Archive for the ‘Change’ Category

Introspection Part 6, Self-acceptance

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Introspection Part 6, self-acceptance

I recently said the following to a client struggling with shame: “The opposite of shame is not pride. The opposite of shame is self-acceptance.” Moving toward self-acceptance requires self-knowledge, which in turn requires introspection.

In Part 2 of this series of blog posts on introspection, I attempted to lay out the basic benefits of introspection, focusing mostly on how we can recognize our patterns of interactions by looking at our internal responses to various situations over time. In this way, introspection is about gaining self-awareness with the goal of personal growth and change through self-awareness. Great. Good goals. These are not the “ultimate” goals though. They are a pathway to get us there. The ideal goal for knowing yourself is to accept yourself as fully “okay” as you are now, while also learning what is possible for you to do to become what you want to be.

I hope it goes without saying that you can’t really accept yourself unless you know yourself. “Know Thyself” is the mantra of introspection—and is the basic tenet of pretty much everything I try to foster in providing therapy services and a standard I try to live by every day of my own life. I encourage you to do the same.

I am not alone in this—the idea that the goal of introspection is a greater sense of self-acceptance. Consider the steps in any 12 step recovery program. The gist of them all is self-acceptance achieved after a specific process of introspection. First, you acknowledge the main problem (step 1: addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc.), then you reach out for help from others and a higher power (Steps 2 and 3), then you do a deep dive into yourself (step 4: “made a searching and fearless moral inventory”), then share what you have discovered about yourself that bothers you (step 5), then look at your character defects and flaws (steps 6 and 7), eventually getting to a maintenance kind of introspection (step 10: “continued to take personal inventory [introspection] and when we were wrong promptly admitted it [self-acceptance].”

How you find your way from self-knowledge to self-acceptance will be unique to you. There are, as is made clear by the 12-step approach, various tried and true approaches that have been successfully used by millions of people. The basic tenets of many religious practices have within them the goal of greater self-acceptance (e.g. Buddhism). The one thing all these paths or methods have in common is to first explore who you think you are now, including how you feel about yourself, and then compare that to what you think you are supposed to be. Self-acceptance amounts to reducing this discrepancy and eliminating the comparison, to rid ourselves entirely of the notion of what we “are supposed to be.”

What then, though? If we completely accept ourselves as we are now, with no ideal for us to compare ourselves to, doesn’t this mean that we will have given up on and walked away from self-improvement? It could. So, here’s a solution. Replace the concept of “what I am supposed to be” with “what do I want to be.” Growth is then possible, but without detracting from what you already are with harmfully negative messages about yourself. None of this matters, though, unless you are first able to say and believe this: “I am okay as I am right now.”

This is self-acceptance, and it also makes it easier for you to demand from others in all your relationships a basic level of respect. In that sense, self-acceptance leads to self-respect. It might be worthwhile for you to read the chapter I included in Firewalking on Jupiter about self-respect. In that chapter, I describe self-respect as based on the notion that we can expect others to accept us exactly as we are, no more no less, or “I am that I am.” The point of this post is that we can strive for and learn how to say to ourselves (with complete acceptance as an ideal),“I am that I am” as the first step toward positive change in the story of ourself.

One method that works toward greater self-acceptance is to “count up” rather than “counting down.” When counting up, you emphasize and remind yourself often what you are and what you have done, rather than what you are not, and what you have not done.

Denise is 32. She finished college later than her friends because she started having children in her early 20s and wanted to focus on time with her two daughters while they were young. Her children are now both in full-time elementary school so she has decided to resume her career goals. Denise is overwhelmed by feeling she has missed her opportunity. She compares herself to her friends and her sister and brother, all of whom, according to her, are well on their way to success and financial security. She doesn’t know where to begin, feels like a failure, feels hopeless.

In our first therapy sessions I ask Denise to focus on what she does know, what she has done, what she can bring to her career options, rather than focusing on what she doesn’t know, hasn’t done, can’t bring. I ask her to identify the times she is making negative comparisons of herself to the others she knows in her relative age group. She is able to identify that she did well in school, and although her college degree isn’t obviously helpful (English major) to something specific, she does want to write as part of her job. She goes back through some of her college essays, writings, journals, and even poetry, and is delighted to (re)discover her talents and enthusiasm. She volunteers to write for a local nonprofit’s newsletter, then she uses this to augment her resume and application to obtain a part-time and then later a full-time job working in the marketing department of a fairly large local finance firm. At each step, I remind her to “count up” her achievements; to take stock of her accomplishments, skill sets, all of the things she can bring to the table. With each step, her level of self-acceptance increases, and the negative comparisons she makes about herself with others decreases.

