Are you image driven or reality driven?

What’s happening in your mind when you’re in the grip of negative emotions and how do you make the best use of those situations so you can learn from them and feel better the next time you end up in a similar situation?

According to Dr Nick Hall, we don’t react to reality. We react to images or interpretations of reality.


He describes how an artist uses her surroundings to create an image but doesn’t create the image based completely on reality. She uses only what she needs to suit the image she’s creating and also adds things into the image that may not be present in reality. He suggests we do the same with the images we create in our minds. We leave things out, add things in and distort things and this process is shaped by our beliefs. This is neither positive nor negative but can have positive or negative effects on our wellbeing, health and happiness. In this podcast, I’m looking specifically at image driven behaviour that has a detrimental effect.

Although this post is titled “Are you Image driven or Reality driven”, the likelihood is that you’re both. Most of us switch between the two, depending on the situation, the beliefs and the emotional triggers involved.

How to tell if you’re image driven

  1. You will ignore or refute information that doesn’t fit with the image
  2. The negative feelings that result from the situation don’t eventually lead to something positive – such as self-reflection or making a change for the better
  3. You experience similar situations the same way over and over, making them a possible source of stress or anxiety

How to tell if you’re reality driven

  1. You seek additional information that doesn’t necessarily fit with your image. You ask questions, listen, look around to see what’s happening, test your assumptions etc.
  2. You consider your emotions with curiosity rather than trying to shut them down or experience something else.
  3. You willingly try new things to see what happens to the image and your subsequent experiences. This may involve seeking counselling or coaching, talking about the situation with the person or people involved, experimenting with different approaches to see what happens etc.

So what?

When you find yourself regularly repeating the same patterns in your life – fights with a spouse or housemate, shouting at your kids, withdrawing at work etc. – it’s worth examining the images you’ve created in your mind related to these people and events.

  • What beliefs do you hold about what should / shouldn’t ‘t be happening?
  • What are you labelling as “good” or “bad”? Could these be challenged?
  • What are you ignoring within these situations?
  • What are you embellishing or adding to your image in relation to these situations?
  • What useful information is your reaction giving you about yourself and what you value?
  • What can you do with this new information to help you manage these situations in ways that feel more productive for you and the other person / people involved?

Keeping a journal, reflecting on your experiences and asking yourself questions such as those listed here will help you make sense of how your images shape your feelings and reactions. This knowledge is useful if you decide you want to make a change as it helps you work out how best to do that.

Related podcasts

The experiencing self versus the remembering self

Where do beliefs come from?

How to challenge a belief


I am not a psychologist. The information in this blog and the accompanying podcast is based on my experience and learning and should not be taken as therapeutic advice.

What’s really stopping you making the change?

Changing behaviour is HARD! Most of us know what to do but knowing it and doing it are not the same thing. Why?

In last week’s podcast, I spoke about the metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant. The rider represents the conscious, logical processes in the mind – the ones we know are happening – while the elephant represents the subconscious, emotional, instinctive processes – the ones we remain largely unaware of.

Often it’s the rider who wants to make the shift.  We’re conscious of our desire to eat less sugar, drink less alcohol, exercise more or whatever goal we’ve set ourselves. We know the goal is good for us. We know it’s in our best interests to achieve it but something stops us. That something? The Elephant.

Are you failing to achieve your goal or succeeding in achieving a different goal?

When we fail to achieve the goals we set ourselves, we often put it down to a failure of willpower but that’s rarely the case. The elephant has goals too – and they’re far more powerful and deep rooted than goals based on things we think we should do for whatever reason. (More on this in next week’s podcast). When we fail to achieve our conscious goals, it’s often because we’re succeeding in achieving our subconscious goals – the elephant’s goals.

How do we find out what the elephant’s goals are?

This is difficult to do. To find out how this might be possible, I enlisted the help of Counselling Psychologist, Dr Despina Learmonth.

Despina Profile Card

Here is what she shared:

1. Start with a Question

What is this behaviour giving me?

If you end up with answers that don’t surprise you or enlighten you, you’re probably still getting information from the rider – information you’re already aware of. This information is unlikely to help you uncover the best route to help you make the change you’d like to make.

2. Free Associate*

Dr Learmonth shared a technique she uses with her clients, called Free Association. It works by starting with the behaviour you’re focused on – in the podcast, we use the example of giving up coffee so the central concept is coffee.

In this case, we would start by writing down “coffee” or drawing a picture of a cup of coffee. Then we would write words or draw pictures of anything that comes to mind when we think of coffee. The idea is to do this quickly and include everything that comes to mind, no matter how random.

Put a time limit on this exercise – maybe 60 – 90 seconds to start with but if you’re still going strong after that time, keep going for a little longer but don’t think hard on it – you’ll be getting information from the rider if you mull it over.

Once you’re finished, review what you have and examine what it tells you about some of your hidden motivations.

3. Think about how you felt and what you didn’t write down

There may be some words or phrases that resonate with you more than others. Those are worth paying attention to.

It’s also worth thinking about the words or phrases that crossed your mind but that you didn’t write down. What stopped you?

New Insights

Following these three steps can offer new insights into your behaviour and motivations. With that information, you stand a better chance of working out strategies to help you achieve your goal.

Next week, I’ll look at the role of beliefs in behaviour and how these can affect happiness.


Free association is typically not used for people who are in any kind of mental health crisis. For those who are having self harming, suicidal or homicidal thoughts and plans, the problem needs to be dealt with much more quickly and directly.

