Context and Contrast Why You Need Them

Context and Contrast Why You Need Them

During the height of our recent recession, I heard people comparing it to the Great Depression. In my mind I was like C’mon, was it really as bad as the

C’mon, was it really as bad as the GREAT DEPRESSION?

During the Great Depression, they had soup kitchens and mile-long lines just to get bread. At least we had Facebook and Starbucks to pass the time. Lol, no comparison, right?

Despite this, I guarantee most of us don’t feel any better knowing that it could be soup kitchen and bread line worse. When we hear people tell us “it could be worse,” we think, “I’m already drowning and here you go throwing me a life vest made of bricks. Thanks for nothing…” Well, guess what: a life vest made of bricks, one that pulls you to the bottom of the lake, may be the best thing in the world for you. Here’s why:

Everything Begins and Ends With Context

Before we talk about brick life vests let’s first discuss psychology rule number one: that how we feel about anything depends on context more than anything else. Meaning, our perspective and how we think about things is more important than the “actual condition” we find ourselves in.

For example, say you’re walking down the street with a friend, and you find $100 on the sidewalk. How would you feel? Most likely you would feel good about an extra hundred bucks in your pocket. Now suppose three minutes later your friend finds $10,000. Now what? Of course, you’re happy for him, but how do you feel about the $100 you found earlier?

Not that hot, because all of a sudden $100 extra means nothing when the person next to you walks away with ten grand. Now let me ask you, did the $100 change? No, It was the context, how you thought about the $100, that changed. At first the context was “Yes, I found $100!” Now it’s “Damn, that lucky bastard found $10,000.” When the context changes, you see things totally differently.

Context is Controlled By Contrast

This leads me to psychology rule number two: that nothing is more powerful in shifting context than the principle of contrast. Meaning, when we sense differences, especially big differences, it influences the context of our thinking.

For example, if your friend only found $200 most likely it wouldn’t change how you felt about your $100. But the contrast between $100 and $10,000 is too huge to ignore. One is a night out at Red Lobster, the other is a trip around the world. It’s the contrast, the large gap between the two that compels new thinking and ultimately leaves you feeling cheated. Imagine that: you’re feeling cheated “ONLY” finding $100.

The lesson to take away from this is that we have two key tools to influence our thinking and feelings at any given time. All we need to do is gain the proper perspective and context, and then deepen how we feel and think about it through contrast.

Put it Together and You Have a Brick Life Vest

Just yesterday I found myself needing a pick me up. I was on a business trip to Atlanta and for some reason my thinking went off the deep end. I started to feel like I didn’t have much and that I haven’t lived up to expectations. You know the feeling, like the cup is half empty, and what’s left is slowly leaking out a hole in the bottom. We’ve all been there…

I didn’t like where things were going so I thought about how I might put things into context. I pulled my car over, parked, grabbed my iPod, then proceeded to walk down the street.

Before I go on, let me give you a little context. It was 21 degrees with the windchill and all I had on was a suit. Also, I’d never been to this neighborhood, and it was in the middle of the hood somewhere in Buckhead. And stood out wearing a suit and parking a Mercedes.

Back to the story. I’m walking, freezing, listening to my music, and trying to focus on finding the right context to shift my thinking and emotions. I take note of the people, people who look just like me. Some homeless, some hanging out on the corner, and others looking hopeless as if this was all life had to offer. I notice the half-abandoned buildings, liquor stores, and all the other stuff that goes with being in the middle of the hood.

With each step my emotions stiffened. My music seemed to edge me closer and closer to the realization that my people were living here in “real pain.” The thought almost made me cry as it sparked memories of my hometown in Oakland, California – a place where many of my family and friends still live like this. The key word, “live,” resonated with me because they are living despite the conditions.

Ten minutes later I made it around the block and back to my car. It was a relief for three reasons.

One, I couldn’t feel my hands or feet;
two, I made it back to my car OK;
and three, my car was still there.

