Big 'T', Little 't', Silent 'V', and Programming
The four ways our minds are shaped by outside influences
One of the many illusions we suffer from is the belief that our thoughts are our own — that they are uncolored by outside influences.
That is untrue. The mind is autobiographical. It tells a story shaped by the experiences that influenced it.
Kapil Gupta said it well:
“It’s all about exposure. If a person sat on his couch for the next 50 years, his internal environment–from his mind to his brain, everything within him is a direct resonance–it’s like a tuning fork. It responds to the inputs. Same as a microphone. If that human is exposed to truth on a regular basis, his ears don’t even have to hear it consciously. Something inside of him will internalize that truth and that will become his new norm. A human being becomes his environment and that is why it’s absolutely critical to savagely and surgically arrange one’s environment in a way that is in accordance with where he wants to go.”
I can attest to the accuracy of the tuning fork analogy. In my former life, I lived in Los Angeles. I once had a senior citizen attempt to run me off the 405 freeway because I decided to drive according to the speed limit, which is 10mph below the unofficial speed limit in LA.
If you stick the sweetest old lady in nonstop LA traffic for the better part of her last decade on earth, she’ll go full Grand Theft Auto.
Here’s another culturally famous example. If you’ve watched the docuseries about the making of Tiger Woods, you’ll witness the tuning-fork effect in action. Tiger was crafted by his father into the person that won acclaim on the golf course and scrutiny off the golf course. He was engineered by his father well before Tiger could choose who he wanted to be. Tiger was in direct resonance with the influence of the environment his father provided. That included his formation as a golfer and his pattern of infidelity.
We do not go through life unadulterated by the “outside world.” To think that our minds are insulated from what surrounds us is like believing that a dri-FIT t-shirt will protect us in a snowstorm.
At best, the walls we imagine between ourselves and our environment are highly permeable. We readily acknowledge the outside world's influence on our bodies, like the sun on our skin and how it transforms it, yet we ignore our environment's direct impact on our minds.
Still, the environmental influences are numerous, pervasive, and formidable. To understand them all and how they shape our minds, I’ll explain them in what I refer to as Big ‘T’, Little ‘t’, Silent ‘V’, and Programming.
When I use Big ‘T’ I refer to acute traumatic events. These easily identifiable moments significantly shape how we think, act, and feel. They can be accompanied by sharp emotions. Sometimes, they are followed by an emptiness – as if the brain shuts itself off to protect itself. Altogether, the impact on the brain from acute trauma is profound. It’s a harsh form of environmental resonance.
Examples of Big ‘T’ trauma might be physical or sexual assault, the unexpected loss of a loved one, and surviving an accident such as a roadside bombing while deployed in Afghanistan.
I can relate to Big ‘T’.
I witnessed my mom's stomach pumped in the hospital when she tried to commit suicide. I was about 7 years old. It was an awful scene, and it left its mark on me. For decades I could not vomit, even if I had a nasty case of food poisoning. My mind placed a subconscious block that would not allow me to puke. I can recall panicking as a kid whenever I thought I would vomit. It wasn’t until a potent Ayahuasca ceremony at the age of 39 that I could move beyond the mental block, purging my guts out for 12 hours, until I welcomed the ability to vomit because of how cleansing it felt.
My memory is absent immediately following the night at the hospital. I don’t remember anything for months after that. As hard as I try, there’s nothing there for me to conjure up. No other memory fragments. Only my mom’s expression of raw terror and agony, followed by a cognitive nothingness.
It was also big ‘T’ traumatic for me to see her on the day of her funeral. I recall standing in line as friends and family made their way up to her open casket to say their final goodbyes. As for me, I was afraid to approach. The terror built as each person in front of me said their parting words and moved on.
I can recall my brothers going before me. They were able to place their hand on her or place a kiss on her forehead. But when it was my turn, I could not do the same. Her physical appearance was different. I panicked when trying to bring myself to touch her one last time and felt shame for not having the courage to do so.
My dad had to bring me into a back room of the funeral home to help me calm down. That was the first and only time I’ve ever used smelling salts. A bit was snapped in front of my nose to help me snap back into the present moment. My only memory after the open casket is a dissociated one of me standing outside the funeral home while being condoled by other adults, standing there blank and emotionless, unable to respond to their acts of tearful support. That, and Eric Clapton’s song Tears in Heaven, playing beautifully yet solemnly throughout the ceremony.
