Archive for the ‘Philosophical and Existential’ Category

Introspection Part 5, Your inner narrative

Sunday, February 18th, 2018

Now that you have some tools for accessing your inner self (See the previous blog post, Introspection Part 4), what are you supposed to do once you are “in there” (looking around within yourself)? Answer: find your “inner narrative”—the story you tell yourself about you and your world. That’s really it. Sounds simple, and it can be, but it can also be very difficult to identify the parts of the story that matter to you, that influence your outlook, your feelings, attitudes, values, and your responses to various situations. The good news is that you get to explore these stories as often as you want and as long as you want because you are constantly full of stories!

We all tell stories. All the time. We tell stories to others. We tell stories to ourselves. We do it so often, we mostly don’t know we are doing it. We also constantly revise our stories. The further we move from any given moment, the more our story of that moment is likely to change, as it becomes integrated into the larger story of our lives. You tell yourself stories about what you did today, yesterday, last week, last year. The story you tell yourself (and others) about what you did earlier today is slightly different than the story that was running through your head earlier today. The story you tell yourself now about yesterday is different than the story you told yourself about your day while it was still yesterday. The stories you tell yourself about last year are considerably different than the stories you were telling yourself during last year. See what I mean? Memory is a funny thing. It is complicated. Memory is partly retrieval of our perceptions in any given situation and partly pieces of a larger puzzle we edit to make fit the larger story of our lives. How we feel about that memory, the information it provides us now, which parts of the situation we retrieve—these are all very dependent on the story we tell ourselves about that situation, why it happened, why it is important, and our place in it.

One of my favorite stories about the importance of stories comes from a time when I was a trial attorney. John, a more senior colleague, and I were meeting with the executives of a company, pitching to them the ideas we (John) had about how we would conduct this large case if they gave the case to us. I was fairly young in my career then, essentially John’s “Sherpa” (carried the stuff and got it set up for him). I sat in silence as John made his presentation. John spent the better part of two hours or so going over in fine detail all the likely and possible twists and turns of how the case would proceed to trial once we filed the lawsuit. The meeting was almost over. The presentation was complete.

The executives had asked all their questions, and seemed satisfied with John’s answers. We were wrapping up. Then the CEO asked a final question. He did not ask John. He directed the question to me (remember, up until this point, I hadn’t said much of anything). He asked, “Michael, if you were me, is there anything you would you ask that we haven’t already asked?” In my ignorance of the politics of being subordinate to John, I made the mistake of giving an honest answer. Looking back, I can now see I was supposed to say “I can’t think of a single thing—I think John covered it all brilliantly!” The problem was that John hadn’t covered it all. John had actually failed to cover the most important part of what he should have been explaining to them: the story of their case! I told the CEO (something like the following), “I would want to know, once we get to the trial, how are you going to win this for us, what story will you tell the jury to convince the jury they should decide in our favor?” Silence. Oops! The client redirected my question back to John. John recovered well, as I recall (or at least that’s the story of this situation I tell myself now). He then spent some time explaining how he would reframe the complexities (it was a very complicated case) in a way the jury could digest, understand and believe. The point of my story here is that John had become so focused on the details of the lawsuit, he overlooked the client’s basic need —to be able to get in front of a group of people (the jury) and tell a story about why the client had been wronged and needed to be compensated (given substantial sums of money) to make things right. FYI, we did get the case and the client did get the money they needed to be satisfied.

What is a “story?” At its most fundamental level, a “story” is nothing more than a link between two causally related events. I just took a break from writing this post. Here’s the story of the break. I was feeling shaky, typing with more typos than usual. I had begun to lose track of my thoughts. Something was off. I kept going, though, because I was on a roll and didn’t want to lose my momentum. Things got worse, to the point that I could no longer ignore what was happening. I realized my blood sugar was low (I have Type 1 diabetes). Then, I remembered when I woke up a few hours ago, my blood sugar was at “almost perfect” (perfect is “100” and mine was “113”) and I’d had nothing to eat or drink other than coffee. So, I got up and grabbed a small glass of Mango juice. Now I am back writing. This is the story of my break. In it, I have described to myself (and now you), what prompted the break. I have also told myself the perceptions (more typos), feelings (annoyed), physical symptoms (shaky and weak), observations (memory of earlier normal blood sugar), and attitudes (I didn’t want to stop until I had to). These are the “inner states” I was having during the time of the story. I have made causal connections between those inner states and the likely causes (low blood sugar), and then what I did to respond to and modify the cause (drink mango juice) and the effect (my stability). The result: satisfaction after an interlude of minor difficulty.

You tell yourself similar stories all day, every day. They are not always so mundane or casual. They are most of the time though—mundane and casual. As time goes by, stories become connected to each other. We integrate the stories. We give them greater meaning than they might have had in the moment, as they become part of a larger whole. We form attitudes about them. And then those attitudes in turn change the stories we tell, the parts of the stories we recall. Over time, these attitudes, coupled with the patterns we remember, help us to form meanings about the stories, what those stories mean to us in our larger lives, as part of what we are, who we are, the kind of person we are and the kind of lives we have. I can’t say I will remember this one particular story about needing to take a break to get a cup of juice. I can say that this kind of story is one that occurs daily, sometimes several times per day. Over time, it wears on me. I add up the annoying aspect of having to “always” take breaks, check my sugar, etc. Of course, I am not “always” having to do this. It is a nuisance, to be sure. The way I tell myself the story of my diabetes effects the way I remember the important parts of each of the isolated incidents like the one that happened just now. The way I tell that story and the parts of each of these related I remember then can have a profound affect on how I feel about having diabetes, and even what it means to be “me” as a person with diabetes.

Nearly all therapy approaches have in common getting at the way you tell yourself stories of your self. Three of the most popular therapeutic approaches come to mind that will demonstrate this: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Narrative Therapy and Psychoanalysis. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teases out the logic you use in making causal connections between your perceptions to test your capacity to recognize “mistakes in thinking” that can then be “corrected” once identified so you don’t continue to make those “mistakes” to your detriment. A simple and very frequent example of this is when a client takes an “all or nothing” approach to a situation. Say Jennifer has been told by her supervisor that she is getting a promotion, but it will mean changing locations. She fears that she may now lose her job because she doesn’t want to change locations. Jennifer has made the “mistake” of assuming that she has only two choices: take the promotion (and transfer) or lose her job. It hasn’t occurred to her that she could very well just say to her supervisor that she’d prefer to stay in her present position if it means she can stay in that location. The story Jennifer is telling herself about her supervisor’s announcement, what it means, and how it will affect her, all have a significant impact on how Jennifer thinks she can respond to this situation going forward, even to the point of having considered taking a position she doesn’t want due to the way she has told herself the story of her situation.

Psychoanalysis focuses on the way your childhood development, including the relationships you formed during early and later childhood, continues to influence your way of being in the world now. Narrative therapy takes this a step further (and closer to the point of this blog post) by emphasizing that it isn’t only the actual way you developed as a child that influences you now—it is also the story you now tell yourself about your development—that profoundly affects the way you see and feel about yourself and your life now. I regularly use narrative therapy in my practice. It is consistent with my belief that the stories we tell ourselves about our whole lives, all the way from our early childhood to the lunch we had today, become part of an integrated story of ourselves that directs our perceptions, attitudes, values, interactional patterns, choices, and behaviors—everything we are and everything we do. How’s that for a unified theory of the self!

