How To Draw A Better Map Of Your Inner World

Image courtesy of David Masters

Earlier this summer I climbed Scafell Pike, a mountain in the Lake District of Northern England. Like the rest of our wet summer this was a damp and cloudy day. Before we were half way up the mountain we were swallowed up in cloud and fog.

Fortunately I had a map and a compass and I know how to navigate by them.

The Ordinance Survey (OS) map I had was very detailed, the contours, streams, cliffs and paths were all clearly marked in fine lines. With this map and the compass I was able to get us to the top of Scafell Pike in the mist without difficulty.

In such a situation having a good map is a blessing. What made the OS map useful was its level of detail and the closeness of the representation to the ground being mapped. Being able to accurately match up what is on the map with what is on the ground allowed me to navigate confidently.

But just imagine for a moment that those fine lines of paths and contours were drawn by a child using a thick crayon. The detail would be lost, the map would still be sort of right in a vague, general way, but it would be much less useful for navigating in the hills, it might even be dangerous.

Most of us are navigating through our lives with maps drawn in crayon by our younger selves. The outlines are generally right but often miss out details and nuances in our inner and outer landscapes.

We all have mental maps, our own inner guide to the world. To make sense of our experience and manage our lives we create internal representations of the outer world.

To make these mental maps we have to generalise from our experience. We take the huge mass of information that comes our way every second and boil it down to simpler representations we can use.

This is a very useful skill.

For example: we can generalise our experiences of many kinds of doors to a general idea of what doors are and how they work. Now we can go to any town or city in the world and have a good idea of how to work the doors in that place. We don’t have to figure out each door every time we see a new one, our generalisation helps us navigate through all sorts of doors. Imagine having to figure out how a door works each time you used one.

That generalisation makes life a lot simpler but that simplicity has a price.

I once read about an interesting social science experiment (or perhaps it was a practical joke).

The perpetrators installed a special kind of door in a corridor. The door’s concealed hinges were on the same side of the door as the handle. If you pushed or pulled the handle, you were pushing and pulling on the hinges and the door wouldn’t move, if you pushed the side of the door where the hinges are usually located the door would swing open quite easily.

They waited and watched. Every person who approached the door pushed and pulled on the handle for a while and gave up, assuming that the door was locked. Nobody pushed the hinge side of the door which would have let them through easily. Their “map” of how doors work stopped them from even considering the possibility that there might be another way through the door.

If the experimenter had told them to try the other side of the door, they would have pushed it and found it opened easily. The victim of this experiment might have cursed the experimenter, but the next time they encountered an apparently closed door they might try to push the hinge side just to check. Their map of how doors work would have been expanded.

So if we have faulty maps of areas of our lives how can we improve them?

What follows is one way to update a less than useful map.

First you need to choose a part of your mental map that is not helping you.

Think of something you say, or think to yourself, that is not helpful.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience which provoked this essay.

A few days ago I was working from home. As I struggled to get interested in what I was supposed to be doing I looked out and saw the sun shining in a beautiful blue sky. I decided to drop what I was (not) doing and go for a walk down to the beach which is only a ten minute stroll from our house.

I was sitting on the sea front drinking a coffee and enjoying the view when the thought occurred to me “I am wasting time” and I started to feel a bit guilty.

I don’t know if you have ever had an unhelpful thought like that go through your mind or come out of your mouth. (If you have one keep it in mind for the next bit).

There is something about these thoughts that often have the flavour of always and everywhere. As if those words were hidden in the sentence which should have been “I always waste my time everywhere”.

Tip: If you hear the words always, never, everywhere, nowhere, nobody or everybody in your thoughts then you can be sure that there is some serious generalisation going on in your thinking.

No-one can waste their time always and everywhere. Are you wasting time when you eat and sleep, when you play with your child, or lunch with a friend. You might waste time sometimes or somewhere but it’s not possible to waste it always and everywhere.

I decided to unpack the “I am wasting my time” using some very straight forward questions: Where, when, how and with whom am I wasting my time?

This is what I came up with:

I avoid work

  • where: at home
  • when: the weather is nice and/or I don’t want to do any work
  • how: I go for a walk, surf the net or listen to an audio book
  • who with: by myself

That gave me a much clearer picture of “avoiding work”.

How about when I am not avoiding work, but am working hard?

I went through the same process with the opposite thought “I am working hard”

I am working hard

  • when: I’m with a client, writing an article, running a training
  • where: at home, office, training room
  • how: I’m there giving it my full attention
  • who with: clients, trainees, myself

Now I have two more detailed pictures of part of my relationship to work and using time. Now how to compare and contrast this information to come up with a more accurate map of this territory.

I decided to experiment with the exception technique created by Bill O’Hanlon as part of his Solution Oriented Hypnotherapy.

I repeated these statements out loud (there wasn’t anyone around to stare at me)

  • I avoid work except when I don’t
  • I avoid work except where I don’t
  • I avoid work except with whom I don’t
  • I avoid work except how I don’t

Then the opposite

  • I work hard except when I don’t
  • I work hard except where I don’t
  • I work hard except with whom I don’t
  • I work hard except how I don’t

These statements have the effect of forcing your mind to update it’s faulty generalisations by considering the exceptions. (These sentences don’t have to make perfect grammatical sense to work).

Now I can see that the picture is much more subtle than I avoid work, I certainly don’t always avoid work everywhere just as I don’t always work hard and everywhere.

In fact, as I came up with this whole process while “avoiding work” shows that my assessment of myself wasn’t very accurate.

Here’s the process again in a general form. Try it out on one of those unhelpful generalisations of your own.

Unpack your negative statement

  • Where do I do this?
  • When do I do this?
  • How do I do this?
  • With whom do I do this?

Unpack its opposite

  • Where do I do this?
  • When do I do this?
  • How do I do this?
  • With whom do I do this?

Now that you have a rich set of information to go compare and contrast the two beliefs.

  • I [negative] except when I don’t
  • I [negative] except where I don’t
  • I [negative] except with whom I don’t
  • I [negative] except how I don’t


  • I [positive] except when I don’t
  • I [positive] except where I don’t
  • I [positive] except with whom I don’t
  • I [positive] except how I don’t

Now go back to your original unfavourable opinion.

How is that now?

Remember, the point here is not to cure you of your negative belief or opinion of yourself but to allow it to be updated to give you a clearer map of the territory so you can navigate more accurately and more safely

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: