In interpreting daily life, we often take mental shortcuts, predicting current and future situations based on past experience. When that’s realistic, it’s a form of learning – and when it’s unrealistic, it can blind us to what’s actually happening.
A new person I meet dresses and acts a lot like my friend from grade school, so I find myself assuming she will behave like that friend on new things too. A social event involving lots of unfamiliar people reminds me of my discomfort at being an outcast in childhood, and so I get nervous before the party and consider not going. A new lover reminds me of a bad ex, and I find myself unable to shake off that ghost of fear.
What’s going on there? And how can I change it?
Four Levels Model
We can look at experiences as if there are four levels of reality happening at once.
- Physical – The observable events; what a video camera would see.
- Feelings/Sensations – How the body reacts, emotions, adrenaline, skin shivers, freezing up or relaxing at ease
- Mythic Story/Explanation – A story in words about the meaning of what just happened. Interpretation.
- Essential Beliefs – What we fundamentally believe about the world and ourselves after many experiences; safe vs unsafe, trust vs fear.
By examining my situation at each of these four levels, I can figure out:
- what is happening inside me,
- where I am making incorrect assumptions,
- which of my past experiences might be causing me to misunderstand the current one,
- how I can check in verbally with other people to clarify the situation,
- and how I can avoid similar reactions in the future.
This is a powerful way to change how I relate to life experiences, as it helps me change my inner responses, reduce misunderstandings and knee-jerk reactions, and avoid drama. Let’s look at how the four levels apply to a fictional situation, and then how to use that understanding to change behaviors and reactions.
Examining What Happened
First, let’s look at this model as a way to break down an event that went badly. Here’s the scenario.
Judy is attending a photographers social and workshop, to support her friend Chelsey who is hosting it. Although Judy is shy about meeting new people or drawing any attention to herself, she has decided that entering a photo in the talent slideshow is a good way to show support for the event and her good friend.
The slideshow starts, and Judy sees that the first several pictures are stunning, pro-quality work. Chelsey runs a critique session after each one, but most photos pass with few suggestions. Judy starts to feel nervous, wondering if her picture will measure up, and her body tightens. Finally her picture shows up. Immediately, three people speak up with significant suggestions; a different crop, ways to improve the color, comments about how to make the subject matter less boring, and a discussion about what they’d do differently if they were on the scene.
Judy is at a loss for what to say. She sits in stony silence, waiting for Chelsey to move on to the next photo. Finally discussion quiets and moves on, and Judy breathes a tiny sigh of relief. When Chelsey asks her later what she thought of the feedback session, she mumbles, “It was fine,” and quickly changes the subject. Although she is passionate about photography, she silently plans to stop attending the gatherings, and skips the following month’s event.
At the surface, this is a story about performance anxiety, criticism, feedback, and judgment. It may be easy to see that Judy was feeling sensitive about comments on her work – but look deeper.
- Why is she sensitive?
- How might she have responded differently?
- Can she open up more to Chelsey about what’s really going on with her?
- Can she work on her fears in a way that would allow her to participate in, and perhaps even enjoy, the opportunity to work with other passionate photographers in the future?
Let’s apply the four-levels model to this situation.
Here’s a description for “just the facts.”
Judy attended a photographers’ gathering and entered one of her photos in to the feedback slideshow. Chelsey ran the feedback process. Judy did not personally know most of the attendees. The photos ahead of Judy’s in the show received few suggestions for improvement. Judy’s photo received many suggestions for improvement and triggered lots of discussion. Judy remained silent with her hands folded across her chest. Chelsey later asked Judy about her experiences. Judy said, “It was fine.” Judy did not show up to the following month’s event.
Notice what isn’t in there – emotions and interpretations. Although people often think they are looking at reality, we can miss this level by skipping ahead to emotions, interpretations, motivations, and meanings. Sometimes it is valuable and necessary to revisit the physical level and sort out what really happened.
Practice: Think about a dramatic situation you were personally involved in recently. Write or describe it in “just the facts,” leaving out emotion and interpretation.
Here is a description for the emotional and sensation layer of Judy’s experience. Since only Judy can know this for sure, it is written from her point of view.
I am so nervous to go to this event. My hands are sweating and my chest feels tense. I want to support Chelsey though. I’m excited about showing one of my pictures. My eyes feel more open and I smile when I think about that. … Wow these other people’s pictures are gorgeous. I want to be able to do that. … Oh no, I’m almost on, and I’m so nervous that my picture isn’t as good! This is so embarrassing. I want to escape. Can they PLEASE move on now??
I’m so uncomfortable giving Chelsey feedback. I don’t want to embarrass her. But it’s embarrassing to explain my overreaction too. I want to escape.
Writing this, I found it hard to stay with just the emotions and not jump to Story/Interpretation. Feelings aren’t continuous; they rise and fall from moment to moment in response to outside experiences and inner judgements, predictions, and fears. But, emotions are not the predictions and wild imaginings. Emotions are simpler: happy, sad, angry, afraid, and mixes of those four.
