Of particular difficulty in a world of constant social media presence and information overload is how areas of life bleed into one another. We carry with us the news, analysis and opinions of those around us and the globe in the palm of our hand. Each tweet, news headline and status update pulls associations from within us every moment of the day. Separate personal life from work? Not when every drama and emotionally-laden piece of the lives we connect with are popping up on screen after screen. Focus on just one person? Not when we’re over-saturated with the need to form quick opinions on everything from someone’s dinner to geo-politics.
This isn’t a call to limit technology, the reality of our world is a digitally connected one and comes with a great many advantages. Rather, it’s a recognition that in an informational age we rarely stop to consider how our minds are attempting to work within it. Our brains have not evolved in the past 50 years as we’ve gone from newspapers and church gossip to 24-hour news cycles and pop-up filters. The same mechanisms of association and narrative construction continue to operate.
Picture the process of association as the building blocks of narrative construction. Pieces of experience are linked together to form a whole picture, a narrative, that helps us select our behavioral responses. This way of ordering chaos allows for a nearly unlimited number of variations in our personal story-telling. The areas of our lives, work and personal, are short-hand for a collection of those narratives. They are not hard and fast boundaries, however, think of sponges instead of brick walls.
The permeability of the areas of our life means any attempt at completely avoiding spill-over is not only impossible, but fundamentally contrary to our human nature. A study on how the practice of therapy changes the therapist offers a path for consideration:
Instead, the researchers describe how clinicians “acquired a capacity to exist in parallel realities, and that one of the ways in which they accomplished this was to co-construct, with others in their lives, a set of practices that enabled them comfortably to move across contexts, such as the shift between work and home.” (Shannon Peters)
This “set of practices” is behavior set up to remind us of where we are currently at and avoiding behaviors that sends our mind elsewhere. It is based on the notion of our lives as whole creatures who just so happen to have various areas of focus. These areas shift in importance based on social context and since context is set up in part through intentionality, we therefore have the ability to direct attention to what we feel to be important or Value.
Figuring out how to direct one’s attention is about exploring social context:
- Structure – what building or space are you currently in? Which Values are most important to you in that space? Is the space set up to do the work that’s supposed to occur there? Do you find yourself getting bored and wanting more/different stimulation? Are there means of alleviating that feeling in line with the Values associated with the space?
- Relationships – what form of connection do you typically engage in within that space? Are you keeping in mind those Values the structure supports when you’re in communication? If you find yourself being bored and in need of distraction, what is it about what you’re currently engaged in that is drawing you to disconnect?
If we begin with what is in disarray or start with the area itself, we create artificial boundaries within the central whole of who we are. These questions are based on a grounding within personal Valuation, or what is important to you. From that ground it becomes possible to direct attention and guide the internal mental associations that serve to create a narrative. This then guides the selection of behavior for the purpose of making an area of your life functional and fulfilling, a reflection of the whole of you, not just a part.
© David Teachout
The Effects of Practicing Psychotherapy on Therapists’ Personal Lives. Mad in America: Science, Psychiatry and Social Justice.