Let’s get back to the point of this post: once we figure out how to look inside ourselves (Introspection, Part 4), what are we supposed to be looking for? Stories. Messages. Linkages. Connections. Plot lines. Subjective experiences and your reflections on those experiences. Ways of seeing the world. Ways of seeing yourself in the world. Ways of seeing yourself interacting with others. The stories you tell yourself about those relationships, those patterns of interactions. Start asking yourself, in any given situation you might remember: “Why do I remember it this way?” “Are there parts to this story that I might not be remembering, or remembering fully, or accurately?” “How do I feel about this story?” “What does this story I am telling myself about this situation tell me about myself, about the situation, about the other people in the story?” “Can I change the story?” “Can I change the way the story tells me about myself?” “Why do I tell myself this story and not another story about this situation?” “How is my story the result of influences from others, now, and in the past?”

A story has many events in it that follow one another in a sequence. This is the plot of the story. The specific events are “plot points.” We chose which plot points to focus on and which to dismiss. How we make these choices is dependent on many things, including previous similar stories and on how we are told by others to identify and connect the plot points. Once you begin to see how you do this internally, you will have a much greater chance at directing this process going forward, instead of continuing to allow the messages others have given you about how to do this to control how you do it. The most important point in this whole discussion is this: just because you do not know you are telling yourself a story doesn’t mean you are not telling yourself a story. So, if you are telling yourself stories about you and your life (and you definitely are), it would be a very good thing to know what stories you are telling yourself and why.

Here’s a possible story.  It could even be about you (but maybe not). Let’s say it is Sunday afternoon. You recount your morning. Your morning included getting up, getting the kids to various activities (sports, gymnastics, etc.), then you picked up around the house, did some laundry, and prepared a nice lunch for the family. A productive morning. Something to feel good about. But you don’t. At first, this morning looks a lot like yesterday morning, and yesterday you felt great about the first part of your day. Now, let’s say you were raised in a family that went to church every Sunday, without fail. It was a really big deal. Your spouse doesn’t care about church. It’s an argument if you insist. So you don’t insist. You go to church now only on the holidays. Your mom and sister tell you they miss seeing you at church, wish you would start going again. So, you feel bad about your morning. You did many good things, but in your mind, you didn’t do the one important thing you should have done: gone to church. This is an important part of your story about your morning. It is the thing you are focused on—the one thing missing, the one plot point that should be there, but isn’t. Now that you know this, you can begin to think about which is more important: going to church or letting go of that as an influence on how you should feel about Sundays, and therefore about your life. Knowing this will also influence your behavior. Will you now risk more conflicts with your spouse, or will you resign yourself to the differences you each feel about church and just go to church alone. Either decision is fine, but at least you have greater awareness of something that has meaning for you that has been missing in your life.

Here’s another example. It’s the story about Theresa and her body. Theresa is 48. She is relatively fit. She takes a “spinning class” (stationary bike) twice a week at the gym. She eats fairly healthy, allowing herself only a few desserts per week, and tries to stay away from processed foods when she can. At her recent annual physical, her doctor had only good news about her health, including her cholesterol levels and blood pressure. She has much to feel good about with her body. She doesn’t. She doesn’t like to look at herself in the mirror, especially without clothes on. She fears the scale, and weighs herself once per week, only because she thinks she must. Robert, her boyfriend, tells her she looks great. She thinks he means it. But, still… she feels bad about her body. It isn’t up to her standards. Whenever Theresa thinks of her body, when she sees herself in the mirror, or imagines what Robert sees when they are in bed together, she almost becomes queezy at the thought, shrugging it off as quickly as possible. She is dreading spring break with Robert in a few weeks because she will need to find swimwear that doesn’t look terrible on her. Theresa doesn’t realize that, with each of these thoughts—of herself in the mirror, with Robert, on the beach—she is superimposing on that image what she looked like twenty-five years ago. Theresa thinks she should still look like she did when she was 25. Of course it isn’t rational for her to compare herself at 48 to the way she looked at 25. More than that, though, is the standard she held for herself when she was 25. Back then, she ate very little, went to the gym three or four times per week, and was thinner than what was really healthy. Back then, and now, she held herself to the standards set by Victoria’s Secret, Hollywood, and billboards adorning our freeways with photoshopped women less than half Theresa’s age, all telling her, “if you don’t look like this, you are not how you are supposed to be [insert many other very negative messages].” If Theresa could see more clearly how she is telling herself the story of her body and age subject to the influence of marketers who want her to feel this way so she buys their products, she could begin to accept her body and her age with more grace, and without terrible and unnecessary guilt and shame. This is a simplistic explanation of a complicated problem for many people, especially women, in our society, so I don’t want to trivialize it. Yet, more awareness of this complex set of stories are part of recovering from these constant negative influences.

Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves can reveal reasons we have certain kinds of lingering moods. Someone who tends toward depression might simply tell stories that are overly focused on the negative aspects of their experiences. Someone with anxiety might focus mostly on those possibilities that could be potentially harmful outcomes. If either of these people were able to fill in their stories with more balanced perspectives, their moods might begin to improve quickly and dramatically. A client just helped me think about this (you know who you are).                                                                                    .

When you “go inside yourself” through introspection, look for your “inner narrative.” Start looking at what happens in your life and how you feel about what happens. Start identifying the plot points you remember. Start figuring out why you choose those plot points as your focus, including how you relate them to each other. Think about plot points in the situation that you are not including in your story. Once you have done this, you can ask yourself if your choices about the plot points you remember and connect are choices you want to continue to make. Are they really “your” choices, or are they choices others have told you to make? You get to decide, but only if you know what you are deciding. Your stories become “intentional” (it is your intent that informs how the story should be told, not the intent of others). Once you engage in these practices on a regular basis, you won’t merely have an “inner narrative,” you will have an “intentional inner narrative.” An intentional inner narrative allows us to throw out things like debilitating shame, inappropriate guilt, useless bitterness, and longstanding resentments. When we do this, we begin to clear a path toward accepting ourselves as we are, not as we think we must be or how others want us to be. This is the ultimate goal of introspection and an intentional inner narrative: self-acceptance, which is the topic of the next post in this series of blogs on introspection.


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)

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.


Sunday, September 25th, 2016

“Morality is about other people.” I put that sentence in quotes because it is an idea I’ve been considering for a while without being sure it is correct. I think it is though. I also like the way it sounds. More seriously, though, if morality is about other people, then our obligations to other people and their obligations to us plays a very central role to morality.

When are we obligated to meet the needs of others? When do we have the right to expect others to meet our needs? What happens when we suffer confusion about either of these situations? Answers to these questions lie at the very heart of so many of our relationship problems. Inconsistencies between obligation and perceived expectation (e.g. you do not think you are obligated to do something but someone else does or you think someone else expects something from you and they do not) are often the most destructive forms of interactional patterns between people. Likewise, clear understandings, consistent communications, and reasonable negotiations of obligations and expectations is essential to having the most satisfying relationships.

