The same filters of awareness that operate within your brain and determine your effectiveness—your beliefs, your emotions, your natural instincts—can also become so clogged that they become not just filters but blockages of awareness.
Not only can these filters manipulate and project what you see about yourself and the world around you, they can also block you from correctly perceiving the truth about yourself and the outside world.
When untrained, your own mind can be a barrier to your efforts to better self-manage and build effectiveness.
Your own mind can habitually block your way and stop you from getting ahead.
When you are unaware of how your thoughts, emotions, and sensations affect your behaviour, you are blocked from seeing the cause (thoughts, emotions, sensations) of the effect (behaviours, actions, impulses).
The good news is, you can unblock your awareness. Which means you can start to reap the benefits of greater effectiveness and escape the flea circus almost immediately.
BLOCKs to Awareness
All that’s required to remove your BLOCKs is:
1) know and accept that you have blocks;
2) desire and intend to remove your blocks;
3) understand what blocks exist; and
4) focus the light of attention onto your blocks.
Assuming that you now know and accept that you have blocks of awareness and that you also wish to remove them, we now need to understand what blocks exist.
As a general rule, there are 5 BLOCKs to our awareness that we should be mindful of:
-> B: Blinded by the Light—distractions.
-> L: Likes and Dislikes—personal bias.
-> O: Overthinking and Overwhelm—mental clutter.
-> C: Cynicism and Despair—negative worldview.
-> K: Killjoy Attitude—mental anaemia.
These 5 BLOCKs arise from the three parts of our triune brain: reptilian, paleomammalian, and neomammalian.
The Triune Brain
Although some neuroscientists consider the Triune Brain Theory outdated, it is still an interesting model of how the different parts of our brain interact with each other.
If you sliced open a human brain at autopsy, you will not find such neatly delineated sections of the brain.
As such, it is best considered a theoretical model of how the brain works and functions, not a model of its physical anatomy.
Located at the rear of the skull where it meets the spinal cord, the reptilian hindbrain, the oldest and least evolved part of our brain, is responsible for our primitive reactions and our survival instinct.
When our safety is threatened, it is our reptilian brain that kicks into action with fight, flight or freeze.
The paleomammalian midbrain (‘paleo’ means old), located in the outer central part of the brain, is also known as the limbic system. It is a more evolved area of the brain than the reptilian brain, and it is responsible for emotional processing, long-term memory, dreams, and smelling.
For our discussion, we will consider the paleomammalian brain that area in control of our pleasure and pain responses.
The neomammalian forebrain (‘neo’ means new), located in the outer frontal part of the brain, is the most evolved area of the human brain. It is responsible for our superior intelligence and is perhaps that part of the brain which separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Let’s now discuss the 5 BLOCKs of awareness in relation to these three areas of our brain so that we can transcend our self-imposed limits.
B: Blinded by the Lights
Sensory Distraction and its Impact on Effectiveness
The first block to be aware of is how easily you are blinded by the lights.
This is not the paralysis of a deer at headlights approaching along the highway, rather how easily you are dazzled and distracted by the five senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
When we find it difficult to stay focused and to concentrate for long periods of time, our attention can be seduced by ‘bright shiny objects’.
Our attention is constantly being distracted, which, generally speaking, probably has something to do with the rapid rise of technology over the past two decades or so.
But when our attention is diverted from substantive matters to fleeting distractions, the real cost is in missed opportunities and wasted effectiveness.
A Biological Basis for Distraction
The issue of sensory distraction, though, is biological, not technical, because its roots lie in the paleomammalian midbrain’s concepts of pleasure and pain.
In essence, your midbrain wants you to run towards that which gives you pleasure, and it wants you to run away from that which causes you pain.
As such, sensory distraction falls into two categories: arousal and avoidance.
Arousal distraction is when you deliberately distract yourself from what you are doing, or should be doing, by seeking out pleasurable or effortless activities over tasks you find tiresome or boring.
You are tempted to seek a quick ‘pleasure fix’.
Avoidance distraction is when you deliberately do other tasks than the one that you know you should be doing.
What you are really doing is avoiding the pain of emotional, intellectual, or physical hard work.
Breaking the Chains of Sensory Addiction
However, when sensory distraction becomes habitual, it transforms into a psychological addiction—an internal block hindering our effectiveness.
When you are trapped in obsessive sensory habits, you invest all your energy in satisfying your senses, limiting your life to the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of discomfort.
The consequence is a disempowered existence, as you believe you need external stimuli to feel good about yourself.
In my book, The Flea Circus, I discuss the 4-step process of overcoming sensory addiction I call, ‘Let it RAIN’—Recognition, Acceptance, Identification, Navigation—so that you can free yourself from your BLOCKs and rediscover your inner power.
L: Likes and Dislikes
The next block to be aware of is your own likes and dislikes.