Do not engage in free association exercises without a therapist to support you if you are currently taking psychotropic medication or are in psychological crisis (as described above).

We know what to do so why don’t we do it?

Listen to Podcast

This week’s podcast is all about the difference between knowing what to do and doing it.

I am well versed in the psychology of behaviour. I understand the theory. Yet I often find myself unable to put it into practice when I need it most. Why is that?

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt uses a metaphor to describe the mind in two parts – the rider and the elephant.

The Rider and the Elephant

The rider is the logical, conscious part of the mind. It’s the part we can ‘hear’. We know it’s there and we feel in control of it. For most of us, it’s the part we think is in charge of our decision making and behaviour.

The elephant represents the unconscious, emotional and instinctive processes of the brain. Most of us believe ourselves to be logical and rational yet most of our decisions are already made by the time we become aware of making the choice. The elephant is faster and more powerful than the rider.

*Side note – If you’d read Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, you’ll know the Rider and the Elephant as System 1 and System 2.

The Problem

We can communicate well with the rider. The rider uses language, appears logical and has clear, accessible thought patterns. The elephant has none of these things, yet many of us – myself included – insist on trying to reach it the same way as we do the rider. We read, listen to podcasts, learn the theory and try to use our knowledge to force the will of the elephant.

It doesn’t work.

The language of the Elephant

The language of the elephant is physiological – it comes from the body. In times of anxiety, we have to calm the elephant and the best way to do that is to use the body to calm the mind.

Practices like meditation and mindfulness promote this body-mind calming.

If you’re like me, you’re not great at these practices. You sit down to meditate and it’s tantamount to the rider attempting to hold the elephant in a head lock. It’s pitiful and painful.

66 Days of Meditation

In an effort to improve these skills, I’m doing 66 days of daily Kirtan Kriya meditation. (This is Day 6 and so far I still suck at it)

Future Podcasts

Over the next 6 weeks, I’ll invite people far more proficient than me at talking to the elephant to join me on my podcast and share their wisdom and practices.

If you have questions you’d like me to ask them, please comment below.

66 Days of Meditation – Day 1.

Every road I go down in search of peace of mind leads me to mindfulness and meditation. As someone with a whirring mind, I find the practice difficult to say the least, so despite seeing benefits from daily meditation, I dropped it as soon as life got busy again, in favour of having more time to exercise, write, build my website or whatever other pursuit seemed more interesting.

Now I’ve reached the point where the cacophony of characters in my mind regularly run around up there, creating havoc, knocking things over, breaking valuables and keeping me awake – usually between 1am and 4am. It’s time to take charge.

I have chosen to do a Kirtan Kriya meditation. Since I’ve decided to keep a video diary each day, I’ll save the explanation about why that specific meditation for another day.

Day 1 is off to a great start though. I did my meditation, headed to the gym to do a HIIT workout (I’m in a hotel so it made sense to go to the gym despite only exercising for 20 minutes), recorded my video diary, wrote in my journal, wrote this blog and still have an hour left before my work day is due to start.

If every day is like this, it’ll be a total pleasure!

Happiness, the universe and a slippery fish

Happiness is a slippery fish.

This problem would almost be easier to solve if I meant that literally. At least we understand the properties of a slippery fish. We know what to expect so we can work out how to handle it. Happiness on the other hand, is, well, far slipperier.

I’ve spent this week trying to find an agreed upon definition of happiness. Although this type of theory is rarely helpful in the grand scheme of messy life, I find that crystallising my thoughts around an idea helps me make sense of things. I figure it’s easier to ‘find happiness’ when you know what it is.

Turns out, I’d have been better asking “What is the Universe?”


The Universe: all existing matter and space considered as a whole; the cosmos. The universe is believed to be at least 10 billion light years in diameter and contains a vast number of galaxies; it has been expanding since its creation in the Big Bang about 13 billion years ago.

Excellent! I can work with that.

The answer to “What is Happiness?”

Happiness: the state of being happy.

Great. Super helpful. That clears it right up.

It turns out the concept of happiness is so perplexing that, despite years of investigation, researchers can’t agree on what it is or how it’s created.

It’s amazing to me that something like the universe, defined as “all existing matter and space”, is easier to explain than something that features in millions of day-to-day conversations. Is it possible that we’re all talking about it without any of us truly knowing what it is?

It may have something to do with the fact that we cannot directly investigate it. Happiness isn’t a thing. When investigating it, the best we can do is look at events, actions, decisions and behaviour and speculate about the presence of happiness in the spaces between these things. The problem is the same events in one person’s life may result in actions, decisions and behaviour that lead to happiness and in another person’s life lead to misery. Happiness is as abundant as the universe but only available to those who know how to access it and  once they have it, it’s slippery nature becomes apparent. Having it doesn’t mean keeping it.

I’m no closer to a definition but my search for answers led to something useful this week, something that gives rise to interesting thoughts about how each of us creates happiness in our lives. I learned about hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to wellbeing.

According to Ryan and Deci (2001), the hedonic approach to wellbeing focuses on happiness and is all about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The eudaimonic approach focuses on meaning. They don’t use the word happiness in their explanation of the  eudaimonic approach which makes me wonder…Is happiness just one element of wellbeing? Is a life in pursuit of pleasure a life without meaning and how does that affect happiness? Is a life in pursuit of meaning absent of pleasure and is that ultimately more rewarding and therefore happier? Is wellbeing different from happiness? Am I asking questions about the wrong thing?

Catch Episode 2 of the Big Happy Life Podcast – out on 26 September – for more on this topic.