One characteristic that separates humans from other species is that we not only have awareness but we have self-awareness, AND the awareness that we are self-aware, AND the awareness of the awareness that we are self-aware…ad infinitum.
That ad infinitum is a recursive loop—like a mental Hall of Mirrors—that makes us both highly complex and susceptible to neurotic and/or damaging thought patterns.
The recursive loop is a high-level element of what we call mind: the faculty that enables human thought as well as communication, culture, and politics. The study of the mind is “examination of the mechanism of examination.” In this way, all psychology is recursive—humans have software that both functions and can dissociate from itself to describe its own functions.
a : the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons
b : the conscious mental events and capabilities in an organism
c : the organized conscious and unconscious adaptive mental activity of an organism
If we place self-awareness on a scale, what might we find at the extreme ends?
Self-awareness taken to one extreme can cause such intensity of introspection that action becomes impossible. The person is frozen in their thoughts, continuously considering and reconsidering, doubting and reassessing. The “wait, I need to rethink this” thought becomes recursive to the point of paralysis. No action is good enough or complete enough. “I can’t act on my thoughts no matter how badly I feel that I should.”
At the other end of the scale, we might see the lack of self-awareness that leads to sociopathy or psychopathy. We find the person who is compelled to act on their thinking on impulse. “I must act on my thoughts no matter how my actions affect others.”
People who fall in the middle of the scale—that is, well-adjusted, functioning adults—may find themselves occasionally stumped by self-awareness.
Let’s take a look at Sarah. Most of the time, she has no problem being decisive. At work, she can face challenging situations, check her knowledge and intuition, and move forward. In other situations, she is hesitant and tongue tied. For example, at large family gatherings—a birthday party or Thanksgiving dinner—she finds herself losing confidence. She gets lost in a recursive loop of self-doubt: “Should I say hello to my cousin? We haven’t talked in decades, but it would be rude not to, but what do we have in common? There’s no reason not to, but didn’t we have some awkward altercation? Why am I overthinking this?” Sarah’s mind circles infinitely between ACT and DON’T ACT until the event is over and it’s too late. By making no decision, she has forced the decision.
Let’s look at another example. Claude has made a living as a freelance photographer for more than 30 years. He knows photography inside and out: types of cameras, shutter speed, choosing subjects, color, light, perspective, composition, and a thousand other fine points. When talking about photography, he is calm and authoritative: he’s in his element. He knows exactly what to say and how to say it, but outside of his favorite topic, Claude clams up. His mind goes into a whirl as he fishes for the right word or conversation point. He is suddenly so self-conscious that he feels he’s making a fool of himself, then feels embarrassed, and then feels embarrassed about his embarrassment. He’s caught in a recursive loop.
Stepping Out of the Loop
Have you ever found yourself stuck in a recursive loop of self-awareness—not only thinking your thoughts but then thinking about the fact that you are thinking the thoughts? And THEN thinking about thinking about thinking about the thoughts? Just as the structure of language is infinite, the structure of thought awareness is infinite.
If you feel the need to step out of a recursive loop, mild dissociation can help. Here are two methods.
Imagine that you are looking at an old-fashioned clothesline—the kind your parents or grandparents put up in the yard and hung freshly washed laundry on. Imagine that you have a piece of fabric in one hand and a colored marker in the other. Bring up the recursive thought that keeps rotating through your mind. In your mind’s eye, write the statement on the fabric; then use a clothespin to hang the fabric on the clothesline. Imagine taking a step back so that you can see the fabric hanging on the clothesline, swaying in the breeze. This allows you to shift out of the overly self-aware state and into a more relaxed, neutral “observer” position.
Like the Clothesline technique, this process helps you to shift from a hyper self-aware state to one that is more observational, thereby giving you emotional and cognitive distance. Imagine that you walk into a theater, and the movie starts. It’s a movie of you! You can see yourself on the screen, and the thought that had been plaguing you also appears on the tall, wide screen like the way a “thought balloon” is drawn in a comic strip. Now that you are in a neutral location, some distance from the recursive thought, you can see it written out in front of you.
From a more dissociated position, you have more choice. You can “walk away” from a hyper-aware state. You can change the thoughts themselves or adjust how they flow through your mind. You can see the humor in the situation, tap into your innate playfulness, and use laughter to diffuse anxiety about “Hall of Mirrors” thought patterns. In this more relaxed state, you can move forward with ease.
Lori Stephens, pNLP, CCP is a writer, editor, publisher, Certified NLP Practitioner, Whole Person Life Coach, and the founder of ROAR Life Coaching. She specializes in Exit Strategy Coaching—helping people who are ready to quit a soul-crushing job, walk away from a toxic relationship, exit a repressive social or religious group, come out as their true sexual or gender orientation, or in some other way claim their true path. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.