SIFT to shift

10.5 min read

SIFT is about taking an inventory of the sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts that are passing through us at any given moment.”

Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson called The Whole Brain Child

Oxford defines awareness as knowledge or perception of a situation or fact

We use awareness in many forms, let’s focus on two styles – and how we transition (or struggle to transition between the two).

  1. Narrow Awareness: Looking at a piece of the pie and thinking it’s the whole thing.

Example: I am worried that I am not doing the most I can for my children. I feel like a bad parent. They should be enrolled in at least 3 after-school activities like all the other kids. How do I make sure that they are safe when I can’t supervise their play time? 

Narrow Awareness is focused on a particular hue or a narrow range of emotion. If we had to give this style of awareness a color it would be gray, because a predominant emotion blankets everything in our scope of awareness. 

  1. Holistic Awareness: Equally paying attention to all the emotions that life is filled with. 

Example: Providing for my children makes me happy. I am worried that I am not doing the most I can for them. I get really tired at the end of the day, and often feel like I don’t have time for my own needs. It brings a smile to my face when I see them smile.

Holistic Awareness is a range of many emotions; it’s seeing that there are many pieces to the pie of life – some are happy moments, some scary while others are simply confusing. Together these pieces make up your experience of living in a more balanced way.

What we struggle with is how to shift our states of awareness from Narrow to Holistic, especially when we are caught in a downward spiral (obsessing about one small part of our life). 

I found an answer that can make this journey easier, in a book written by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson called The Whole Brain Child. Yes, I am reading a parenting book even though I don’t have any kids or have any plans for one soon. I figured if this advice works for kids – it probably works for us adults too. 

In the book, they introduce a concept called the Wheel of Awareness. Imagine yourself in the middle, and the spokes of the wheel lead outwards to the many things that we are “aware” of at any moment – the pressure of my fingers as I type this, my dog wanting me to play fetch with her, the hair that is tickling my chin, the light creating shadows on the wall, the faint sound of the heater as the music plays through my headphones… etc. 

What’s on the rim of the wheel is ever-changing – this is normal Holistic Awareness behavior. Sometimes our wheel gets stuck – shifting us into Narrow Awareness. When stuck, we start hyper-focusing on a few thoughts/emotions, spiraling into a cycle that we can’t find a way out of.

To transition from Narrow to Holistic Awareness, and have your wheel running smoothly again – all we need to do is SIFT.

SIFT is about taking an inventory of the sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts that are passing through us at any given moment. 

Let’s walk through the four steps of SIFT in more detail:

Sensations: What does [the event in question] feel like in your body? Where do you feel it? 

The first step is to identify what sensations your body was feeling when the event in question happened. For example, you and your partner got into another argument about finances. As you were thinking about the fight later, did you recollect that your jaw was clenching, that you avoided eye contact, or that your palms were sweating? Was there a hollowness in your stomach, or tension in your forehead that a headache was on the way? 

The body and our emotional processing of events are closely linked. Taking inventory or our sensations as we go through a present or past experience enables us to better understand the link between physical cues and our emotional response. This information is how we rewire our mental models and choose different behaviors going forward. 

Images: What did you picture in your mind as the sensations passed? 

The next step is to ask yourself what images were you creating in your mind as the situation was unfolding. In the example above where you find yourself in another argument, maybe your mind starts pulling up memories from the last time you fought, or other instances in which you and your partner end up fighting

Taking inventory of the images that we create as we go through an experience enables us to understand the associations that we are forming between separate concepts in our minds. Neurons that fire together, wire together.

Feelings: What did the images you see feel like? What feelings did they create?

The third step is to ask yourself what feelings do the images in your mind create. For example, every time you and your partner have the same argument, you start to feel a sense of dread. You feel hopeless, because it seems like the two of you can’t seem to get past this specific issue – regardless of what you try, time and time again you find yourself arguing again. You might feel despair, you don’t want to find yourself in a similar situation in the future, but you feel resigned that things will change. 

By taking inventory of our feelings, we can start to understand where those feelings are anchored – in what images and sensations. And also show ourselves that feelings come and go. Between each repeated argument, there are good days and happy moments – and those are not to be discounted. Remembering the happy moments doesn’t make dealing with the argument any easier – it shows you that there is a larger picture. And what you feel in this moment is a small drop in that ocean.

Thoughts: As you were experiencing the feelings, what thoughts were running through your head? 

The fourth and final step is to ask yourself what thoughts you are associating with the feelings. This is the internal narrative that we assign to our feelings. For example, when you feel hopeless maybe you tell yourself that things will never get better. Or when you feel dread, you tell yourself no matter what happens next time, I will do whatever it takes to avoid this argument, even if that means keeping my mouth shut and just agreeing with my partner. 

Our thoughts create the behavior that we will employ to either continue feeling or avoid feeling the emotions we identified in the previous step. Taking inventory of the language that we are using in our thoughts to make sense of our emotions gives us a chance to check in with ourselves and realize that “never” is an overgeneralization, and that avoidance as a form of creating peace isn’t healthy for you or your relationship. But until you inventory your thoughts, you won’t know where to start making sustainable change.

SIFTing allows us to create context and see the bigger picture. SIFTing reminds us that we have a say in where our attention goes, and we don’t have to be held hostage by our emotions. We can proactively choose what we are aware of – and therefore where we spend our time and energy.

While SIFT may feel overwhelming the first few times you try it, the power of SIFTing comes not from taking a comprehensive inventory of your sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts – but rather from using it as a tool to check in with yourself when you see that you are obsessing over the same thing, or walking down a path or behavior you want to change. You can also use this tool proactively, to reinforce choices that you are making that you want to continue making.

The reason I love this framework is that Dan and Tina thought that kids can learn how to SIFT and reap the benefits of the wheel of awareness – who is to say that we adults can’t do the same? 

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