attention-pain tradeoff

The Attention-Pain Tradeoff

“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” – Daniel Goleman; Vital Lies, Simple Truths.

In ‘Vital Lies, Simple Truths,’ Harvard-educated Doctor of Psychology Daniel Goleman writes about the concept of what he calls “The attention-pain tradeoff.”

To put it simply, we all trade some of our attention in life in order to avoid pain; be it physical or emotional. These areas of absent attention in our lives create ‘Blind Spots,’ or aspects of reality that we fail to recognize.

As Goleman states in his three-part thesis: (1) The mind can protect itself against anxiety by dimming awareness. (2) This mechanism creates a blind spot: a zone of blocked attention and self-deception. (3) Such blind spots occur at each major level of behavior from the psychological to the social.

These blind spots can be helpful. For instance, through the use of endorphins, the body creates a physical blind spot during injury that allows the wounded person time to remove him or herself from the dangerous situation and find a place to recuperate.

Men in combat often say that they didn’t even notice that they had been shot or hit by shrapnel until after they had moved themselves and their buddies to safety. The mother in the car accident may not even notice that her leg is broken until she has pulled her child out of the wreckage.

Pain is a sense just like seeing or hearing and your body has creative ways to manipulate it when it is advantageous to do so.

This adaption can be applied to solely emotional stress just as well. The mind has numerous techniques, such as rationalization, projection, or denial for diverting attention away from stressful events or thoughts in order to maintain a level of comfort.

Think back to something stressful in your childhood. The death of a cherished pet, for instance. Denial often comes in the form of an occurrence stated as a negative. “My puppy isn’t dead! He’s just… sleeping.” This temporary denial is a perfectly normal response to a traumatic loss, and can be repeated over the course of a lifetime in different situations.

A lack of attention can be harmful though. For example, Goleman’s book cites several case studies of how family members, friends and neighbors ignored blatant signs of child or spousal abuse because accepting the reality led to too much discomfort. Attention was re-directed and a blind spot was placed over the signals.

“Sure, little Johnnie fell down the stairs. Again.”

Harmful blind spots aren’t necessarily that dramatic. We all have them in some form or another. Many of them seem completely innocuous. Naturally, you’re predisposed to telling yourself that this is so.

Take a moment to think about yourself and your state of mind. You know those nagging little instances that flicker by in which you feel badly or preoccupied about something but can never quite figure out what? They usually pass quickly and you go back to your day. It probably makes you a bit uncomfortable to think back to those moments, or to analyze them when they come, but give it a try sometime. You may learn something about yourself, and you may not like it, but those seconds of discomfort could be the first steps on a path towards becoming a better person.

Every blind spot comes at a cost. Every portion of your attention that is concealed from you equals a portion of your life that you are not living.

How many areas of your life do you ignore in order to remain comfortable?

A book, for example, can illuminate areas of your life that can be developed and improved upon. Do you avoid reading in order to save yourself the pain of becoming aware of your ignorance and the uncomfortable path to overcoming it?

What about your body? Are you happy with it? Really? Do you ever avoid looking at clothes that you would love to wear because you know that they would be unflattering on your body? Do you ever avoid spending time with people because their eating habits are better than yours and it makes you feel guilty. What about your friend that started a new workout and eating plan? Did you tell yourself that it was never going to work out for her and then for some reason feel the urge to share a box of cookies with her “just to be nice”?

A lifetime of dimmed awareness isn’t worth avoiding a few moments of discomfort. Don’t stop living it just yet. There is so much more out there if you just take off the blinders.

“In order to live freely and happily you must sacrifice boredom. It is not always an easy sacrifice.” – Richard Bach, “Illusions”

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