I recently watched Anil Seth’s Ted Talk Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality. His research affirms Anaïs Nin’s quote, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Seth shares that what we perceive is a constructive process generated from the inside out. He says we create our experience of reality based on our brain’s best guess at what is going on. He provides examples of illusions and experiments that demonstrate how easy it is for the brain’s perceptions to be skewed.
In our daily life we are constantly filling in the blanks to try and make sense of things. One of the areas that filling in the blanks incorrectly most often causes problems is in relationships. It is common to think we know what someone means, but in reality we have put the dots together, and it turns out they meant something completely different.
Often when couples start working with my partner, Angus and I, they are experiencing resentment toward each other. Their call to action in terms of engaging in relationship coaching is often upset, and frequently, long-term distress that has them on the brink of separation.
One of the first things we help couples to understand is that they are hallucinating their reality. It is foundational for them to see that their experience is 100% created from their thoughts. This is often grasped intellectually, but when we point out this means that no one can then be responsible for their upset it can be harder to take on board. We explain that upset and resentment are a reflection of our own thoughts and can, therefore, never be caused by anyone or anything outside of ourselves. This is often challenging to accept.
I understand the challenge. I spent many years blaming Angus for my unhappiness. I did not see my hurt was a result of my own self-judgment. It didn’t really matter what Angus did or didn’t do, or what he said or didn’t say. I was only ever experiencing my own thinking and the meaning I created from it. If Angus was upset with me and told me I had no sense of humor and I felt hurt by this, the hurt was not coming from what he said. It was coming from my own thoughts and the meaning I made of his statement. I would often make it mean things like: He doesn’t love me. He doesn’t understand me. He isn’t fair. He doesn’t appreciate me. I am unlovable etc.
Down the rabbit hole I would go using my capacity to create reality with these thoughts as the building blocks. However, another perspective would have been to see that if Angus says something like that to me or behaves in an unkind way that is a reflection of his suffering. It is the best he can do in that moment. It is not a reflection of who he is, me, or our relationship. When I see it from that perspective, I create a very different reality. One in which I don’t take his behavior personally, and I may even feel compassion for his suffering. This is a far better feeling experience that is quite liberating.
I used to also get myself into trouble with judgment. This is definitely still an area of opportunity for me. I can lean toward being critical and demanding, but I have softened and become more appreciative. Understanding that we live in our own thought created reality is helpful here too. What I would judge in Angus was really only ever a reflection of my own thinking. I was not seeing him as he was. I was seeing myself, or more accurately, my thoughts — my constructed reality.
One of the ways my brain would put the dots together in an effort to ensure my survival was to pay attention to effort. I believed that survival and success required hard work. I place a lot of value on ambition, drive, focus, control, and tireless exertion. I was driven and expected Angus to be driven as well, especially if finances were tight.
Angus, however, is more laid back. He is far less stressed by life in general and more open to having fun and enjoying the present moment. He didn’t worry about a lot of the things I would worry about. He was used to thinking outside of the box and coming up with creative solutions. He trusted things would work out, and he did work hard at the things he thought were important. They just didn’t often coincide with what I thought was important. And when Angus did get overwhelmed and stressed, he would slow down and not take action. Whereas, I would speed up and become frenzied. We were complete opposites in how we handled our stress.
The result of the clash of our separate realities on my end was for me to put pressure on Angus. I was impatient and would nag and cajole him to try and get him to behave the way I thought he should. This, of course, did not work and resulted in increased resentment and decreased goodwill on both sides.
What I see now is that I was using my focus on what I perceived as Angus’s shortcomings as a coping mechanism. The more I looked at what I thought was wrong with him, the more of a reprieve I got from feeling bad and anxious about myself. In order to escape my self-judgment and self-criticism that left me feeling unworthy and not good enough, I focused on trying to fix him. He, of course, was fine as he was and didn’t need repair.
Not only did this damage goodwill between us, but it also didn’t work in terms of helping me to feel better about myself. I would only ever be temporarily distracted from my own suffering by focusing on how awful Angus was. For the most part, I was still left living in my own insecure experience of not feeling good enough. It would have been much better for our relationship if I had found a more productive way to take my mind off my anxious thoughts, but self-improvement was my fixation, and I applied the strategy liberally to both of us.
I saw Angus through the lens of my insecure thoughts. In my self-created hallucination of him, I magnified all of his traits that I perceived as threatening my safety and wellbeing and set about trying to change them. When my results were unsuccessful, I became resentful, contemptuous, and judgmental. This, understandably, brought out the worst in Angus, and would then very nicely reinforce all of my judgments. I was living in my own self-created nightmare, but feeling like a victim.
What woke me up was having a profound and extended experience of my wellbeing. I dropped into a state of mind that I had not experienced with such depth and clarity in which I knew I was enough. I knew there was nothing wrong with me. I knew I was not broken. Not because I changed and miraculously all of the things I previously judged about myself disappeared. It was even more miraculous than that! I knew I was good enough exactly as I was — warts and all. That was so freeing.
What got me to that place was learning about an understanding shared by Sydney Banks. Linda Pransky was the one who got to push me over the edge by helping me to experience my innate health. Previously I had been obsessed with fixing my perceived weaknesses. She helped me to see that I could instead look in the direction of my innate wellbeing and stop worrying about not being perfect. That was all I needed to drop into the experience of bliss and see myself, and my life, with fresh eyes.
It was then that I stopped working on myself and stopped trying to improve Angus. The experience allowed me to feel the safety and security that lies within me. When I stopped living in a state of chronic insecurity, I was able to not only accept Angus as he is, but to also celebrate him. From my experience of wellbeing, his shortcomings shrank down to the level of unimportant, and his amazing qualities came into clear focus.
I can still get caught up in anxious thoughts from time to time, and I often get critical of myself and others when this happens. However, I am much better at waking up to the fact that I am creating my reality and, therefore, don’t need to take my unpleasant hallucinations too seriously. This means I navigate my anxious experience more gracefully, and it lasts less time than it used to. I recognize that any upset or discontent on my part is always a reflection of me being caught up in my own negative thoughts and can, therefore, not be blamed on those around me.
This is the key understanding Angus and I share with couples:
You have inner peace and wellbeing within. The only thing that gets in the way of you experiencing it is your own thoughts, not your partner’s behavior. When you see how your experience is created from the inside out, it makes it easier to drop into your natural state of love. Through the eyes of love you are able to see your partner and your situation more clearly. With this clarity it is easier to see what the self-honoring choices are and to have the inspiration to act on them.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In this season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couples' intensives that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.