Personal preferences and aversions are normal, and they generally won’t interfere with your attempts to build effectiveness unless they become narrow and discriminatory.
The consequence of having narrow and stubborn likes and dislikes, however, is to close the mind and shut yourself off to other opportunities that present to you each and every moment.
Your mind is like a parachute—it works best when open.
For instance, the difference between a professional and a hobbyist is that the professional will always work no matter the situation or what mood she is in, whereas the hobbyist will only work when the situation is right and when the mood suits him.
This is the difference between mind motivation and mood motivation.
But if you wait to take action only when the outside world is perfect and right, according to your evaluation, or you wait until you’re in the right mood, you will limit yourself only to what you like and dislike, which is very narrow.
The effect is akin to wearing a pair of Polaroid sunglasses that filters the entire world into that which you like and that which you don’t like, that which you accept and that which you reject.
When this happens, the world has to conform to your preferences and expectations in order for you to feel comfortable and at peace with yourself.
You start to feel you need to defend your likes and dislikes and have your world to be in a certain way.
So here’s the issue. The problem, again, lies in your triune brain. Your likes give you pleasure, and your dislikes cause you pain.
Like the first BLOCK of sensory distraction, this is your pleasure and pain centre—your paleomammalian midbrain—influencing your thoughts and feelings and behaviours.
When you like something or someone, you feel good. When you don’t like something or someone, you don’t feel good. Feeling good is pleasurable. Not feeling good is not pleasurable.
In other words, we run to whatever or whoever makes us feel good, and we flee whatever or whoever makes us feel bad.
But as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet,
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
As Shakespeare was trying to bring to our attention, there is no inherent good or bad in nature; it is our thoughts that create the duality of good and bad.
In simpler terms, our thoughts and beliefs shape our perception of the world.
Which means we are in control of what we deem as either good or bad. We are in control of what we like and dislike.
Problems arise when we forget this, or rather, when we are blocked from being aware of this. When we relinquish control of the only thing that we can control—our inner thoughts and beliefs.
Patterns of behaviour become established, often for a lifetime, and often beyond our awareness of how we are behaving, when we unconsciously submit to the whims of our likes and dislikes.
This is why rigid adherence to what you like and what you dislike can keep you stuck in your own limitations and prevent you from being effective.
Because it smothers your ability to control your inner world.
O: Overthinking and Overwhelm
One of the defining characteristics of being human is our wonderful ability to think: to reason, to plan, to analyse, to imagine.
However, overthinking can trip us over if we’re not careful, and it can be another stumbling block to building effectiveness.
Overthinking is not an instinctive reaction to a perceived threat, rather it is an over-stimulation or excitability of the brain’s higher reasoning centres.
This block of awareness is therefore the block of mental clutter. This is a problem of our neomammalian forebrain.
Overthinking takes root in moments of uncertainty, doubt, and vulnerability, when the mind clings to ‘what-ifs’ and ‘what-may-bes’.
It often arises from the desire to make the right choices, to foresee every outcome and eventuality, to control the uncertainties and complexities of life.
Overthinking feels like the relentless churning of the mind’s gears.
Common things to look out for if you suspect yourself of overthinking, include:
- Reading into things that aren’t there.
- Overcomplicating matters.
- Making mountains out of molehills.
- Unable to let go of suffocating thoughts.
- Poor attention span and difficulty focusing.
- Obsessive or vengeful thoughts.
- Going around in circles, mental exhaustion.
The biggest issue or problem with overthinking is that it causes a restless and unsettled mind.
Your mind can’t settle in the present moment because it is caught in worries of the future, or regrets and judgement of the past.
This restlessness and unsettledness has been given a name, ‘monkey mind’, because the mind is like a monkey jumping from branch to branch, unable to sit still or stay present for any period of time.
The consequence of the overthinking ‘monkey mind’ is that it has no time to focus. It too easily succumbs to distraction.
Because it is in a perpetual state of unfocused attention, it becomes extremely hard to see clearly and engage in the process of quality decision-making.
This is why persistent overthinking can keep you stuck in your own limitations and prevent you from being effective.
Because it overwhelms your capacity to see clearly.
One big problem with overthinking is that it can spiral into overwhelm.
Like a computer with too many tabs open, or a mobile phone with too many apps open, the processing capability of the overthinking mind can slow, freeze, or even shutdown completely. Then you need to reboot.
Overwhelm is the sense of being completely overcome by intense and uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and sensations that seem too demanding to manage and overcome.
When in a state of overwhelm, thought processing can be irrational, emotions can be extreme, and behaviour can be dysfunctional.
Although overwhelm can be positive (for example, bliss, ecstasy), it is most often a negative experience.
There are many things that cause overwhelm, including:
- Relationship issues.
- Physical or mental ill health.
- Work demands.
- Poor diet/nutrition (including alcohol, cigarettes).