There is nothing about Denise’s process that eliminates the potential for personal growth by getting rid of these negative comparisons. Denise still makes comparisons, but not about what she has done or who she is in comparison to what others have done or what they think she should be. Now, she compares what she has done today to what she had done a year ago (counting up) and then compares this to what she hopes to accomplish next year. She can fully accept the choices she has made for herself and her family while holding herself to a standard that she sets for herself.

Denise provides a good example of how introspection can lead to self-acceptance which can then lead to a more positive attitude and set of behaviors that allow us to achieve our goals. She started out feeling shame and guilt for focusing on her children rather than her career, but then recognized that this was a choice she’d made for good reasons, and that the choice didn’t need to be viewed negatively. Denise’s success in therapy was gratifying and worthwhile for her and I was glad to observe her progress.

Other clients struggle with much deeper issues with self-acceptance, based on shame, fear, and confusion, which are often based in turn on abuse, neglect, or physical and sexual violence perpetrated upon them. Self-acceptance in these cases can be much more difficult to obtain, but is no less important for growth than it was for Denise. In all cases, self-acceptance requires first identifying sources that hinder our capacity to say to ourselves, “I am just fine exactly how I am right now.” Once these hindrances, these barriers, are identified, they can be actively removed. They might be messages from a past relationship or a current relationship. Removing these barriers might involve replacing negative thoughts about a specific aspect of ourselves with something less negative (from “I am fat and gross” to “I am overweight and am taking action to be more fit”). Sometimes, removing barriers from self-acceptance means making significant changes in our relationships with a person or several people. A client in an interracial marriage might need to be more vocal about their desire to integrate more of their ethnicity into their lives and their children’s lives. An adult child might need to tell a parent to stop giving them unsolicited advice and judgments about their lifestyle choices. A teen who is being bullied in school might need to bring in the support of her parents, school staff, or even switch schools if that doesn’t work.

After identifying these barriers to self-acceptance and beginning to make changes to remove them, it is important to set out in some way we can remember the basic building blocks we already possess to be satisfied with ourselves as we are now. I cannot tell you the number of times (but it is large) that clients have begun to glow in therapy sessions after I ask them to identify their “personal values.” Often, at first, they don’t even know how to answer the question. With some help, or none at all, they almost always begin to recite what they consider important about being a good person, living a good life, whatever that happens to mean to them. Implicit in this recognition of their values, they begin to see that what they want for themselves and their lives is actually achievable if they just think about it more often, more intentionally. They begin to see that they already possess within themselves the ideas they need and the identity they have to be what they want to be, what they think they should be.

I have discussed much of this kind of exploration in the following blog posts: “The Location of Morality,” “Defiant Morality,” and “Defining Morality.” I will have more to say on the connection between introspection, self-acceptance and morality in later blogs. For now, though, I will just say introspection can tell us about who and what we are, as well as who and what we have thought we were supposed to be. Introspection can also tell us who we want to be, so we can replace the morality of others with our own sense of what is right and wrong for us. With this self-defined morality in place, we will be in a much better position to tell those around us who and what we are, what we expect from them, and how we can be with them in a way that is consistent with how we view ourselves. This is a natural extension of self-acceptance: “I know myself and accept myself exactly as I am, which allows me to know you and accept you exactly as you are.” The next blog post will explain more about this concept, which I call “Intersubjectivity.”

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

 

Introspection Part 3, Why do we avoid our inner lives

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

I hope I made a convincing case in Part 2 of this discussion on introspection—that exploring your inner life has some very tangible (and intrinsic) benefits, including predictability and flexibility (in how you interact with others). I hope I also made it clear that, without introspection, there is really no way for a person to change their patterns of interactions. Thus, without introspection, without a willingness to engage in meaningful self-exploration, a person will be stuck exactly where they are. They will not learn, grow, change, or be more likely to have what they want for themselves or from others.

If introspection is so important (and it is), why would anyone want to avoid it? At its core, one word: pain. Okay, well its actually three words: fear of pain. Emotional pain. The justifications, reasons, and explanations I have heard from many, many people about their desire to avoid “unnecessary” or “pointless” introspection are all window dressing, melarky, and excuses to avoid the real truth. The same thing goes for those who claim they are just not “introspective,” as if it is in their nature to have little or no self-awareness, that they were born that way. Not true. It can’t be. We humans are built to be introspective. If we are not, it is because we have, perhaps without realizing it, decided not to be.

