Are You Really Experiencing Your Life?

We live most of our lives mindlessly. We may be doing one thing, but our minds tend to be on other things. We live in the present moment, but our minds are on the past or the future.

I first learned about the technique of “mindfulness” on a PBS television program, called “Healing and the Mind.” The host was the excellent reporter, Bill Moyers, and each episode featured a clinic, somewhere in the world, that specialized in mind/body medicine.

On this particular episode, he featured a clinic at Massachusetts Medical Center, a major teaching hospital where many Harvard medical students do their rotations and internships. People come there from all over the world for assessment and treatment of serious medical disorders.

In that hospital, is a clinic that was originally called “The Center for Catastrophic Illness,” and was founded by a psychologist, named Jon Kabit-Zinn. Patients are referred to this clinic who have any illness that has proven to be a catastrophe in their lives. The clinic has been enormously effective in helping these patients deal with their various illnesses.

The clinic teaches the technique of mindfulness. The technique has been practiced in Asia for about four thousand years, but has only been applied to healthcare in the US for about twenty years. While mindfulness practice cannot directly cure many physical illnesses, it can help patients deal with their difficulties with much less distress and discomfort. It has even been shown to cure some stress-related illnesses.

The technique involves three components, (a) noticing, (b) without judging, (c) in the present moment. To notice means to truly experience, to really be in the moment. Focus your attention on that event. Experience it with your five senses. If you are somewhere, really be there. Focus your mind on what you are doing, rather than something in the past or the future.

For example, if you are driving, notice the experience of driving. What do you see? What do you feel? Notice the unconscious movement of your hand on the steering wheel. Notice the subtle rumble of the road noise. Do the same with any experience. If you are interacting with a loved one, really focus your attention on that person and the interaction. If you are washing dishes, notice the various aspects of the experience, the feel of the water, the feel of the soap or the movements of your hands.

Now, try to recall some of the favorite moments of your life. I would bet that you experienced each of these favorite moments mindfully. You were focused on what you were doing at the time. If you experienced the moment mindlessly, you wouldn’t recall it as a favorite moment. I wonder how many other moments could have been favorites, if we had experienced them mindfully rather than mindlessly.

The second part of mindfulness is to notice “without judging.” This means to not analyze our experience in our minds, but to just experience it. We don’t focus on whether the experience is good or bad. It just is. For example, patients are actually taught to be mindful of their pain. This may seem strange, but we find that, when patients notice pain, without thinking of it as good or bad, the pain lessons, or at least becomes less distressful. We usually try to escape from our pain, and in doing so, make ourselves more tense. This tension actually worsens the discomfort.

The last part of mindfulness is “in the present moment.” This means to focus your attention on the present moment, rather than experiencing the present moment with your mind thinking about something in the past or something in the future.

Let’s think about time for a moment. All time can be divided into three parts; the past, the future, and the present. Everything prior to this moment in time is the past. Nothing in the past actually exists, except in our memories. Everything after this moment is the future, and nothing in the future actually exists except in our imaginations. The only thing that actually exists at any moment is that thin slice of time we call the present.

Yet, we live most of our present moments thinking about something in the past or something in the future. We don’t really experience the present moment, because we are analyzing, reminiscing or regretting past events or anticipating, dreading or worrying about future events. We thus miss the experience of the present moment.

Take a moment now to be mindful of the present moment. Notice what your five senses are experiencing. Notice your breathing. The act of noticing the breath can always bring you back to the present moment. Your breath is always with you. Let yourself simply be in the present moment now and experiencing this moment fully. If your mind wanders to the past or the future, it’s okay. Just gently bring your attention back to your breath and the present moment.

Practice this for a few moments at a time. If you can stay in the present moment for a few seconds, that’s good enough at first. After being mindful of the present moment experience for a little while, notice what you feel. Most people report that they feel a sense of calm or peace.

Practice mindfulness several times per day. You don’t have to take time out of your day at first. Just be mindful of whatever you’re doing. Then, if you like, take a few moments out of your day to get in a more extended time of present moment awareness. Give it a try!

Question: If you have tried present-moment mindfulness, what did you experience? Also, report any difficulties you experienced in trying the technique.

The Violin Nobody Wanted

ImageThis post is a little longer than most. I have had several requests to share the following story from my book, “Parables for a Wounded Heart.” I hope you enjoy it!

