Paul Cockayne – 07791 970406 – email@example.com
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Some new ideas sit easily with us, and we can embrace them readily. If they fit with the thoughts and beliefs that we already have, they are comfortable and easy to fit in with our picture of the world. These ideas fit well for us emotionally. If we admire someone, we can easily listen to someone else singing their praises. If we believe in ghosts, we can readily engage with the idea that someone else has encountered them.
On the other hand, it can be hard to embrace new ideas when they conflict with our existing belief system, and so we can find ourselves rejecting these ideas – questioning and disbelieving the evidence – because to believe these ideas would require a major revision of the way we look at the world.
The educationalist Piaget described us as living in equilibrium. Most of the time, we can live more or less at peace with our various beliefs, thoughts and feelings. When something new comes along – a different idea or a new experience, the equilibrium is upset and we need time to integrate the new thing, and re-establish our equilibrium.
Some people refuse to believe that man ever landed on the moon, or that Elvis is dead, (despite a certain amount of evidence to the contrary) because, for whatever reason, they want to continue to believe their own theory. On a more sinister level, there are people who refuse to believe that the holocaust ever happened. New scientific theories – such as the idea that the earth is round rather than flat – tend to have to fight for acceptance until the evidence is overwhelmingly in their favour.
When people have some sort of emotional investment in looking at the world a particular way, it can take a long time to change, and this is something I come across a lot in my work. I’ll give you three examples.
Addicts often take a long time to accept that they have a problem. It may be obvious to friends and family that their habit is out of control, but the addict themselves will often be in denial. “I can give up whenever I want to”. They will minimise the problem, claiming they only smoke ten a day when it’s really more like forty. They will blame circumstances: “I’m going through a stressful time at work at the moment and this is my release”. The idea that they have a problem, that they need help, is a difficult one because it requires them to change the picture they have of themselves.
Sometimes we cling onto ideas about other people. It can be difficult for women to accept that they are in an abusive relationship, for example. The man they fell in love with, the man they admired so much, their Prince Charming – he turns out to be abusive and violent. That behaviour is completely at odds with the picture we want to see, and so it is difficult to accept, difficult to grasp. And so we can make excuses for the behaviour – “there’s a good man inside” – “it could be much worse”, and so on.
When we are young, our brains are very malleable. New ideas are easier to assimilate. We are less “set in our ways” – and that includes our mental ways as well as our behaviours. As we get older, it generally becomes more difficult to accept new ideas just as our minds change, so too do our bodies change – they become less flexible, less strong. And so, at some point, we will be forced to play less strenuous sports, for example, or give up sport altogether. And as old age approaches we may need more support – walking with a stick, needing help with the gardening or cleaning, needing a stair lift. This can be difficult if we pride ourselves on our independence, our physical strength. It requires, as my other examples do, a major rewrite of our story about ourselves. The facts do not match the picture we have of ourselves.
New ideas can be difficult to take on board, to integrate with our old ideas. And this integration is a process that takes time. We might know, on one level, that we have a problem with alcohol, but to believe it – to feel it – takes longer. It is a slow process of absorption that ultimately enables us to attain a different equilibrium in our thoughts and feelings.