Both the Delphic Oracles and Socrates’ most frequent admonition to their devotees and students was “Know Thyself”. What did they mean by this seemingly simple philosophical adage? Be quiet for 30 seconds and listen.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have established that every person in the world carries on an ongoing inner dialogue or self-talk with themselves of between 150-300 words a minute! This works outs to between 45,000 and 51,000 thoughts a day. You cannot go more than eleven seconds without self-talking unless you are a long time, experienced meditator. I refer to self-talk as waking hypnosis since one of the many tasks of our subconscious is to treat every thought like a prayer. Are you planting weeds or flowers in the garden of your subconscious? What are you “praying” for all day long?
Most of our self-talk is harmless such as – “I wonder where my wife would like to go for dinner tonight – hmmm—I have to take the car in for a tire rotation”. But what if we are drugging our minds, and I mean that literally, with such thoughts as – “I can’t remember names anymore – cancer runs in our family – I know I am being punished for my sins – I hate my job”? With such strong negative thoughts and emotions we are ‘drugging’ our brain to release stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol which can have a very stressful impact on our immune system. We can also choose to look at the world through different lenses such as hope, optimism and joy. In those instances, we are ‘drugging’ our mind/brains with feel good, healing molecules such as L-dopamine, serotonin, and beta endorphins.
How much of our health, wellness and illnesses are amplified by how we choose to chemically alter our bodies through our thoughts? Many mind/body professionals and healers now consider the body to be crystallized thoughts.
Thus, our bodies and minds are continually exchanging energy and information, our mind and body are one, inseparable from the molecules of emotion that create change in the body/mind.
The corrosive effects of negative emotions such as cynicism, blame, anger, pessimism and learned helplessness can affect every system of our body/mind and are the product of our awareness, perception and beliefs about ourselves. Past President of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Martin Seligman has demonstrated with a number of research studies the effects of learned helplessness on everyday performance and health.
A typical learned helplessness experiment would have a dog go through a difficult maze for several trials until it was mastered. Then, the dog would be placed in a leather harness at the beginning of the maze and be strapped down tightly so it couldn’t move. It would then be shocked with an electrical probe “X” number of times. The restraining harness would then be removed and the animal would be shocked again. Astonishingly, even though it knew how to escape through the maze for a reward, the dog would simply stand there in a somewhat hopeless, helpless fashion. This phenomenon became referred to as learned helplessness. (Fortunately, the APA has banned any further research that would harm animals in this fashion).
But what about people who feel hopeless, helpless, have no sense of mastery or control, or have lost their passion for setting and achieving goals. They too, develop a learned helplessness response which frequently leads to depression and the accompanying feelings of defencelessness that can have such a negative effect upon our body’s immune system and our health. In our culture this is seen more frequently with people who have been unemployed or on welfare for great periods of time. It is also experienced by many of the homeless who live from day to day, barely subsisting, except for soup kitchens and handouts.
Dr. Seligman’s later work extended beyond learned helplessness, inner dialogue and depression. He feels that another aspect of our mental software, a person’s self-explanatory style should be able to predict life achievements, self-esteem as well as illness and death.
Dr. Seligman developed a simple, easy-to-score 20 minute written test to identify people with empowering belief’s versus those who tend to give their power away to circumstances of life. Metropolitan Life used this test with 15,000 applicants and screened out those who did not meet the criteria of the test. Within months, the successful recruits selected by the 20 minute test were dramatically outselling those that were hired in the traditional, more expensive manner. Since then, Met Life commissioned Seligman to sift through 20,00 other applicants and estimates this new hiring practice will boost revenues by ten million dollars a year.
Dr. Seligman’s findings demonstrate that the manner individuals explain events in their lives, their explanatory style, can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Seligman claims that on the basis of this test, he can determine which persons are masters of their destiny, versus those who have developed a learned helpless attitude of attributing events in their lives to forces beyond their control, and thus expected failures and are unable to create healing attitudes or success for themselves.
His test is called the Seligman Attributional Style Questionnaire or SASQ. It has twelve open-ended and hypothetical questions that range from the mundane to the disturbing or tragic that will provide clues about the person’s personality. On the of the questions for example, “Your mate walks out fo the room slamming the door – how do you explain that?” A negative explanatory style might be – “He/she doesn’t care for me – it is probably my fault. I must be wrong for him/her”. A more optimistic explanation might be – “No big deal, everyone has their bad days”. In short, one person feels in control while the other feels powerless and victimized. What effect might an ongoing negative explanatory style have upon our physical cells, our self-esteem?
Explanatory style is also being used to predict illness. In one study, three months following a simple or modified mastectomy for breast cancer, 69 women were asked how they viewed the seriousness and nature of their illness, and how it affected their lives. Five years later, 75% of the women who explained their illness with a fighting spirit were still alive. Only 35% on the women who explained their condition in stoic, helpless pessimistic terms were still alive. A feeling of (learned) helplessness appears to impair the body’s defences, the immune system’s ability to overcome disease.
Also of note, in analyzing the content and explanatory style of 34 healthy Hall of Fame baseball players who played between 1900 and 1950, the optimists lived significantly longer and had far fewer illnesses. For example, Zach Wheat played for the Brroklyn Dodgers for 19 years. He explained his success by saying, “I am a bettr hitter than I used to be because my strength and experiences have improved.” He died in 1972 at the age of 83. Walter Johnson, the Hall of Fame pitcher played for 21 years and in his newspaper quotes he frequently said, “I can’t depend on myself to pitch well – I am getting old – I’ve had my day”. He dies in 1946 at the age of 59.
While waking hypnosis and explanatory style may explain outcome behaviour, what is the origin of the ways we choose to program our subconscious and live our lives? More evidence than ever is now being researched and documented that our beliefs create our reality. In other words, belief always precedes reality and beliefs are the scaffolding of our lives. Our thoughts are collectors of energy. At first they are embryonic but with considerable reinforcement and our metaphorically breathing life into certain thoughts over and over they will eventually take a life of their own and then manifest physically and drop into our reality in the form of behaviour and fulfilled expectations.
However, many individuals are completely blind to their beliefs. If we don’t learn to identify and deal with limiting beliefs, we will be forced to deal with them indirectly through unhappy relationships, illness, or a series of disappointments and failures throughout life.
And what about your waking hypnosis? And your explanatory style?
Lee Pulos, Ph.D. ABPP