Emotions happen in the body. A small child who doesn’t get her way may clench her hands and make her body rigid, or tears may well up and her face turn red. The same reactions happen to us as adults, in response to strong emotions, but we’re culturally trained to try to ignore them or moderate them to socially appropriate levels. But what we consciously avoid still happens in the body, if sometimes in more subtle ways. To recognize emotion, tune in to how the body is reacting.
When I feel joy, I feel light, bouncy, and taller. When I feel sadness, I bend and slouch, cast my eyes down, and feel foggy or tired. When I feel shock, I experience a mental tunnel vision, a sense of numbness, and feel not quite solidly in my body. When I feel anger, I feel my throat clench, my pulse rate rise, and my arms twitch.
Where in your body do you feel happiness, sadness, anger, fear?
How does your body move or stand differently during each of those?
Vividly imagine a scene that fits each one of those, and watch your body react. What do you notice?
Mythic Story / Explanations
Here’s Judy’s description of her internal story. This is the way her mind explains her experiences, and makes them internal storytelling. These are the heroes, villains, triumphs and tragedies of her life story.
Going to an event full of strangers is scary, because I won’t be able to build friendships in only a few minutes. I want to go because supporting my friend makes me feel proud. People won’t come back for future visits if the group is too small. When I show up, I help the group size grow. I would enjoy hearing admiration for my photo work that I have spent so much time on. Then I would could stop feeling guilty about spending my time on myself instead of other people.
Wow these photos are amazing. These photographers must all be professionals. They’re so much better than I am. Why would they want to help me with my skills when they’re so far beyond me? They must think I’m a joke being here and that my photo is a waste of their time. Oh no, now they’re jumping all over me with criticisms and things I should have done differently. There are so many things wrong that they just keep going on and on. Will it ever end? I’m such a failure at this. They can see right through me; they know I’m not good enough to play in their league. I bet nobody will even want to talk to me after this. It’s no wonder I felt nervous about coming to the party. Obviously I knew I wasn’t good enough. I don’t belong here. I’d leave right now but Chelsey would think I was being rude, and that would be the death of our friendship. I’ll just sit silently and pray for this to end quickly.
Chelsey is only asking for my feedback to make herself feel good. If I give her honest feedback I’ll embarrass us both, and besides, she only wants a polite compliment. There’s no point in telling her I won’t be back; I’m sure the party worked just fine for everyone else, and it won’t matter for me because I’m not going to do that again anyway.
Whew. Do you want out of Judy’s head? I do! The Mythic layer often means drama, escalation, and spiraling up into intensity – imagining fear, death, destruction, catastrophe, loss and tragedy.
How can Judy de-escalate? First, she needs to realize that she’s operating in the Mythic layer. This means accepting that what she’s experiencing inside is largely the creation of her own mind – her story. Next, she can choose to refocus on the lower layers – first, what she is experiencing in her body and emotions, and then, what is actually happening around her physically. This focus can help her calm herself, and clear her head to analyze what’s actually real.
The Mythic Story / Explanation layer is all about interpretation, roles and archetypes, and repeating patterns. Its key traits are that things feel bigger than life, personally important, and often involves roles. Sometimes they are the roles of hero and villain, sometimes of community and self, sometimes of rescuer and rescued. Roles help us understand how to act in society, but they can also limit our creativity about behavioral options.
Although she’s not thinking aloud about them, Judy has lots of past experiences of feeling bad about herself in social and professional settings. Her interpretations of previous hurts are coloring her interpretations of today’s events.
Revisit the situation you considered for “just the facts” physical layer. Now write or describe what happened in your Mythic Story, as if the people involved were actors in a drama.
What is the role that each person played? Does the role have a name or archetype?
Judy has had many experiences of showing up to a group of strangers and having trouble making conversation. When people look at her, she gets nervous and forgets what she wanted to say, so she tends to stay quiet. That leaves her out of conversations, which she interprets as social rejection. That makes her more nervous and shy, and more prone to freezing up. One day, fed up with her fear and loneliness, she starts work with a counselor.
Her counselor suggests that Judy begin writing down her troubling moments using the Four Levels model. At first, Judy practices writing the first three levels; physical, emotional/sensory, and mythic story. After several events are written down, Judy and her counselor take a look at the stories.
Judy notices that most of her stories carry an element of competition and social rejection, as well as a theme that she is never good enough. Whatever events occur involving her, she seems to perceive neutral events as though they are confirmation that she is not good enough.
Her counselor asks her if she remembers the first times in her life that she felt that way. She recalls a number of instances from her distant past when she felt she had to fight to get her needs met, but in doing so, heard resentment or attacks from others. She remembers trying to find ways to get the attention and love she needed while remaining invisible, and that it was a hard balancing act. She realizes that her standard response to discomfort is to try to hide or escape, or sit silently resigned to ignoring her desires.
They write down the following words to describe the running themes in her stories, under a title “Current Essential Beliefs” : struggle/competition, scarcity, resentment, rejection, hiding.
Her counselor asks her to fill in the opposites for each of those. Judy thinks slowly and adds: collaboration, abundance, support, inclusion, visibility.
