I’m kicking off this season of the podcast today with an episode about mindset that’s excerpted from my latest book.
I first released “Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching” in 2011, and obviously, a LOT has changed since then, both personally in my own self-development, in teaching, and in the world.
The brand new second edition is now out, and I’ll be running a free online book club via a private Facebook group throughout the month of February. The book club is an opportunity to talk about mindset with other educators so you feel supported and encouraged.
You can read (or listen to) the book at your own pace (as there is an audiobook version that I recorded myself). You check into the book club group anytime — as often or as little as you’d like–starting now.
Our official book club discussion will happen throughout the month of February so you can participate whenever it’s convenient.
There’s no pressure to read chapter by chapter: in fact, the discussions will be valuable to you even if you don’t have a chance to read the book right away at all.
One of the topics we’ll be discussing in the book club is how to examine the usefulness of your thought system and why we ourselves always seem to be right. This is a powerful concept about mindset and implicit bias, and once you grasp it, I think you’ll find it’s easier to work with instead of against people who think differently than you.
But let’s back up to the day the principle of separate realities first caught my attention, as I share in my book Awakened.
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One day many years ago, I was teaching a science lesson to my third graders. I made an error with a minor detail. I didn’t notice, but one of my students did, and pointed it out with a pretty funny joke that made the entire class laugh, including me.
At lunchtime, I told my colleague what this precocious student had said. “Isn’t that hilarious? He’s such a cute, witty kid.”
My colleague stared at me. “Cute? No, I think it’s rude that he corrected you in the middle of your lesson. That’s not appropriate. I would have been mad.”
We looked at each other in confusion.
Why would that have made me mad? I wondered.
I could see from my colleague’s face that she was thinking, Why would you have thought that was funny?
It hadn’t even occurred to me that this child’s behavior might be insulting to someone. I think my perception was probably healthier because it didn’t cause a stress reaction and helped foster the kind of learning environment I wanted. It made me happy that my students didn’t view me as a perfect authority figure who could never be questioned, or as someone they needed to fear and couldn’t possibly joke around with.
But neither my perception nor my colleague’s perception was objectively the “right” or “wrong” way to see things.
We simply have separate realities.
In my reality, it’s alright for a child to point out mistakes and share in the teaching process. In my colleague’s reality, students should not interrupt lessons by poking fun at the teacher’s shortcomings.
Our lived experiences and identities shape how we see the world
The principle of separate realities is why the same student can be a teacher’s pet in one class and find themselves getting suspended by another teacher who jumps on that student for every minor infraction.
It’s part of why one teacher finds a particular parent overbearing and tyrannical, and the following year’s teacher thinks the parent is supportive and helpful.
Separate realities are partially the reason why one teacher might be thrilled at the announcement of a school-wide assembly and another might groan at the thought.
As we explored in the last chapter, whenever people and circumstances don’t conform to your standards, you can alleviate frustration by identifying and disputing any unrealistic expectations.
Another major piece to this puzzle (as noted by Richard Carlson) is understanding, appreciating, and allowing for people’s separate realities.
All of us see life from within our own frame of reference. Just as you have your own belief system which manifests through your automatic thoughts and self-talk, other people have their own separate belief systems.
No two people’s beliefs are exactly alike because no two people have experienced all the same life events and perceived them in exactly the same way. Our gender, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, family upbringing, education levels, geographic locations, etc. influence not only how other people see us, but how we see the world.
Our interpretation of circumstances is always based on our personal background knowledge and experience — what we already believe is true.
Therefore, since we each have a separate thought system, we each experience a separate reality. These individual realities are shaped not only by our actual experiences but by our perception of these experiences.
This is what makes trauma such a tricky thing: two people can experience identical circumstances, but respond to them in very different ways according to their personalities, background experiences, beliefs, and so on.
A circumstance that might be triggering for one person might not have an impact on another person even if they have some shared background, because no other human has the exact same way of seeing the world.
Sitting with the nuances and complexities of this concept can be difficult. But, doing so can make it much easier to let go of unrealistic standards and truly accept that people think and act differently.
After all, if we each have a separate reality, it’s to be expected that we will each perceive and react differently to circumstances, and we’ll no longer be shocked when others think and behave so differently from us.
Implicit bias and confirmation bias: why you always seem to be right
The principle of separate realities can help explain why everyone who sees the world differently from us seems to be ignorant, wrong, naïve, or misinformed.
