Remember:  we’re constantly filtering reality through our own lenses of belief and expectation. 

In cognitive behavioral therapy, we call the various beliefs about ourselves, the world, and the future through which we filter all of our incoming information “schemas.” 

We have schemas about a lot of things. 

We have schemas— that is, beliefs— about ourselves: whether we’re a good person or bad person; whether we’re lazy or industrious; whether we’re honest or dishonest. 

We have schemas— beliefs— about other people and the world: whether people can be trusted or not; whether the world is for us or against us; whether engaging with the world is worth the hassle or not. 

We have schemas— beliefs— about the future: whether our current projects and efforts will pay off; whether there’s light at the end of this tunnel; what kind of things are probably going to happen next. 

The reason why we evolved to have schemas is pretty simple: if we didn’t have some way of filtering all the information coming at our brains every moment we’re awake, we’d get overwhelmed, completely overloaded. Our brains have to have SOME organized idea of what is worth paying attention to, and what isn’t. 

The way schemas work is, once we develop a schema about something or a set of things, our brains then mostly pay attention to incoming information that is consistent with those schema. And, conversely, our brains tend to filter out incoming information that isn’t consistent with our preconceived beliefs. 

Handy, right? 

You betcha…provided we remember that our brains are doing this filtering, all day, every day. 

That is, provided that we understand and accept that we are constantly getting a heavily filtered version of reality that is molded to what we already more or less believe. 

A lot of the time, this process works pretty well. Our brains are usually pretty smart about what to filter out and what to direct our attention toward. If we had to take on the task of constantly, critically evaluating every scrap of incoming information coming at our faces, every minute of every day…we wouldn’t be able to function. 

Our brains therefore do us the favor of figuring out, broadly, what kind of information is useful and adaptive for us in our everyday functioning, and our brains bias our attention toward this kind of information. 

But as well as this system works, we need to remember that it is a system that is fallible. 

We need to remember that there are times when our schemas are distorted. Skewed.

There are times when our perceptive “lenses” are cracked. 

Sometimes this happens as a result of trauma. We have something really bad happen to us, or a series of really bad things happen to us, and as a result, we develop beliefs about ourselves, the world, and the future that aren’t broadly true…but they FEEL true, because of the trauma we’ve experienced. 

Thus, when we try to filter realty through trauma-damaged schema, we end up with some wonky results— we pay attention to incoming information that tells us we’re defective; that the world is an unpredictable, hostile place; and that the future has little, if anything, to offer us. 

Distorted schemas— cracked lenses— focus us on incoming information in distorted ways. 

Consequently, when we try to make decisions based on the skewed information our brains have let in through the “cracked lens” of a distorted schema, we end up making decisions that don’t serve us well. Which, of course, then has the effect of reinforcing the distorted beliefs that contributed to the problem in the first place. 

It becomes a vicious, vicious cycle. 

What can we do about any of this? 

We can keep in mind— especially in therapy— that our schemas are just webs woven of beliefs. We can remember that our beliefs may or may not be accurate…that our lenses may be cracked because of things we’ve been through. 

We can remember that our reality is filtered— and while that filtering may sometimes serve us, there are going to be times when it DOESN’T serve us well. 

We can either periodically or regularly examine our schemas about ourselves, the world, and the future, to determine whether or how we’re perceiving the world through a cracked lens. 

We can remember that because something FEELS true, that doesn’t necessarily MAKE it true. 

Our brains are truly magnificent machines. They’re the most sophisticated supercomputers the planet has ever seen. 

It’s too bad no one provided an owner’s manual. 


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