This weekend on Supercoach Academy, the supercoach Steve Chandler told us a story about the legendary psychotherapist and self-esteem pioneer Nathaniel Branden. Apparently, Branden was leading a group and asked them to stand up one by one and declare in front of the room:
“I have the right to exist”.
Some people could barely speak; others almost shouted the words while looking around the room angrily as if daring anyone to challenge them. What no-one did was look comfortable or sound convinced.
When Branden pointed this out to the group, they justified their awkwardness as being to do with the artificial nature of the exercise and the normal nervousness that accompanies most people to the front of any room. So he did a follow on experiment with them.
One by one, they were asked to return to the front of the room and declare a second sentence:
“I am standing at the front of the room.”
This time, the awkwardness disappeared. The same people who could barely speak the first sentence calmly and simply spoke the second. The “defensive shouters” calmed down and if anything looked a bit confused and bored.
What Steve used the story to illustrate was that there is a fundamental difference between what we know to be true and what we want to or think we should believe to be true. And simply put, the more we are willing to build our conversations around what we know to be true, the simpler and more powerful our conversations become.
Now, there’s another way of explaining what happened in Nathaniel Branden’s experiment, and that’s that it wasn’t about truth so much as honesty – the accurate reporting of experience. If you’re feeling horrible and say you feel great, you create what psychologists call a “cognitive dissonance” – a gap between your experience and your speaking.
This is the “science” of affirmation – that if I consistently create a cognitive dissonance between my current experience (“I am a worthless piece of crap”) and my desired experience (“I am awesome”), over time the dissonance will resolve in favor of my newly created awesome self.
When it doesn’t work, that’s simply because I stopped doing my affirmations, thereby eliminating the dissonance too soon, or because the old belief was more powerful than my desire to change it, thereby resolving the dissonance in favor of the old belief.
So while neither statement is objectively true – without knowing you I can safely say that you are neither objectively awesome or crap – one of those statements will more accurately represent your current experience of yourself, and therefore you would feel less discomfort speaking it aloud.
Which for me raises an interesting question – does the fact that our experience of life is invariably subjective disprove the existence of objective truth?
Like many people in the world of self-help and personal development, I spent years balking at the use of the word “truth”, smugly shaking my head with a knowing smile whenever some poor innocent went banging on about “reality” as if anything could possibly exist outside our own personal psychology. I believed in the subjectivity of the universe, and did my level best to use that subjectivity in my favor. After all, if we’re making it up, we may as well make it up good.
So I studied beliefs and learned about affirmations and then beyond affirmations to the study of the structure of subjective experience and the plasticity of beliefs in the mind. I learned “sleight of mouth” patterns that allowed me to reframe any situation into a positive or, on those days I was feeling a bit argumentative, any person’s point of view into the wrong while elevating mine to the right.
And although becoming a “belief expert” didn’t turn me into the superhuman ubermensch that the self-help books promised me, it did help me be far less miserable and far more successful than I was when I started out.
Which is why it has been such a surprise to me over the past few years that when I abandoned my quest for the “most useful lie” and began looking instead in the direction of truth, I have become calmer, life has gotten simpler, and the gratitude and joy I used to work so hard to manufacture has become a regular and natural part of my daily experience.
And while I can’t yet articulate “the truth” in a meaningful way, I can point to three things that seem to me to be inarguably true:
- People think
- People experience their thinking
- There is a larger domain within which all this thinking and experiencing takes place
Because I know that people think, I understand how you can see the world differently to me.
Because I know that people experience their thinking, I understand how one person can suffer and another can thrive in the exact same set of physical circumstances.
Because I recognize that there is something beyond my own personal thinking and experience, I don’t feel so alone. In fact, I feel deeply connected and oddly safe.
And because I know these things to be true, I can speak about them with simplicity and power.
So… do you have a right to exist?
The fact is, you do exist. You can be glad of that fact or disappointed by it and you can make it up as a good thing or a bad thing. Chances are, depending on the day and your mood, you’ll do a little bit of both.
And if you look for a deeper understanding of the truth about life, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find…