Once there was a family that bought an old house. The prior owners had moved out of the house some time earlier, so this new family never met them. On the day they moved in, they had some items that they wanted to store in the attic. When they climbed up the attic stairs, they found that the previous owners had left some junk piled in one corner. The new owners didn’t have time to go through the stuff and throw it away, so they just stacked their things around the leftover pile. They didn’t think of it again.

After several years, the family decided to do some spring cleaning. They planned to have a yard sale to get rid of some of the things they had stored in the attic. When they went up to get their items, they saw the pile of things left by the previous owners. They decided they might as well try to sell those things too. Perhaps they could make a little extra money.

As they sorted out the pile, they found several items they could sell including an old violin in a case. The violin looked in pretty good shape, but the case was very dusty and all scratched up. They decided to put a $20.00 price tag on it and see what they could get.

On the day of the yard sale they put all the items on tables, and  people began to stop and browse. They sold many of their items and were about to call it a day. There were a few stragglers milling around the tables checking for any last minute buys. A car pulled over and a tall, thin older man got out. He too browsed the tables for a while.

He came to the table with the violin in the opened case. It seems no one had needed a fiddle this morning, not even for $20.00. He leaned over and studied the dusty violin for a couple of minutes before he spoke to the owner behind the table. He inquired, “Do you mind if I take it out of the case?”

“No”, the owner replied, “Help yourself.”

He picked the violin up very slowly and carefully, as if it were going to fall apart in his hands.

“May I tune it?” the old man asked.

“If you can,” the owner answered.

The old man slowly tuned the violin until he seemed to be satisfied with each string. The owner waited patiently since most of the crowd had dispersed; and this seemed like the most promising chance of getting rid of the instrument.

“May I play it?” the old man asked.

“Sure, see how it sounds,” was the owner’s reply, now feeling that a sale was in the making.

The old man slowly placed the violin under his chin and began to play. The straggling shoppers stopped and stared as the notes drifted across the yard in the spring sunshine. The old man crafted the most beautiful music for several minutes before he stopped. He lowered the violin from his chin and placed it very gently back in its case. The owner moved in to make the sale. “You make that thing sing, mister” he said with a grin. “You can have it for only $20.00.”

The older man’s face was somber. “I can’t give you $20.00 for that violin,” he replied.

“Well, how about $15.00?” said the owner, now thinking a sale was slipping away.

“Sir, you don’t understand.” noted the old man, still serious. “I can’t take that violin from you for $20.00. It wouldn’t be right.” Looking directly into the owner’s eyes, he lowered his voice and smiled slightly, “I don’t know how you came upon that violin, but you don’t know what you have there. You see, that violin is a Stradivarius. You can tell from the markings in the sound hole. It was made by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona. His instruments are the best in the world. You see, his mark is there in the sound hole. This violin is worth at least $1,000,000 and probably much more. It’s a very, very special instrument and very precious. You just didn’t realize what you had.”

The violin had always been precious. It was valuable because of its creator. The violin was valuable because its creator only made precious instruments, and it carried the unmistakable mark of that creator. The earlier homeowners who left it in the attic obviously didn’t know what they had and treated it like trash. The new owners didn’t know what they had either and left it in the attic with the trash. The yard sale shoppers who left it on the table didn’t know what they were leaving behind. They treated it as if it was not even worth $20.00. It took the old man to recognize the violin’s value. He didn’t have to play it to recognize that it was precious. The old man knew it was precious because he knew about its creator. He knew that it had the mark of its creator.

You may be like the violin. You may have grown up in a family that wasn’t able to recognize your true value. They may have acted as if you were in the way or just something to be tolerated. Or they may have made you feel that you couldn’t do anything right or were always messing up. Later in life, you may have dealt with others who also acted as you weren’t worth much, who acted as if you were trash.

It’s important to remember that the violin never actually lost its value. It was just as valuable when it was left in a corner of the attic as it would have been in a symphony hall. It was still valuable when it was passed over by the rest of the customers in the yard sale. The creator had left his mark on it, and that made all the difference.

Every child is valuable. Each child is as valuable as any other child. We all know this to be true. There is no defect, deformity, characteristic, or behavior that can make a child less valuable. We also know this to be true. A child’s actual value is not diminished when her family doesn’t recognize or act as if she is valuable. You know this to be true.

The child is hurt, of course. The child learns to believe that she is not valuable. Such lessons are learned deeply. Such beliefs are hard to change. Just because a belief is deeply learned doesn’t mean that it is true.