With these points of contrast, Judy begins to see how her interpretation of events might be constrained by her essential beliefs about how her world works. Her counselor sends her home with an assignment to consider what each of those beliefs means to her daily experiences.
- If the world I live in is ruled by scarcity, then getting my needs met requires that I ___________________.
- If the world I live in is ruled by resentment, then to be safe I have to ________________.
- If I didn’t choose to hide when stressed, then I expect what would happen to me is ____________.
Opening a Door to a New Reality
Now that Judy has a way to describe her habitual reactions and interpretations, she has a choice about whether to continue responding in her standard ways, or try something different.
There are two ways to look at the Four Levels model. Moving up from the external physical level (1) towards the more internal story and essence levels (4), we can deconstruct an event to understand it better. We can understand what essential beliefs are influencing our reactions.
Or, moving from the internal essential beliefs (4), down towards physical experiences (1), we have another option: intentionally choosing our reactions.
Choosing to change a story or role can open an door to a different emotion about the experience. For example, what if Judy changed her story from “I’m wasting everyone’s time” to something else? What other stories might describe what’s happening? What does it look like to change a story?
Perhaps the expert photographers have been bored with each other after months together, and they are enthusiastic to have participation from someone new, who they can enjoy teaching. Perhaps Judy’s photo was a picture of a rare event or inspiring location, and the others were stirred to share ideas of fun ways to get involved. Or perhaps they considered it their responsibility to offer expert feedback because they saw that Judy had an excellent eye but less developed technical mastery, or it was their way of supporting the event.
But how can Judy know that? She could ask them.
Changing the Story
Maybe she still needs some time to get herself calmed down first, but then she can check in with the people she’s concerned about. She can ask them for their opinions on why so many people jumped in with suggestions on her photo when the photos prior to hers got few comments. And then she can listen to their take on what happened. Perhaps different people will have different takes, as well. There could be many “right answers,” and each person may have unique reasons.
By re-examining the Mythic Story layer, and choosing to challenge her internal story, Judy sets in motion a cascade of results. She opens herself to a different emotional space. Since she is responding differently in her own mind and her emotions, she behaves differently. This changes her interactions with other people, her circumstances, and her outcome. Perhaps she would hear that they enjoy her participation. She would experience inclusion and collaboration, and may decide that coming to photo events is fun and rewarding.
Judy would then have one data point, one event, that was a good memory and challenged her long-held beliefs about competition, resentment, and rejection. Perhaps just one experience isn’t enough, though, to change the rest of her life.
What else could she do?
Changing Essence Expectations
Judy could re-examine her essential beliefs about the world and herself. She could choose to act “as if” a different essential truth were real. For instance, Judy could decide that instead of predicting that others will always reject or resent her, she is going to act as if people want to talk with her and include her. While she’s still nervous about asking why others commented so much on her photos, she’s going to pretend that she is curious instead of nervous and ask anyway. And then, instead of interpreting their responses as polite duty, she’s going to try hard to believe what they have to say.
She is aware that she is challenging her long-held beliefs about the world and other people. This feels big, mythic even – and she can use that emotional intensity to give extra weight to the one new data point she’s getting. She can remember for the next few weeks that she’s trying to believe in inclusion instead of rejection. With that intention, she can see how many other situations are also affected by competition, resentment, and rejection – or collaboration, support, and inclusion. Perhaps she can even use her new approach to redo her conversation with Chelsey, and find a better peace with that discussion.
Changing an essential belief can be hard. It can feel scary, deeply unknown, and very hard to believe in. This is where patience, persistence, and faith in a new possibility really matters.
Changing the Mythic Story reality lets you take apart and rewrite one story at a time. Changing your Essential Beliefs lets you pull out the roots of tens or hundreds of stories at once. It can remake a person, or remake a whole life.
Changing stories and essential beliefs is not about misleading yourself about the world. Rather, it is about opening to the possibility that you may be misperceiving things, and respectfully checking in with other people to hear their side of the story. You may find that your fears are confirmed – but then you know you are responding to reality instead of spinning a myth. Or you may find that your perceptions were off, and the reality is much less scary and more reasonable. Asking is key.
Examine the situation from the Physical and Mythic Story layers. Look at the story you wrote and the roles people played.
Identify one or two words that describe the Essential Beliefs about the world that hold you to that Story.
Extra challenge: Go talk to a person you trust who was involved in or watched that situation. Ask them for their description of what happened, and check whether it confirms or challenges your story and essential beliefs.
If I wasn’t the person I’m used to being from this set of stories and essential beliefs… who else could I be?
If those I interacted with didn’t mean to hurt me, what else could they have meant? How can I ask them?
Diana’s Grove Mystery School teaches the Four Levels model, and has an article in their web magazine from 2005 (page 17). Another great article in that same issue is “Labyrinth Journey” (page 11) which examines how people deal with feelings and pain, exploring Roles, Hurt Child, and Impasse. Their booklet The Bones of Mystery School explains the origins of the Four Levels model (page 24), and explores it in more depth (page 24 – 34).