I consider this a close relative to Big ‘T’. While also traumatic, little ‘t’ is when someone has prolonged exposure to an environment or events that are also taxing on the nervous system. Like Big ‘T’ trauma, the effects on mental and physical health are serious.
It’s common for people exposed to chronic trauma not to be aware that they are being persistently traumatized. That’s especially true with chronic trauma experienced in childhood since we don’t yet have the adult cognitive faculties to have such awareness. I compare it to being sunburned on an overcast day. The sun is working on your skin, yet it’s imperceptible enough that the risk is quickly discarded.
Chronic little ‘t’ trauma can lead to a negative lens on the world. It’s common for it to give rise to self-doubt and shame. Often with chronic trauma, people are better at hiding the shame than with acute trauma. It’s as if they feel more responsible for the trauma, hence the shame. In a child's mind, if something is happening to them repeatedly, it must be because of who they are. That’s why a low sense of self often accompanies persistent trauma. When we’re young, we cannot distinguish between “this is happening to me” versus “this is happening because of who I am.”
I can also relate to little ‘t’ trauma.
As a kid, I recall visiting psychiatric hospitals to visit my mom. There were several other less-than-nurturing moments in addition to that, as my dad did his best to insulate my brothers and me from my mom’s volatility. As a result, my nervous system is more vigilant than the average person. I feel on edge most of the time, so I need psychiatric medication to feel “normal.” My nervous system needs its daily vitamin in the form of an SSRI.
I often turn to cannabis as a medicine as well. It helps me fall asleep, stay asleep, and have significantly fewer nightmares — another typical post-traumatic response. My nightmares almost always involve me being attacked by something, whether a bear or a robot the size of a highrise building (both are recent nightmares).
The trauma response that plays out in my sleeping mind also creates physical tension and discomfort. I’ve had every single one of my teeth reconstructed in one form or another because of excessive teeth grinding. Whenever I smoke cannabis, the nightmares, teeth grinding, and jaw tension subsides, but my Flaming Hot Cheeto eating skyrockets. It’s a tug-o-war that I continue to navigate in search of the optimal tradeoff that works for me.
The ‘V’ is for vicarious. We are emotionally connected organisms capable of internalizing someone else’s pain. Just like we’re capable of feeling love from another, we’re capable of absorbing negative emotions. I like to call it “emotional yawning.” If you yawn, I yawn. If you’re in pain, I’m in pain.
“Being there” for another person may help them process and move through their negative emotions, yet they can rub off on you. Dr. Paul Conti describes the various forms of trauma as a virus, silently moving from one person to another and capable of inflicting severe harm.
Vicarious trauma is common among first responders who absorb doses of the problematic parts of the human condition daily. It’s also common among therapists. That’s why therapists often need their own extended time off or may seek therapy to help them maintain an even keel. That’s what my therapist does. She takes an entire month off each year for rest and recovery. She needs it and deserves it because the vicarious aspect of human emotion is a considerable risk for anyone on the front lines of human suffering.
Being aware of vicarious trauma is something that I have to be mindful of. Because of my writing, I occasionally speak with people in a very dark place – sometimes suicidal. Limiting vicarious trauma is complex and requires having healthy boundaries, which is easier said than done.
Dr. Gabor Mate shares an example of the vicarious nature of emotional pain using an example of pregnant women and their unborn infants post 9/11.
Another form of mind alteration is one where instructions are coded into us. We’re surrounded by messages that we absorb consciously and unconsciously. They are beaten into us through the socialization of life, beginning at an early age.
We know this to be true when observing isolated propagandist nations like North Korea. Children born there are born into an alternative reality relative to children born in Western countries. But programming is abundant in the West as well. Our high school history books described the settlement of the Americas as our Manifest Destiny – our God-given fate. That seems ludicrous in retrospect, but it was the correct answer to give during my high school AP History exam.
I’m not vilifying the West. I love our country and am profoundly lucky to have been born here since it provides relatively pleasant conditions for living. But I am saying the concept of Manifest Destiny is a euphemistic load of shit programmed into us to put a euphemistic twist on a part of our nation’s history.
The Truth is that all people and cultures worldwide contain programs that are surreptitiously planted into your mind through the process of socialization.
