Think of them as your running inner monologue (or dialogue). Core beliefs, in contrast, are the deeper held beliefs about our selves and the world. They act as mental filters through which our experiences are interpreted and can be immensely empowering or tremendously limiting.

Take, for example, the core belief “I am inferior.” If I adhere to that belief, every interaction I have is going to be filtered through that lens. Someone is short-tempered towards me? That’s because I am inferior. In contrast, if I have a core belief that I’m pretty flipping awesome, that same interaction may be interpreted as “Who put a bee in his bonnet?”

Got it? I hope so, because that’s not the point of today’s post. Today’s post is all about how we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

If you had asked me a couple years ago to identify my own core beliefs, I’m not sure that I could have, despite my day job. Lately, I’ve been working hard to elucidate them and change or repair the ones that need it.

This particular gem began to crystallize after helping a teen craft the coping statement “Bless her heart” (in that stereotypically Southern tradition of sympathy meets insult) to deal with a difficult coworker. In this case, it helped her remember not to take her coworker’s crap personally, to take a deep breath and let it go, knowing it was more about the coworker than her.

While I definitely got a kick out of my using my roots in a professional capacity, the bigger perk was that I began to think about my own approach to others, specifically the mental filters I use to interpret their negative or off putting behaviors.

I realized that if I am quick to assign malicious intent or judge someone’s actions harshly, the result is usually that I feel irritated, hurt, worried, or saddened. What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if I adopted a more gracious attitude and practiced compassion? What if I assumed she’s doing the best she can with what she’s got? That driver who almost hit me in the crosswalk suddenly becomes a human who is probably startled by my presence, feeling guilty about scaring me, and thankful that she didn’t hit me, as opposed to the monster who should never be allowed to ride in, let alone drive, a car! That customer service agent becomes my co-victim in the inane Sprint experience rather than the incompetent clown who refuses to help me.

Guess what? When I changed my perspective and approached that customer service agent assuming he’s doing the best he can with he’s got, I was much more respectful and pleasant toward him. In turn, my positive attitude garnered pleasantries and promises of help and lasting resolutions. While the ultimate outcome was the same as the previous 23 times I’ve talked to their agents, this experience didn’t drag down my mental state, and I didn’t have to feel secretly ashamed of how I treated the person on the other end of my chat box. I’m sure the agent benefited as well as he didn’t have to endure a barrage of ALL CAPS YELLING for something over which he really had no control.

Let’s extend this concept to driving, which seems to be a constant source of irritability for almost everyone I talk to. Imagine that someone cuts you off. I bet you think something along the lines of, “That asshole. Where’d you get your license? A cracker jack box (or Kansas)?” Contrast that with when you accidentally cut someone off and you think, “Oops! I did not see her there. I’m so sorry!” That’s a pretty big difference in interpretations of the same behavior. Why? All other drivers are jerks? Please.

The real reason why is that humans have a natural bias when it comes to interpreting mistakes. We tend to be much more generous with ourselves than others. If I goof my schedule and miss our appointment, it’s an exception, an honest mistake. But if you goof yours, its because you’re a moron or an inconsiderate jerk.

Our brains are not the infallible, superbly accurate machines we think they are. They have certain characteristic faults, take short cuts, and make routine errors in thinking and processing (more on that to come). Knowing these shortcomings allows us to hack the system.

Since we are aware of this interpretation bias, we can actively work to avoid it. Wouldn’t that be a little better for you and me both? I wouldn’t get as aggravated, which means I’d be much more likely to be nice to you. And, if I’m nicer to you, you’re more likely to be nicer to me. Moreover, there’s no more unwarranted anger to deal with (and anger certainly doesn’t contribute to my happiness. I don’t know about yours). It’s a win-win.

Think about it. What would happen if you approached every interaction with every person in the world from the perspective: They’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got.

Try it out yourself. Let me know how it goes. I’m sure that mom of the screaming toddler appreciates you smiling at her instead of glaring (because instead of judging her for being a shitty mom, you’re thinking “she’s doing the best she can with what she’s got.” Who knows? Maybe she’s working two jobs and is really stressed, maybe her kid has an ear infection and is inconsolable, or maybe she’s following the psychologist’s advice to ignore tantrums and is actually doing EXACTLY what she needs to). Likewise, the kid who just can’t stop talking appreciates your patient redirections rather than harsh criticisms (after all, he has ADHD and is doing the best he can with what he’s got). And thanks for not assuming that I’m stuck up when I don’t say hi to you. I didn’t see you. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.

Originally published at www.ablindquest.com

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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