Avoidance of self-exploration can really only have one reason, the desire to avoid the uncomfortable states and insights that would come with it. The specific nature of discomfort, emotional pain and difficult insights are greatly varied among individuals, but they all account for why people avoid introspection. Put it this way, can you think of any other honest reason to avoid getting to know yourself? If you could know yourself, what other reason would there be to avoid it? I know this is circular logic, but I also think it is effective in explaining my reason for believing that we avoid introspection, not ever because it is useless or pointless, but because we don’t want to feel and see what it makes us see and feel. I will even say that the thing we most want to avoid by avoiding introspection and self-awareness is this: inadequacy. We do not want to be in a state of realizing or concluding how and to what extent we are not the kind of person we think we should be.

Think of introspection as a kind of “inner mirror.” We are looking at ourselves, if honestly, as we actually are, not as we want to think we are. If we see who we truly are, we are bound to see things we don’t like about ourselves because we all have imperfections, character defects, flaws, or whatever other name you want to use to describe the issues that come with the complexity of being human. And actually, that’s part of the point—to see the things we don’t want to see but need to see in order to change them. It is not unlike stepping on a scale. We may not want to do it, because we might see that we need to make some changes to lose weight, but we won’t really have a good idea of how much weight to lose (or maybe we won’t need to lose weight) until we step on the scale. Our inner mirror, introspection, can be a very painful experience, even when things in our lives are going relatively well.

The pain we fear as part of introspection might come in the form of memories that tell us about unresolved issues from our past (remorse), friends or family members we have lost and won’t be getting back (grief), or career changes we’ve been meaning to explore but haven’t acted on (confusion and fear). If we allow ourselves to experience the remorse of unresolved issues, we might feel the needed compulsion to take the action necessary to resolve them. Feeling grief over lost friends might encourage us to reach out to other friends, or make new friends. Confusion and fear about career changes might remind us why we feel so stuck in our current job and generate ideas about how to solve the “stuckness.”

Deep introspection, though, is not so much about what we happen to be thinking or feeling about any particular situation or issues. This is important, but it is not the most important part of introspection, or the part that makes so many people avoid it. Going deeper, if introspection is to have a lasting value, will be about exploring at our core level who we are as a person. This can be very, very difficult. It requires an acknowledgment up front that there is always room to grow, there are always problems with who we are; no one is perfect. It requires some level of humility—an acceptance of our own limitations, imperfections. Many people simply do not want to entertain these things, primarily, I think, because they wrongly assume that humility is synonymous with humiliation or shame. They mistakenly think that accepting that they are limited (and of course they are, we all are), means they will end up in some kind of downward spiral of inadequacy. They fear that they will discover some aspect of themselves that cannot be overcome, changed, and that it means they are somehow permanently or fundamentally flawed or broken. Such people usually already suspect this is true, or believe it to be true, so like a wound that has never healed, that still causes pain, they try to ignore it, as best they can. Not good. Like any wound that will not heal and is ignored, it will fester, and this includes emotional wounds as well as physical wounds.

It’s always a shame to think of someone living their entire lives with unaddressed and therefore unresolved pain about their very nature. Not necessary, completely avoidable, and so sad. I say this, having worked in the prisons for many years and met many people who you might think can never overcome feeling bad about themselves for what they have done. With very few exceptions, we can all become better than we were, better than we are, if we are willing to look at who we are, what we have done, and what we need and can do to make the kinds of changes that will redeem us, if not to others, then at least to ourselves. But, we must believe this is at least worth trying, that it is at least a possibility. Many of us, unfortunately, do not. So they drink, smoke, gamble, etc. to dim, to numb, to avoid, the pain of what they will not face, or believe they cannot face.

Let’s move out from the person whose fears of pain and feelings of inadequacy are the main reason for avoiding self-exploration. I’m not backing off on that thought. But, let’s take this person “in context” (where he is in his life, where he comes from). In this case, there’s a reason I use “he” for our imagined introspective-avoidant person. In context, most men are told from a very early age that exploration of feelings is something to be avoided. Boys are told in myriad ways that attending to their feelings at all is not acceptable, is bad—that it makes them weak, unwanted, excluded, and likely to be a target of aggression by other boys. Parents tell their boys, “stop crying.” A boy who cries on the playground when injured is considered “a wuss” (or worse). He is a “poor sport,” a “baby,” “spoiled,” (or throw in some kind of homophobic attribute). As boys, we all learn very early, very quickly, and in some very severe and ugly ways that expressing our feelings is something to be avoided at all costs wherever possible. And if expressing feelings is bad, what could possibly be the point of exploring our feelings? To what end? Here’s another thing about introspection. We cannot express feelings without experiencing them. We can have feelings without experiencing those feelings (think, denial). It is impossible, though, to genuinely express a feeling without experiencing that feeling. Can you cry, real tears, without feeling sadness or pain? No. At some point, I will write a whole blog post on this issue, but just consider this a reason that men don’t express their feelings—to do so would require them to experience the feelings they are expressing, and they have been told in no uncertain terms they aren’t supposed to do either.