Our perceptions always make sense to us within our own thought system. Beliefs are self-validating — everything we see around us seems to confirm what we already know. Therefore, other people’s belief systems conflict with ours because we haven’t experienced what they’ve experienced.
When we learn a piece of information that fits neatly into our existing thought system, we think, I knew it! I’ve always been right about this! That’s our confirmation bias kicking in.
But when we encounter something contrary to our thought system, we experience the uncomfortable feeling of holding multiple conflicting thoughts simultaneously. This is called cognitive dissonance.
Our minds think, What? That doesn’t make sense. That can’t be true. We look for ways to toss out whatever information doesn’t mesh with our thought system or fit with our “story” about how life works.
Let’s say a class is taking a quiz, and one student starts copying answers from another student. The teacher finds out because a third student notices what’s happening and tells on them.
How the teacher perceives this situation is based on the teacher’s perception of reality.
The teacher might recall the story this way: “It’s exactly what I always say — kids these days take the easy way out! They’re so dishonest and lazy and have no sense of right or wrong. We are raising a generation without morals! These two kids should fail the class. If this were college, they’d be expelled!”
Another teacher might say, “See, children know in their hearts what’s right and what’s wrong, and that’s why the third child came forward and told me. All three kids knew it was wrong, and now that one of their peers reinforced the need for integrity, they’ll think twice before doing it again. Almost everyone has tried cheating at one time or another to see if they could get away with it. It’s nothing to get angry about.”
Both teachers have articulated the truth as they see it from within their separate realities. Neither perception is completely true from an objective sense, because our belief systems are naturally biased.
This kind of bias is often referred to as implicit bias. We may not be consciously holding the bias of “kids are lazy and immoral” or “kids are good at heart.” Neither teacher in this situation intentionally chose those views in that moment: it’s just how they see the world.
Intention vs impact comes into play here, as it does with any unintentional bias. Both teachers care about justice and want to run their classrooms in a way they believe is fair.
Because of their separate realities, one teacher thinks this requires punishment and a harsh, stern response; the other teacher thinks that the situation requires a model of empathy, conflict resolution, and problem-solving skills.
All people have a right to think from their own unique perspectives. However, all thought systems are NOT equally useful, beneficial, and helpful.
The intention behind both of these belief systems is good, but the impact is not the same. This is why it’s so important to examine our belief systems and interrogate our own perception of reality. Good intentions may or may not create a positive impact.
Each teacher in this scenario will probably continue to hold the same viewpoint in the future because it’s difficult to question our thought system when everything happening around us seems to reinforce what we believe.
The next time a child is dishonest, the first teacher will think that’s even more evidence that children are routinely untrustworthy and they get away with those behaviors all the time. The second teacher will believe more passionately that the truth will come to light and that learning honesty and integrity is a natural part of growing up. We continually perceive things in a way that reinforces our own thought system.
Examining the usefulness of your thought system
In the previous example about cheating, it’s pretty obvious which teacher is more easily aggravated. Is the optimistic teacher’s viewpoint more accurate? Not necessarily, but it IS more beneficial. The impact of that teacher’s thinking is less stress-inducing and probably contributes more to the kind of class culture the teacher wants to create.
If you find yourself constantly getting upset, you may want to examine your beliefs, self-talk, and thought system and see how well they’re serving you. A small shift in your personal perception of reality can make a big difference.
When you disagree with someone, ask yourself, Who’s happier and more at peace? Who’s less stressed in this situation? In trivial issues and minor personality conflicts, it’s sometimes better to choose the perspective that makes things easier for yourself.
You could also ask, What else might be true here? Is there something I could learn from the other person’s perspective that would help me see this situation more clearly? This kind of questioning can be helpful during ideological and worldview differences.
I first began learning the importance of examining my thought system through interactions with my husband. He’s far more laid back than I am, and rarely worries or plans ahead.
There have been many times when my stress reaction made me feel like a problem had to be solved right away or something had to be taken care of immediately, and he’d tell me, “Nah, neither of us is in the right state of mind to handle it now. Let’s just relax and we’ll be better prepared to deal with it tomorrow.”
This approach used to infuriate me. I’d wonder, What does he think we’re accomplishing by procrastinating? Why not just get it done and over with? Let’s push through the task while we’re in a bad mood and be miserable now, and then we can be happy tomorrow!
