I get stuck on solving relationship problems (friends, family, partners alike) as a result from fixating on a flawed preconceived notion.
5 months into my relationship, I saw his unused and neglected Instagram profile for the first time.
The pictures were normal. Him hiking, traveling, eating, and some pictures with friends. There was one that caught my eye. A picture of him and an Asian girl. My brain immediately thought it was his ex-girlfriend and casually asked him to delete the photo.
Turns out it was his best friend’s sister; it wasn’t his ex-girlfriend at all. Unashamed, I told him that I was confident in my knowledge that deleting old photos with exes on Instagram is what I need in a relationship.
Let me repeat that. What I need in a relationship.
My preconceived notion was that in order to move on from an ex, all photos in my photo album and online profiles need to be deleted. I took that notion and projected unto my partner, thinking, “if he’s got that ONE photo of his ex girlfriend on his Instagram profile, he’s definitely not over her.”
… Say what?
I didn’t see the flaw in my logic then. I was fired up trying to defend my reasoning while he calmly suggested that maybe I could think that he’s not still pining over her if he had a photo or two in his photo album from the past.
Another example you may find relatable. I often mentally place myself as a victim when my friends either show up to my arranged group hangouts really late, or cancel at the last minute. I’d burst into tears for a few minutes feeling frustrated that they could be so inconsiderate of my time and effort.
My preconceived notion was that in order to show integrity, accountability and consideration, everyone must show up at the exact time we all agreed to. If they don’t, I tell a story to myself that I am at the bottom of their list, I am unworthy of their attention, and that they lack integrity. I ignore the other hard facts and evidence in our friendship that they in fact, do not put me at the bottom of their list and they actually care about me. I couldn’t fathom the fact that someone may be running 30 minutes late due to life circumstances each week.
So I’d like to introduce the Einstellung effect.
A phenomenon where your simple initial thought prevents a better idea or solution from being found. Does this sound familiar?
It’s a cognitive trap that tells us the old way is the only way. This effect has probably trapped you in learning the sciences and maths in the past (or it’s taking a hold on you right now). Your initial intuition of the concepts behind math or science is misleading, thus blocking you from learning what’s actually happening.
The Einstellung Effect affects all areas of your life. The way you use your time, the way you spend your money, the way you learn, the way you and your co-workers handle problems in the conference room, to the way you perceive other people.
We turn to preconceived notions because it is the simplest way to integrate, absorb, and process information. Unfortunately, these initial ideas prime us to think a certain way which prevents us from finding better solutions to real life problems.
Unlearning your Old Ways
The old way of thinking may not be the most effective, or the best way to tackle the problems that exist in our brain. In fact, my specific preconceived notions prevent me from broadening my perspective about how other people might live their life. I assume they live as I do, think as I do, act as I do. This sets me up for plenty of disagreements and disappointments.
How you may ask?
Recognize that it’s your old brain talking by identifying your triggers.
My triggers are:
- People showing up late (or cancelling at the last minute).
- Seeing other beautiful women on the street causes me to judge myself negatively and harshly.
- When something doesn’t go as I had expected (different outcome, different reaction from others… etc)
2. Pause and Challenge your Assumption
When you think you’ve got it covered or you think you’ve got the best solution, pause and ask yourself, “is this the best way to react to or solve this issue?” or “in what way is this problem different from previous problems I’ve encountered?”
Choosing one of my triggers:
- People showing up late results in tears, extreme defensiveness, and feelings of being casted aside. “Is this the best way to react to this issue?” > No. I can take a hold of myself and realize that they can choose whether or not to show up. I can still believe in their love and care for me because of all these other strong evidences that prove my initial thought as wrong.
3. Walk away from the situation
Take some time for yourself to reflect on why you feel how you feel (frustration, deep disappointment, sadness). Walking away can also mean relaxing your mind and not strenuously focusing on the issue at hand.
4. Do it all over again
Practice, practice, practice. Being able to acknowledge, pause, and walk away will free you.
Start today by stepping back and taking a good look at your life as it is now. What preconceived notions do you have about every aspect of your life? What do you expect outcomes to be like?
You have to unlearn your erroneous, preconceived ideas while you’re learning new ones. This is one of the ways to continue your personal development journey and making better judgments in how you handle difficult conversations with the people you really love and care for.