How likely is it that a boy subjected to this kind of harsh normative warning against being aware of and expressing his feelings, again and again, for years on end, at home, at school, at the playground, wherever he goes, is going to be comfortable with exploring and expressing his feelings when he grows up? Not too likely. What a shame. A crime, even. I’d even say it is amazing that any men in our society ever grow up to be able or willing to explore their feelings in an honest, transparent and consistent way. Every man who does so is overcoming a powerfully negative message against expressing their feelings or working through them. Talk about swimming upstream. It can only be done with tenacity, fortitude and a deep inner strength. To all men willing to give this a try, I can only encourage you in whatever way makes sense for you. To all of you, congratulations. You have my sincere admiration and respect. I can only tell you, from where I stand, it is worth the (often very difficult) effort to overcome what you have (wrongly) learned about self-exploration, weakness, what it supposedly means to be a man (and hide your feelings), and all of that garbage. Tragic, really, that we continue to do this to our boys and men. What a shame. What a waste. Completely unnecessary.

Let’s zoom out again to explore other reasons we (not just boys and men) avoid introspection. If our imagined person is either a woman or a man, her or his family of origin (who she or he lived with as a child) might have had their own normative rules (“you better not…”) against the expression of feelings. “Don’t air your dirty laundry!” “Keep it to yourself!” “Children are to be seen and not heard!” Or, in a more mild or subtle way, just growing up with parents who never role modeled how to express feelings, which is its own way of sending the message that neither should anyone else, including the children. Zooming out even further, this family may come from a cultural background that has its own prohibitive messages and rules about expressing any kind of negative feelings, especially in public, which could apply equally to males and females, or could be more directed at either one. The point here is that there are forces outside of us that might strongly inhibit our capacity and desire to be introspective, and I wanted to acknowledge that part of the issue.

The lengths we go to avoid introspection and self-awareness and the harm it often causes is really astounding. I addressed this in Firewalking on Jupiter, “Mental Health, Part 2,” which bears repeating here. What happens if you refuse to engage in self-exploration when you really need to do so, continuing to avoid the issues in your inner life that need to be addressed? Drug addicts continue to use drugs to escape, with all the trouble that comes with addiction. Victims in an abusive relationship continue to be abused. Past trauma continues to haunt its victims, controlling their decisions and causing problems in their current relationships in ways they do not understand and cannot control. Family childhood issues like mistrust, honesty, secrets, denial, feeling unwanted, impossible expectations, are projected onto current work or home situations that make life difficult without it having to be so difficult. If a person is unable or unwilling to address serious issues of their inner selves, the behavior they use to avoid those issues (e.g. alcohol, drugs, gambling, workaholic, unstable relationships, etc.) can itself be highly destructive. Even if people are not engaged in highly destructive behaviors of avoidance, those issues will continue to have a negative impact on their lives until they are understood and addressed.

Where do we go from here? Now that I’ve identified some of the reasons for avoiding introspection, from prohibitions against it growing up, or avoiding emotional pain, to simply not having had role models to show you how, I will provide in the next blog post a number of useful tools to help you get started on introspection and then describe ways to sustain the process for a lifetime of self-discovery and personal growth.

 

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

 

Hypervigilance

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

I am always thrilled when a client brings an insight to me that reflects an understanding of their issues at a fairly deep level, especially when they are able to use language they find helpful to explain how they use their insights to address their own difficulties. So, please, if you are either a client now or might some day plan to be a client, I hope you’ll express your insights in our sessions in whatever language you find helpful.

Recently this happened when a client noted in her first session that she had struggled with “hypervigilance” for years as the result of previous trauma in her life. When she used the word, she immediately began to explain what she meant by the term, perhaps believing I didn’t understand her use of the term, especially in relationship to her experience of trauma. I stayed silent, appreciating her need to explain herself, but then when she finished, I let her know that I’d been introducing the term to clients who suffer trauma for years. She was pleased about this. I was pleased she had given it so much thought.

I introduce the term “hypervigilance” to trauma victims who so often know they experience it, they know it is unusual, they know it can be very uncomfortable, and that others might react to it very negatively. What trauma sufferers do not often know is that they are not alone in this experience, that they are not weird, and that in fact hypervigilance is a very normal and understandable reaction to the experience of trauma, especially when that trauma occurs in childhood, and is experienced repeatedly.