Why are obligations so fraught with confusion and trouble? Simple: they are often unstated, and are instead created by circumstance—roles, the nature of a relationship, time, social pressure, gender, age, and other forms of power differences. Here’s a simple example. A client recently chafed at feeling obligated to be at work earlier than his boss everyday or nearly every day, even though there wasn’t any practical reason for him to come in early and his boss hadn’t told him to come in early. After exploring the reasons the client felt obligated to come in early, he realized he had decided he wanted to impress his boss to make it more likely to get a promotion, and based on what he could tell, coming in early consistently was an important part of impressing his boss about his diligence and responsibility. Note that the client’s “obligation” is self-created, is not based on any promise made, and no one clearly stated an expectation that he come in early, yet he felt obligated to do so. Ergo, confusion.

Let’s take a look at the reverse of the unstated obligation: commitment. A commitment is an assertion of a willingness to be bound by an obligation, to hold yourself to an obligation, to promise to meet some kind of need. When we make a commitment (a stated obligation), we have control over what we are committed to do and we can limit the extent of our obligation. Maybe more important, when we make a commitment, especially when it is not just a commitment to ourselves but is communicated to someone else, the person who makes the commitment and the person to whom the commitment is made are both much less likely to make mistakes about the nature of the obligation that flows from the commitment. Commitment and obligation are not synonymous. A commitment is a promise, freely made. An obligation can be created by a promise, but can also exist even when no promise has been made. This is why obligations are much more confusing and cause moral dilemmas. There isn’t much of a moral dilemma when we make a promise. “Keep your promises” is about all that needs to be said there. But, can we say “keep your obligations?” What does that even mean? I almost made myself laugh reading it after writing it because it doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t make sense because obligations are so often fuzzy, ambiguous and they change based on the situation or evolve over time.

So, if there is no simple guiding principle for obligations, like there is for promises, how can we navigate obligations to reduce the kinds of problems that stem from confusion about them? We have to pay attention. Pay attention to the kinds of roles, situations, and relationships we allow, invite and create in our lives to make sure we can accept and embrace the kinds of obligations they create. Conversely, we need to refrain from allowing or creating situations, roles, and relationships that give rise to obligations to or from others we do not want in our lives. We also need to pay attention to whether we have relationships and circumstances in which others perceive obligations that we do not think we have or want.

Like so many other aspects of relationship health, a very good place to start with obligations is with yourself. Start by asking yourself, “what kinds of obligations do I choose to have in my life, obligations I would be okay with meeting, and obligations I would want others to meet for me?” You do this already anyway, but most of the time don’t think about it much if at all. I am just suggesting you make it intentional, conscious, deliberate, a choice, action rather than reaction. For each kind of obligation you want in your life, decide what kinds of relationships you want to have that will create those obligations. This could include family relationships, friendships, romantic partnerships, work relationships, and community involvements. Of course, all of these kinds of relationships already exist in your life. I am not suggesting you start over. Still, you can right now begin to examine all of those relationships and situations to see which ones you want to keep, to change, or to remove, while also examining which kinds of obligations you feel good about, which ones you don’t and whether others expect you to meet obligations you didn’t agree to meet, and whether you want to make new commitments that you haven’t yet made. The idea is obligation by self-determination, beginning with yourself.

As I said in my blog post, “Defiant Morality,” I will do my best to stay away from telling you what I think you should or should not do in any situation. I want you to own your obligations, not have them decided by me or anyone else. This is a commitment I have made for this project, for myself, for you. Instead, I will suggest questions for you to consider as you begin to build your own set of principles for obligations you want or don’t want in your life and relationships. Here’s an example of a simple decision-tree for obligations that I often use with clients when family members or friends are in crisis and they aren’t sure whether to get involved (and which I have used myself with my own family numerous times). 1) Did you contribute to the creation of the problem? 2) Are you taking ownership of someone else’s problem? 3) Will the manner in which you are thinking of helping them cause harm to you (beyond a sacrifice you are willing to make)? 4) Does providing the help actually hurt the other person (e.g. enable them to continue self-destructive behavior)? If your answers to all of these questions are no, then you are not obligated to help, but it seems like it might be a good idea to help, if you can. If you answer questions 2, 3, or 4 with a yes, you might be embarking on a co-dependency, an enmeshment, and enabling the other person to continue their issues at your expense. If you answered yes to question number 1 but are not willing to help, you should probably have a good reason if you want to do the right thing.

The idea here is to fit your obligations into a moral framework that is actually an outward extension of your inner moral self. If you look back at my posts on Defiant Morality and Defining Morality, I hope you will begin to see that this discussion of obligations is a natural outgrowth of those discussions. The obligations you agree to meet for others, and the obligations you expect others to meet for you, should ideally be consistent with how you see yourself, how you define yourself, and how you want others to see you. If you make this desire for internal and external moral consistency part of your conscious awareness as much as possible, you can avoid falling into the traps of resentment and disappointment, even betrayal, when obligations are confusing or inconsistent with what you want for yourself and in your relationships with others. If morality is about other people, then your obligations to other people should match up with your expectations for yourself as a moral person. In order to do this, you must know your moral self and then use that knowledge to build morally robust and meaningful relationships and circumstances in your life. Self-determined moral obligations to and from others as an extension of a morally defined self will help you set the course of a life with consistency between internal and external moral principles. Consistency between your inner sense of right, and your application of that sense to outer obligations is also the only way to avoid hypocrisy (do as I say, not as I do).

I recognize that much of this discussion on obligation is fairly general and theoretical. My defense: I have to start somewhere and the topic of moral obligation is vast, vague, challenging and too important to skim lightly through it. I hope to continue to explore specific examples and ideas about when, how and why moral obligations between people get confused, the consequences of that confusion, and possible suggestions for ways to prevent, avoid, and resolve that confusion, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the relationship that gave rise to the confusion. So, along these I plan to write blog posts on many related topics, including Power, Control, Exploitation, Influence, Fairness, Uncertainty, Isolation, and Synergy (when in relationships the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). I will also spell out some thoughts on how our willingness to meet certain kinds of obligations can hurt not just ourselves but others as well. With each of these topics related to moral obligation, I hope to examine and illustrate how a consistent internal and external moral framework that you create for yourself, will help you make the best of the very tricky job of benefitting from the obligations you create, and that others ask you to meet, all with an eye toward satisfaction with yourself, your life, and your relationships.


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)


Defining Morality

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

In a recent blog post I discussed the process of “Defiant Morality” leaving for another blog the related process of “Defining Morality,” which will be the topic of this blog post.

Defining Morality might be described as the opposite side of the spectrum from Defiant Morality. Defining Morality is this: “in any given situation, do my choices (in thoughts, words, or actions) involve any moral principles that I need to apply to become closer to a version of myself I can imagine would be the best person I can possibly be (without getting into perfectionism).” Depending on your own sense of who you are as a moral person, these kinds of principles could include things like, “Honesty is the best policy,” or “I know that all my feelings are valid and should be considered and embraced even if I also think they are sometimes based on my own misreading of a situation,” or “the starting point of everyone’s lives are random and arbitrary, not chosen, so I will never assume that anyone is inherently better or worse than I am or each other outside of how they and I act in our lives (e.g. racism is wrong).” These kinds of ideals (and many others) can then be used to start to form a way to “define yourself” as a moral being, using outside influences where you deem them appropriate, but only intentionally, after thinking about it, and deciding for yourself which principles apply to you, not merely because they have been handed to you.

