Have you ever had an experience in your life where a seemingly innocuous comment or action has caused a disproportionate degree of change or upset? When these things happen resourcefully we call them breakthroughs, when they are unresourceful we call them all sorts of names under the sun.
In recent months I have had two powerful episodes where my ‘House of Cards’ has fallen down, the rug was pulled from beneath my feet.
In one situation, a relationship, a friendship that had developed over recent years disappeared almost overnight. A friendship that I had invested in and given to more than freely turned out to be totally lopsided. It was an asynchronous relationship that turned out to be a relationship of convenience to the other side. The tipping point came when the relationship was gently tested and totally collapsed. At that moment there was a mix of shock, disbelief and anger.
Much of the anger was directed internally. Much of my work is to be sensitive and intuitive as a coach. Here was the expert being shown to be a total ingenue.
The second episode involves a situation with my children so perhaps best not spoken about here.
These were moments when one new piece of information would cause a significant set of beliefs that I had in two areas to fall like a house of cards or a pile of Jenga bricks. In a moment everything came crashing down. The illusion in the mirror was shattered and I could not put it back together again.
So what happened?
Creating the Illusion
How are these beliefs created to begin with?
Something comes into our lives that perhaps meets some need or expectation that we have. The greater the need (whether conscious or unconscious) the more likely we are to uncritically accept what is in front of us. Once we have accepted that thing or relationship to be true we will immediately begin to seek confirmation of this new truth, this new belief in our lives. We will carefully edit our inputs to have them fit the story. Humans have a remarkable ability to take a series of unrelated events and create a story from them. We have a core need to attribute cause and we fall into the trap of the narrative fallacy – that if we can make the facts fit then the story must be true. This is something that may happen over weeks, months or even years.
Inputs and actions will become reference points for the story we have created. We may modify and edit our perception of those inputs and actions as humans are very prone to confirmation bias, we edit in information that confirms our belief and edit out anything that is contradictory.
When ideas and actions do not fit we will tend to simply ignore them. If these outlier ideas and actions are powerful enough our confirmation bias will kick in and we will accept that these are the ‘exceptions that prove the rule”.
Indeed, often when a core belief is really tested, we will double down on our beliefs, holding on to them even more tightly than before. We will create an elaborate narrative as to why they still hold true.
The Tipping Point
If the contrary ideas and actions show up consistently enough they may begin the penetrate the defences that we have built up around our beliefs. As the defences weaken a straw can blow in on the wind an finally break the camels back. This is the tipping point. Often it can be totally unexpected and it can come as a great shock that shakes us to our core. All the references and beliefs that we have crafted into our house of cards will fall.
This can happen so suddenly and powerfully it can literally leave us literally grief-stricken.
It could be that final clue of an infidelity or a betrayal of a working partnership or relationship. In business, it could be a key client or a key supplier. It could be a close family relationship or situation, or a close friendship.
Our initial response can be disbelief, denial, anger. These are all responses that are typical of the grief we feel for what we have lost.
Some of that anger will be self-directed as all those little edits that we made to our story will suddenly come into sharp focus. Our narrative can shift rapidly as we find new explanations using the information we had previously left on the cutting room floor.
Hindsight will shine like a very powerful torch on our foolishness.
Over time there will be, perhaps begrudging, acceptance as we construct a new narrative to fill the void where the old one fell down. Where there is a sense of deep betrayal these wounds can take time to heal.
In the moment, of course, knowing all of this can help explain the behaviour however it may not take the sting out.
Is it possible to prepare for this is in the future?
Give your confirmation bias a hard time by being aware of it and by asking yourself simple questions. One of the simplest and most powerful questions you can ask about any situation is, “Is it true, is it really true?”. Ask this to yourself about anything you think you know. Look for reasons it might be true or might not be true. What do you notice in your answers?
Break the Story
Does your narrative really add up? If you feel uneasy about something ask friends and colleagues for their view. What can they see that you cannot see? Listen with an open mind and an open heart. Notice how your mind and body might tighten as you want to ‘defend’ your story.
Find someone who is prepared to tell you the unvarnished truth about your blind spots. And do your best to be open-minded to receive their truth.
Remember everything is an illusion, a story that you have created. And if the story breaks, remember that and then you can create a new, more resourceful story.