Pampered by modern technology, I reach for my door, and it opens automatically. I sit down in the cold leather seats and push the ignition button, blowing into my hands trying to warm them. I pause and remember that I can push another button, and the seats heat up. As I push that button, I laugh at myself for even considering my plight difficult. I close my eyes and say “Thank you.”

Context changed, contrast found.

Don’t Run, Go Deeper


Why go through all this? Because in twenty minutes I not only turned around my negative funk, but I also made it fuel to go on. That’s two for the price of one. Feeling better and inspired to live, I’m still riding the high of that experience.

Now ask yourself, did your last down moment serve you or just beat you up? How long did it last?  Was it a few minutes, hours, days, weeks? And when you came out of it, where you inspired? By finding context and contrast, I was served by what had the potential to ruin my business trip, day, week, and who knows what else.

The point is that you can do the same the next time you go into to a negative funk party. Instead of trying to get away, try to deepen your thoughts and feelings. Put on a life vest of bricks and go to the bottom of the lake so that you can see just how dark and murky the water of life can truly be.

When you do this, it creates a context that serves you and ultimately helps you rise when you see that your issues aren’t really issues at all. You will find strength in darkness by deepening the contrast, by imagining the contrast of how bad it could be, how bad it used to be, and how bad it might be if you don’t do something.

You can also use contrast to compare past experiences, the things you went through, or what others have went through before you. All these thoughts create the distance to ground you in the resounding fact that “it could be worse and right now things are not as bad as they may seem.”

That’s the power we have to turn negative feelings and thoughts into fuel for good. So don’t run; embrace what “brings you down” by going deeper. Here’s how you do that.

How to Create Context and Contrast?


The key to using this is to make sure you get beyond the simple unenergized thought “it could be worse.” As you know, that doesn’t work. You have to do whatever it takes to make sure you FEEL the context. And you do that by making sure you create massive contrast. The more the better. Your goal is to prove it could be worse by doing whatever it takes to make it clear as day that it actually could be worse.

I’m an extremist, so I opt for engaging what pains me on the deepest level. For you it may a lot simpler. Maybe you could visit a relevant place, call someone that’s in a worse predicament than you, visit a shelter, or maybe go online.

Try this: do a Google search on “starving kid videos.” Ten minutes of watching emaciated bodies will be enough to open you up the thought that your life isn’t all that bad. Just think about it – it’s pretty hard to complain when you become conscious of the fact that something like 20,000 kids die each day from hunger. (Now close your eyes and say “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You”)

Also note this works for positive experiences as well. If you want to deepen your appreciation and connection to a positive feeling or thought, consider what life would be like without what you’re enjoying. By doing this you will create contrast that will deepen the context of the pleasure you’re seeking. For example, if you’re happy about the birth of your child, also consider what life would be like without that child. Or consider just how many kids are born with life-threatening illnesses. It doesn’t matter what you consider as long as it snaps you into a hyper-thankful and appreciative state.

A Simple Formula for Creating Contrast and Context

  • Feel Like Crap – do whatever it takes to consider life worse than it actually is – search for context – once found, deepen it with contrast (something that invokes emotion – music, people, experiences, etc.
  • Feeling Good – do whatever it takes to consider life without whatever is helping you feel good – search for context – then deepen it with contrast to feel even better.

So there you have it: brick life vests do work when you are drowning in your own thoughts and feelings. Anyone up for a swim?

— Side note —

Oh, as a side-note, context and contrast can be counterproductive too – like when you’re feeling down and the person with you has what you want. In that case they create the contrasting feeling of you “not having,” and that can suck.

For example, you lose your boyfriend and your girlfriend with the perfect boyfriend tries to comfort you. She means well, but the pain and contrast that she creates can make it a little worse.

But if you first create contrast and stabilize the feelings by seeing how things could be worse, then perfect boyfriend Suzy will serve as inspiration instead of being annoying. All because you see the potential of how bad it could be and at the same the potential of what to look forward to.

Out… H.X.

Be Sure To Connect With Me Here