In some ways, I am already applying the ideas of Defining Morality in my therapy process by encouraging clients to incorporate ideal moral versions of themselves in the way they think about their personal growth and emotional well being. Near the beginning of therapy, I use a set of questions (areas of inquiry) to get to know a client. I call the questions, my “Diagnostic Interview” (for more information about my therapy process overall and the Diagnostic Interview specifically, see my chapter, “The Therapy Process” in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter). One area of inquiry in the Diagnostic Interview is simply: “Personal Values.” I ask the client to give me a list of their “personal values.” I try to leave the inquiry as undefined as I can, to avoid creating an answer for the client. I want them to be as open to the question as possible, to get their very individualized sense of what matters to them most. If they need some guidance to make sense of the question, “what are your personal values” I sometimes add, “just tell me what you think is important about being a good person, about living a good life, of the kinds of things you think people should do?” See how this relates to “Defining Morality?” In asking them this question at the beginning of therapy, I am asking them to keep in mind what kind of person they aspire to be, regardless of the particular mental health issues they may have come to therapy to address.

Here is a visual of the layout between Defiant Morality and Defining Morality:

ßStarting Point———————————————————————Life’s Goalà

Defiant Morality————————————————————–Defining Morality

(What I won’t Do)————————————————————–(What I will do)

(Who I am not)———————————————————————–(Who I am)


So, what does Defining Morality have to do with Mental Health? Quite some time ago, in one of my first blog posts (“What is Mental Health?”), which is now a chapter in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, I defined mental health as “a state in which a person is able and willing to address every aspect of their inner life, regardless of whether they experience difficult feelings, including fear, while addressing those aspects of their inner life.” I have also said in various places, and often explain during the first few sessions of therapy, that the primary source of nearly all mental health issues is this: adverse psychological and emotional consequences that result from a person’s attempts at denying some aspect of themselves, which could include their identity, personality and history. I will now add this to the equation: they are often running, hiding, denying, or avoiding their sense of moral acceptability.

All of us have a very deep and basic sense of the kind of person we should be. This is not quite the same as our identity, which I define as who we think we are. What I am talking about here is our sense of moral idealism applied to ourselves as we are right now, and how far that is from the kind of person we think we should be. It is our “aspirational self:” what do we aspire to be in order to be able to say we are who we should be. Now, let me add one last ingredient, to ensure we are talking about morality as something more than merely what we do: the aspirational self asks the question: “how do I need to be in my life in order to say I am a good person, rather than a bad person?” I know this almost sounds like something a child would ask themselves, which is just about right, because I said that this a very basic and deep set of questions we ask ourselves. The very deep nature of the questions stays with us our whole lives, from early childhood to our deaths. These questions about ourselves, about what we need to do in our lives to be a good person, they never go away. They are always there, in the background of every decision we make, from the big ones like what kind of career do I want, to the small ones like budgeting our finances. That is partly what makes these kinds of questions so troubling, and why avoiding them can cause so many problems. This is also the reason moral aspirations applied to ourselves is at the heart of mental health, and mental health issues.

If we have to constantly question whether every decision we make leads us toward being a better (good) person or a worse (bad) person, you can imagine the cumulative effect if you have a nagging feeling that there is a lot of cumulative unanswered, unresolved, or worse, suspiciously troubling decisions over time a person might have made. It can be a long, frightening and often shame-filled trip from, “I am a good person who has great ideas of how I want to live my life” to “I have not lived the life I thought I would or should and have become a kind of person I didn’t want to be and never thought I would be.” Often, clients will not want to look at this journey, this path, this set of decisions because they have concluded it is too late to retrace all their steps, to significantly change their course, that it is hopeless. You might think I am exaggerating the problem. Think of the millions who would rather continue escaping their lives through the relationships they have formed with alcohol, or drugs, or casinos. Think of how often you are surprised reading in the news that someone who seemed at all levels like they really had their act together, gets arrested for having committed fraud for years in their business. Think of all the unfortunate people who take these issues so seriously, who have come to the conclusion that they will never be the kind of person they want to be, think they should be, that they take their own lives. What so many of these people do not realize is that they do not have to retrace every single decision they might feel bad about and somehow resolve them. Their attempt alone at tackling the larger decisions that continue to plague them, along with making new decisions along a path more consistent with their ideal moral self, will go a long way toward helping them feel so much better about themselves, so they can begin to forgive themselves for their past moral transgressions by recognizing they are human, we all make mistakes, and the most important part of healthy self-worth is the attempt toward doing the right thing, whatever that may be and however individually defined.

When I am meeting with a client who is suffering from all the emotional turmoil that necessarily follows someone they know having committed suicide, I tell them suicide is based on at least one simple, tragic mistake: the person who killed themselves had come to the mistaken conclusion that whatever was causing their intolerably deep pain would never go away and there wasn’t going to be anything they themselves or anyone else could do about it. I suppose the only exception to this might be an assisted suicide when someone is terminally ill, but that isn’t the kind of suicide I am talking about here. I am talking about suicide that occurs with someone who is otherwise physically healthy. This kind of suicide is often, if not always at some level, the result of the person concluding they are not the kind of person who can overcome whatever emotional circumstance they have either encountered or created. From a morality perspective, think about it this way, it’s pretty unlikely a person would commit suicide if they thought, “I am a good, strong person, just the kind of person I want to be, should be, and I have the capacity to deal with whatever life throws my way because I am not afraid to face all aspects of my inner self and I know how to make good decisions for myself and the people I care about.” In other words, morality is at the core of being mentally healthy because it gives us a profound sense of our capacity to address any kind of adversity, any circumstance, without losing our ability to be the kind of person we think we should be. What makes this so important to being mentally healthy is that if we feel this way about ourselves, we will have no reason to believe we need to run, hide, avoid or deny any part of who we are or how our lives are going because we will know we have the capacity to address it and still feel good about ourselves no matter how difficult the issue.

Now that I have established a brief but (I hope) solid basis for the belief that morality as we apply it to ourselves is a fundamental aspect of overall mental health, let’s get back to the topic at hand, which is what I mean by “Defining Morality.” We can begin with some questions that can help us understand how to apply the idea of Defining Morality in our lives. For any decision you face, you are already asking yourself, “will doing (this or that) get me closer to the kind of person I think I should be?” You might think you are not asking this, but I believe you are, always, every time, somewhere in the background. You may not know you are asking it, but it is there. In order to be able to answer this question, regardless of the nature, the magnitude, or the immediacy of the decision you face, you must first know what you mean by “the kind of person I should be,” which is exactly what Defining Morality is all about.

Try this, imagine yourself, right now, being exactly the kind of person you think you should be. Forget about whether you think it is possible. We are shooting for gold here, for perfection, knowing it is not possible. This is the ideal of who you are as the best person you can be. What comes to mind? What kinds of things about being a good person really matter to you? There are the usual suspects that we all (okay most of us) would include. Things like “I’d be honest all the time” and “people would remember me as someone who cared deeply about them.” For you, it might be more specific, like a goal for a legacy.   Some people want to be remembered for their accomplishments, which is perfectly fine. The only caveat I’d add is this (and this comes dangerously close to the kind of moral pronouncements I said I would not make in my writings on “Defiant Morality”): whatever you want to accomplish, even if you believe it is for the greater good, must be justifiable on it’s own, not just based on what it gets you. Or, as Immanuel Kant put it, at least when dealing with other people, you should always treat them as an end in themselves, never as only a means to an end. I would add to this that we shouldn’t be treating people or anything that can feel pain (e.g. animals) as solely a means to an end, but I digress. Whatever kind of questions you can create to get a better sense of your ideal moral self is the very process of Defining Morality.

