Perspective Taking

Nearly a year ago I posted an essay on emotional reasoning (see “Emotional Reasoning” in the archive for August 2012).   I hope it all made sense, but I’m afraid I fell down on the job a bit because I promised, at the end of that post, that my next post would be on “perspective taking.”  I never posted that essay, an error I am correcting today.

In that essay a year ago on emotional reasoning I discussed the normal human process of witnessing events (a continuous and seemingly infinite process even during an ordinary day), having emotions/feelings emerge nearly spontaneously, and then having behaviors at least initiate, if not actually occur.  The example I used back then was our response to perceiving a yellow traffic light far enough ahead so that we slow down and stop.  You perceive the event (the yellow light), a feeling emerges (caution), and a behavior ensues (you stop, or at least we’re hoping you will!).

It’s not until all of these phenomena have occurred that thinking gets into the action.  The first thoughts we have, which we can call automatic thoughts, generally emerge from the feeling of the event and usually support the behavior that emerged.  In the case above the automatic thought would be simple: good thing I stopped, wouldn’t want to have an accident.

In this rather simple example we see how all of our mental processes work, to a point.  The way of thinking that is automatic can be referred to as “emotional reasoning;” that is, the way our mind makes sense of the feeling we have and the way we behaved.  Here’s another example, less mundane than the previous one.  I receive an email from my boss that says “I noticed you didn’t get that report I wanted done on time.  Please come to my office at your earliest convenience.”  Oy Vey!  This could be serious.  A feeling arises, probably anxiety (dread of future danger) or even fear (dread of present danger).  Now behaviors emerge; perhaps you pace a bit, or fidget, or bite your nails, or begin calling around to see if anyone knows if s/he is in a good mood today.  But, like our “yellow light” example above, the behaviors that arise are typically congruent with the feeling that emerges.  And now, here comes emotional reasoning in the form of automatic thoughts!  “I know I’ll get fired!”  “He didn’t give me enough time to do the report the RIGHT way!”  “I’m always putting myself in these jams; what’s wrong with me!”  It can go on and on.

I think you can see the problem that emotional reasoning, when perpetuated, can cause.  Each one of those thoughts would only serve to make the feelings of anxiety and/or fear stronger, last longer, and dominate our conscious awareness.  We become the fear; in a way we become fused with the fear as if we actually ARE the fear rather than a person having an experience of fear.  It’s important, when we fall into a pattern of emotional reasoning that perpetuates a painful emotion, that we are able to use a different skill, perspective taking.

Perspective taking, as the term implies, is simply another way of thinking about a situation.  Seems simple, and it is, but we have to work at it.  In the example of the boss missing the report, my perspective taking might sound like this: “He’s right, I’m two days late with this.  Just got so busy I couldn’t commit as well as I would have liked.  He’s usually pretty understanding and probably will ask me to prioritize this report over my other projects.  Oh well, I’ve faced bigger challenges that this and come through OK.

You should notice a few things about this perspective taking.  First, it is not automatic; it requires effort and reasoning.  Second, it doesn’t white-wash the problem; it merely considers other possibilities about the issue at hand.  Third, if affirms my ability to be resilient.  Finally, it doesn’t take a “best case scenario” perspective but it does assume that the problem can be handled.  I hope you can see how thinking this way would slow down the fear, restore some measure of calmness, and make it easier to stop by and see my boss.

Perspective taking is a very important skill.  It is what parents teach their children when they get upset.  It is what we do to make sense out of a world that can be very difficult at times.  And the miracle of perspective taking is that it actually slows down the neurobiology of the “fear center” of the brain so that the relief you have after doing it is a genuine felt experience.  Emotional reasoning is a key feature of the problem focused personality style.  Perspective taking is a key feature of the solution focused personality style.  Guess which type of personality is generally happier?

One other thought on perspective taking.  When we are in the midst of emotional reasoning we experience “cognitive narrowing.”  This is the phenomenon of not being able to think of anything else besides the emotion-driven events before us. Cognitive narrowing limits our capacity to find solutions to problems.  Perspective taking, on the other hand, leads to “cognitive widening.”  Because we are calmer we can see with greater clarity, and are much more disposed to find solutions.

Perspective taking is an important part of mindfulness meditation practice.  In our formal practice we repeatedly dwell in a non-judgmental, present moment perspective that notices our internal experiences.  Cultivating this perspective habituates our minds to this skill, so that in the moment our emotional reasoning arises we are much better equipped to use perspective taking as needed.  People who practice mindfulness are better able to take new and sometimes novel perspectives about the occurrences of life, and less prone to get stuck in the revolving door of emotional reasoning.  So the next time you wonder “why bother sitting today” notice the resistance (the feeling), the urge to do something else, and the emotional reasoning (“oh, I’ve got so much to do today; I’m afraid I’ll never get done”).  Then do some perspective taking: “If I sit today I’ll be better at perspective taking!”  The more you meditate, the more you will meditate again!

Peace,

Jim

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