Categories and Containers

Which stands out to you?

Puppies or kittens?

The book or the movie?

Dark chocolate or milk chocolate?

Swimming in a pool or in the ocean?

Texting or calling?

Star Wars or Star Trek?

Coffee or tea?

Solitude or a party?

Many of us have strong opinions about some of these choices, even though they are pretty innocuous. Some people might feel stronger than others, depending on past experiences. Did your opinion come quickly, or did you have to pause and think? If your opinion came quickly, why do you think that is? If you had no opinion about some of those things, why not?

One of a baby’s earliest milestones is when they learn to develop categories. Babies need to learn EVERYTHING–dog, cat, apple, cup, to all the parts of the body. The ability to create categories is a huge developmental milestone!

As we grow, we continue to need categories and containers so we can filter information and stimulus that comes our way. Imagine if we didn’t – we would have to relearn what a mug or a couch is every single day. What if we had to look up directions every time we went to work or the grocery store? It would be exhausting. Not to mention the fear and constant uncertainty we would be gripped with each day as we encountered strange new things that didn’t make sense! When we do not equip ourselves to manage and cope with uncertainty, it causes stress, and activates our sympathetic nervous system. The creation of categories and containers increases certainty and can help to calm our nervous system.

Categories and containers are necessary. We NEED them to make sense of the world. However, these categories can become a huge problem when we don’t manage them mindfully and instead allow them to become rigid and mindless.

Let’s examine this a little closer.

Organizing Data

Data comes at us every second of the day. As discussed above, the only way to make sense of all this information is to create containers and categories. If we didn’t do this, we’d feel absolutely overwhelmed.

The creation of categories helps us construct meanings from what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste. Most of these meanings are automatic. When we walk into a room and see a chair, we know how to sit down. With little to no conscious assessment of the structure, we sit down, trusting that it will support us.

When we take a trip to a new city, we realize how much our lives revolve around all the existing, unexamined categories and containers we have. Travel challenges our sense of what’s “normal” and forces us to rethink our routines and schedules.

Have you ever stayed at a friend’s house, a hotel, or an Airbnb and felt a disruption in this routine? Perhaps you fiddle for 5 minutes with a coffee maker you don’t know how to use, only to give up and decide to visit a cafe instead. Then you hop in the shower and stare at the facet for a long time trying to figure out how to get it to work, only to give up and have a bath.

If every minute of our lives we had to relearn things we already knew, we might fall over from sheer and utter exhaustion.

Bigger than Coffee Makers and Showers

However, this issue is bigger than just categorizing simple stimuli like coffee makers and showers. Our brains work the same to categorize more abstract ideas and beliefs.

When something happens to us in life, we put a meaning to it, and that meaning informs our worldview.

Let’s look at an example

In 8th grade Sarah struggled with math. She tried very hard but continually failed her math tests. She also heard the message at home that girls are bad at math and sciences. The meaning she gave to her experience was that she is bad at math and that, in fact, ALL girls and women just don’t have the ability to tackle math well. Her experience and that messaging reinforced one another, and this meaning then created her worldview that she continues to apply to both herself and to other women. She avoids anything that involves math, and her finances are a bit of a mess. This affects her career choices. When she parents her own children, it influences how she addresses math with her own children.

What Sarah didn’t consider was that her 8th grade math teacher actually wasn’t a great teacher, which made learning math really hard. If she’d had a different experience with her math teacher, if she had received a different message at home, or if she had challenged the meaning she gave to her experience of failing, Sarah may have realized that she could definitely manage math pretty well.

Our belief system is made of meaning that we give to categories such as:

  • Individual values
  • What it means to be a good person
  • Importance of family
  • Expectations of friendship
  • Expectations of romantic relationships
  • Belief in God, religion, or atheism
  • Political belief
  • The role education plays in one’s life
  • Our feelings about conflict
  • Work ethic
  • Beliefs about our own and other people’s skill levels
  • Beliefs we have about people of other races, genders, ages, abilities, etc.…
  • Our relationship with money

These beliefs are deeply embedded in our subconscious, and they guide us when we make decisions and discern situations.

These beliefs are deeply embedded in our subconscious and they guide us when we make decisions. While categories and containers are needed, they can become problematic if we forget that we have them. We must continue to examine them, otherwise we get stuck seeing the world from a single perspective. When we do that, we’re more apt to make big, sweeping judgements about others without even realizing we’re doing it. These judgments then become our capital “T” TRUTHs we believe should apply to everyone, instead of our own personal “truths” that are there to help us create meaning and organize all the information that comes our way.

The goal is always to:

  1. Be aware that we have a worldview
  2. Be mindful that these categories and containers exist (as they are often unconscious to us)
  3. Mindfully examine our worldview, categories and containers so we can choose to expand and challenge them. By doing so, we’ll then intentionally see the world differently.

Questioning our strongly-held beliefs supports us to expand our categories and containers. This doesn’t mean that we must change our minds

The act of self-reflection and questioning is more important than any conclusions we may reach in the process. In fact, examination, and not change, is the goal. And perhaps in the process of examination, we might decide to change.

Connecting with Others While Acknowledging our Worldview

Some relationships are ripe for misunderstandings because we may see something so differently than another person. When we come from different worldviews it can be hard to see eye to eye.

A practice we can engage in that supports the building of strong connections is to intentionally approach the relationship from a place of not knowing. Get curious. Rather than assuming others have the same perspective and worldview as us (and then, when we find out they don’t, fighting to convince them why we’re right and they’re wrong), get interested in learning about their worldview. Seek to understand and empathize with it first. Cultivating empathy supports us to see our own worldview and to try to see someone else’s.

An important aspect of empathy is perspective-taking. Challenging our assumptions and biases means we need to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.

In her lecture entitled Creativity and the Evolution of Culture, Harvard professor Dr. Ellen Langer says:

When you are mindful, you are actively noticing things. You are actively drawing distinctions, forming categories. When you are mindless, you’re relying on the categories and distinctions that you have drawn in the past. When you’re mindful, you’re sensitive to context. When you’re mindful your behavior does not have to be chaotic. It can be rule and routine guided-it’s just not rule and routine governed.

For Reflection

  • In reading this section of the module, do you think it’s easier for you to notice other people’s biases and assumptions  than it is for you to notice your own? Why or why not?
  • What are some practices you can do to begin noticing when your worldview is impacting your interactions with others?


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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