I may have mentioned this elsewhere, but I can’t remember now, and anyway it’s good for illustrating the topic of Defining Morality, so I will risk repeating myself. When my son was about 12 he asked me, “Dad, what do you want me to be when I grow up?” Although it was a typical question for a child to ask their parent, I was completely unprepared. I know, lame. Anyway, I told him it was an important question and I’d need to think about it. Some time later (we are talking hours, or maybe a day or two), I had the answer I wanted to give him. I told him pretty much in these words, “When you grow up, I want you to be as compassionate as you can with yourself, any other person, and any animal that can feel pain; I want you to be as honest with yourself and others as you can be as often as you can be; and I want you to be interesting. How you do these things is up to you, but if you do all three of these things, you will be what I want you to be when you grow up.” In telling him these things, I can now see I was giving to him my own sense of a broad but fundamental version of my own Defining Morality. I can now see that these are the very basic aspects of what it means to me for me to be a good person, the best person I can be, and was just telling him I wanted the same thing for him. The closer I can get to “perfect compassion,” “perfect self-awareness and honesty,” and “being meaningful,” knowing all the while I will never completely get there, that I will stumble along the way and do things I later recognize as more wrong than right, continue to be strong principles in the decisions I make. Of course these are my values, and you need to find yours. That’s the whole point of Defining Morality. Maybe I should have called it “Defining Your Morality.” A morality, or moral structure that is part of how you define yourself, is what I mean.

Being aware of whatever defines you as your ideal moral self, forcing yourself to keep this in mind for as many of the decisions in your life as you can, even and perhaps most importantly when doing so is particularly difficult, will help you grow stronger, and believe more fully in your capacity to overcome any adverse situation without losing the most important parts of who you think you should be. Keeping questions of Defining Morality in your mind as often as you can will help you eliminate the need to engage in all the unhealthy behaviors that come with avoiding yourself. In the process, the picture of your ideal moral self will become increasingly clear, and hopefully easier to believe in, all the while knowing it is an ideal, and therefore never completely attainable. Lastly, having this goal, this ideal you are trying to achieve, is also a great way for us all to come to a better understanding of what gives our life meaning, of what really matters and what doesn’t. Knowing this will not only help us become “better” versions of ourselves (however we choose to define what that means for each of us), it will almost certainly help us attain more satisfaction with our lives. What could be a more meaningful goal than this for yourself: “I want to be the best, most good, person I can” (especially when you get to define what that means for you)!

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)


Defiant Morality

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

I have for some time been considering how to approach more directly my thoughts on morality—on what is “good” and “bad” when it comes to human decisions, including their behavior, beliefs, attitudes, and judgments. I have wanted to write about this topic directly, but have hesitated. The problem has been that is in my nature to mistrust any pronouncement of moral authority. I can very much relate to those who tell me they have been subjected too often or with too much intensity or self-righteousness the moral thinking of others in their lives–sometimes it is a parent, or an older sibling, a preacher, or, God forbid, a previous therapist! I abhor the idea of hypocrisy, and even more stingingly, I abhor the idea of myself as a hypocrite. Put this all together and I have set myself up for what will be a very difficult, and maybe impossible task: to write about my own sense of right and wrong, while completely avoiding any normative statements (“you should… or should not…”) and thereby forcing my own ideas of right and wrong onto anyone else.

I feel an even keener sense of responsibility to refrain from espousing my ideas of right and wrong within my position as a therapist for fear that clients and others will give it far more credence than it deserves, because after all, it is just my opinion and I am just some guy. So much of my work as a therapist hinges on my strong belief that people have it within themselves to make much better decisions for themselves and the people they love than I or anyone else could decide for them. The last thing I want to do after all these years of doing this work with others is to then suggest, “oh by the way, in addition to having it within yourself to make good decisions, you should also listen to me about what is right and wrong and adopt what I say as the answer for you.” Obviously, that just won’t do.

As a beginning to addressing this dilemma (of wanting to address ideas of right and wrong without telling others how they should be), I have come up with some guiding principles; a skeletal framework for myself in how I should go about resolving this self-imposed dilemma.

  1. No moral statement or precept from me should contain this kind of definitive moral judgment: “you should do this or not do that if you want to be a good person.”
  1. I make a strong assumption that no one wants to hear what I think they should be like. Or rather: I don’t want the reader to care what I think they should be like. Or even stronger than this: I want them to not want to care what I think they should be like and to resent any attempt on my part in telling them who I think they should be.
  1. All reasoning should be able to withstand a new moral imperative: can I imagine that all people would want to be or act this way? Only then is it a moral precept or structure worth writing about or considering. (This is actually a paraphrase of the “categorical imperative” created by Immanuel Kant).
  1. A rule of thumb to test the above imperative is this: if in viewing your life as a whole does the proposed action or state make it more likely that a person will feel good about the kind of person they have become and are becoming?
  1. Ideas about morality I share should be able to appeal to an individual considering such thoughts as a way to improve their overall sense of life satisfaction. In other words, an individual reader of my thoughts on morality should be able to imagine themselves implementing the ideas in their lives in a way to achieve positive personal growth, regardless of the extent to which the moral thoughts might also benefit others or be “good” in some other respect. (See my chapter, “Selfishness and Love,” in Firewalking on Jupiter.)

The generalized nature of these guiding principles will suffice as a cautionary starting point for the time being and can act as a set of self-imposed limitations for sharing my thoughts on morality in the future.

For now, though, I want to mention, just mention, a thought I’ve been having about how to fit a way of thinking about morality within this kind of framework—what to call it and think about it. Here’s a preliminary thought I’ve been toying with: I call the idea “Defiant Morality” (note the capital letter for extra and ironic authority). Defiant Morality begins with this proposition: if we could jettison, and I mean completely rid ourselves, of all external influences about right and wrong, about what kinds of actions, decisions, ways of being in our lives are morally okay and not okay (I know we can’t, but just for the sake of discussion assume we could), what would be left in our thoughts about what makes a thing morally right or wrong? For each of us, I assume the answer would be at least slightly different—but maybe not quite as different as we think.

For Defiant Morality, a way to move beyond a thought experiment into a way of being, of acting, of deciding is this: first decide what you are not willing to do, before deciding what you are willing to do. What lines will you refuse to cross? No matter how someone else might try to compel you? In the extreme: if handed a rifle in Nazi Germany and told to shoot innocent civilians or be shot yourself, what would you do? Closer to home (and reality): if your supervisor at work tells you to do something you know, and he or she knows, is blatantly dishonest, will you refuse? Will your answer change if your only other option is to be fired? Will it matter if being fired could be a career-ending decision, or you have a family to support?

When I used to work in the prisons, a short-handed way of describing a morality that begins with only you and your thoughts, and what you will not do, was this: “if it feels wrong, it probably is, so don’t do it.” Of course, it isn’t always that easy though. If it were, there wouldn’t be a need for books and discussions going down through the centuries trying to figure all this out.