I suspect that part of the reason for writing this particular blog post is so that, next time it comes up (and it will), with a client who suffered from trauma and now experiences hypervigilance, I can just print this out for them, ask them to read it, and save us both the ten minutes it would take me to explain it, so we can move into a deeper discussion of its impact on them.

So, what is hypervigilance? Here’s what Wiki says:

Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. Hypervigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. Other symptoms include: abnormally increased arousal, a high responsiveness to stimuli, and a constant scanning of the environment.

In hypervigilance, there is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviors, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of activity, threat or trauma. The individual is placed on high alert in order to be certain danger is not near. Hypervigilance can lead to a variety of obsessive behavior patterns, as well as producing difficulties with social interaction and relationships.

This is just one website that gives hypervigilance a generalized definition, but it does get the point across. As a beginning point to the topic of hypervigilance, one aspect of it that comes across from the Wiki definition is that it is a “symptom” that one “suffers” as the result of anxiety or stress. Later in the Wiki article on the topic, it specifically mentions that it is a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other forms of anxiety. So, in a word, hypervigilance is a bummer. It is tiring, exhausting even. It often causes its subject to be restless almost all the time (ergo the word “perpetual” to describe the “panning” of the environment). It is a taxing thing to have all this heightened awareness, and then to react with a startled response when that awareness encounters an actual sign of danger. The Wiki article also does something very important in describing hypervigilance by noting that it is not the same thing as “paranoia,” although the article doesn’t really explain the difference. Paranoia is a delusional state in which the person believes that someone or others are attempting to hurt them in some way, that danger exists, even when in objective reality (the reality we see but they don’t) no one is actually trying to harm them or wants to harm them. Hypervigilance is not delusional. It is a state of readiness in case objective reality becomes harmful. A person who experiences hypervigilance without paranoia doesn’t see things, hear things, or believe things that are not there. He or she is just more attuned to all of the things that are actually there, even when the rest of us might ignore them as no big deal.

Here’s a kind of funny story (I say “kind of funny” because it could have turned out very badly, but didn’t) about my own experience of hypervigilance many years ago to give the term and the idea a real world scenario. I was an attorney and had been working at the same law firm for several years. So, me and the guys, we got comfortable with each other, or so at least one of the other lawyers thought. He pulled a “bro” move on me (you know, like when a guy kind of gently punches another guy on the arm to say, aren’t we glad we’re both guys, and friends, and all that). Well he did that while partially behind me and on the side. My hypervigilance and startle response kicked in automatically. I saw his fist coming toward me from the corner of my vision. Without thinking about it at all, I ducked, turned quickly, grabbed his arm, swung him around and tried to restrain him. He turned red, started yelling expletives at me, and I immediately let him go. Fortunately, my own experience with hypervigilance has simmered down quite a bit over the decades since that story.

Fatigue, anxiety, worry, startle response, constant levels of edginess and tension; these are all the unfortunate side effects of hypervigilance. As the story above demonstrates, inappropriate behavior or responses caused by the hypervigilance can be a serious problem. In therapy, trauma sufferers seek to find a place in the external world, and in their inner lives, where they able to find a reprieve, a rest, a break from their hypervigilance, as part of their healing process. This is addressed more deeply in the two chapters about the important role of safety in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter. Clients who suffered trauma also often tell me that their level of hypervigilance fades considerably as they work through their trauma. This makes sense, especially because their healing process is partly based on the recognition that they are no longer in the situation in which the trauma occurred and they have begun to see that they have power and ideas to prevent that trauma situation from re-occurring.

I’m not a huge proponent of the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” If that were true, then all the terrible things that have happened to all the people who have suffered terrible things, happened for some good “reason.” No. Terrible things happen. People are traumatized. They are abused, raped, thrown away, killed, and all kinds of other really awful things happen to them. So, terrible things happen. After they have happened, rather than trying to find a reason for it, my approach is to address it, in a safe manner, taking all the time you need, and if possible find some good, not in the thing that happened (there is no good there), but in how you can later use what happened for some good.

Now let’s get back to hypervigilance. I will use myself again as illustrative point. I was a trial lawyer. I liked going to trial (even though I was often very nervous about losing or doing something wrong or stupid in court). When I was in the courtroom, I often found myself doing this: watching the other lawyer questioning the witness, while also watching the jurors watching the judge’s reaction to the witness, while listening to my client tell me his or her observations, while taking notes about what the witness was saying, while reviewing documents that had been introduced as exhibits. All this at the same time. I often found myself paying attention to every person in the courtroom, including those coming into and leaving the courtroom. I was watching their body language, facial expressions, tone of speech, and then used it all to my advantage. I now use hypervigilance as a therapist, to help me pay attention to the same kinds of information. I might be meeting with a couple, or a family, and while talking to one of them, watching the others in the room out of the corner of my vision, to see if their body language or facial expression, or breathing changes, so I can get a better sense of how everyone is reacting to everyone else in the room. I even pay attention to the way I am sitting, talking, playing with something in my hand, while watching how a client reacts to this, not as a test, but as something I can’t really help doing, so I do it to collect information for my client’s benefit.

