Some believe that we are responsible for creating our own reality, for regulating and determining our experience. I think this is only partially true, and if you look closely at your own life, you might also notice the fallacies in this New Age meme.
We unconsciously choose experiences by way of the neural circuits laid down in our brains from past learning (conditioning). This is why we attract situations that allow us to recreate old patterns — the circuitry from prior learning experiences is already laid down in our nervous system and we act on it. However, we also are capable of making choices that are not conditioned responses, especially if we recognize our habitual responses — habits that are comfortable, however unhealthy and limiting.
Making new, positive, pattern-breaking choices often causes fear, even though these choices allow us to grow and live better lives. We fear what is unknown, what is foreign to us, even if it is healthier than what is known and unhealthy. It takes consciously recognizing this dynamic, or we are likely to remain comfortably numb or simply recoil in fear when presented with new, life-affirming choices.
If we believe that we create our own reality, when life inevitably falls apart, we can then easily blame ourselves for “failing,” not being good enough, strong enough, or whatever-enough, to have prevented these downturns — because, the logic goes, we create our own reality. But what if we recognize that we don’t always create our own reality, that we are only partially in control (and sometimes never), that bad things happen to us beyond our control (just examine your life), and that events can affect us beyond our ability to cope? Well, then we wouldn’t have to blame ourselves for all that goes wrong; we would also be more in touch with reality, and make room and allowance to be kinder to ourselves, and others.
Finally, when we recognize that we can only fail at things we have control over, this frees us up for more self-compassion and compassion for others.
Shame and Blame
“The belief that our thoughts create our reality is as seductive as it is misleading. It would be nice if we had unlimited power to change things, but we don’t have total control over life. Other people have free will and make decisions based upon their own needs and predilections. We delude ourselves if we think we can control others’ choices and all the environmental forces that inevitably affect us.” ~ John Amodeo, PhD
A black-and-white belief that we create our own reality can lead to shame, self-blame, and excess stress. Ironically, and in reality, this is a misperception. Just look around you: how many healthy, compassionate, connected people do you know that are not (strongly) affected by external circumstances and others’ actions? Narcissists and sociopaths are some of the only exceptions I can think of.
Receiving information from, and being affected by, our environment is to be human and important to every level of our wellness. In a sense, to cut off this feedback loop so that we can try to be in control (and usually happy) is to isolate ourselves and, in a sense, become sociopathic because we are dumbing down challenging inputs that also make possible our vulnerability, compassion, and passion.
When we boil it down, it seems that the desire to “create our own reality” most often stems from our fear of feeling pain. Sure, we can minimize the negative experiences we have. But, have you considered that doing so is itself a form of pain, a passive pain perhaps, for all the juicy humanness and heartfelt psycho-spiritual qualities we don’t get when we ostracize failure, falling apart, and disappointment from our experience?
Most of us experience some level of upset, or even breakdown, if someone we love is hurt or dies, if we lose a job we need or like, if we lose our money, or are betrayed by someone else. To think that we are responsible for, and can avoid, our sorrow when we lose someone we love (there are so many beliefs to try to do just this, rather than feel the pain of it) is to miss out on grief.
And to avoid on grief is to store pain in our body-mind, to preclude living deeply and authentically, and to miss out on the large-heartedness that comes from passing through challenging emotions. This does not mean that certain cognitive work — such as remembering that everything is impermanent, that better times might be ahead, and even that it’s okay to be sad — isn’t helpful. It is, but not as a wholesale attempt to dismiss and avoid feeling pain.
It does mean that we affect one another. In his article, “Finding Purpose,” psychologist Steven Stosny writes:
“Human beings are social animals, hard-wired to react emotionally to one another. In fact, our emotions are far more contagious than any known virus. This means that every one of our interactions with other people changes us and them a tiny bit, for better or worse … Due to the vast contagion of emotions, even our most subtle interactions with other people help determine whether they treat their loved ones well, ignore them, or hurt them.”
We are not in full control, and in many cases not even largely so, over how we respond. Nor should we be. Neuroscience, for example, has shown that we react involuntarily to many threats because if we were able to pause and consciously evaluate our response (think lion leaping out of the bush to eat you), we would in effect be able to choose to endanger our survival more than is evolutionarily advantageous.