As a family therapist, I have encountered something like the following many times. Jenny comes in to see me because her marriage to John is failing. She tells me she is having an affair and feels very conflicted about it. I ask her to tell me how she got to this point. She tells me she’d been dissatisfied with her marriage for years, that she’d met a guy at work who felt the same way. She didn’t want to leave the marriage because they have two kids, and she thought she should just stay in it and be lonely, dissatisfied, and put up with it until the kids were out of the house. After a few years, this began to wear on her. When she discovered Dave at work was suffering the exact same dilemma, the solution seemed easy for both of them. Now that the affair has been going on for more than a year, she finds herself suffering from increasing symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, some of the anxiety is about her husband or Dave’s wife finding out or even worse, that her kids would find out. The depression is more confusing to her. She likes Dave, but doesn’t love him. She enjoys her time with him as much as she can. Through therapy, she hopes to find out why this isn’t enough, why she is increasingly depressed. There could be many reasons, all of which we will explore together.

Most of the time, people who have long-term affairs end up suffering from some level of depression if the affair doesn’t end or the marriage doesn’t end. Why? The affair doesn’t solve the original problem, which is an unsatisfying marriage you’ve given up on but refuse to leave. The affair just makes the initial problem worse, by adding guilt, fear, and broken trust with your spouse to the equation. Most of the time, when people have affairs, like Jenny, it is a slow, evolving, unintended process. They might spend years lonely, isolated, feeling trapped before they cross any lines beyond the marital boundary. Then, an unanticipated situation presents itself: Dave, or Jenny, depending on your perspective. Someone you know, or meet, seems like a possible solution to the dilemma you’ve been facing—whether to stay in a marriage and be lonely and sad or leave the marriage and cause untold pain and financial hardship to yourself and others. They make a rash decision, or they slide from an emotional support to something more, and then into the affair.

What if, in each of these cases, the lonely married person said to themselves, before the “unanticipated event” (they meet either Dave or Jenny): “One thing I will not do is have an affair, it is not open for consideration.” People do this. And when they do, they force themselves to either do what can be done to fix the marriage, or they often leave, because no other choice is available for finding the kind of attention, sexual satisfaction, and connection that is not coming from the marriage. By telling themselves what they will not do, they force themselves to make only a narrow set of decisions that might be more difficult at the time, but less onerous down the road. They also prevent outside influences (a disappointing marital relationship coupled with a discrete opportunity to obtain affection and connection) to make their decisions for them.

There are many similar situations we encounter in our lives that might actually be easier in the long run to deal with if we were willing to exclude certain choices that seem easier in the moment. How many people do you know, maybe you yourself, who have stayed in a job or career they hate for years and years, because they let themselves think things will get better, that either they will eventually accept it, or something will change that will make the job easier (a nasty boss retires). What if that person (or you) said to herself or himself, “I will not let myself be miserable for extended periods of time, not for any job!” (and you said this before you were miserable). Then, if you find yourself in a job that is untenable, and not likely to change no matter what you do, you won’t stick around. You will start looking for another job, or go back to school. You will seek out support for change from those in your personal life. You will already have announced to yourself and those in your personal life that this is the kind of person you are: someone who has self-imposed limits on what you are willing to tolerate in any job. You will make a better choice for yourself because you’ve already told yourself what you will not do. You will exercise Defiant Morality.

The idea of Defiant Morality is a work in progress. Not only is it incomplete in my mind as I write this, I can see ways that it cannot be a complete way of deciding what to do in many situations. That’s okay. It’s just supposed to be a starting point. Even more than that, it’s just something to consider as a way to put aside all kinds of potential external influences on the way we think about right and wrong, good and bad, all of our moral judgments, until we decide for ourselves, intentionally, which of those influences we want to adhere to and which are not appropriate for us as individuals based on who each of us is and how each of us decide we want to live our lives.

If “Defiant Morality” is a starting point for developing a moral structure for yourself that is not dependent on external influences making those decisions for you, then maybe an end point, or goal to move toward, is another set of moral principles I call “Defining Morality” (note the nice alliteration between the two principles). Defining Morality will be the specific subject of an upcoming blog post.


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)


The Location of Morality

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

I am in the mood to offer a very ambitious thought and then try to explain it, knowing the thought is far too broad and complex to have any hope of an adequate explanation in just a few pages. It is likely that the subject will occupy my thoughts to some degree for the rest of my life as I try to noodle out the implications of it. This is a work in progress, and this is my first attempt to put it to writing. So don’t be too surprised if my thoughts about it change quite a bit over time. I might even decide to contradict myself on some points I currently believe. I am open to rethinking this from scratch.

Just so you know where this is going before we actually “get there,” I had originally planned to call this post, “The Location of Morality in Mental Health.” I couldn’t get past what I thought my reaction would be if I came across an article with that title. I might think, “hmmm, a therapist squaking about morality, sounds kind of religious or self-righteous to me…” Or, I might think the title meant, “how ‘morality’ fits within the mental health field.” Both sound like pontification to me, which I find repugnant in the extreme, regardless of the source, and most especially if I am the one doing the pontificating! I don’t really mean either of these things. To avoid these interpretations, I extended the title to “The Location of Morality Within a Person’s Mental Health.” That was too long for Google, so I left it at Morality and a Person’s Mental Health, hoping it doesn’t sound grandiose. The topic is the way a person’s moral structure fits within her or his mental health and overall life satisfaction.

Here’s the the thought. The basis of all emotional concern is this question: “Do I have the capacity to cope with the difference between how things are and how they should be?” For the purposes of this writing, I will refer back to this as “the question.”

Let’s break the question down into its various parts. It is a question about yourself “Do I….” The next part is about your “capacity to cope.” I chose this particular phrase very specifically for two reasons. It is not just a question about how or what you are. It is a question about whether the kind of person you are has it within you to “cope” or deal with reality as it is, precisely when you recognize that reality is not now how you think it should be. I used the word “cope” instead of “change” because the question is meant to cover both those situations in which you might be able to change reality to make it what you think it should be and also those situations that cannot themselves be changed, which means it is you that must somehow change in order to address reality that seems wrong (for example, coming to accept the death of someone close to you as part of your grief process). Finally, the last part of the sentence, “the difference between how things are and how they should be” is actually a question about morality, or about what we do when our personal morality (how all things in our world, including people and our relationships with them, “should” be) collides with our current way of being in the world (a world “as it is,” which often doesn’t seem to care much about our personal brand of morality).

In the context of mental health or mental illness, this question is usually observed as a version of self-doubt. I’ve said this about many other emotional states, and it bares repeating here with self-doubt: all human emotional states exist because they are effective ways to respond to some kinds of circumstances, and are therefore healthy in the right context (See my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, Part Two: Choose Your Feelings). Self-doubt is also no exception as an emotional state that is prone to becoming excessive, or to occur in situations in which is not only ineffective, but destructive. Everyone asks “the question” in some form or another all the time, maybe many times a day, whether or not they are conscious that the question is being asked. It is imperative that we ask the question. Without doing so, we risk ignoring adjusting our responses to a reality that is not acceptable, or which, at the very least, needs to change (according to us) if it is possible to change. In that sense, self-doubt forces us to find whatever internal resources we possess to adequately address a situation that might seem at times difficult to the point of perhaps being insurmountable. Taken too far, though, this kind of self-doubt can become devastating when it turns inward and spirals into feelings of worthlessness, despair, shame or prolonged inadequacy (when we tell ourselves we should be able to change reality or ourselves to cope with reality, but conclude that we cannot).