The point here is that hypervigilance is a bummer. A major bummer. It is tiring, and nerve-wracking, and its cause sucks, because it is the result of experiencing trauma, which just means terrible things that continue to scare the hell out of you, either as the subject of those things, the witness of those things, or both. Hypervigilance can be reduced by healing from the underlying trauma, so the experience of hypervigilance is no longer caused by the trauma itself and does not retrigger previous traumatic experiences. Hypervigilance can also be used in positive ways to enhance perceptive capabilities when that can be useful, but only when you become aware of the reasons it exists, when it is happening, and how to channel it as a positive force in your life.

 

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

 

Moral Conviction

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Where does moral conviction originate? Does it come from within? Is it instilled in us from something external? How does it arise? Do we need to pay attention to it, foster it, grow it, encourage it, for it to gain strength? Or, does it exist of its own accord, making itself known when the time is right? What is the value of moral conviction? What are its costs? What happens when we pay attention and act on our moral convictions? Conversely, what happens when we lack moral conviction, or maybe worse, when possess it but ignore it?

Now, to the task of getting some answers to these thorny questions. More importantly, and perhaps a bit more thorny given the subject matter, to do so without sounding preachy!

This question about the importance of moral conviction threw itself upon my thoughts recently while re-reading “The Brothers Karamazov” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky). I will share with you the passage that got me thinking about moral conviction. Before I do, I will give you the context of the passage. The character involved is Alyosha. He is a young man living in a monastery in Russia in the 1800s. His mentor, another monk, has told him he needs to leave the monastery for a while, to live in the world, to be among those outside the protection of the monastery who struggle with the realities of life, including temptation, confusion, tragedy. Shortly before the passage I am about to offer, Alyosha’s mentor (the Elder) has died, throwing Alyosha into an almost unbearable grief. The passage takes place just as Alyosha has an epiphany while praying over the coffin of his beloved mentor.

Again the coffin, the open window, and the soft, solemn, distinct reading of the Gospel. But Alyosha did not listen to the reading. It was strange, he had fallen asleep on his knees, but now he was on his feet, and suddenly, as though thrown forward, with three firm rapid steps he went right up to the coffin. His shoulder brushed against Father Païssy without his noticing it. Father Païssy raised his eyes for an instant from his book, but looked away again at once, seeing that something strange was happening to the boy. Alyosha gazed for half a minute at the coffin, at the covered, motionless dead man that lay in the coffin, with the ikon on his breast and the peaked cap with the octangular cross, on his head. He had only just been hearing his voice, and that voice was still ringing in his ears. He was listening, still expecting other words, but suddenly he turned sharply and went out of the cell. He did not stop on the steps either, but went quickly down; his soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran in two pale streams from the zenith to the horizon. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral gleamed out against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers, in the beds round the house, were slumbering till morning. The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars…. Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears,” echoed in his soul. What was he weeping over? Oh! in his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were shining to him from the abyss of space, and “he was not ashamed of that ecstasy.” There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over “in contact with other worlds.” He longed to forgive every one and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything. “And others are praying for me too,” echoed again in his soul. But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul. It was as though some idea had seized the sovereignty of his mind— and it was for all his life and for ever and ever. He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute. “Some one visited my soul in that hour,” he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words. Within three days he left the monastery in accordance with the words of his elder, who had bidden him “sojourn in the world.”

Here we have at play all of the questions I asked above, and more—that is the nature of Dostoevsky, very dense stuff, but rich, so rich! I highly recommend it. In this scene, Alyosha has an encounter with what will be a lifelong powerful and revelatory moral conviction. Much of the remainder of the book will explore the nature, the extent, and the power of that moral conviction and its impact on Alyosha, who ends up being the central character of the whole book. This is at least part of the nature of moral conviction: it is often not entirely clear what it means, or where it will lead us.