The psychiatrist, author, and Nazi war camp hero and survivor Victor Frankl said:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This recognition — that how we perceive and react or respond to situations, especially tough ones, determines (part of?) our experience — is wisdom. I notice that I can mitigate some of the drama and trauma in my life by regulating how I respond. And, while I am no one to contend with Dr. Frankl, I don’t think Dr. Frankl meant that we are unaffected by our environments, or even that we can always internally regulate ourselves in a way that doesn’t cause us pain. Anxiety, fear, hopelessness, and sadness all happen. And, we can catch ourselves when we overreact to these feelings, assume false conclusions from them, or act out in reaction to them and thereby worsen our suffering. Ironically, embracing and accepting these difficult feelings helps prevent these pitfalls.
To some degree, we can choose our responses. This can better our lives. Often, we must respond counter-intuitively to how we feel. The less we exercise our bodies, for example, the lazier we can become and the less we feel like moving. If we were to just listen and obey how we feel — like not moving — the worse we will feel (though, of course, not exercising is appropriate at times like during illness). Moving, even though part of us would prefer not to, usually is what we need to do to feel better, and to shift how we feel about moving again!
Unless our feelings give us accurate signals that truly protect and benefit us, we should be careful not to make automatic conclusions based on how we feel. Often our feelings don’t truly protect us, but are overreactions to evolutionarily programmed stimuli. An example is our evolutionarily coded ability, and proclivity, to detect snakes on the ground, to which our visual centers, according to psychologist Jordan Peterson, have become genetically coded to pay extra attention.
Trauma is Real
Being verbally assaulted, physically injured, or emotionally abused take their toll and affect, often profoundly, even when we are adults and fully conscious of the circumstances and design of the injury. And even when we choose how we respond, which can help to mitigate some of the damage and not pile self-induced suffering on top of damage already done.
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is such an example. We develop fear and anxiety from situations that once hurt us; this hurt and fear caused neural pathways to code for these responses in our brain and extended nervous system. So that, when presented with a similar future situation that reminds us of the same or similar danger, we will have a mechanism in place to elicit fear so that we can better protect ourselves.
What happens, unfortunately, is that the more primitive parts of our brain — especially the midbrain and its emotional centers — can overreact to threatening situations and our involuntary response is similarly excessive and out of control, causing us pain, a desire to avoid triggering situations, and dysregulation of our nervous system.
The gap between stimulus and response is our freedom to practice how we respond. And practice doesn’t make perfect; it makes progress. In the end, we are affected by our environment in ways we can and can’t control. We are affected by circumstances that are not our own choosing. Random things happen in life that we will may never understand. We can’t control everything, not even our own responses. Nor should we. And, again, we can only fail at things we have control over. Embracing the mystery of beneficent and brutal experience, as well as the ordinary magic of self-control and self-regulation, we live in a constant, shape-shifting interplay in relation to our environment and perception of our experiences.
So, give yourself a break. Acknowledge reality. Yes, we can minimize and even shrug off some insults and suffer less by using our good minds. We can employ mindfulness, self-help techniques, behavior modification, and other healing tools. But many insults — most in fact — we cannot entirely shrug off. Trauma is real and gets under our skin and into us, to some degree. And this creates an opportunity into humanness, into the heart of being fully here.
More significant heart-hurts allow us to discover our own shadow and woundedness, the opportunity to foster compassion instead of defensiveness and violence. These injuries affect us in ways we might not even want to admit. Others are merely abusive insults we don’t need and should seek to avoid. And, being able to keenly and humbly admit what is ours and what is someone else’s is a constant learning process.
But to hold the belief that we are responsible for creating our own reality at every turn is a form of self-harm, a recipe for toxic shame and blame. Just as we can soothe another, we can injure another. We affect each other; we matter to one another. We are one — we need each other, and we matter to one another.
And we are alone, but never entirely so. Accepting life’s inevitable suffering helps us accept these truths. If we are afraid of and deny life’s suffering, we might be tempted to adopt black and white beliefs that end up causing us more suffering — because they’re untrue, if we are honest about them. And this is why emotional and intellectual honesty are so important.
Violence in Disguise
The flip side of believing that we entirely create our own reality is that it might give us the unconscious belief that it’s okay to treat others poorly. After all, the (unconscious) logic follows, what we do to others doesn’t matter because they are solely responsible for how they perceive and experience our actions — how they create their own reality. We can’t really hurt them because they are responsible and can control how they respond, right?
