Conversation 1: Language creates Conflict


Listen to this section as audio, or read below.

Paradox – a recording of Julian McNally (5:44 min) 

(“Paradox” by  RMIT Counselling and Psychological Services, Six ACT* Conversations, RMIT University is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Think about what survival has meant for the kinds of thought processes that nature has selected for. Here’s a typical Stone Age scenario:

Example: Grok and Lunk

Two cavemen, Grok and Lunk, are out in a grassy field eating nuts and berries.

Grok: “Hey, Lunk, I thought I saw something moving in the grass over there. Could be a tiger. I’m going back to the cave. Are you coming?”

Lunk: “Nah. It’s probably just a rabbit. These berries are too tasty to leave. I’ll see you later.

Grok goes back to the cave. Lunk eats his fill of nuts and berries and goes to sleep under a tree. Next day, same thing.

Grok: “Lunk, there’s something moving in the grass. I’m going back to the cave. You should come too.”

Lunk: “And leave these delicious nuts to the birds! You go. I’ll be fine.”

Grok goes back to the cave, but he can’t stop thinking about his friend. Lunk falls asleep under a tree, and… gets eaten by the tiger.

Now who would you say had the more relaxed personality and who was the anxious one?

Obviously, Grok is the worrier. His friend, Lunk, has a relaxed “she’ll be right“/”it’ll be fine” attitude. On the first day, Grok’s worrying costs him some tasty berries and restful sleep. But on the second day, Lunk’s blasé approach costs him his life and of course any future reproductive opportunities!

Can you see why humans tend to worry so much? By becoming worried we occasionally missed out on lunch, but we also ultimately missed out on becoming someone else’s lunch, and so we passed our tendency to worry on to our children. We were evolutionarily selected to have a mind that is extremely inventive, but also extremely alert to potential dangers. Combine those two abilities and you can even invent things to worry about that are probably never going to happen. Have you ever done anything like that?

Mark Twain captured the essence of this very human flaw when he said: “I’ve seen many troubles in my time, only half of which ever came true.”

So our ability to plan and make decisions using thinking and language is a double-edged sword. It has brought us more economic resources and physical security, but the cost is our peace of mind.

Now before we close this detour into the evolution of the human mind, there’s one other point we need to consider to help us appreciate how our minds work against us.

How our minds work against us

I spoke earlier about how, as a species, we had become very good at paying attention to and interpreting social and emotional information about those around us, and how this skill was essential so that we could carry out highly coordinated tasks like building large structures or capturing and killing large game – not to mention more sophisticated socially coordinated survival tasks like farming, trading and tracking kinship ties to prevent inbreeding.

When we apply our highly predictive and danger-sensitive thinking apparatus to this social and emotional information, we have a whole new domain to worry and make disastrous predictions about. Predictions like:

  • Oh! The boss seemed distracted when I was telling her about my new idea. She’s not going to give me that chance I need.” or
  • He stopped smiling when I moved closer to him. He doesn’t like me after all.” or
  • Everyone’s looking at me. I just know I’m not going to talk as smoothly and confidently as the others just did. I’m the worst on the team.

Have you ever had worries or thoughts like those? You compare what you want to experience (or not experience) in your internal world to what appears to be currently happening.

Usually, you then try to problem-solve how you might bridge the gap between what you desire and reality. So if we thought someone had stopped smiling, then we might propose solutions to ourselves like (depending on the circumstances):

  • I will stop talking to him”
  • “I will withdraw”
  • “I won’t ask him out”
  • “I will ask him how he feels”
  • I will speak to a friend and get their perspective.

And yet, when the problem that we’re trying to change or avoid is an uncomfortable feeling inside us – a thought, feeling, memory, or sensation – we can’t run, hide, or fight from it in the way we might run, hide, or fight a danger that’s occurring outside of our body.

No matter how hard we run or hide or fight, that internal experience may reappear at any time – we can never escape them in a way that they might never return. And even if the solution we decide on seems to change things in the outside world (like someone acting differently towards us), it often doesn’t change what we’re experiencing on the inside.

A person stands behind a wire fence with their hands holding the fence.
Photo by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash

If we look again at the barrier or obstacle that you chose at the beginning of this section, I’d suggest to you that the reason you haven’t been able to solve this problem yet is that you’re trying to solve a problem that occurs in an internal domain – your emotions and motivation – with a set of tools that are well-evolved to solve problems in a separate and mostly unrelated outside domain – the physical world outside your skin.

Intelligent, capable people like you and me, people who would never dream of trying to cook their dinner with a bicycle or ride to work on an oven make this mistake all the time. In fact, we can’t not make this mistake, because isn’t it true that it’s your mind that notices when you have a problem, then gets busy trying to solve, then evaluates how well it was solved?

And isn’t it also true that when the problem hasn’t been solved, your mind simply recommences this very process that it just proved didn’t work? And then if your problem is somehow resolved, escaped or avoided, does your mind then say “That’s great! Good work! Now you can have a break from thinking and worrying about the future.” If it does, I bet it’s not for long!

I don’t want you to just accept my word for any of this, but I do ask that you remain open to this proposition and test it against your experience, not what your mind tells you.

And now so that you can become more familiar through experience with the concepts discussed in this section, I’d like you to try some experiential games or exercises. With most of these the purpose is not to change or fix anything, simply to observe what happens and notice what you learn by doing them. If, when you do it, a particular exercise seems not to make sense  – or you don’t notice anything happening – that’s fine. Just leave it and do one of the others – you can always come back to it again!



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