metacognition and change symbolized by head as tree

Part four of the Metacognition Quartet

In the previous article we looked at a more complete and sophisticated model of metacognition to show that the concept can help us with far more than the basic tasks of learning and comprehension. At a more fundamental level it can help us to reduce our emotional and behavioural blocks to effective movement towards our life goals.

In this fourth and final article we will clarify why metacognition really does hold the key to effective life change.

Keys to the Realm

The golden thread running through this quartet of articles has been the true gift of our “big brains” which is summed up in a quote by Viktor Frankl – writer, psychiatrist, founder of logotherapy, and survivor of Auswitsch.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and freedom”.

Metacognition provides us with the key to unlocking the power of this space between events and our reaction to them. Look at the picture below which helps to explain the growth and freedom to which Frankl refers to. Notice how our model of metacognition from the previous article has been merged with Frankl’s concepts and terminology.

space for freedom and power - Frankl

Between a stimulus (or event) and our response (or “outcomes” as we have termed them in our model), there is a gap or a space. In that space we exercise cognition – our thoughts and beliefs about what happens to us.

In the process of enduring and surviving the worst and the best of humanity at Auswitsch, Frankl came to realize that it is not what happens to us, but our thinking about these events that determines our feelings and actions. We have much more autonomy than we realize… if we choose to exercise it.

Exercising autonomy means utilizing our powers of metacognition to re-shape our thinking. Metacognition is therefore truly the mechanism that gives us the potential for growth and freedom Frankl speaks of – the potential to become different by learning to think differently.

We have the power to access, analyse, and change the way we think.
In particular, we can break into our often subconscious and automated thoughts and beliefs and restructure them for more helpful and effective outcomes for ourselves; to remove our self-imposed blocks to action and change, to disturb ourselves less and find more enjoyment and meaning in life, and to see others and the world in a more constructive light.

Such beliefs may include “I am worthless unless loved”, “I must be treated fairly”, and “I must be perfect”.

Effective Thinking in practice

Let us look at two simple examples where the “event” in both cases is the same - to illustrate how our thinking influences our outcomes. In the first case, our thinking is ineffective, and in the second case our thinking is effective.

Ineffective thinking outcomes

Look at the outcomes from ineffective thinking in the example above. These are clearly not desirable emotions or behaviours. In a subsequent article we will extensively review the criteria to be applied for assessing effectiveness when applied to our outcomes and thinking. What we can clearly see from this example is that the thinking is demanding and inflexible… about an event over which full control is not possible… the loss of a partner.

Such thinking is clearly neither logical, realistic, or helpful… but we are inclined to think in such ways all the time! Review your own thinking. How often do you reflexively demand an outcome over which you do not have complete control? How does that make you feel and behave when you do not get what you want?

Now look at the outcomes from effective thinking below and compare them with the precious example.

Effective thinking outcomes

Quite a difference!

Note that the thinking in this case is flexible and realistic. You may be surprised that we consider grief and sadness as effective outcomes… these are not pleasant emotions. However, these emotions are effective because they help us cope with loss, and because they are transient. This in marked contrast with depression, which is often a long-term debilitating emotional state.

The power of Metacognition

Think about the implications of the two examples above.
One event… with two totally different outcomes.
Now think about the potential power of metacognition if we utilize it to change our beliefs – to get more effective outcomes in our lives.

Our thoughts and beliefs do more than merely undermine our skills at basic task execution, learning, and strategy. Our thoughts and beliefs (usually formed at a young age, automatic in nature, and not directly accessible) often lead to ineffective emotional, behavioural, and cognitive outcomes that undermine our efforts at life adventure at a more fundamental level.

  • What use is a plan to change career if we ignore it due to anxiety?
  • What use are effective task skills if we procrastinate or quit and do not deploy those skills?
  • How much enjoyment and fulfilment will we find if make ourselves permanently angry – but choose to believe instead that our anger originates “out there” – with the actions of others and the cards life deals us?
  • How can we follow our own path if we are chronically dependent on the approval of others or sabotage our efforts with unrealistic demands on ourselves for “perfection” and the avoidance of “failure”?

Of course we remain human – we will never exercise total control over ourselves. The jury is out on the degree to which we can override our genetics and the basic building blocks of our personalities, but a good guess at this point would be that we can positively influence half of our thinking, feeling, and actions.

Now wouldn’t you sign up for that as a Life Adventurer?
To reduce by half the internal blocks that get in the way of your goals and general enjoyment and fulfilment in life?

Mind the Gap!

On the London Underground you may hear taped warning to “mind the gap” as you leave a train and step onto the platform.

Here we use the phrase to emphasise the point that paying attention is the first step to making best use of the space between stimulus and response. We need to mobilize and focus our attention on how we are thinking feeling and behaving. Without this attention we are lost – Metacognition can only function if we are aware of our thinking – and therefore able to manage it.

If you believe that your feelings and actions are largely determined “out there” and outside your control, then it is time for you to start questioning your existing paradigm about what makes you tick… and start paying more attention to your thinking, feelings, and actions!

In subsequent articles we will look for evidence to convince ourselves that we really DO have the capacity to influence our emotions and behaviour, that we can exercise control over ourselves, and that we are not merely leaves blown around by the arbitrary winds of life events and the actions of other people.

We will also look in more detail at the impact of cognition on our behaviour and emotions. What kinds of thinking and beliefs are effective – and how can we help ourselves to change?
And what kinds of emotional and behavioural outcomes from that thinking are desirable – and why?

Here lies a rich seam for all life adventurers to explore – and in this direction lies both an increased capacity to get more of what we want out of life, and personal growth – to experience the freedom that Viktor Frankl found in the most unlikely of places.

Using metacognition as a key life skill, we can learn to access, evaluate, and re-structure our thoughts and beliefs – to think, feel, and act more effectively – irrespective of external conditions.

This is surely a worthy realm for all Life Adventurers!

Flavell, J. H. (1976) Metacognitive aspects of problem solving.
In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp.231-236).
Frankl V. (1946) Man’s Search for Meaning
Goleman D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence
Vonnegut K (1985) Galapagos

Like the article? Then you will love this book:
The Adventurer’s Companion – A Practical Guide to Life Change

© Patrick Geever – All rights reserved.
Please contact the author for permission to use this article.

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