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Rethinking your universe

August 6, 2018

Matthew Whoolery holds a doctorate in psychology and is an instructor at Brigham Young University-Idaho. He can be reached by email at drwhoolery@gmail.com.

The great personality psychologist, George Kelly, said, “All interpretations of the universe are subject to revision and replacement.” Knowing that all of your interpretations of the universe, all of your ideas and beliefs, are open to revision and replacement is a powerful tool for remaking your life into something better.

Kelly believed that human beings practice science in their personal psychological lives on a regular basis. We develop theories, see how they play out in real life, and revise or replace bad ideas. Or at least, ideally, we find ourselves being good scientists in our personal lives.

Of course, not all scientists are good at science. Barry Marshall, an Australian scientist, won the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his work on ulcers. At the time, most people believed that ulcers were caused by stress. When I quiz my students on this, most still believe that ulcers are stress-induced. What Marshall discovered is that most ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection from a bacterium called H. Pylori.

Marshall’s work took place over decades, with a lot of false starts and inconclusive results. Finally, Marshall drank a concoction with H. Pylori and gave himself an ulcer that was cured by an antibiotic. It was only then that the scientific community recognized that he was correct; before that no one would believe him. They were very sure of themselves and their knowledge that ulcers were caused by stress.

We are often like these scientists, sticking with our old ideas even when there is good evidence to show that we are wrong. We get stuck in mental traps where we only accept evidence that agrees with us. But good scientists, like mentally healthy individuals, are open to being wrong and seek opportunities to challenge their beliefs and ideas. Humility and openness to our own limitations are essential for good mental health.

Kelly puts it this way, “Man can enslave himself with his own ideas and then win his freedom again by reconstruing his life.” What Kelly is saying is that we become enslaved not by our circumstances but by our own ideas. The only way out is to re-think our way of seeing the world.

Take, for example, a person who is easily and often offended. They believe that the world should conform to them, serve them, and always treat them politely. This “enslaving idea” makes them hypersensitive to how other people treat them. If someone has 25 items in the “15 Items or Less” line at the supermarket, it ruins their day. They think that what ruined their day was a rude shopper, when in reality it is their idea that people should never be rude or inconsiderate to them.

Such a person might find a cure by revising or replacing their idea that everyone must treat them kindly. If, instead, they believed that no one owed them anything, they would feel gratitude when people treated them kindly and be unruffled by the inconsiderate shopper.

Many of us are like this easily offended person in one way or another, blaming our circumstances for our struggles. We feel like victims and will get angry at anyone who tells us that we can “get over it” or that we are to blame for our own problems.

Kelly says, “The man who orders his life in terms of many special and inflexible convictions about temporary matters makes himself the victim of circumstances. Each little prior conviction that is not open to review is a hostage he gives to fortune; it determines whether the events of tomorrow will bring happiness or misery.”

When we have rigid ideas and focus on temporary annoyances, we make ourselves victims of fate. Our ability to think more broadly and be able to re-think our beliefs brings us greater freedom.

Maybe what will drive these ideas home best is for you to try an experiment. Like a good scientist, identify some problem area in your life. Ask yourself, “What ideas or beliefs of mine cause me to have this problem?” Then ask, “What are other options, other ways of seeing the world that wouldn’t cause me to feel and act in this problematic way?” Then experiment with this new belief or idea. Take three weeks and act “as if” you believed this new idea was true. See what happens and readjust or replace your current ideas with this new information.

A student of mine years ago grew up with a mother with schizophrenia. She was bitter toward the world and toward her mother, believing that everyone is entitled to a good mother.

After studying Kelly in my Personality Theories class, she decided to try on another idea that went something like, “Not all mothers are good mothers. Many people in the world struggle with bad parents, I’m no different from them.” She decided to try on this new belief for three weeks just to see what would happen.

She wrote to me later to tell me that her whole life had changed. She now had compassion for her mother, for others who grew up in circumstances like hers, and no longer felt bitter. Nothing in the world had changed, her past was the same, but her new perspective changed everything. Try the experiment yourself, it may change everything.

Matthew Whoolery holds a doctorate in psychology and is an instructor at Brigham Young University-Idaho. He can be reached by email at drwhoolery@gmail.com.

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