I didn’t realize I could choose contentment in that moment, and when it came time to handle the problem the following day, I’d be in a better mood and it wouldn’t seem so overwhelming.
Eventually, I realized my thought system was not very useful. My husband’s outlook was based on a sense of ease and flow, and mine stemmed a lot from anxiety and the need for control.
When I took a more objective look at the impact of our belief systems, it was obviously more beneficial for me to become like my husband than vice versa. Not only did I learn to appreciate his perspective, I began to adapt it myself and nudge my own thought system in a healthier direction.
Being easygoing is not always my first reaction now, but the more I practice this habit, the more naturally it becomes a part of my perspective on life — my reality is shifting.
And because it IS important to plan ahead sometimes, my husband has learned to appreciate the way I see the world. In our healthiest moments of communication, we can both step back and interrogate our belief systems: Whose perspective is going to best prepare us for what needs to get done? Whose perspective is going to help us stay in a calm mental and emotional state?
Often the answer is: a little bit of both! We do some planning and preparation, but without the agitation of hurrying or pushing ourselves at a pace that feels stressful. In times like these, considering both of our separate realities leads to the best outcome.
Actively appreciating people’s separate realities
Separate realities are painfully obvious in our interactions with students. If you’ve ever caught a child doing something outrageous and baffling, then exclaimed, “Why did you do that?! What were you thinking?!” you know what a pointless question that can be. Usually, kids don’t have an answer, or can’t form a coherent response.
Now you know why! They’re operating from a separate reality based on their life experiences and perceptions. They can’t articulate it, but somehow, even the most bizarre behaviors make sense in their world.
Accepting this fact means that students’ choices will have less power to disturb and frustrate you. You don’t have to allow the behavior, of course … but it’s helpful to accept that the behavior does make sense within the context of that student’s separate reality, identity, and lived experiences.
Appreciating other people’s separate realities allows you to be more patient. It’s so much easier to be compassionate and not easily offended when you recognize that others’ belief systems are just like your own — simply a byproduct of everything that they’ve experienced and how they make sense of the world.
If you had lived the life they lived, you’d see the world the way they see it. If you’d been exposed to all the information and experiences they have, you’d likely have the same beliefs they do.
When you don’t get along with someone or continually disagree with them, it’s tempting to blame your differences. But the way you perceive those differences — the story you tell yourself about the differences, and what you make those differences mean — has a major impact on the way you feel.
If we believe that our way is completely right and someone else’s way is completely wrong, we can experience a strong urge to convince them they need to change. Sometimes that urge is useful, and at other times it’s energy-draining and a waste of time.
Make sure you’re being intentional in choosing when you want to challenge someone’s belief system (instead of being led into unnecessary or unproductive conflict).
And, be sure you’re intentionally choosing when to let things go (rather than defaulting to your comfort zone and staying silent because it’s easier.)
The idea here is to move out of unconscious beliefs and automatic behaviors, and into a space where you’re consciously deciding on the best course of action in the moment.
Recognize that your opinions usually come from your own beliefs and separate reality, and not necessarily from unbiased, objective truth. Then you can maintain your opinions without valuing them above your relationships. You can stop trying to make everyone else think like you when you realize their separate reality prevents them from ever doing so.
When you find yourself getting annoyed or defensive during disagreements, you can think to yourself:
- Everything he’s saying is a result of what he’s experienced in the world. It’s not better or worse than my perception, just different.
- There’s no possible way she can see the world the way I do because she has a separate reality. I don’t have to get frustrated and think she SHOULD see things my way; if anything, she SHOULD see things differently!
- They’re not being purposefully ignorant. What they’re saying makes sense in the context of all their experiences.
- This is how I do it in my reality. That’s how they do it in their reality.
Certainly, there are times when other people are incorrect and would benefit from hearing new, factual information. Just make sure you’re speaking up in an effort to help people understand different perspectives.
If your intention is to convince others that their viewpoints are wrong and your reality is right, you will likely become upset and experience a stress response, and the other person will simply dig in their heels and become more entrenched in their erroneous beliefs.
Use the principle of separate realities to help you approach students, colleagues, and parents from a place of empathy, intellectual humility, and a genuine desire to understand and connect.
As frustrating as other people can be, it can help to remember that they really are living in separate worlds!
If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to get the book it was excerpted from, and join us in the online book club throughout February!
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