In the language of spirituality, an ‘Awakening’ is the processing of deprogramming a belief, and an ‘Enlightenment’ is the state of fully deprogramming from all beliefs.
Do you know of anyone that is fully deprogrammed of beliefs? The only person I know is my 8-month-old niece. If I had to guess, there might be 10 - 20 adults alive that are fully deprogrammed. The population of truly Enlightened individuals is tiny.
For the rest of us, we live in a sort of energetic soup where who we believe ourselves to be is the byproduct of the near-constant osmosis of ideas inherent in the soup in which we reside. Ideas come in. Ideas go out. We swim blindly in this soup. Most of us remain aloof in this cocktail for our entire lives.
However, unlike Big ‘T’, little ‘t’, and Silent ‘V’, the programs we’re coded to believe don’t directly impart a negative effect on the function of the nervous system. Our beliefs won’t show up on a clinical psychological scale. Yet they directly shape how we perceive the world around us and how we present ourselves in it, as characters on a stage, oblivious to the costumes we wear and the characters we play.
Examples of Programming in Tech
You may not have noticed it yet, but you’re surrounded by messages from the tech industry that are hammered into you enough that you’ve probably accepted them as true. Let’s cover a few of them.
Magic Number: a “magic number” refers to how much money someone believes they need to make before retiring or jumping off the career treadmill. In tech, I’ve come across astronomical magic numbers. I often hear, “I need at least $5M before I can call it quits.” I once spoke with someone who said they needed $20M and already had $10M in the bank, but somehow the $10M wasn’t enough to break free from his neverending drive to hit career home runs. I found myself thinking the same way at one point. I entered Silicon Valley without the notion of a magic number, but a few years into it and I was already building financial models and planning a course for my multi-million dollar retirement. The truth is, you don’t need millions of dollars to live a fulfilling life. Sure, $250,000 in the bank would be an excellent financial safety net. I won’t deny anyone attempting to create that sort of financial fallback. Yet believing that we need millions of dollars to “be free” is an illusion we easily subscribe to each time we read another Techcrunch article about a few young founders becoming filthy friggin loaded. You do not need millions of dollars to establish the freedom you imagine for yourself. You can have it for much less than you imagine. Your magic number is an illusion.
Social Media Activism: if you change your social media profiles whimsically based on the latest political or social trend, you’ve been programmed. You are engaging in a topic that others have determined is essential for you to focus on. You didn't choose this topic to care about any more than you chose your name at birth. You’ve jumped on the bandwagon like everyone else. You are not more virtuous for doing any of these things. As Oscar Wilde stated, “The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple." If you find yourself pissed off at me for saying this because it hits close to home, that’s direct evidence that you’ve been programmed.
“We’re changing the world!”: Turn this question around and ask, “What isn’t changing the world?” Everything that happens at every moment also changes the world since everything is constantly changing. As the ancient philosopher Heraclitus once stated, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.” Your company isn’t the only thing throwing a wrench in the current world order. But, this language kinda sorta works by programming young, talented people into believing that joining a hyper-growth startup is the only way to affect real change in the world. Not to mention that most companies haven’t paused to ask the counterfactual: “What are the downsides of the change we’re creating?”When we use the word “disrupt” in the tech industry, it comes with a positive connotation. But try using the word “disrupt” with a group of blue-collar workers. To them, disrupt sounds like “destroy” since new technologies introduce the risk of replacing their job.
Who are you?
I was at a dinner party in Silicon Valley a handful of years ago. In classic tech fashion, people introduced themselves, and a few in attendance managed to squeeze in an introductory line to indicate their status within the tech Illuminati.
The fella I was chatting with first gave me his name and followed it up with one of the strangest qualifiers: “I’m friends with <insert name>... we’re part of the Asian Yahoo mafia.” As in the Paypal Mafia… but apparently for Asian men who worked at Yahoo.
That was a first for me.
I held myself back from sarcastically saying, “I’m part of the white male son of a farmer who went to UCLA before working at Facebook circa 2008 to 2010 mafia.”
I quickly left the conversation and went to a nearby couch to hang out with the dog.
In fairness, I can’t poke fun at others without being critical of myself. I used to frequently attach performative qualifiers to my name and introduction. I’d fudge the truth at times just to sound important.
