EVERY AMBIGUOUS EROTIC DISCOURSE UNAMBIGUOUSLY CONTAINS BUT ONE MEANING, THE SECOND ONE(OTHERWISE IT WOULD HAVE HAD GOT NO SENSE)
What is the second one? How many times did you read this sentence? How difficult was it to articulate the words in parentheses?
Where is this third leg coming from? How many times have you traced the line with your eyes to try and figure that out? When did you give up or just settle on some conclusion about this image?
Is this a vase, or two identical profiles? We might settle on the vase, we might settle on the identical profiles. We might even settle that it’s both. But the point here is, is that we are not comfortable leaving it unsettled. It has to be something.
“We tend to see patterns where none exist and embrace certainty when none is justified” (Psychology Today, December 2015)
This above quote, simply put, alludes to the human brain’s programming to make sense of the world, and especially, to make sense of that which has none. Some say that our brain is a machine, a meaning making machine, a sense making machine. We have a filing system much like a computer, where files and sub files of knowledge and experience, can be, and are retrieved upon demand, carrying manuals upon manuals of explanations, how to’s, and tools needed to navigate through the unfamiliar experience before us. Sometimes our mind’s programming encourages us to be intrigued by a new experience, sometimes repelled by the unknown.
In the Psychology Today article containing the above quote, the author reviews two recently released books that cover newsworthy events, chronicling the “perils of ambiguity”. In one hostage taking case, a veteran agent managed to negotiate the release of 20 people, 18 of them children, from a Davidian sect leader holding over 70 people hostage. When the sect leader changed his mind on surrendering himself, the sudden change in plan created a state of panic. Despite evidence in the ensuing days that he might surrender himself, the other agents became furious with the change of mind, and convinced the US Attorney General that only one option was left. The veteran agent who had made the hostage deal was reassigned. The remaining agents gassed the building with the sect leader and hostages inside, resulting in the leader setting fire to the building, killing all 70 people. The conclusions made based on one note of ambiguity, the leader changing his mind on surrendering himself, contributed to a cascade of distrust, anger, and panic which proved tragically fatal.
This is an extreme and dramatic example of what our brains do with incoming information from the external world. We only have so much capacity to take in information consciously, however, conscious and unconscious information is stored into our filing subsystems for future reference. Further, all the information, absorbed consciously or unconsciously, goes through a process called “deletion”, “distortion”, and “generalization”. That is to say, we (our brains) delete, distort, and generalize information. So in the above case, the remaining agents may have deleted all the information that could have lead to a conclusion that the sect leader was negotiable or scared. They may have distorted his change of mind into an act of manipulation and hostility. Finally, they might have generalized all the information into “all hostage takers are killers”. When faced with ambiguity, these agents called on “already” stored information to make a decision without checking its validity. Acting on missing, distorted, and generalized information clouded their judgement, and tipped their decisions in favour of clear and familiar police action as opposed to a less understood negotiation strategy, that of the veteran agent.
A less dramatic, but nonetheless real experience might be the case of Mary. Mary had a pretty good childhood. She knew her parents loved her. Out of concern for her, Mary’s mother was intent on ensuring Mary not repeat her mistakes. As a result, she was over involved in Mary’s life, always wanting to know what Mary was thinking, how she was feeling, and what she was doing, so she could correct her. Mary’s mother would often tell Mary that what she was thinking or feeling was wrong, and that she needed to feel or think something else. When Mary, a sensitive child, had a strong emotional reaction to an incident, her mother would immediately jump in, and tell her that she was being “too sensitive”. She would say she didn’t need to feel “hurt” for example, and insist that she did not properly understand the situation. Mary’s mother thought she could change her sensitivity, so Mary would not have a “tough life” like her.
Mary subsequently grew up to not trust her feelings or her intuition. She also decided that the world was not a safe place to talk about her feelings. Having developmentally appropriate, however young and simplistic thinking, she began to question her own reality because she believed her mother’s version of the truth. Since she was being “too sensitive” in her reactions, she concluded something was wrong with her. Mary learned in her teen years to hide her feelings from others. She was afraid she might be told again that her feelings were wrong which she interpreted as something wrong with “her”. She let herself experience her deep feelings only when she was alone. She began to form beliefs, thoughts, opinions, conclusions about herself and the world without the help of anyone who might guide her through, and normalize them or normalize her. She believed “ I am too sensitive”. She believed that “no one will understand me”, and “I am all alone”. She deleted, distorted, and generalized all the information that she saw, heard, or felt. She did not notice the 16 year old boy who loved her sensitivity, the teacher that wanted to know and understand her more, the fact that most people gravitated to the wisdom that emanated from her lovely sensitivity, because her belief system wouldn’t allow that new and unfamiliar information to fit. It was a square peg, and she the round hole.
Mary came to counselling at a time when she began to seriously question her 22 year relationship with her partner. She talked of “feeling alone”, “not understood”, and drowning in her intense feelings. Her believed reality allowed for, if not demanded, a choice in a partner that was primarily self-absorbed, and so afraid of true intimacy that he drowned his own feelings in alcohol. Mary was ready for a change. She learned that her beliefs about herself and the world were created ones through the mind’s eye of a very young child. As she stepped into the undefined self before she had accepted her mother’s ideas as absolute truth, she found a new freedom. In this open space she began to see her kind sensitivity as something that people were attracted to, that randomly, people would talk to her, and that others began to understand themselves through connection to her and her life story. Because Mary revisited incidences in her past to see what she distorted, deleted, or generalized, with a new perspective of openness, she came to new discoveries and a new refreshing story about herself and the world.
Ambiguity – is an experience of a something that is inexplicable or unknown in reference to our past personal experiences. We need to make sense of it. And we use our own “created” inner world data to do what we do to manage the information, delete, distort and generalize. But is it the truth? It is certainly our truth, however, if that truth hurts us and/or others, perhaps we can revisit that experience, notice information we did not, align our beliefs with who we truly are, and not the story we created about ourselves with missing, distorted or generalized information.
By Lillian Benrubi MSW, RSW
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