I take this passage to mean, and I copied it here for you because I happen to agree with it: that moral convictions, even when very powerful, are not always clear in their meaning or eventual use. What is more important in the moment at which we realize their existence is that moral convictions give us the power to act in accordance with the message of that conviction at that time, which is often necessary and important when we are faced with a very difficult situation, when we likely would not act the way we do without the moral conviction telling us we must. This is when we know somewhere deep inside ourselves there is a “right thing to do” and a “wrong thing to do.” So we rise above our instincts for self-protection, we risk much because to do otherwise would cause us the shame of ignoring what we now cannot deny, even if we can ignore, the “right” course of action.

And so, the cost of ignoring moral conviction is to shrink from taking action that may lead to the risk of struggle, to stand up for, or against, the prevailing winds, the tide, the current, by taking the path of least resistance, the safe course, which will eventually lead to a kind of moral humiliation, from which we end up running, expanding the negative consequences of acting against what we know to be right for us and the world we live in. I have in this discussion unintentionally yet essentially zoomed in on an overall theme I first raised in my blog post called “Defining Morality.” There I noted that many clients come to me after years of making decisions inconsistent with their own moral compass. Here I am saying there are important moments, moments when our convictions tell us the direction we believe we should take, which give us “waypoints” along our moral navigation that we have chosen to heed or to ignore. Moral convictions are like arrows at the forks of our moral road. We can still choose to take any decision we want, ignoring those arrows, but at the risk of becoming lost along the way, and having a great and difficult time getting back to the “right” path (for us), especially if we choose to ignore many of those arrows over time.

There can be a danger to paying attention to our moral convictions without due consideration. We must not blindly follow what we might think is the right course in the moment merely because it feels strong, feels like a moral conviction. What if what we think is a moral conviction leads us to ruin, to make bad decisions, to act contrary to otherwise sensible behavior in a very serious way? For situations in which the course is ambiguous, and the stakes are high, I have a few thoughts on this, which come down to three things: intent, prudence and humility. If we focus on the why of a thing we do before we do it, we are so much less likely to make the mistake of thinking a thing is moral conviction when it is actually something more base, something self-serving. The intention question is rather simple (but still not always easy to answer): Will I be doing this thing (insert action you intend to take) because I truly, honestly, deeply believe it to be the right thing to do? If so, can it really be a mistake? Prudence suggests we don’t just ask this question quickly, in passing, but give it real thought, seek support, guidance, objective viewpoints, and all the while “dig deep,” “know thyself,” “make a searching and fearless moral inventory” of your reasons, before acting. Finally, make sure you understand the consequences that may arise, and know that you are willing to live with those consequences because you feel you must in order to act in accordance with your convictions. This is where humility comes in: knowing that the limits of what seems important to you is not always important to others, knowing that the risks you are willing to take for yourself doesn’t mean you should risk negative consequences that will befall others, knowing that you are prone to mistakes as everyone is, which is why seeking the views of others is prudent.

The passage above from The Brothers Karamazov makes it pretty clear that Alyosha’s moral conviction came to him from an outside source: “’Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he used to say afterwards.” I take here no position on whether moral convictions come from internal or external sources. That is not my role. That is for you to decide, however you do (see my blog post, “Defiant Morality”). What is more important is that Alyosha noted the moral conviction, his need to leave the Monastery, to follow his mentor’s advice, to go out into the world. His attention to the moral conviction came from within him, regardless of whether its original source came from heaven or anywhere else.

Moral convictions are the deep-seated instincts or tugs we feel when we are at the crossroads of important decisions that will impact the way we feel about ourselves as good people. Paying attention to these moral convictions, while also using the tools of intent, prudence and humility, is very likely to lead you to feel better about yourself tomorrow than you did today, the culmination of which is the capacity to look back to last year, and the previous decade, and your life entire and feel that you have done a good, if not perfect, job paying attention to what you knew to be right when the decision was difficult, when it necessitated you take risks, when you had to struggle to do what was right. Ignoring your moral convictions in order to prioritize short term gains, to avoid conflict, to attain something not as valuable as your self-esteem, will lead to a kind of existence like the trope of Scrooge from a Christmas Carol. The only life worth having is one in which you believe you will be able to look back and say, I did the best I knew how to make the morally right decisions at most points when it required me to pay attention. If you can say that, you will be a person of sound moral conviction. You will be a person rightly proud of your life, your existence, your self.

Getting unstuck

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Being stuck in your life is nearly always the result of making a decision to do nothing to change your circumstances. I say “nearly always” only to account for those very rare situations in which you are really completely unable to change anything about your current status (like, say, you’ve been in a car accident and are now in a coma). I don’t mean to be glib (well, okay I do a little), but there really are almost no circumstances that completely justify doing nothing to improve things. Even Viktor Frankl came up with a whole way of looking at psychological improvement through meaning while he was in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II (for more info, and a great read, see his book, Man’s Search for Meaning). Anne Frank wrote her amazing diary while locked in an attic for years, and she was a child. So, that leaves little doubt that we can, in our (very likely) much less horrific lives, improve our situations to some degree if we are willing to consider doing just about anything to make changes.

