“I’ve got this friend who has been in an iffy relationship for a while now. She complains about it, wonders if it’s going right, thinks about leaving. Lately though, when we get together she always starts out talking about how she just needs to be more positive. That she can make it all work out right if she just keeps telling herself that her relationship is right on track. I think it’s some insight she picked up at a workshop. I watch her, and she can’t really stick with the positive attitude thing. She seems genuinely distressed about her relationship. And I think her concern is justified. I mean, I’m not sure she’s better off telling herself that everything is hunky-dorey. Maybe it really isn’t. The thing is, I don’t know whether to say anything or not. Sometimes, when I do, she welcomes the feedback. She even asks for it. And then, sometimes, she nearly snaps my head off for commenting, as though I’m not really her friend.”

Here’s a simple model of the mind, useful for managing such dilemmas. It’s no more scientifically accurate than the models they use in Anacin ads, but it makes a point worth making.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

The mind has three chambers. One, let’s call feelings or emotions. It’s in the back, responding willy-nilly to whatever happens in your life. Then there’s the middle chamber, which we’ll call thoughts. It’s where you consciously weigh, doubt, or believe. And, right behind your teeth and eyebrows, there’s a chamber we’ll call action. It’s the part that goes public.

Segregating these chambers, there are walls — firewalls, actually — like those between a car’s engine and its interior, designed to keep the heat from crossing from one area to the other. Unlike the firewalls in cars, however, the ones in your brain are permeable: They open or close, letting stuff spark across from one chamber to the next.
Some people have open walls. What they feel, they think and they say. I had one friend like this who knew her walls were open — she would joke about it. After an uncensored rant, she’d say, “Oh, was I talking just now?”

Some people have a hard time not acting on what they think but somehow manage to keep the firewall between feeling and thinking closed. As Harvard psychologist Robert Trivers points out, it’s easier to lie to others if you lie to yourself, too, which is, in effect, like not thinking what your gut feels.

Sounds like a shady practice? It depends on context. Many oppressed people in this world would be further oppressed, if not dead, if they didn’t have the capacity to not think what their feelings know. The Underground Railroad would have derailed when the authorities came around if people hiding the escaping slaves weren’t somehow able to lie convincingly. For many, that must have meant lying to themselves, too. It’s like Method acting — really getting into character.

Or consider how admirable is the self-deceiving cancer patient who can maintain sufficient strategic gullibility to live in a state of constant hope. He always pretends that there’s a wealth of alternative treatments that may cure him, and throws his all into each experiment. And, when each one fails, he disengages from it swiftly, without remorse or disappointment, saying it was doomed to fail but the next one will do the trick. How can we not admire and envy the power of that disingenuousness and inconsistency? Sure, it can lead to ultimate disappointment, but isn’t it better to be disappointed later, just before dying, than to suffer self-fulfilling discouragement throughout the struggle? God bless those with a thick and skillful firewall between feelings and thought.

Thickness and skill level are the two big issues about these firewalls. The argument that you can just change your thoughts presumes a firewall thick enough to stop any heat from passing. Most of us don’t have quite that much control.

And then there’s the skill of knowing when to close a firewall and when to open it. When — for example, in the scenario above — would it be better for your friend to heed her doubts about her relationship, and, likewise, when is it good for you to say something about them? Strategic gullibility is knowing when to let yourself or the public in on a hunch, and when not to.

Anxious feelings in the back chamber, or anxious thoughts in the middle chamber are like smoke alarms, sometimes ringing a false alarm, sometimes ringing when there’s really a fire. The skill, then, comes from knowing when to respond to the alarm and when to shut it out. Slamming the door on it so you don’t hear it any more makes great sense if it’s a false alarm. When there’s a real fire, though, you’ll get burned. Conversely, opening the door so you can hear the alarm setting your thoughts abuzz in search of the fire is a waste when it’s just a false alarm. Worse, taking your alarm public can be like yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Even when there are just two people in the theater — for example, when you tell your friend her relationship sounds amiss, or when she tells her partner she’s ambivalent about the relationship. This can lead to counterattacks and the self-fulfilling discouragement that can sap the life right out of a relationship.

So, what’s the solution? You know me. I could prescribe what others prescribe: Always tell the truth. The truth will set you free.

Or, conversely, always keep your thoughts or feelings to yourself.

That kind of advice is as impractical as it is abundant. My advice? Get familiar with the dynamics. An awareness of how firewalls work automatically improves your ability to open firewalls and close your firewalls.

There’s much more to the dynamics, too. For example, feelings don’t just inform thoughts through firewalls. The firewalls open both ways. Thoughts change feelings, and actions change thoughts, too. And so there are feedback loops: Feelings cause thoughts, which in turn cause feelings, repeating in a self-maintaining or self-amplifying cycle.