Question:  Share your thoughts about the meaning or moral of this story. Do you agree that all children are valuable and deserve to be treated as such? Can you apply that truth to yourself? Can you begin to do that now? What do you think?

This story was inspired by the poem, “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” by Myra “Brooks” Welch (1921).

Holding On To Our Hurts

We worsen the pain and long-term damage when we hold on to our hurts.

What do you do when someone hurts you? Notice that the question is when, not if. Everyone gets hurt at times. It’s unavoidable. The important issue is how we respond to those hurts.holding on to our hurts

Some people strike back. Their hurt quickly turns into anger, frustration or irritation. The transition is usually so fast that they don’t even recognize the hurt. They only feel the anger. They may claim that they don’t feel hurt, just angry. I would argue, however, that underneath all anger is a sense of being hurt.

Some people hold their hurt in. They don’t say anything to the offending party. They just get quiet and withdraw. They protect themselves by distancing. It’s harder for them to hurt you if you distance from them. This distancing can be physical where you stay away from them altogether, or it could be emotional distancing where you just build a wall around your heart. Either way, you distance.

In many situations, the most effective response is an assertive one. An assertive response lets the other person know they their words or actions hurt you, but does so without being aggressive. Your tone and words are direct and serious, but not angry or attacking. An assertive response addresses the hurt without damaging the relationship.

But what about your long-term response to being hurt? Are you able to let the event go, or do you hold on to your hurt? Do you replay the event over-and-over in your mind? Do you continuously analyze what they meant, why they did it, or what you wish you had said to them? Do you find yourself thinking about it as you lie awake in bed?

Holding on to our hurts or anger creates several problems. Here are a few:

  1. Sustained anger or irritation creates harmful chemical changes in our bodies. When we experience resentment, irritation or anger, our bodies release cortisol. This chemical helps our bodies prepare to fight or flee when we are faced with physical danger. However, it is intended to be released as brief bursts, where we defend ourselves and then calm down. Holding on to negative emotions keeps the cortisol elevated, which damages the body over time. For example, research shows a clear connection between sustained anger and heart disease.
  2. Continued ruminating about a hurt can increase our general negativity. When we replay negative events in our minds, we are more likely to anticipate future negative events. We expect the worst. We tend to distrust others more. Our negative expectations of others can hurt other relationships.
  3. Repeatedly replaying hurtful events or analyzing them to death takes up valuable mental space. Our negative thoughts can ruin times we could have enjoyed. When we obsess today about a hurtful act that occurred last year, we give that hurtful person our afternoon. We don’t enjoy the afternoon because of our ruminations about the person who hurt us. And, by the way, that person is probably enjoying their afternoon without think about us at all.

So, the best immediate response to a hurtful act is usually an assertive one, but the best long-term response is always to let it go. It isn’t easy to let go of our hurts, but it’s always best for our well-being.

Making Everyday Tasks Pleasurable

With a little effort, you might be able to make your everyday tasks more enjoyable.

We all do them every day. We do them all day long. Of course, there are some exceptions, but they fill most of our days. They are literally our everyday tasks.
They differ for each of us. You everyday tasks might include driving to work, your actual work activities, preparing meals, doing laundry, yard work or house work. They fill up our “Things to Do” lists.
We usually think of such activities as necessary, but not fun. We complain about having to do these tasks. We may dread them. We certainly don’t think of them as pleasurable.
But what if we could? What if we integrated a bit of enjoyment in our everyday tasks? Since they make up such a significant part of our day, we might as well enjoy them. Here are a few steps to making your everyday tasks more pleasurable.
  1. Change your mindset. Your thinking can make a difference. If you perceive an activity as a chore or a drudgery, it will be unpleasant and seem to last forever. Perceiving the same activity as a blessing or an opportunity, can make it feel much more pleasurable. For example, you can resent having to buy groceries, or feel blessed that you have money to buy groceries and the convenience of a grocery store.
  2. Focus on some positive part of the task. Try to find some pleasant, interesting or beautiful aspect of the activity. For example, you might enjoy the view from your kitchen window, while washing dishes. Or you could focus on the scenery you pass as you drive to work.
  3. Add something positive to the task. Try to think of something nice you could do as you complete the task. Doing housework might be more pleasant if you did it while listening to music. Working on paperwork could be more pleasant while sipping a cup of coffee or a drink. I always listen to audiobooks while commuting to work.
  4. Plan to give yourself a little reward when you finish the task. Of course, these are everyday tasks to the reward can’t be too big, but a little break sitting on the porch can go a long way.
Of course, these are just ideas and may not be feasible in your particular situation. The point is to consider steps you can take to enjoy your everyday task a bit more. If you have to do them every day, you might as well enjoy them.
We all do them every day. We do them all day long. Of course, there are some exceptions, but they fill most of our days. They are literally our everyday tasks.

