A small boy saw an elephant in a circus. The elephant’s leg was tied to a stake driven partially into the ground. The boy noticed that the stake was just a small piece of wood and the part of it that was driven into the ground was even smaller. Although the chain wrapped around the elephant legs was durable and thick, it seemed obvious to the boy that so large and strong animal could easily just free itself and run away. The boy was very intrigued so he started to ask the closest adults: “Why won’t he rise and walk away?” They were answering: “Maybe he is tame”. That answer did not satisfy the boy so he continued asking: “If he’s tame, why do they have to chain him?” No one could give the boy a logic answer until as an adult himself he met someone wise who told him: “The elephant doesn’t run away because they have been tying him to a similar stake ever since he was very small”. When the elephant was small he pulled and struggled many times, trying to free himself, but the stake was too sound. Then, one scary day came in which he accepted his weakness. The huge and strong elephant that we see in the circus does not run away because the poor animal does not believe that he can do that. He has the deeply engraved memory of inability and inferiority. The worst of it all is that he has never tried to free himself since. Based on “The Story of the Chained Elephant” by Jorge Bucay.
Many people live in such a state of hypnosis, a false conviction about possibilities and barriers on the way to achieving the goal. Convictions, set of values and previous experiences direct our behaviors, thoughts and the way we make choices. All of that happens automatically, in the unconscious way. It seems that a human brain is logical and takes into account only objective data during decision-making process. However, it is not. The brain is irrational by nature and our decisions subject to the laws of emotions, instincts and illusions. Other than in the process of solving mathematical problems, decision-making is the result of environmental, situational and mental attitude factors. All that is filtered by peripheral information, sometimes completely unrelated to the object of our considerations. These processes are activated when a person’s involvement is small. Accordingly, even seemingly easy decisions, such as choosing an ice cream flavor, are subject to a series of processes occurring unconsciously. One day I fancy a chocolate ice cream, another day a strawberry one, and sometimes I do not want an ice cream at all. Why is it like that? If we thought like a computer, we would have to make decisions methodically based on algorithms, i.e. logical strings. It would require vast amount of time and energy. This is why we are equipped with a system that uses cognitive schemes that work in an automatic way. These are mental shortcuts. These automatisms are convictions, behaviors and thoughts that we consequently repeat. Thus we can understand them in the terms of habits. The system helps us in the situations such as tying shoes or car driving, and in the other ones it may lead us to depressive states or sense of helplessness.
Imagine that for several years you go to a job that you do not like. Every morning you get up tired of the thought about duties waiting for you. You go to sleep thinking that tomorrow you will have to do something that you do not like. Logic suggests that changing the job is a good idea. However, the automatic convictions functioning beyond consciousness prevent making such a decision because it could, for instance, distort thinking about self or cause the anxiety of failure. Our brains know only that what we experienced before and people naturally feel safe in the situations that they know, even if these situations are destructive for them. If we did not experience or do not know something, we do not take it into account because this information does not belong to the categories of so-called cognitive schemes. Because people like to think about themselves as intelligent and rational, they find explanations for their actions and decisions. Accordingly, they come to conclusion that “a payment here is better”, “now I have a chance for promotion”, “somewhere else may be worse”. Even if they meet a wonderful opportunity, they can explain it to themselves that “it is too beautiful to be real”. Therefore, they remain convinced that the only right solution is to continue doing what they do.
One of the most powerful cognitive filters are defensive mechanisms which maintain the positive thinking about self and self-integrity. Accordingly, many people exaggerate their own chances of success and minimize that probability for the others. Similarly, asked about the risk of getting cancer, they assign the higher risk to the others than to themselves.
Summarizing, the defensive mechanisms and the other automatisms cause that it is hard for us to change our mindset and to see our own situation from the other perspective. Our habits and emotions that are tied to them control our decision-making process. This is why, like the elephant, we are tied to our perception of the world, because this is the only safe world that we know. This is why people who are physically or psychologically abused remain in destructive relationships. It is the only, seemingly safe, world for them. They are used to it and when abuse stops they become concerned: “does he/she not love me anymore?”
The only person that you can change is yourself. Therefore, there must be an intention of making a change and successive repeating of new ways of thinking and behaving until they become a new habit. In such a way we create a new values and new reality. If I want to think about myself as a person of success, then both my thoughts and behaviors must reflect that. A positive thinking is only the part of success because behind these thoughts there must be a conviction that I believe in what I think and my thinking about myself is consistent with reality. Accordingly, if I am not sure of my cooking skills, persuading myself that I am a wonderful cook is not helpful. By rejecting criticism or minimizing others opinions about my meals, I reject the possibility of improving my skills.
Life is an art of making choices and we should be aware that this process is filtered by various automatisms, which exist to keep our positive thinking about ourselves. A thief robbing a bank does not consider himself or his intentions negatively. He justifies his behavior according to his moral and ethical standards: “I rob the bank because there is money”. Let’s remember that we all have free will and to fully enjoy life, we should explore that freedom by experiencing both successes and failures. As the words of Kazik’s Dad’s song say: “Among so many different roads through life everyone has the right to choose wrong”.
Dr. Ewa Antczak