The Dangers of Oversimplicating

Do you want to get stuck in life, carry chronic stress, or remain in persistent conflicts?. If so, here’s what to do. Oversimplify things, failing to see the subtleties and complexities. Then, to compensate for your oversimplified view of the world, overcomplicate things, adding all kinds of unnecessary extra meaning.

If you can manage to oversimplify and overcomplicate things at the same time, you’re oversimplicating. It’s like you made a map of the world with too little detail (oversimplifying). You tried to use the map and got lost. Now you’re trying to explain why you’re lost (overcomplicating), or maybe coming up with systems for never getting lost again, while continuing to use the same oversimplified map.

Stop oversimplifying and you won’t need to overcomplicate. Of course, your map will still not have very much detail. No map does. You can learn, however, to pay less attention to your map, and more attention to the territory itself.

View Video Transcript
The Dangers of Oversimplicating
Steve Bearman
October 8, 2015

Almost any time that you find yourself stuck in some area of your life or carrying around some kind of chronic stress or in a persistent conflict with somebody it is a sign that your mind is getting you in trouble. The world as it is is not something that you can perceive directly. Your mind always stands between you and how you make sense of the world and -- in making sense of the world -- there are two very common misuses of our minds that get us in those kinds of trouble. We oversimplify the world and we overcomplicate the world and most of the time we actually do both simultaneously, a process I call oversimplicating. It’s like if you think about making a map of some territory that you want to traverse any map has to be relatively simple. You can’t have everything in the world on the map, you only represent the roads or the contour lines or some features of the environments and it’s enough to get you from Point A to Point B but the map is not the territory and the territory will always be far more complex than any map that we have written. If you find yourself lost looking at your map trying to figure out what went wrong you may come up with some very elaborate explanation about why things went wrong. Why things went wrong is that the map was oversimplified and your explanation is how you make things overcomplicated. Let me give you few real-life [laughs] examples. First we tend to really oversimplify ourselves. Let’s imagine – this probably isn’t true of you but imagine – you’re in a situation where, say, you’re not doing a very good job of getting the things on your to-do list done. Maybe you’re procrastinating a lot, maybe you can’t find the kind of discipline you think you should have to do the kinds of things that you think you should do and so you decide it must simply be the case that you are lazy. Now what you’ve got here is a really oversimplified version of yourself and your life in which there are simply things that should be done and you are simply failing to do them and the reason is that you are simply lazy and all of those are oversimplified views of your world. As a result you will try to explain it and figure out what to do about it by overcomplicating things. You might reads all kinds of books on productivity and get coaching on it and try all kinds of things to try to get yourself to do the things that you should do that you just can’t get yourself to do and that is adding a layer of complexity to a situation that is oversimplified. It’s almost like you’re compensating for your lack of understanding by adding in meaning and explanation for things that are really the wrong things. If you could back up and assume that really things are far more subtle and complex in your world than you’re giving them credit for. If you would recognize that it’s about laziness, it’s not about getting/not getting things done or what you should do or shouldn’t do. Somehow you just find yourself doing some things easily and not doing other things easily and the reasons for that are actually mysterious. There’s a lot more to you than the identity that you try to fit yourself into and so, in actuality, you can’t get certain things done and you don’t know why. The explanation that you’re lazy and then the attempts to add all kinds of structure are overcomplicating things. What would be simple but not over-simple is if you could just recognize the mystery of it: I don’t know why I am not capable of doing certain things but there must be some good reason, it must actually make sense in the deeper ecology of my being or what my soul needs. Somehow it must be just right and I just understand how yet. That means that I recognize I don’t know very much about myself. There are some things that I know but there is so much that I don’t. I can be in the mystery of things. Instead of oversimplifying things I can recognize there’s far more going on than I yet understand and relating to life that way allows me to keep learning about myself. Instead of thinking I know what’s going on I am simply lazy and need to learn productivity _____. Another example is that we tend to oversimplify our relationships. Imagine for instance that you’re in a brand-new relationship and it’s going just swimmingly well and you’re finding yourself really loving the person, falling in love and wanting to be with them and then one of you says, “Wow something is really significant is happening here, what? What do we call this? How do we define this? What kind of relationship are we in or is this a committed relationship or should we be exclusive? Are we partners or what are you?” And so you very quickly take an experience that you’re having that’s dynamic and unpredictable that’s unfolding in some way that’s unique, no relationship has ever been like it before and you’re trying to figure it into an over-simplified category, an over-simplified model of “there’s this kind of relationship and that kind of relationship and we wanna know which one we’re in.” As soon as you oversimplify it then you need to explain all kinds of things about why what you’re actually experiencing doesn’t match your model or you map of the relationship, like “why is that I wanna spend tonight alone” or “why didn’t you call me back that time,” “what does it mean?” And you add layers of meaning and explanation to try to understand your behavior and the other person’s behavior and because you’re oversimplifying the relationship. You’re not allowing it to be the dynamic, the unpredictable process that is. It’s just an experience that you’re having. You’re not even in a relationship. You’re just relating. There’s no relationship there. There’s an ongoing experience of relating and that experience is mysterious. You can allow it to be mysterious, you can keep learning about it, as it’s happening, instead of trying to make a map of it that’s too simple and then explain why you’re lost on that map. As a final example, we oversimplify other people all the time. Other people are just as rich and complex as we are and yet it’s easy to just see them as our oversimplified projections of them and in particular this is true whenever you have some kind of difference with somebody that results in a conflict with your kids or with your partner or your coworkers where there’s some persistent conflict because you see things one way and they see things another way, there’s a disagreement and so you behave differently and so there’s conflict. That conflict usually includes some map that you have of the world in which you’re right and the other person is wrong where you have an oversimplified version of why they think the way they think and why you think the way you think and that map is not getting you anywhere. It’s just keeping you in a conflict. As a result you try to explain all kinds of things about why they do what they do and try to come up with structures for how to deal with the fact that you have a conflict instead of just acknowledging that you’re different and you don’t really understand why. It must make sense in some larger, more holistic, more ecological way, it must be right for them to feel as they feel and for you to feel as you feel and for there to be a difference. And you can really find out about what to do about that difference if you can be with the not-so-simple mystery of it all instead of oversimplifying it and then needing to add all this complexity to compensate for the fact that you are not matching your image of how your negotiation with them should be. In all of these cases there’s some idea that you have about something that doesn’t match the thing itself. I think I should be getting things done and yet I’m not doing those things, I’m getting [laughs] all kinds of other things done instead. I think I should know what kind of relationship this is and, actually, it’s not even a relationship, it’s just an ongoing series of experience that you don’t understand that much about. I think you should believe the thing that I believe and yet it’s not really about those beliefs. That person is complex in ways you don’t understand and they need to have the difference with you that they have. In all of these cases you can appreciate the more complex/subtle version of reality than the oversimplified model or map of it that you have and it allows you to learn-as-you-go instead of staying stuck in the thing that you think you know. It’s almost like once you discover how little you know the mystery of the massive amount that you don’t know because this potential source of learning where you can discover things that will allow you to see the world in more nuanced ways. That’s very different than trying to come up with cheap explanations for why things aren’t working, which then just add another layer of complexity and complicatedness into something that has an elegant mystery if you just let it.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.