Meta-Cognitive Awareness

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

- Steve Wright

To get a child to trade something of genuine value for an incentive of little value is so easy that to do so is considered immoral and, in some cases, illegal. Some adults remain as vulnerable to state-dependent appraisal of value as they were when they were children, and for them provoking a relapse is as easy as taking candy from a baby.

The mentality of childhood is a predisposing cause of relapse. Children assume that their state-dependent perceptions and appraisals are accurate reflections of objective reality. They label their beliefs in ways that crystallize these experiential phenomena into “things” that have an independent reality. For example: “Mommy is bad,” carries with it the tacit premise that “she really is bad and it’s not just that I’m cranky.” The dispassionate observer understands that the child’s cranky state influences his current appraisals, and mommy won’t always seem bad. Later, when the child is in a different emotional state, his appraisal will be distorted through a different state-dependent filter.  Naturally, the child is unaware of the The Soul Illusion, and in each situation his subjective reality is accepted as valid not just for now but always.

As grown-ups who have to react quickly in an every-changing environment, we have to act as if our perceptions, expectancies, and appraisals are accurate reflections of objective reality. However, from the perspective of an external observer of your experience it would be clear that there is a difference between the objective world populated with events and your beliefs, appraisals, and emotional reactions. An important developmental milestone is the appreciation that subjective reality—which includes thoughts, perceptions, and motivations — exist only in the mind of the beholder. While these experiences seem to represent permanent, objective reality, they are, in fact, state-dependent phenomena that change from moment to moment. The technical term for this realization is, Meta-Cognitive Awareness.

When a child experiences fear—say in the doctor’s office just before the inoculation—her emotional arousal comes with the tacit premise that the fear is based on a real threat and its intensity is related to the awfulness of the situation.  Some children experience such strong emotional states that they must be restrained by adults, even though they are told, “It will just sting for a moment.”  Likewise, children often believe that the intensity of their desire for a certain incentive correlates with the degree of pleasure they will actually receive from it.

The impulsivity of children is understandable. They do not look before they leap because they are ignorant of dangers that are not immediately obvious. We are not born with the knowledge that it is dangerous to jump into a lake without first checking to if there are not rocks below the surface. The impulsivity of adults with an Incentive Use Disorder is more difficult to appreciate. They know about the dangers of a first lapse  — often through personal experience. Yet they act as impulsively as a naive child.

Thought Experiment: Shifting from the actor's perspective to the observer's perspective: Imagine that you were a wise observer who knows there are rocks just below the surface of a lake into which a child is about to dive. You would act to prevent the predictable tragedy from unfolding.

Now, imagine that you were a wise observer who knows you well and is rooting for good outcome. From this kindly, knowledgeable, external perspective, what do you think will be the next high-risk situation our hero will encounter? Please take a few minutes to see if you can write a description of the sequence of events and your reactions that would lead to a first lapse if you did not intentionally interrupt it.

For some readers this Thought Experiment may be a bit confusing because it refers to two versions of you: The wise observer who has a "bird's eye view" of the situation, and the actor who is in danger of making a tragic error. Normally, we perceive the world from the actor's perspective: We cannot see our own face unless looking in a mirror. However, it is possible to step outside the self and view our circumstance from a different perspective. For example, when telling a story about an adventure from your past you may be able to visualize the scene as though watching a movie.

In my office clients are already in a story-telling, perspective so they can give me their version of the events. For example, when describing a fight with his soon-to-be ex-wife, a client reported: "I felt hot and angry and thought, 'she is always putting me down,' I felt like killing her." Note that in order to describe the fight to me, he takes on the dissociative perspective, which is quite different than the way he experienced it when it was happening. He remembers the thoughts and feelings, but now can describe them dispassionately, his perception, motivation and response tendencies are less distorted by the angry emotional state, and he seems quite rational. The contrite fellow in my office who had just re-experienced the fight in hindsight was a different entity than the raging beast his wife saw during the altercation. But as much as he would like to take it back, his real-world actions have irreversible consequences.

Your Rational Processing System and the author's are working together to prevent the predictable, but irreversible, tragedy of a first lapse. The creature you inhabit is bound to follow the path of least resistance, and so, like the mouse, is vulnerable to baited traps. To avoid the irreversible errors that result from falling into an addictive or neurotic trap, you must have an operator who wants to act in accord with your core values and motives in the driver's seat at the critical moments of crisis.

Considering that temporary emotional states often set the stage for irreversible errors such has a first lapse or hurting a loved one, it is prudent to develop the procedural skill to dissociate from the emotionally reactive perspective of the creature, and instead observe events from a rational, problem-solving perspective. Specifically, A Meta-Cognitive Shift involves switching from the creature's perspective to the perspective of my collaborator who wants the best outcome for you .

Thought Experiment: Shifting from the experiential to the rational perspective. it is important to discover which situations are high-risk, and to develop ways of responding to them that lead to good outcome.

Meta-Cognitive Awareness & Doing the Right Thing

Hasselbring's desire to be a good husband and father is often in conflict with his desire to drink alcohol. The conflict looks different from the perspective of his Experiential Processing System [ that is highly sensitive to the PIG], than from the perspective of the Hasselbring who shows up in my office who is aware of his Core Motivation ["the most important thing to me is to be a good dad to my kids"],

In my office he views the conflict from the observer's perspective and is frustrated by his repeated relapses and the harm they cause his family. If only he could access the perspective of a wise observer aware of his Core Motivation when he is in the high-risk situation. To act as a responsible husband and father, Hasselbring has to shift from the mindless, reactive perspective of the creature following the path of least resistance to the perspective of the dispassionate observer who is aware of his core motivation. Developing the ability to make such a Meta-Cognitive Shift during crises of stress and temptation is the key component to exercising will.

As you might suspect, intentionally shifting your perspective is easier when you are cool, calm, and have access to your best cognitive resources, than when you are in the midst of a crisis. The thought experiments below as well as the Intentional Trance Formation exercises will help you develop the procedural skills and cognitive faculties to intentionally shift your perspective during high-risk situations.

Thought Experiment: Meta-Cognitive Shift

How long does desire last?  It seems to last forever.  Intellectually, you understand that desires and cravings, like all subjective phenomena, have finite, typically brief, life spans.  Nevertheless, to the creature you inhabit, experience is absolute and seemingly permanent.  The next time you experience the desire for pleasure or relief see if you can rate the intensity of the desire on the Subjective Units of Desire Scale [SUDS], which ranges from 0, or no desire, to 10, the most intense desire you have experienced in your life, from both your normal associative perspective of experiencing the here and now to the dissociative perspective.

The objective of this thought experiment is develop the appreciation that the perceptions, motivations, and appraisals you experience are subjective and temporary rather than objectively valid and permanent. With some practice you will be able recognize warning signals such as. "I want that" or "one won't hurt" and make the meta-cognitive shift to "Ah yes, there's desire again."


Thought Experiment: Reminiscence

Consider a traumatic experience from your childhood. Remember how you experienced it as a child and contrast that with how you experience that imagery now from your adult perspective.

Note: Children who are abused by a parent often feel that they were bad and deserved the abuse. However, as an adult viewing a parent abusing a child, it is obvious that the parent, not the child, was the bad one — that child, like any other child was innocent and did not deserve the abuse. .

Irreversible errors are most likely to occur when the responsible entity is asleep at the wheel. The Meta-Cognitive Shift can give you access to your best cognitive abilities and an appreciation of your core values and motives during the critical moments of crisis. The Awakening that results from the shift from autonomous Doing Mode to mindful Being Mode can grant you access to the cognitive resources that enable you to exercise your will, even during moments of great stress and temptation.

Awakening > >

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