The difference between our automatic thinking and conscious, deliberate thinking

In one of my couple counselling sessions, the husband complained about the wife’s accusation on him for being selfish and not willing to do mundane household chores.  One day, the wife went into the toilet and saw the toilet paper roll was empty.  She knew that her husband had used the toilet right before she entered.  She got very angry and scolded her husband, “You are selfish! You intentionally left the toilet paper empty and let me to do this mundane task.”  The husband felt very upset about the wife’s accusation and he replied, “I did not do it intentionally.  I just forgot to replace the toilet paper roll.”  The husband felt he was wronged and the wife insisted on her thinking about her husband being selfish.

In the wife’s daily life, she might realise that she was not able to fully know the intention or the thinking of her husband.  However, in the above scenario, she was certain that her husband intentionally not replacing the toilet roll after using the toilet.  In fact, the wife, at the moment, cannot realise her thought was just a thought and it might not be the reality.  The wife’s thinking in this scenario is one of the examples of our automatic thinking process.  In this process, we adopt only one interpretation of the situation and suppress any ambiguous thinking.  In fact, the wife was so sure about her thinking as she said she recalled many occasions in the past that the husband forgot to replace the toilet paper roll.  In this automatic process, the automatic interpretation also activated other similar ideas that reinforcing her belief on the accuracy of her interpretation. 

Indeed, this kind of automatic thinking is useful in our daily life as we cannot engage in conscious and deliberate thinking every time we encounter a situation.  For instance, one day when I was in a McDonald café, I put my mobile phone on the table.  Suddenly, I saw a man looked suspicious as he kept looking at my mobile phone.  I immediately put my mobile phone back to my bag and quickly finished my meal and left.  In this scenario, I need my automatic thinking process to protect myself from my mobile phone being taken away.  However, sometimes, this automatic thinking process makes us jump into conclusion too quickly.

Another type of thinking process is the conscious and deliberate thinking.  In this type of thinking process, we acknowledge that our interpretation is only one of the possibilities and we deliberately look into the situation and ask the other party to contribute to the ambiguity in the interpretation.  For instance, in the above scenario, the wife could say to the husband, “I know I may be too black-and-white, but when you kept forgetting to replace the toilet paper roll, it makes me feel that you did not pay effort to contribute in the mundane chores of the family.  I want to discuss this with you.”  In this way, the wife actively reflected on her feelings and thinking.  The wife also shared her thinking in an uncertain way and asked for her husband’s perspective.

In fact, we need to engage in this type of conscious and deliberate thinking sometimes, if we want to have good relationships with others.  It is important for us to realise that others’ perspectives may be completely different from our interpretations.  It is better that we slow down, reflect and ask the other party for their perspectives before making our conclusions too soon.

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