For example, I used to run a lot. It was an addiction of mine. Someone once asked, “What’s the farthest you’ve ever run at once?” I said 53 miles. The truth is that 50 miles is the farthest distance. So, where the fuck did those 3 extra miles come from? From a low sense of self-worth. As if I had to tack on 3 more miles because 50 wasn’t good enough? What a wonderful example of embellishment due to a low sense of self-worth.
I still feel a reactionary twinge to embellish when people ask me to introduce myself today. It’s an egoic relic from an old, subconscious low sense of self-worth that I developed very early in my life. I haven’t been able to fully eradicate it yet. It’s a persistent bastard, but so am I. My work to deprogram my negative core beliefs continues.
For purely social purposes, I still need to slap on labels and qualifiers to describe the character I play in the dream we call life. But now I recognize that when I do so, it’s as a costume that I can arbitrarily put on and take off. I’ll wear my “growth guy” costume sometimes, and I don’t mind doing it to help people I like and pay the bills. Still, I understand I am not my qualifiers. I’m what exists underneath the costumes and qualifiers. I am me, minus the 3 extra miles.
Now, turn that back at yourself. Who are you underneath your costumes and qualifiers? Who were you before your Big ‘T’, little ‘t’, vicarious ‘V’, and Programming shaped you into something else? Were you anyone at all? This is the crux of living an examined life.
Why does this matter?
Understanding how you’ve been conditioned is vital because your conditioning is the source of unnecessary suffering.
For example, Instagram has conditioned millions of people to feel inadequate in their lives because the Instagram feed is filled with beautiful people living a seemingly perfect life. It’s a lie. Yet you torment yourself for not living up to the idealized versions of your life that you first fabricated on Instagram, which then took root in your mind.
And, since we aren’t living up to the same fictional ideal, we bash ourselves over a boogyman – a bit of vaporware. Poof!
It’s a form of punishment that we administer against ourselves. As I wrote in this post titled Subtraction, Not Addition, by reducing our ego, we shed personality attributes that we easily interpret as flaws because civilization has programmed us to believe it is a flaw.
Like the gentlemen at the party, he didn’t need to elaborate that he was part of the Asian Yahoo mafia. He could have just said his name and felt adequate about it. Instead, a part of him needed embellishment to validate his worthiness in the context of that dinner party. He had been conditioned to feel inadequate, which is a form of suffering.
Identify your conditioning
It must begin with awareness. You must understand how you’ve been conditioned before you can do something about it. You must first see that you’ve been a character on stage all along. The role you played was written in a script you were not the main contributor to, had limited creative influence over, and could not pause and edit until now.
You can start by using the template below to create your list of how you believe you’ve been conditioned.
There are a couple of questions you can ask yourself that will stimulate your thinking and help you identify how you’ve been conditioned.
What circumstances cause me to have intense emotional reactions?
What were the most challenging moments/experiences of my life?
What environments have I spent the most time in, and how did it influence me?
What ingrained patterns of behavior do I have, and where did they come from?
Create a life timeline
Another valuable approach to identifying how you’ve been conditioned is to look at your life from a timeline point of view. I created a simple Life Timeline template to do so.
Here’s what a blank version might look like:
It asks that you look at your life over time and identify events or experiences that shaped who you believe you are and how you present yourself in the world. Starting with major traumatic events and moving down to Programming, you can fill in the blanks to construct a narrative of how outside influences have shaped your inward condition.
I also provided a second template you can use to view formative events in a timeline manner. This version makes it easier to break your life down into customizable periods.
Here’s the link again for those who want a template to play with.
For those of you considering therapy, the items you document in your life timeline will be quality material for your to discuss with your therapist. You can dissect each of those experiences to better understand how they have shaped you and what you can do to free yourself from their negative influences.
As a child, you didn’t have a choice regarding the environment you were in and how it shaped your mind. But, as an adult, you have the intellectual and emotional capacity to rewrite the narratives planted in your mind without your permission.
It’s essential that you remove or rewrite how you’ve been shaped by your experiences, specifically when those experiences sit at the root of your suffering.
If not, you’ll move through life as someone controlled by the subconscious effects of Big ‘T’, little ‘t’, Silent ‘V’, and Programming. And that is not the path to living authentically and freely.
As Carl Jung famously said:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”
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