- Financial hardship/distress.
- Significant life changes (for example, retirement).
- Time pressure/deadlines.
- Death/Loss of a loved one.
- Personal traumas.
- Insomnia/Lack of sleep (including new parenting).
Although the causes are many and varied, overwhelm tends to be expressed in three main ways:
Overwhelm involves all three parts of the triune brain, not just the forebrain.
- Mentally, overwhelm can manifest as irritability, excessive worry, doubt, helplessness, poor memory, loss of libido.
- Emotionally, a person can be overwhelmed by anger, fear, anxiety, hatred, jealousy, guilt, or shame.
- Physiologically, the response to overwhelm is the same as any perceived threat. Adrenaline and the steroid hormone, cortisol, also known as the ‘stress hormone’, flood the body in readiness for the fight and flight response.
- Physically, cortisol keeps the body in a continued, heightened sense of alertness, which is a normal response to a perceived threat to your safety or survival.
However, most ‘threats’ or incidents in your day-to-day world aren’t high risk to your safety or survival, but your brain still reacts to each incident in much the same way, by instructing your body to produce copious amounts of stress hormones.
This can happen hundreds of times a day.
The brain cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary. It will react the same way to an imaginary threat as it will to a real threat, flooding your body with stress hormones.
Your body goes where your mind goes. So your thoughts, worries, fears, anxieties, and even memories can trigger the fight and flight response just as rapidly and as easily as if you saw a snake slither across your path.
The problem is that your worries and fears can cause you to live in a perpetual state of stress and overwhelm. In this state, a person can become emotionally labile, lash out verbally or physically, or even have a panic attack.
Your natural instinct for self-preservation is a trigger for the ‘fight and flight’ response. But when it becomes overwhelming, it can also cause you to ‘freeze’, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.
During your working day, this ‘freezing’ or paralysis is a significant cause of procrastination and ineffectiveness.
For example, when you feel overwhelmed by a task at work, your reptilian hindbrain goes into ‘shutdown’, which causes you to put off doing the task at hand and you procrastinate.
There are many reasons to feel stressed at work, such as:
- Tight deadlines.
- Multi-tasking and excessive amounts of work.
- Job insecurity.
- Unsafe work environment.
- High expectations (from clients, staff, bosses, self).
- High skill level requirements.
- High levels of responsibility.
- High costs of failure (death, financial loss, legal).
In such circumstances, you can feel overwhelmed and even powerless to do what you need to do.
You might believe that you don’t have the necessary skills to perform the task at hand or finish in the allotted time. You might also feel unsupported and isolated, left to fend for yourself.
This sense of overwhelm and isolation can just as easily happen at home as it can at work.
But in whatever situation it arises, the causes of overwhelm, especially persistent and continuous, need to be addressed in order to manage your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Only then will you be in a position of strength to focus on building your effectiveness.
C: Cynicism and Doubt
The next block to be aware of is cynicism and doubt.
Cynicism, in fact, is more than just a stumbling block, it is a major roadblock. Of all the 5 BLOCKs to building effectiveness, cynicism is perhaps the most entrenched and thus most difficult to overcome.
The problem with cynicism is that it suffocates and strangles your positive thoughts and intentions before they can take root and grow, much like noxious weeds suffocating and strangling any other sapling trying to grow in the same soil.
Cynicism is to the intellect what despair is to the emotions. It is the intellectual equivalent of the feeling of hopelessness.
There is more than just a touch of sad pessimism to everything the cynic thinks, says, and does.
The cynic may feel clever and wise, even intellectually superior, but his cynicism is actually a defence mechanism to protect himself from the pain of disappointment.
Cynicism isn’t realism, yet the cynic will always claim to be ‘a realist’, to see things as they truly are.
But that’s just a distortion of the truth, a distortion to try and fit ‘reality’ into his worldview that things will only get worse before they get worse.
The true reality of the cynical mindset is a rejection of the world as it is. The motto of the cynic is to shoot first and ask questions later. Shoot it down before it can hurt you. Quickly snuff the life out of it before it has a chance to breathe.
The root cause of cynicism is the belief that things won’t work out the way you want them to.
This is usually because past experience and disappointments have drummed into you the futility of hoping your efforts will create the outcome you truly want.
Or because you’ve been taught to believe things will never change for the better by your parents, friends, or society.
Cynicism limits you. It closes you off and isolates you from the rest of the world.
The out-of-hand rejection of things to protect yourself from hurt or disappointment is ultimately self-defeating because all it does is keep you in a perpetual state of stagnation.
But to grow and move forward you must cast off the yoke of cynicism and embrace your vulnerability, to allow things to go wrong, to let yourself fail, to take risks.
Because only through embracing the possibility of being hurt and experiencing disappointment can you embrace the possibility of what you are truly capable of being.