It May Not Be About You

Realizing that we are not the center of the universe can be a big relief.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Like it or not, our tendency is to see ourselves as the center of our universe. We perceive events as good or bad based on how they impact us. We interpret other’s actions as a statement of how they feel about us or what they are thinking about us. We act like it’s all about us. The perception that we are the center of our universe is also called egocentrism.

We tend to be most egocentric as young children. I’ve never seen this, but it’s said that if you catch a toddler at exact the right stage of cognitive development, and ask her why the sun rises, she will say, “So I can see.” Then, if you ask her why the sun sets, she will say, “So I can sleep.

As we grow and mature, the tendency lessons, but doesn’t completely go away. Some adults are more egocentric than others, but everyone has moments where they feel that it’s all about them.

The danger of egocentrism is that it can lead us to false and hurtful assumptions. Because we always believe our own assumptions, our thoughts, feelings, and reactions are based on them. The two most common problems associated with egocentrism are (a) perceiving disapproval, and (b) self-blame.

When we are egocentric, we perceive that others are thinking about us more than they actually are. We believe that others are watching us, and often, that they are disapproving of us. We imagine their thoughts about our appearance or our actions. Many people experience social anxiety because they imagine constant scrutiny from others.

The reality is that other people are too busy thinking about themselves and their lives to be focusing much attention on us. As an illustration, I will sometimes ask a student to tell me what their best friend was wearing that morning at school. Even though they spent much of the day with them, they couldn’t recall. Or I might ask an adult to describe the other people who were in the drug store with them, as they shopped that morning. They can’t recall anyone. I then remind them that others don’t notice them either.

A second problem with egocentrism is that a tendency to blame yourself for any negative life event. You feel like you must have done something to create the negative outcome. Of course, this may be true, but often, it is not. One common example is the tendency for a parent to blame himself for his teenager’s negative choices, without recognizing that there are many factors influencing the child. Another example is when someone treats us badly, and we assume we must have done something to deserve it. We may have done something, and should take responsibility when we have, but we may be innocent. When someone treats you badly, it usually says more about who they are, at least in that moment, than it says about who you are.

In Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy, we call our tendencies to blame ourselves personalization. We all do it at times, but it’s rarely healthy. Watch your thinking. Notice how often you assume others are watching you and judging you, even though you have no real evidence. Also notice how often you blame yourself for a negative situation, even though you can’t identify what you might have done wrong. Remembering that it’s not all about you can be a good thing.

 

Calling Yourself Names

You hurt your self-esteem when you call yourself names in your mind.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

How do you react when you hear someone call another person a negative name? Does it bother you if a parent calls a child “stupid?” Would you cringe if you heard someone say that a person at a restaurant was “fat” or “ugly?” What if the person overheard the comment?

Most often, negative names are used behind the other person’s back. The words aren’t meant to wound, but rather a way of “building myself up by putting that person down.” It feels innocent and harmless. At best, it’s a sad way of building up one’s ego. At worst, particularly if overheard, it creates a significant self-esteem wound for the criticized person.

Negative names, like idiot, fat, failure, ugly, loser or stupid, create a significant self-esteem wound because they are all encompassing. Such names are labels. They inaccurately define the person.

For example, I might say that I’m sitting in a chair. I use the word “chair” to label the object. In this case, the label is correct. The object is a chair in every way. The label is entirely accurate. No problem.

But, what if I call you a failure? In that instant, I have used the label to define you. That label suggests that you are, in every way, a failure. It says that you fail in everything you do. It hurts.

Most of us would never think of calling another person such negative names. You wouldn’t even consider calling anyone an idiot or a loser. You wouldn’t ever tell someone that they were fat or ugly. Yet, you may do it every day.

What do you call yourself? In your mind, do you ever call yourself negative names? Do you ever use the label fat, ugly, stupid or failure to define yourself? Do you do it without thinking about the impact?

In cognitive therapy, calling yourself names in your mind is called “labeling.” It wounds the self-esteem and can worsen depression and anxiety. It hurts.

You may intellectually realize that the label isn’t always true (No one is a failure at everything.), but your self-esteem hears it as if it is true. The name creates an overall impression. The damage is done.

