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Retraining the Anxious Mind: Challenging 'Consensus Reality'

If I say to myself, "I should have known this would happen," or "I should be more productive," I am implying that there is an invisible manual or instruction book floating out there in the ether that dictates how to be a human being.
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Over the many years of treating patients suffering from stress, excessive worry and even severe anxiety disorders, I have discovered that many of these individuals cling to the notion of a "consensus reality."

Consensus reality is a cognitive construct we unknowingly subscribe to as ultimate truth. It is a narrow and limiting view of life that accepts, sometimes with conviction, that there exists a single, unified reality in the world for everything, and that we must abide by it. Consensus reality is a fictional creed that often possesses inflexible rules about how to think and how to act. According to this concept, individuals believe that there is one opinion or one path to follow on how to succeed in life, how to love another, how to worship God or what and how to feel, etc.

This way of thinking contributes to increased anxiety over a prolonged period of time and can leave us in a state of fear and ambivalence. This fear and ambivalence could result from spending inordinate amounts of time trying to be perfect or trying to please others. Or, it can cause us to feel oppressed or even constrained by unbending regulations rooted in our self-defeating beliefs. Either way, we become slaves to the external cues, such as what society dictates, to family expectations or religious mandates, etc. In thinking this way, we deprive ourselves from focusing on our internal voice or, better yet, our own reality.

Therefore, exposing the consensus reality construct to someone suffering from anxiety and stress means the following:

The truth is, there is no "consensus reality." In fact, we don't even see reality at all. We only see life through our own personal filter. Therefore, we can change the filter, or we can develop new eyes. So when we finally realize that our thoughts are not necessarily based in a unified reality, we start to understand that there are many different realities and/or possibilities of seeing things, and a whole new world of conscious thinking opens up for us. In time we may begin to comprehend: "I have the power to create my own reality."

Accordingly, if we realize that we do indeed have the power to create our own reality, then we are not a casualty to anyone's criteria of how to be a man or a woman, or any other imposed opinions and/or judgments of us. We are then liberated from the dependence on external cues for validation and acceptance. We are free to develop our own internal evaluating system based on our criteria for being a human being. This very mindset can easily begin the process of reducing the frequency and severity of anxiety symptoms.

The Tyranny of the "Absolutes"

Another excellent way to expose consensus reality thinking and to identify when we are clinging to it is by listening to the "absolute" language we are using. For example, we will use words such as:

  • Should

  • Shouldn't
  • Never
  • Always
  • Everyone
  • No one
  • Everything
  • And so on...
  • These "absolutes," or blanket words, cause us to inadvertently conspire with the notion of the mono-reality I am talking about. The most destructive absolute words of all are "should" and "shouldn't."

    Let's think about this. If I say to myself, "I should have known this would happen," or "I should be more productive," I am implying that there is an invisible manual or instruction book floating out there in the ether that dictates how to be a human being. It implies that there are "rules" and I am not getting "it" right, and so I feel guilty. The guilt can subsequently lead to feelings of shame and powerlessness because I am blindly conspiring with the dogmatic nature of consensus reality.

    The dangerous "absolute" quality of the "should" also implies that we could potentially have access to a crystal ball that can predict the future or some kind of mind-reading device that can magically reveal what other people are thinking. The word "should" is one of the most irrational words one can use from the English language.

    In my practice of treating individuals with anxiety, I have often encouraged my patients to replace the word "should" with the phrase, "I would prefer." For instance, in one of the examples that I gave earlier about thinking, "I should be more productive," one can replace that with a more rational thought like, "I would prefer to be more productive with my life, let's see what I can do to change that." This thought takes the guilt out of the equation and may in fact empower someone to take action instead of remaining passive and feeling like a victim.

    Another example of how we unwittingly embrace false consensus reality as if they were factual is the following: If early in my years as a teenager I experience alienation from my peers, and in time I begin to isolate and not feel like I belong, I may fashion a negative opinion about myself that I am inadequate or worthless. This may lead to formulate other negative beliefs about myself that gradually become factual, or the rock-bottom data I mentioned earlier. These negative beliefs or cognitive distortions would sound something like, "I will never have friends again," or "I will always be alone."

    Consequently, I will unknowingly begin to write a story written in indelible ink, based on the cognitive distortion that "I don't belong." Years may pass, and I continue to cling to this story, not ever realizing that I made it up or that it's simply a falsehood I naively adhere to. Then, I ultimately begin to mold an inner core consensus reality -- an unyielding conclusion about who I truly am, which is perhaps something very irrational, like, "I will always be an inferior human being."

    Even rock musician John Mayer got it right about challenging consensus reality when he wrote in one of his brilliant songs: "I just found out there's no such thing as the real world, just a lie you've got to rise above."

    Tools for Challenging the Notion of Consensus Reality

    Ask yourself:

    Am I closed off to alternative realities/possibilities and points of view?

    Am I focusing on external cues for guidance and validation?

    Am I focused on old, self-imposed or family imposed rules about how to live my life?

    Am I limiting my experience in life by using absolute words such as "should," "never" and "always"?

    Replacement Thoughts: The 5-Minute Rule

    Take five minutes to respond differently after you identify yourself clinging to the notion of a consensus reality:

    • I will open up my mind and consider alternative realities and points of view that I may not have ever seen before.

  • I will practice letting go of my dependence on external cues for guidance and validation.
  • I will consider focusing on my own reality that I create based on my criteria for how to be a human being.
  • I will replace absolute words, such as "should," "never" and "always," with more balanced and realistic language.
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