From deep in thought to pulled into conversation: Changing directions like Titanic

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Credit Stephan Gürtler. I like this image because as a representation of being lost in thought, it shows a peacefulness of the experience. Being a deep thinker doesn’t have to mean a chaotic frame of mind or that it’s painful; it can be calming and enjoyable.

I’m a deep thinker. I can get lost in my thoughts very easily. It’s a comfortable place to be. There’s just so much to consider!

I can’t live there permanently, though. There are other people in my life. Yet, it can be challenging to transition from my thoughts to a conversation with someone, especially if I’m being pulled into that conversation. Sometimes I don’t want to leave my bubble. So there may be some deliberate or subconscious resistance, a longing to continue with what I’m doing rather than acknowledging that someone is trying to get my attention.

I feel like this might be a similar experience for someone who is accused of having selective hearing. You’re so absorbed in whatever you’re thinking about, that you lose track of the things around you.

So, it might seem like the transition from thinking to interacting with others would be fairly simple. Maybe for some, it is. For myself, though, there are a lot of things happening internally that people just aren’t aware of.

Having a visual can help with explaining internal issues. So I’m going with a Titanic analogy.

Transitioning from being deep in thought to jolted into conversation can be similar to the Titanic shifting gears to avoid an iceberg. Now, hear me out. The scale of the ship and the grave circumstances of the situation are not the focal point. Rather, I think it’s a good way to visualize how the brain and body react.

What you see in the video clip: To avoid the iceberg, workers pull levers to communicate between the top deck and engine room that things need to change. They shut down the engines. Those up top hurriedly turn the wheel to shift course. And then there’s a flurry of activity to reactivate the engine in a new direction. It’s an incredible effort to stop movement and change course.

And while the Titanic sequence is very dramatic, I think it’s a helpful comparison.

My reason for bringing it up: Imagine the ship is the human body; those in the crow’s nest are the eyes; the control room guys and captain form the brain; and the engine room workers are various parts of the body and muscle groups. There’s a lot of communication happening between the eyes and the brain, and from the brain to the rest of the body. This happens lightening fast in the body. Sometimes the body overreacts and goes into a panic. Sometimes the body under reacts, like the one guy’s nonchalant “thank you” upon hearing there’s an iceberg ahead.

These transitions, though, can be difficult to navigate. The body doesn’t always respond the way you want it to. Sometimes messages aren’t received, or they’re delayed, or they’re misinterpreted.

A lot of communication has to fall into place for someone deep in thought to be alerted of external commotion. The eyes and ears need to register another person, enough so that those sounds are actually heard and processed rather than going in one ear and out the other.

Being forced from my thoughts

Where did this comparison come from? The image of shifting gears and changing direction is something that popped in my head when I reflected on a recent encounter with someone at church.

I know I’m doing better with switching from deep thought to interacting with others, but there is something that concerns me. I wonder if my facial expressions are communicating the wrong messages on my behalf. Sometimes there’s a delay.

Walking from my car to the front of the church, I was lost in my thoughts. I could see other people filing into the building, but I wasn’t focused on them. Which means I wasn’t paying attention to who they were or whether I knew them.

I heard someone call my name. They probably had to offer a wave at a distance to assist me in knowing they were talking to me. But I also required a literal shake of the head, no matter how slight, to aid in the transition, to clear my thoughts and focus on the person approaching me. And then it took a little longer for recognition to set in of who was getting my attention.

In this particular instance there was a quick mental reminder, “ok, Lindsay, smile.” I knew my face wasn’t expressing what I wanted it to so I needed to deliberately make some effort.

At best I felt my facial expression was neutral, but it was likely there was a trace of concern or disappointment. This isn’t because I didn’t like the person approaching me. It was more a matter of not being ready for the interaction and being forced from my thoughts instead of being in charge of initiating something. (From the Titanic metaphor: It took a little longer for the engine room guys to adjust this particular switch.)

I may be very happy to see someone, but it takes a few extra seconds for my face to register that emotion. I hope people don’t take it personally if a smile doesn’t immediately form when they greet me. Or interpret it as a sign that I’m angry with them.

My thoughts and observations are important to me. And it requires some adjustment to switch gears and focus on something else.

What I can do

People give themselves pep talks before a job interview or before public speaking. I need to do that before socializing in groups or just with being around other people first thing in the morning. I often forget to do this, though, and I’m reminded once again when I have these slow reactions.

I should just be focused on myself because that’s all I can control, but ever the people pleaser I wonder if these delays are noticeable and if I’m giving people the wrong impression for how I feel.

In other words, I want to be super welcoming to others and always convey this excitement in my eyes and in my facial expressions. But the truth is I’m not always going to be “on” like this and I need to be ok with what I am capable of offering to others. And to be confident in the realization that if I am harshly judged because of an involuntary expression, then that’s on the other person.

What is in my control, though, is giving myself time to prepare for these transitions and to offer pep talks. Walking myself through what I’m expecting to encounter and a brief reminder of how I want to react. “You’re entering a social situation. It’s time to switch gears and not be so immersed in your thoughts. You’ll need to interact with other people.”

And, if possible, think of news I can share, tidbits from the week, that can be offered for the inevitable “how are you?” inquiries.

Did you catch the post on my Facebook page about gift ideas for children with sensory needs?

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