I remember coming across this collage of videos on YouTube which features many shots of what seems to be one of the sentences, if not “The Sentence”, that is most often said in English/American films, “You don’t get it, do you?”. I thought about how many times, every day, we come across people who have not understood what we meant, and we get flustered and frustrated and can’t get our head around it, because how on earth have they not understood what we meant, after all we were speaking the same language?!?!
Well, when a few years ago I started exploring NLP, a whole new world opened up and I found all the subjects that it encompasses incredibly fascinating, but the one topic that for me really did it, was the explanation of “why” people seem not to “get it”.
What I discovered then is that at every moment in our lives our subconscious mind receives between 2 and 4 million bits of information through our five senses; consciously though, we can only process 1% of them and thankfully, because otherwise our brain would go in overload.
So, how do we process all this information? What our very clever brain does in order to make sense of all this information is to create our own personal filters which allow us to organise and store these data that we receive at every instant. Some of the main filters are language, attitude, memories, values, beliefs, decisions.
How do we create these filters then? We have been producing these filters since we were born, and some think even before then from when we are in our mothers’ womb. When new episodes start to happen in our lives, when we see people and things for the first time, when we have our first interactions with them, when we move our first steps into the world, we learn, and we start making decisions about everything that happens around us. We start to form our individual beliefs based on our own personal experiences of the world and on the relation we have with our environment, with our parents or carers, our relatives, our teachers, with the other children that we meet, and so on and so forth. And the scary thing is that it is thought that the greatest bulk this process is already finished by the time we are just 7 years old. In fact, according to Eric Berne, the father of Transactional Analysis, “You began writing it [your life-script] at birth. By the time you were four years old, you have decided on the essentials on the plot. At seven, you had completed your story in all its main details. From then until you were about twelve years of age, you polished it up and added a few extras here and there. In adolescence you revised your story, updating it with more life characters” (Stewart and Jones 2012).
I’ll give you an example taken from my personal life, my attitude to money and savings in particular. The model that I had when I grew up was from a mother who raised me by herself and who worked really hard to provide everything that I needed. I learned my attitude towards money and savings from her because she was the first and closest example in my formative years of someone who always lived within her means and everything she had, she had earned though the work that she did. I learned my attitude, values and beliefs around money and the need to have savings from her, and this is something I’m really proud of because it has proven very useful for me throughout all my life. This is something that was already in me, unconsciously, but the time I was 7, I had it absorbed it through my mother’s behaviour like a sponge. Also, I decided that it was something that would be beneficial for me and I reinforced this decision and my belief by saving money even when I was a child and by finding evidence around me that it was what was right for me and what I wanted to keep doing. I met other people in my life whose attitude was very different to mine, and they were completely happy with that as I was with mine, but their early experience was very dissimilar from mine and their perception of it, as a consequence, was different as well. This process happens with every single thing that we experience throughout our lives and with every single opinion or belief we create about things.
So, now we have these filters and we know how we have created them. What happens next? When the information enters our brains, we apply all these filters and the result is that we delete, generalise and distort this information, and this is how we go from the millions of the information we get bombarded with, to the 1% I mentioned previously.
We delete when, for example, we have a conversation and we only remember certain bits, because they are the bits that most resonate with us or grab our attention; we generalise when we make rules based on a few experiences and we conclude that everything that pertains to the same group has the same characteristics or works in the same way; we distort information when we interpret other people’s behaviour as having a particular meaning when we don’t have the evidence for it and/or when the only reason we are getting to that conclusion is because “we” would behave in that way in the same circumstance.
The result of these deletions, generalisations and distortions is our individual version of the outer reality we experience, the way we interpret the world around us and the experiences we have at any given moment, which then result in the different behaviours we have and opinions we hold about things, people or situations.
So, when you think about it, it’s a great achievement the fact that we manage to communicate, work, and live with each other, and we manage to do that quite successfully every day. On the other hand, this also explains why misunderstandings, conflicts and fights are also part of our everyday life. The model above can then be a great tool in helping us understand each other better, maybe give us the choice to be less judgemental and more compassionate towards other people, which will then help us lead better lives and even letting go. Or it can spur some curiosity on our part to try and understand why people behave or respond the way they do, and perhaps as they say, “It’s not you, it’s me”.
Stewart I. and Joines V. 2012. TA Today. A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis. Melton Mowbray, England and Chapel Hill, USA: Lifespace Publishing
Artwork by Joe Hole