Now let’s go back to the phrase at the beginning, right before “the question.” I said something very bold—that the question (“Do I have the capacity to cope with the difference between how things are and how they should be?”) is the basis of “all emotional concern.” I do not mean that every emotion invites “the question.” Joy, happiness, contentment, satisfaction, peace, bliss, relaxation, and serenity all imply very strongly that the question is not appropriate to whatever circumstances give rise to those kinds of feelings. These feelings imply there is no “difference between how things are and how they should be.” We experience these kinds of feelings when we believe things are exactly how they should be! That’s why I added the word “concern.” We are not concerned when we are happy. By “emotional concern,” I mean experiences that are typically called “negative emotions.” I don’t like the connotation that emotions that cause us concern are necessarily “negative.” So I just leave it at “emotional concern,” because those feelings we normally call “negative” should cause us concern—in fact, that is their purpose—to make us concerned, to get our attention and in that sense are not “negative” (unless they become so extreme they become debilitating or limiting) and are in fact crucial to our overall well-being.

Now, here is the whole point of this topic—the location of morality as it relates to mental illness (or emotional distress). Wondering if “the question” is at the base of all emotional concern, I have slowly begun to form the opinion that human existence carries with it three distinct but interconnected layers to address the question and what it means for us. At the “top” is the layer of thinking or rationality, which is the process of interpreting perceptions to describe reality or how things currently “are” and for strategizing about how to move toward how we think things “should be.” At the bottom layer is “morality” which is a set of beliefs or attitudes about how things “should be.” In the middle layer are “emotions,” which are internalized subjective mental states that tell us how seriously we should take the difference between how things are and how they should be (or in the case of “positive” feelings, telling us there is no difference—that we and the world are exactly where we and the world should be).

The beginnings of this way of thinking about emotions, thoughts, and morality first appeared when I wrote the chapter, “Choose your anger,” in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter. I wrote that anger is a “moral feeling”—that we feel anger when we perceive someone has done something to us that we think is wrong, when they have caused us a “moral injury.” After putting the whole book together, I took a break. I took a step back. I wanted to get a big picture look at my work as a therapist, the work of my clients, not only as individuals working on individual issues, but as a group, of all of us working toward something that makes us better, makes our lives better. So, what’s the commonality. Is there a way it all fits together? I think there is, and I have a glimpse of it. Just a glimpse, but maybe also a framework, a skeletal structure to tie it all together. I will continue to need the help of clients, friends, colleagues and many others to help me fill in the details of this skeletal structure.

The basic ideas for the layered framework of thoughts, emotions and morality came out of a text exchange I had with a friend after I finished Firewalking on Jupiter. We were discussing the origins of emotions; their source and purpose. I mentioned anxiety and self-doubt as two examples of emotions that seem clearly to provide us with information that things are not well in our world at that time and prompting us by their very discomfort to try to figure out how to make things better for ourselves. I plan to write more specifically about the advantages and disadvantages of self-doubt as part of this framework in future writings. Immediately after the text exchange with my friend, I began to think about all feelings and their purpose. I cannot yet think of any feelings that do not fit into this framework of emotions sitting in a middle layer, mediating our thoughts and our morality. Like I said, though, this is still a work in progress. It is admittedly half-baked and not really quite ready to “pull from the oven” (of ideas). Still, try it for yourself, think of any feeling that gives rise to emotional distress—guilt, sadness, loneliness, anger, resentment, boredom, grief, etc., any “negative feeling;” I think you’ll find just like I have—they all tell us something very important about how we need to change our situation or change our response to our situation. By “situation” I mean just about anything you encounter in your life: a new relationship, a job, a fight you had with your mother, someone cutting you off on the freeway, a grave social injustice, a perceived slight by someone you consider an important friend. Feelings on the positive side tell us there isn’t anything we need to do to change our situation or responses and they reward us (with feeling good) for having created or finding a situation which is (for the moment) just as it should be.

Before I finish, I want to say a word about how to view emotions along a spectrum. As an example, anxiety is at one end of a spectrum toward “urgency” or “very serious”—we need to do something right now so things quickly become the way they should be. At the other end of the spectrum might be acceptance or serenity—the difference between how things are and how they should be is serious, and there may even be a desperate desire to change things, but we conclude we do not have the requisite resources to make the change, so all we can do is change the way we experience the situation internally.

As I said at the beginning of this post, these thoughts are a work in progress. I will need to think about this some more and will keep you posted as I do. I hope you will think about it too and let me know what you think. If you are a current client, feel free to bring it up in therapy if you feel so inclined. Or, whether you are a current client or not, feel free to send me an email with your thoughts about this topic (my email is listed on the “Contact Us” page of this website).


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)


The Power of Tenacity

Monday, August 19th, 2013

A search for the definition of the word “tenacity” first brings up “stubbornness.”  It works for a starter—except we think of stubborn as a mostly negative trait and I want to write about the positive aspect of tenacity. Sometimes, though, there is also strength in stubbornness.

While on a walk a few years ago with a philosophically-minded friend, he asked, “if you could pinpoint just one thing that stands out as a reason you were able to not only survive, but thrive, in spite of the daunting obstacles you faced as a child, what would it be?”  After some discussion, with his helpful comments, I said “tenacity.”

By tenacity, I mean a very determined way of standing your ground, standing up for yourself, for what you believe is right, even when the risk of doing so might be very serious.  When I think of overcoming obstacles, not only in my childhood but really in my whole life so far, tenacity is a constant. In childhood, after a time, I decided not to cry anymore, no matter how badly my father was beating me, or whatever else he might be doing to me to make me hurt.  I decided that giving him the satisfaction of my tears would be rewarding him for something really wrong.  I also decided that his attempts at forcing me to cry was a perverted invasion of my privacy and my dignity.  There were many times when I knew if I just cried, he’d stop.  Nope.  Not gonna cry, no matter what.  Later in life, tenacity came up in other ways.  A foster father uses his kids to make money by making us cut lots and lots of wood.  I seek an investigation. We aren’t made to cut wood anymore, but eventually he throws me at a wall, and I run away. A high school teacher takes me out into the hallway, so angry he is spittling out of his mouth onto my face, I push him away, he kicks me, I restrain him, he sends me to the office.  I am suspended. You get the point.

After childhood ended, when it was no longer “acceptable” for adults to get so mad at me they caused me bruises or for me to respond in kind, my tenacity continued, but without physical altercation.  I have been fired and risked being fired from many jobs. The first time, I was actually still a kid.  I was a caddy at a golf course. My friend Steve and I were with a group of golfers, carrying their bags.  One golfer became irate when he couldn’t get his ball out of a sand trap.  In his fury, he threw the club at my friend Steve, his caddy that day. He ducked and the club missed him. Steve and I grew up in the same neighborhood.  He had a bit of tenacity himself. Steve turned around, grabbed the club, threw it back at the golfer, who also jumped out of the way. Steve and I started laughing. Steve was fired for throwing the club.  I was fired for laughing.

