If you're living with a chronic illness, you're in the right place.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Axioms

I have an almost-3 year-old daughter.  If you've spent any amount of time around a kid this age, you know they LOVE to watch the same movie/show/video over and over.  It's like the concept of saturation is completely missed by this segment of society.  My daughter's current favorite movie is Wall-E.  Remember Wall-E?  It's a really great movie about a little robot whose job it is to clear mountains of trash from a wasted Earth.  Until he falls in love.  If you've seen the movie, you may remember the name of the mega-ship that houses the last remaining humans who fled Earth some 700 years prior.


The Axiom.

An Axiom is "a premise or starting point of reasoning. A self-evident principle or one that is accepted as true without proof as the basis for argument."

Pretty clever, Pixar people.  The humans on the Axiom have found themselves almost mindless blobs who ride around on hover chairs all day, drinking their meals sold to them by Sigourney Weaver's hypnotic ship voice, staring blankly at screens, and talking to each other but not really listening nor engaged with their surroundings.


The truth is many of us fall into the axiom trap.  No, we're not mindless blobs.  But we label ourselves or make predictions that are based on thoughts or statements that can never be proven false.  How often have we used a term or phrase to define ourselves which don't even have real definitions?  (e.g. "No matter what I do, I'm worthless" or "Nobody likes me.")  We don't really know what we're saying when we use terms like these, but it's easy to go there especially if our defenses are down.  And they certainly don't foster positive moods.

Let's look at the axiom in terms of chronic illness thinking.

1.  "No matter what I do, I'm flawed [because I'm sick]."
2.  "It's possible I could have another flare up of symptoms."
3.  "I need to know for sure [that I won't have a flare, that the treatment will work, etc.]"

Consider how each of these statements could be disproved - or not.

1.  If we start with "no matter what" then how can I disprove this?  By saying this, I discount all evidence that indicates that I'm not flawed.  I'm simply saying "I'm flawed and there's nothing you can say that can change my belief."

2.  If I use the word "possible" there's no way to disprove this, since the possibility exists for everyone living with an illness, or those who have yet to develop one.

3.  We all do many things about which we don't know for sure what's going to happen next - yet we still do them.  But the belief of needing to know something for sure cannot be disproved.  It's a preference, a need or want, so there's nothing to prove or disprove.

When thinking about our thinking, it's important to consider the criterion of "falsifiability."  Can we test out the truth of our self-talk?  Science is based on taking statements and testing them against facts.  If our thoughts cannot be tested, then we can never found out what is true and what is false.  From the scientific point of view, such thoughts are pretty useless because they can't be tested.


Yes, science is a cold way to look at things as it strips out emotion from the equation.  My point isn't that we should discount emotions.  Emotions are what make us human.  But when emotions rule our thinking, logic and reason can get pushed out making what we feel be interpreted as what is fact.  We call this emotional reasoning in the psychology world, and it's a major thinking trap.  I believe Stephen Colbert referred to it as "truthiness."

So is there a worry or other negative self-talk that you're experiencing that you can test?  Is it at all possible to disprove these thoughts?  When you make a prediction that something bad will happen, how do you know if you're accurate?

It can be useful to write down some of these thoughts or worries and evaluate how you might be able to test them.  Get a piece of paper, a notebook, your phone and make 2 columns:  column 1 is the thought and column 2 is how you could test it.  If you come up empty a lot of the time in column 2, you might be falling into the Axiom trap.  The good news is we can switch off the auto-pilot by becoming more aware of how we're thinking about things.  Try it out and let us know what you think.