Monitor your thinking for name calling, or labeling. Try to replace the damaging name with a more moderate statement. For example, rather than calling yourself a failure, acknowledge that you failed at the one task. Don’t say anything to yourself that you would not say to a friend or loved one.

Are You Doing Emotional Reasoning?

Just because you "feel" like something is true, doesn't mean that it is.

Do you trust your emotions? Have you ever made a decision because you just had a “gut feeling?” Do you tend to see your emotions as an indicator of truth?

Sometimes, we listen to our feelings about a situation, and believe that they will provide an accurate indication of what is really happening. We believe our gut intuition will provide a more accurate perception of events, or tell us what we should do in the situation. We’re often wrong.

Our feelings respond to our assumptions, beliefs and perceptions, and these are created by our prior experiences. For example, as a boy Jeff was criticized harshly throughout childhood. Later, as an adult, he has to give a presentation in his new job, and receives a positive reaction from co-workers. Yet, he leaves work with the feeling that his audience was just being kind to him, and that they really didn’t like his work. He expresses his disappointment to his wife. She points out that the co-workers said it was good, but he argues that he just has a gut impression that they weren’t sincere. He trusts his emotions over the facts. He is making the mistake of “emotional reasoning.”

Emotional reasoning occurs any time we try to use our emotions as a guide for truth, or when we see our emotions as a compass to guide our decision making. When we assume that our emotions reveal truth, our prior beliefs and perceptions are strengthened. Jeff’s belief that others criticize him is strengthened by his emotional reasoning. He is then more prone to perceive criticism in future situations.

While we may have a helpful intuition at times, our emotional reactions more frequently deceive us. Next time you are tempted to listen to your emotions as guide for truth, consider two points. First, is your emotional reaction telling you a message that is consistent with your prior negative beliefs? Are you feeling rejected in a current situation because you experienced rejection as a child? Or are you feeling criticized because you experienced early life criticism? Second, do the facts support your emotional response? Do you have actual facts to indicated that you were rejected or criticized? Could it be that your “gut feelings” are leading you to painful misperception?

Try to be a bit more skeptical of your emotions as a guide for truth. Consider the actual facts. Check out your assumptions if possible.

The Impact of Should Thinking on Self-Esteem

Should statements add an element of self-criticism and guilt to your self-esteem.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Sometimes the difference between healthy and unhealthy thinking is simply a matter of tone. The difference may be subtle. For example, the statement, “I want to lose some weight” expresses a healthy desire, but the statement, “I’m so fat” damages the self-esteem.

You may think the difference between the two statement to be inconsequential, because you know what you mean, but it’s not. The human brain processes self-talk literally. Much like a computer, it processes exactly what you put into it.

Research has clearly demonstrated the importance of the actual words used in our thinking. You may rationally know better when you say, “I can’t do anything right.” You may know that you can do some things right. After all, you got dressed this morning, and you did that right. But your self-esteem hears the actual words, and you feel as if you can’t do anything right. The damage is done.

So now, let’s consider a situation where you want to make some change or take some future action. It could be anything. You want to spend more time with your children or with your aging parents. You want to clean your house, or get more involved in a worthwhile organization. The motivation may be admirable.

You might think, “I want to …” do some action. You’re expressing a healthy desire, and hopefully, you will follow-up with actions to make it happen. It’s all good. Or you might think, “I should …” do the action. In this case, you’re still expressing the desire, but you add a little jab. The “should” statement suggests guilt, shame or inadequacy, and provides a bit of chastisement.

The “I want to…” statement leaves the self-esteem intact. It may even engender a little excitement as you visualize accomplishing the action. The “I should…” statement tends to lower your mood, leaving you feeling inadequate. The damage of each statement may be minor, but the repetition of such statements can be devastating.

“Should” statements remind me of a little known religious group of the 14th century called the Flagellants. They believed they should punish themselves because of their sins, so they marched through the streets whipping themselves on the back with leather whips. Frequently using “should” statements is little like whipping yourself throughout your day. Like the whip, each “should” creates a little more damage.

Pay attention to the words you use in your self-talk. They really are important. Try substituting “I want to…” or “I would like to….” for the more negative, “I should…” See how it works.

Are You Catastrophizing?

