Psychological skepticism means taking a neutral stance toward the contents of our mind.
Most of us are surprisingly trusting of our own minds.
A few examples to illustrate:
- A client of mine was telling me recently how she always feels guilty when her husband criticizes her. Interestingly, when I asked her to elaborate, her thought process was to assume that because she was feeling guilty she must have done something wrong; and consequently, needed to apologize.
- Another client came to see me because he was struggling with disturbing thoughts. Whenever he was driving with his family, the thought would frequently pop into his mind that if he suddenly pulled the steering wheel sharply to the right, he would flip the car off the side of the road and kill his whole family. Since these thoughts began several months ago, he’s insisted that his wife always drive.
- One of the first clients I ever saw when I was fresh out of grad school came to therapy because he would frequently have memories of his old girlfriend come to mind. This was bothering him because, despite being happily engaged in another romantic relationship, he was sure these intrusive memories meant that there was something wrong with his current relationship and that he wasn’t “feeling the way (he) should.”
All three of these examples illustrate an overly-trusting theory of mind.
Each of my clients was suffering because their mind was sending them information in the form of emotions, thoughts, and memories, and they were treating that information as fact—and often to an extreme degree.
But information is not always truth.
If you’ve ever read the news on Facebook or listened to an “expert” interview on cable TV, you understand this distinction all too well.
Just like the media inundates us with questionable information 24/7, our brains do the same thing. In the case of both your brain and the news, the trick to not losing your mind is being able to sort the wheat from the chaff—to separate true facts or useful advice from mere opinion or guesswork.
While emotions, thoughts, and memories often convey useful information, they’re just as likely to be completely unhelpful, inaccurate, or downright misleading.
- When you’re out hiking one afternoon and suddenly hear a distinctive rattling noise, your fear is a good indication that something very dangerous (a rattlesnake) might be nearby and that you should proceed more cautiously.
- On the other hand, the fear of your coworkers thinking you’re dumb that keeps you from making a comment during a meeting at work is likely neither accurate nor helpful.
Much of what your mind sends you in the form of emotions, thoughts, memories, desires, etc. are simply guesses about what it thinks you should do—and frequently not very educated guesses. Which means it’s unwise to put blind faith in much of anything your mind throws at you.
At the same time, you obviously can’t completely ignore the content of your mind since judgments, feelings, instincts, memories, and desires are often quite handy.
So where does this leave us? What are we supposed to do with disturbing thoughts, uncomfortable emotions, and painful memories?
The most helpful thing I can recommend is this:
Embrace psychological skepticism.
People get into trouble, psychologically speaking, when they ignore the content of their minds or take it as gospel. Psychological skepticism represents the middle road between these two extremes.
To be a psychological skeptic means that you are thoughtful about the content of your own mind—neither instinctively ignoring nor blindly trusting what it sends you.
When in doubt, remind yourself that:
Just because I have a thought doesn’t make it true.
Just because I feel an emotion doesn’t make it meaningful.