Fast forward a few years. I am in college, a valet parker at a nice restaurant in Saint Paul called the Blue Horse (no longer there, burned down).  It’s late on a weekend night. One of the last customers comes out to get his car. A regular. Rich, important to the restaurant, and belligerent. He can barely walk he’s so drunk.  He hands me his stub and tells me to get his car.  I refuse, instead offering to fetch him a cab. He yells “no cab!” “Get my car!” I say “no” trying to plead with him to be reasonable.  He goes back in the restaurant. The manager comes out.  Demands the guy’s keys.  I hid them while he was inside.  I refuse.  The guy gets a cab.  I am out of a job.

Fast forward a decade.  Not much has changed.  Managers of at least three separate law firms threatened to fire me because I refused to do something I thought was dishonest, and they thought was acceptable practice of law.  In every case, it was a grueling decision for me.  In each case I decided honesty, or at least my sense of it, was more important than the job.  I have also had occasion to weigh these considerations as a therapist on several occasions, always deciding the “tenacious” route, even when it risked being fired, or disciplined.  I guess by now “tenacity” is just a core part of who I am.

It wasn’t always this way.  I had to make decisions again and again, hard decisions, which often caused me incredible anxiety for days or weeks, trying to choose whether my definition of what was right was so important that I risked my professional careers (law and therapy). How did I do it?  Why was I able to do it? In each case, I was able to imagine myself in the future, what it would be like either way, doing the right thing and being fired, or doing what I thought was wrong and having to live with it. I have so far always come to the conclusion that it is easier to undo the harm of losing a job (and I have lost more than a few) than undoing something I knew was wrong when I did it.

It’s not so much a matter of conscience.  It’s more a matter of not wanting to let anyone else dictate to me how I should be treated, how I should feel about myself, how I should choose right and wrong.  If I allow someone else to treat me with disrespect (my father, my teacher, my foster dad, my boss), what’s left of me, my self-control, my self-respect?  What am I without these?  How do I look at myself in the mirror?

There’s a scene in a book that sums up very well tenacity under grueling circumstances.  Its called, One Day in the Life of Ivan Dinesovich (by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).  I read it in high school at the recommendation of an apparently insightful teacher who thought I would like it (he was obviously right because here I am 30 years later still thinking about it).  Ivan is a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. He’s eating a meal in the canteen.  Every once in a while, the guards, just to be cruel I think, open the doors and let the bitterly cold wind course through the room.  Many of the other prisoners keep their overcoats on.  Not Ivan.  He sees this as an indignity.  Ivan takes his coat off to eat, just like he would anywhere else.  When the cold comes through, he may hunker down, shiver, but he doesn’t put his coat on. To do so would be a victory for the cruel guards.  Ivan’s sense of self, of dignity, keep him whole, alive, a complete person.  He persists.  Ivan is tenacious.

I have occasion to use the concept of tenacity now and then in my therapy practice.  It often comes up with those who suffer a kind of depression that seems to be based on a sense of being defeated, a resigned approach to their life, or dejection, by which I mean a kind of “screw it, I have tried, I have failed, so what is the point, I never get a break, etc.”  There are often good reasons for people to feel this way, and it becomes a habit for them, or a defense.  It amounts to a kind of “you can’t fire me, I quit” mentality. While it might make sense, it is also self-destructive, and keeps people stuck in situations they find it very difficult to tolerate without resort to hiding in depression, numbness, drinking, medications, and all the other manner of escape.  The Beatles captured this with the line “How can I even try, I can never win.” (From the song, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away).

If you look back at your life so far, and you can identity some major figure or figures that seemed for a time very powerful (could be your parents, a long-term relationship partner, a boss) who never seemed satisfied with whatever you tried, to the point that you came to expect nothing but criticism, you might have experienced the kind of dejection or resignation I am talking about.

The solution to this kind of “dejection depression:”  tenacity.  Ask what you stand for?  What do you believe in, down to your core?  Who are you?  What matters to you?  What have other people or situations taught you to give up about yourself?  Whatever it is, stop. Stop giving in to pressures that cause you to feel bad about yourself, to lose your dignity, to do what you know in your bones is wrong.  Eventually, you will see that what you believe in, what has meaning to you, getting back the things you have given up, will make you feel better, stronger, more likely to prevail even when the risk of failure is fairly high. If you are dealing with someone who seems never capable of being satisfied with you, no matter what you do, it might be a good idea to consider giving up.  Not giving up on yourself, but giving up on trying to satisfy that person. Satisfy yourself!

I temper this advocacy for tenacity with a few caveats.  Avoid self-righteousness, don’t be too rigid, and pick your battles. We have to listen when we disagree with someone, because we are not always right, no matter how much we think we are. When we listen, even to someone we disagree with, we might learn something, including the limits of our own wisdom. Making mistakes is part of being human.  Sometimes tenacity is misplaced, as I can tell you from my own mistakes. If you feel the need to stand your ground, but you can take the time to think about it, spend that time to weigh your options, and then decide if tenacity is the best alternative. On several occasions in my professional life, I have had to think about how to act in a difficult situation long before I took the step of standing my ground, because I needed to be sure the point was important enough to risk a harsh response.

Sometimes standing your ground will accomplish nothing and might only cause more harm to you. This is especially true if your physical safety or the safety of someone else is at stake. In less extreme situations, prudence is also advisable. When I have known I work for someone who cares little for my dignity, who has asked me to do things I believe are wrong, instead of standing up to them to the point of getting fired, if I can do so without risking my personal integrity, I instead look for another job to avoid unemployment. The kind of tenacity I am talking about is not about making a point, or trying to change someone else’s behavior. It is about respecting my own dignity. I find a way to get what I need without having to be controlled by someone I know is not going to change.  My blogs on the importance of flexibility are key to avoiding rigidity, but never at the expense of your self-respect. Tenacity should not be the only way to respond to a difficult situation, but it should be one very important tool at your command, especially when your sense of basic right and wrong are at stake.


Copyright 2013, 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)

Authenticity–Part 2: Why it is important

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

During my first blog entry on authenticity, I explained what the word and concept of “authenticity” means to me.  I left unanswered the question of why “Authenticity” is important.  My aim here is to take a shot at trying to answer that question.

I want to thank a client who offered to allow me to use a diagram he created after we discussed authenticity  (you know who you are, and thanks again).

View of Self

As you can see from the diagram, authenticity encourages or allows you to expand your own sense of being inside yourself.  When we are not authentic or “real” with others, we must hide within ourselves to create the space necessary to appear to be what we think others want us to be. We also create “perceived holes” within ourselves, hoping that things outside ourselves will fill these holes (another person’s view of us, work, sex, alcohol, etc.).  The more we hide within ourselves, the more likely we are to be disappointed, hurt, lonely, and fearful about the part of ourselves that feels empty–the “holes” or spaces within us left empty by the failure of others to meet needs we can in reality only meet ourselves. If we hide within ourselves, but create an image of ourselves in the likeness of what others want, we also have less reason to expect that others will know what we need. We will in essence be asking them to guess what we need. And when they guess wrong, or even worse, don’t guess at all, we might end up hurt, angry, or resentful.