2021: so what now?

“As we get older and stop making sense . . .
Stop making sense,

Stop making sense,
Stop making sense, making sense”
Talking Heads, 1984

Over the past year, our expectations, hopes and dreams maybe, and assumptions about what does and doesn’t make sense to us have taking a massive whack on the head. We’ve had to make huge adjustments to what we think and expect about our day-to-day lives. Which is OK when we can weave it all into the story we tell ourselves about us, if it makes sense. I might not like it but if it makes sense that’s OK. The problem comes when it doesn’t.

At the core of our conscious existence is the voice inside our head, the narrator. Up to 4,000 words per minute of commentary, speculation, chaos theory and criticism, creative or otherwise. And our driving impulse is that the story being told must make sense. But as our knowledge of the world is only partial, our ignorance is necessarily infinite. Which means that the canvas of patterns and connections that we weave inside our minds is periodically challenged by events. And our response to this is anxiety and an urgent need to correct the story that is becoming incoherent.

We are constantly confronted by new experiences that challenge our world view. We might find we like something we thought we didn’t like or be surprised by someone else’s actions or words. There are basically two ways we can respond, either a) change our worldview or b) revise our interpretation of the challenging new reality. They didn’t mean it, it wasn’t really not butter, the colour I liked was lilac not purple.

This is what the existentialist psychologist Ernesto Spinelli describes as “sedimentation of fixed beliefs”. To avoid the trauma of adjusting our worldview we sometimes reject evidence that contradicts it. Of course, some scepticism is appropriate, we maybe shouldn’t revise our expectations of another person based solely on one thing they’ve said or done. But there becomes a point at which clinging to our previous beliefs is a defensive reaction, driven by an insecure need to hold on to the relative comfort of how we are used to understanding things. Even if reality is showing that perhaps someone is better that we previously thought, we might feel invested in and attached to our previous downbeat assessment.

Crucially, if we don’t adjust to reality as we experience it, we risk compromising ourselves as we then make decisions on a faulty premise. I won’t paint the bedroom that colour, because even though I think I like it I can’t because I hate purple. But our anxiety at this cognitive dissonance, the gap between what we perceive as true and what we believe to be true gnaws away at the story our narrator is constantly telling us.

We experience cognitive dissonance through the stories we tell ourselves and feel much better when we resolve this and find balance between what we see and what we believe. But we also experience this in our interactions with other people, in the news, in the office with other people. When we are required to believe something that our own experience tells us is not true, our narrator will in all likelihood go into overdrive, highlighting the disparities and going nuts at the apparent impossibility of making sense of it.

Divisive issues in the news – EU membership, the Iraq War – present us with a view of the word that we can react strongly against if we feel it’s incorrect and that it offends the coherence of our worldview. Furthermore, if we hear politicians like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and feel they are being disingenuous we can feel extreme turbulence. We might feel it’s because we disagree with what they’re saying about voting machines or fish but might also wonder why these things that we never previously had strong opinions about now seem to matter so much. It’s not the fish, it’s that we don’t believe in the reality that they’re proposing and our narrator is refusing to incorporate it into our worldview and is instead incandescently furious.

Many people in large organisations are confronted with such cognitive dissonance. At a TV channel that happened to be about history, a client was bought into a project called The People Speak, a celebration of the voice of the common man, inspired by Howard Zinn’s history of America. They reached a tipping point when they put together a social media plan to bring in viewers’ anecdotes and stories of their experiences of past events, but were blocked because the scope of the campaign needed to be limited to celebrities, like Matt Damon and Colin Firth.

For them the gap between the aspiration to give voice to ordinary people, and the reality that only the voices of celebrities counted was too much. Some people would adapt their worldview to acknowledge professional realities of TV marketing and make sense of it. Some (like my client) would find the disparity too great and need to change another reality which was their relationship with that company. In their case they left (rightly or wrongly) but crucially this allowed their story to resolve itself and make sense in a way that was coherent for them. Many people get caught between these two poles – where neither their view of themselves or their work makes sense – and stay at a company but with an attitude of cynicism. “I know it’s nonsense but what do you expect from this lot?”

And this gets to my point about what now in 2021. A cynical attitude is corrosive and often the disparity between our sense of self and our place in the world will need to resolve itself at some point. It’s not a matter of if but when, and as a coach you often get to accompany people making a step change to bring their sense of self back into a version that is in focus rather than blurry. Having an authentic and true story is a platform upon which we can thrive, in terms of personal fulfilment and happiness and also professional enthusiasm, drive and growth.

In an unprecedented way 2020 threw things up in the air for most people and the task ahead in 2021 is to reassemble them. This might be in the form that they were in 2019 insofar as all was well then. But insofar as it wasn’t, it’s useful to reflect upon our story, hear our narrator’s voice and then build up from a position where the world makes sense to us.

In order to do this we actually need to stop making sense for a while, find a place of psychological security where we can disassemble all the parts. Not be subject to the anxious pull to snap things into place as quickly as possible, but to consider them calmly and dispassionately and then thoughtfully reassemble them in a way that makes sense to us now.

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