We hurt ourselves when we overreact to life's problems.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

How do you estimate the severity of a problem? Do you tend to overreact? Do you “make a mountain out of a molehill?” Most of us do at times.catastrophizing

We all have bad things happen. We make mistakes. We mess up. Sometimes we mess up royally. (Not exactly sure what that means.) Sometimes bad things just happen, even when we didn’t do anything wrong. We can’t avoid negative events. The question is how do we react.

When something bad happens, the degree of our upset reaction should be consistent with the magnitude of the problem. A small problem should trigger a small reaction, and a big problem a big reaction, but that often isn’t the case. We react to relatively small difficulties as if they are big problems. We turn a difficulty into a catastrophe in our mind.

I developed this little exercise to illustrate the process. Imagine one of those games at the fair, designed to test your strength. It’s a tower with a bell on top. You are given a large hammer to hit a pad on the base. If you hit it hard enough, you can ring the bell. Now, imagine that the tower is numbered from zero to one-hundred.

Imagine this zero to one-hundred scale as the measure of the magnitude of a problem. The score of zero means that there is no problem at all. A score of one-hundred is equal to global annihilation, where everyone you know dies. Every other problem gets a score between the two extremes.

Now, think of some problems you’ve experienced lately. Give each one a score according to how bad each problem would be in reality. This score should not reflect your reactions to the problems, but how bad they really are. Small problems should get low scores, while larger problems earn higher scores. As you assign scores, keep in mind that one-hundred means global annihilation. Not many events would come close to that severity.

Now imagine another scale numbered zero to one-hundred, with the same extreme points. This scale is for your reactions to problems. Consider what your reaction would be to global annihilation, and then the non-reaction to a zero problem. Now assign a score to indicate how strongly you reacted to each of the problems you scored on the first scale. How upset did you get relative to global annihilation?

Do the numbers match? Chances are that your reaction scores were significantly higher than the reality scores. A problem may have been scored 20 on the reality scale, but you may have reacted like it was a 60. Your reactions should be fairly consistent with the actual severity of each problem, but they often aren’t.

To avoid catastrophizing, we should try to react to our problems in a manner that is consistent with the actual severity of each problem. By the way, I call this exercise, “It’s not the end of the world.” Try it next time you’re overreacting to a problem. Realizing the problem is not the “end of the world” may help us keep it in perspective.

Are You a Fortune Teller?

We often add to our stress by imagining the worst in our future.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Do you believe in Fortune Tellers? Do you pay money to get your palm read or your future predicted by the cards? You may not believe that others can do it, but you may believe in your own clairvoyant abilities.

Actually, we all do it at times. We imagine some future outcome and then act as if it’s a done deal. We picture the fortune teller errorevent in our mind. We feel the emotions that we would feel if it occurred.

If the imagined future event is negative, which it often is, we experience the rapid heartbeat, quickened breathing, and muscle tension, as if it was already happening. We experience the tragedy that hasn’t happened.

We may imagine future tragedies because we mistakenly feel that it will prepare us for the worst possibilities. It seems that we will fare better if we brace ourselves for the impact. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

Imagine that you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy. The mass could be cancer or a benign tumor. You find yourself imagining that the mass is cancer. You visualize hearing the bad news, going through chemotherapy, and perhaps even dying. You imagine the worst. Your muscles tense, your heart races and your breathing quickens. You feel fear and grief.

If you later receive news that the tumor was benign, you have experienced fear, grief and pain for nothing. How many times has this happened to you? How many of the negative events of your life never actually happened?

If you get the unfortunate news that the mass is cancer, you will have to deal with it. You will experience fear, grief and pain. It won’t be lessened by the fact that you imagined the worst before you heard. You won’t be any more prepared.

The Fortune Teller Error can hurt you in other ways. Imagining failure in school may keep you from applying. Imagining rejection at a party may keep you from attending. Imagining a negative response to a question may keep you from ever asking it.

Reminds me of a story. Kevin ran out of sugar, and decided to walk next door and borrow a cup from his neighbor, Joe. He grabbed an empty cup and headed out the door. He realized it was a little late, and wondered if Joe might be in bed. He then imagined that Joe might be upset with him for bothering him. He pictured Joe chastising him for being rude. He then remembered the times he had loaned Joe things, and felt anger that Joe could possibly refuse such a simple request as a cup of sugar. As he arrived at Joe’s house, the door opened. Joe smiled and said “Hi Kevin, how are you?” Kevin shouted back, “Just keep your stupid sugar!” and marched back home.

Watch out for the Fortune Teller Error. It may rob you of more than a simple cup of sugar.