If this is true, and clearly I think it is, why do so many people “choose” to be stuck by doing little or nothing toward improving their lot? For starters, this would require they take responsibility over their capacity to make those kinds of changes. I covered that topic somewhat in my chapters on Freedom and Responsibility in Firewalking on Jupiter. I then added some thoughts to those chapters in my blog post on Responsibility, which I wrote after publishing the book. Now, here, I will continue to expand on my ideas about reasons for “being stuck” and what can be done about it (should you choose to do so of course).

What is in it for someone to be stuck, when it might seem to us on the outside that it “sucks to be stuck the way they are stuck?” If they believe they are stuck due to misfortune in the world (see my upcoming blog post, “The world is nonfair”) or because they are a victim of circumstance (see my blog post, “Being a victim?”), then they have to concede that the world, circumstance, or someone else can no longer be held to be the primary reason they are stuck, as they had previously been articulated. They have to accept and acknowledge that the world or someone else, while dealing them a good blow, didn’t end all possibility for all time, for happiness, growth, or whatever had perhaps been stolen from them. Being stuck and staying stuck might seem like the most logical response when someone is convinced that either they themselves, or their circumstances, do not realistically allow them to make meaningful change.

Deciding to make the kinds of changes required to move out of being stuck can be scary, because change involves risk. If you are in a crappy job, one that either doesn’t pay well or in which you are not fulfilled, appreciated, or treated fairly in some way, a job that really is getting you down and you know you can’t stay there forever, even then, moving to a different job is frightening because it might be worse (“the devil you know is better than the one you don’t…”). Maybe. Probably not, though. In therapy sessions with clients who are in this situation (which happens quite often and for long periods of time), I can certainly understand why they fear starting a new job, having to learn new skills, navigate new expectations, new social networks, new bosses, loss of job security, and all the rest. Some clients are so entrenched in their current situation, so unable to allow themselves to see the possible benefits of a new situation, they are not even willing to look for what other jobs are out there. In these circumstances, I suggest that they just look, don’t even post a resume, don’t worry about putting a resume together, don’t apply to anything, just look to see what is out there. As encouragement for this very small step, we often do it right in the therapy session. We might go to indeed.com or some state agency that has job seeking benefits, just to get them started, just to help them see that there are in fact other alternatives that may be realistically attained and far less scary to consider.

The problem of being so stuck in a bad job that we aren’t even willing to look at what other options might be available is the kind of being stuck we might experience in any number of other situations—relationships, living situation, educational development, health status. The fear of looking at other options is probably more a fear of truly considering the need for change, and all the consequences and possible bad outcomes we can imagine when thinking about change. So, we avoid thinking about change at all, including the possible positive options that might exist. We go into a kind of tunnel vision. We “stay the course” no matter what. We remain stuck in our situation, all the while knowing we need to make a change.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a common phrase to describe when the alcoholic has had enough of knowing she needs to change, but doing nothing to change. When telling her story in a meeting, she will say, “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” There is no easily identifiable point when she crossed some certain line and just knew she had to change. She had just had enough. It is really as simple as that. The problem of being stuck comes when you know you’ve had enough, but the fear of change still keeps you in your situation. How to get past that fear? Put yourself in the situation you imagine, the change you want to bring for yourself. Imagine it as if you are already there, knowing but for just the moment, ignoring that there will be challenges to getting there. This harkens back to a blog post from a few years ago, called “Goal-setting by imagining being there.” In other words then, there are two components to “getting unstuck”. The first one is realizing you have had enough of being stuck. The second is imagining that there is a real possibility that you can make the kind of change that will lead to a better life and what that life might look like with the changes you are considering.

Most people get the first part on their own—they know their situation needs to be changed. Many people need the help of others, whether professionals, or friends and family, to get to the second point, of believing that changing their situation to something better is a real possibility and they can actually make it happen if they begin to take the steps to do so. I see this all the time. Clients come to therapy knowing the first part, which is why they are here. They are also here because either they themselves or someone in their lives convinced them that they needed help seeing the possibility of positive change. I then try to help them find the steps that work for them to make those changes, steps they may not have been able to identify on their own. I have reached out for others to help me in these ways many times, and probably will continue to do so for as long as I live. I encourage others to do the same. Change, real change, getting unstuck, is so much more likely and so much more sustainable when you have the help, encouragement, support and ideas of someone else through the transition from being stuck to getting unstuck.

 

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.