On this note, and parallel to the create your own reality meme, another New Age nonsense slogan is that “We aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings.” Who believes this can justify any action, just as someone who believes we create our own realities, for the people whom they trigger (read: violate and hurt) are at fault for reacting the way they do … because those that hurt create their own reality.
In other words, the insidious belief goes: people only hurt because they react or respond incorrectly and irresponsibly. As if there were always some way to respond that would prevent us from feeling hurt by others’ cruelty. As Michael Stipe of REM says, “Everybody hurts”, and many of us hurt in excess and needlessly at the behest of abusive and unconscious others.
I have known several people who believe in creating their own reality that don’t take responsibility for their cruel and unfair actions. I once knew a couple that would not apologize for anything they did or said because they thought that “everything happens for a reason.”
One day in the midst of another unconscious incident, I said to them, “Well, what if the reason for this event is to feel empathy for another human being and compassionately apologize, and thereby create more healing and intimacy?” Sometimes the reason is something simple, human, and vulnerable we don’t want to see beneath our high-minded dogma.
Perhaps, as I surmise, apologizing and admitting fault triggers the perpetrator to feel shame and to self-blame for what they did. And somehow this is not okay for them; in other words, it’s not okay to make mistakes or be wrong. This in itself is a false belief and, along with self-shame, we don’t forever have to feel the effects of this self-deprecation. This is a temporary reality that can change, ironically, by relearning through mindful and cathartic self-healing.
False beliefs — and their attendant cascade of neuroendocrine effects — are often left over from past experience, often from other people’s defensiveness and imposing their own defensive false beliefs and violent acts upon us. This is how abuse and bad thinking are passed down generation to generation, generating core love wounds. Maybe our forebears were shamed for doing wrong once upon a time, or were never apologized to. And now in order not to feel that old wound, perhaps continue the violence, and silently justify it, by taking on beliefs such as “we create our own reality” and that “we are not responsible for others’ feelings.”
The truth is: not everything happens for a reason that we can know, or know entirely. By adopting superficial, defense-in-disguise New Age beliefs we may in fact only be unconsciously perpetuating the wound and its hurtful effects. This is how denying our old wounds in the name of self-righteousness and supposed virtue creates more shadow and more violence. To some degree, we all adopt twisted ideas and false beliefs to prevent from feeling pain — the rub is the shade of grey and the degree of conscious, willful denial we engage and perpetuate.
In sum, we don’t entirely create our own realities and, to some degree, we are responsible for how others feel in response to our actions. Believing otherwise easily leads to more shame, blame, self-deflation, and violence.
We do, however, get to practice how we respond to situations. One way we can respond is through our actions. This allows our physiology to calm down, which in turn helps change our thinking and making the situation worse. We can, for example, choose to walk away from an argument in which we are no longer thinking clearly. Another is to breathe deeply to reduce the adrenaline flows of anger, anxiety, and fear.
Beliefs create actions, which create effects in our world and influence how we feel about ourselves, all of which create reactions in return, back upon us. Examining our beliefs, and noticing the painful associations we have with them, can help us unwind this learning. If we can’t face our pain, we can’t deepen and find more integrity. Instead, we tend to develop compensatory defensive beliefs, which remove us one step further from baseline truth, creating more mess upon an already faulty foundation of falsity.
Perhaps it is humanity’s collective fear of feeling emotional pain, and our lack of interconnected support to accept these difficult realities, that has led us to an equally complex system of defenses and resultant violence upon one another and the Earth. Hitler, for example, was beaten in childhood and lost his mother and father by the time he was eighteen. And four of his five siblings did not survive past childhood.
Are the horrible results of war and other grotesque abuses big and small the effects, the outward expressions, the out-picturing, the displacements, of our denied emotional pain and the beliefs we take on (consciously or not) to avoid facing and mitigating the roots of violence in our own psyches? Is our denial of emotional pain one of the drivers, if not the primary cause, beneath greed, corruption, everyday meanness, and violence of all kinds? And is this denial unconsciously behind the tidy black-and-white, false belief that we always “create our reality” and are “not responsible for other people’s feelings” — which beliefs, ironically, foster self-harm, harm of others, and harm to the planet?