Doubt, especially sceptical doubt, is a diluted form of cynicism. Not every sceptic is cynical, but every cynic is sceptical.
In science, scepticism is revered. Every new idea or theory is met with a healthy dose of scepticism before it is accepted as a scientific fact.
A good scientist just doesn’t accept a new idea without putting it through the rigours of rejection and derision.
But that’s how the science world progresses. Scientific advancement only occurs along the slow, windy road of doubt. New norms are only accepted once old norms have been shown to be redundant, which can take generations.
But you don’t have generations. You only have this one life, and your time is always ticking down. Scientific scepticism and doubt might work in the world of science, but on an individual level too much scepticism and doubt can actually slow you down and be detrimental.
The problem is that scepticism and doubt clog your decision-making apparatus, grinding it to a halt, which leads to indecisiveness.
The type of doubts that can clog your mental machinery are thoughts that cause you to question who you are, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, even how, where, and when you’re doing it.
You know you are victim to your own scepticism and doubt and are guilty of putting a spanner in your own works when you get lost in thoughts such as:
- Am I doing the right thing?
- What will they think of me?
- What if I’m not ready?
- When will be the right time to do it?
- How can I be certain that it will work?
When the mind gets clogged by scepticism and doubt, you cannot align and synchronise your intentions with your actions.
Like a train engine decoupling from its carriages, a separation or disengagement with your goals and aspirations occurs. When this happens, your doubts have all but caused you to come to a complete stop in your tracks.
To get moving forward again, you will need to clear the scepticism and doubt from your mind and allow clarity of thought to recouple with your goals and aspirations.
This is why persistent cynicism and doubt can keep you stuck in your own limitations and prevent you from building effectiveness.
Because it decouples you from your true potential.
K: Killjoy Attitude
The final block to be aware of is your killjoy attitude. This literally means to kill the joy in every moment.
With this attitude, it’s hard to accept that anyone else can be happy, which is why you kill the joy around you.
When happiness arises in yourself, or comes to you from others, you stamp it out. You make sure it doesn’t last very long, if at all.
You likely suffer from a killjoy attitude when you think and behave like Scrooge or the Christmas Grinch:
- You get irritated by children’s laughter.
- You make snide remarks about others.
- You are dismissive of other’s ideas or intentions.
- It’s your way or the highway.
- It grates you when others are successful.
- You can’t suffer fools.
Mental dullness and feelings of physical heaviness are the two main symptoms of a chronic killjoy attitude.
Mental dullness is a kind of torpor, a waking sleepiness, where you might be up and out of bed but you’re not really awake or alert to what’s happening around you. The lights are on but nobody’s home.
This is not a lack of sleep or exhaustion, rather a state of mental anaemia that manifests as a dampened or sluggish alertness, which is partially borne by the stubborn refusal to allow yourself any modicum of enthusiasm.
This is a problem of belief, of how you see yourself interact with the world around you, and is therefore a blockage of your neomammalian forebrain.
You just won’t let yourself get excited about anything. Not that you can’t get excited, which is one of the clinical symptoms of major depression, it’s just that you won’t allow yourself to.
That’s the difference between clinical depression and a killjoy attitude—choice.
A person with depression doesn’t choose to be depressed, but someone with a killjoy attitude does choose to be a killjoy.
So when you feel that emerging thrill of excitement coming to the surface, you immediately deprive it of oxygen. You smother it time and time again until there’s no sign of life.
After years of suffocating your enthusiasm, it barely registers in your awareness anymore. You’ve become so adept you kill it off subconsciously. It’s become a habit.
With a killjoy habit, not only do you have a problem of mental sluggishness, but you also have symptoms of physical sluggishness. This you begin to feel as a lack of energy, a muscular or bodily heaviness that weighs you down and eventually manifests as slothfulness or laziness.
In the end, all you do is dig a metaphorical pit into which you jump and imprison yourself. In this hole, it’s difficult to make any mental or physical effort. You can’t be bothered to even lift a finger.
When in this state, your ability to build effectiveness is all but non-existent. This is why a persistent killjoy attitude can keep you stuck in your own limitations and prevent you from building effectiveness.
Because it suffocates the joyous expression of life, who you really are.
- When untrained, your own mind can be a barrier to your efforts to better self-manage and build effectiveness.
- As a general rule, there are 5 BLOCKs to our awareness that we should be mindful of.
- These 5 BLOCKs arise from the three parts of our triune brain: reptilian, paleomammalian, and neomammalian.
- Addiction to ‘bright shiny objects’ is disempowering because it blinds you to your own inner power.
- Rigid adherence to what you like and what you dislike smothers your ability to control your inner world.
- Persistent overthinking overwhelms your capacity to see clearly.
- Persistent cynicism decouples you from your true potential.
- A persistent killjoy attitude suffocates the joyous expression of life, who you really are.