Archive for the ‘self-awareness’ Category

Introspection Part 8, Self-awareness and being

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

 

“Skynet… becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th.”

From the Movie, Terminator II, 1991

 

I was on a bus at the age of 14, headed toward work. I was looking down at my hands. I was probably bored, and maybe high on something. I started to move my fingers, watching my fingers as I moved them. I stopped moving them. Then I moved just the index finger on my left hand (I know this mostly because I am left-handed so I’ve always paid more attention to my left hand). I stopped moving that finger. I then thought, “move that finger.” Then the finger started moving. I then thought, “stop moving the finger.” The finger stopped moving. I did this several times, awed by the fact that I was thinking of a thing, then making it happen, then repeating it. This was my moment I became self-aware. I had learned in that instant the practice of intentionality. Such a trivial sounding thing had become something I would never forget, even writing about it now exactly 40 years later.

There is what you “are” (existence) and then there is what you want to “be” (being). Existence requires nothing from you. It was given to you when you were born and continues to be yours while you live. Being requires awareness. In order to move from what you are (existence) to what you want to be (being), you must first become aware of what you are and then continually decide how to move toward what you want to be. Self-awareness is a capacity that belongs to all humans. You are born with the capacity for self-awareness. Unlike existence, which just is, self-awareness must be exercised to be useful. It is a skill that is always improving when used regularly, frequently. Being requires self-awareness, intentionality and the desire to be more than mere existence. Being is the greatest gift you can give to yourself. Once you begin, there is no end for your whole life, if you care to continue. You will always become closer to what you want to be. This is the process of becoming, and it is it’s own goal. Becoming and being are not a means to an end, they are an end in themselves, they are the goal.

Throughout these previous blog posts about introspection, I have tried to find ways to describe the benefits of self-awareness for you and for your relationships. I certainly believe introspection has benefits. I also believe the act of introspection, of searching within yourself and the self-awareness that comes from it is a worthy goal in itself. Can you really imagine saying to yourself: “getting to know who I am and what I would like to be is a waste of time.” Who could honestly say this, unless fear of themselves was getting in the way?

This is the fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” I have always thought this was a modern restatement of Socrates recommendation as part of having a good life 2400 years ago: “Know thyself.” We have the capacity to know ourselves, deeply. And yet, so often, so many of us do so many things to avoid knowing ourselves. I have for my whole adult life found this to be perhaps the most amazing and unfortunate aspect of the human condition. Why in the world would you choose not to know some part of yourself you could know? I covered this topic in some detail in “Introspection, Part 3” so I won’t rehash all of that now. When I come to think of it, when I ask myself, what do I believe to be the highest ideal, goal, value, I can place on being human, it is, simply “know thyself.” Thank you Socrates.

What is so important about knowing one’s self? This: nothing else can happen that is worth happening in your life if you don’t know yourself. Or, to put it in a more positive light: a continual, life-long effort to know yourself better, deeper, more clearly, leads you to be able to make decisions with more intentionality, more awareness, more self-guidance, which greatly increases the likelihood that the decisions you make are consistent with who you actually are, what you believe to be important, and what you want for yourself, others, and the world.

I can see how this belief about the importance of introspection might appear flawed—there have been many people throughout history and even now who have done very great things, yet seemed to have little self-awareness at any point in their lives. It seems likely this was true of Steve Jobs, one of the co-founders of Apple Computer, who helped to bring us the personal computer, the graphical user interface, the smartphone, the modern tablet, etc. He did some really amazing things, and yet many of the people around him throughout his life encountered a person who was often completely unaware of the way his behavior was offensive, rude, even destructive to his goals and his personal and professional life. We all know about people who “claw their way to the top” of whatever they are climbing (corporate management for instance). They might be very wealthy, appear to be very successful, and seem to have almost zero awareness of themselves or the cost of their interactions for themselves and others (and maybe don’t care at all). We can also imagine that their inner life, what it feels like to be themis really pretty terrible, regardless of whatever they may have accomplished on the outside (wealth, innovation, power, “success”).

A bit of introspection about why you plan to do a thing and its consequences can really be helpful, especially when those consequences could be enormous. Julius Caesar stopped at the Rubicon River with his troops, pondering there the civil war that would certainly occur (and it did) if he crossed the river and moved toward Rome. After crossing the river, he said, “the die has been cast” predicting what would be one of the most significant decisions in the history of western civilization. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who directed the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb, didn’t seem to realize the consequences of his entire effort until after he witnessed the first nuclear detonation. At that point he said, “now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” and then spent most of the rest of his life fighting to limit the use and construction of nuclear bombs.

In our daily lives, we are not likely to face the kind of decisions that could alter human history (but hey, you never really know). What we can predict with absolute certainty is that our decisions will have consequences large and small for ourselves and the people who share our lives. So, wouldn’t you want to be as sure as you can be about why you are making the decisions you are making before you make them? The only way you can do this is through introspection. Up above I said that nothing worth happening can happen in your life without introspection. I really mean it. Obviously, if you don’t really know yourself, you can still have things happen, and they will. People move through their lives with very little self-awareness all the time. You can too. But why would you when you don’t have to?

The things we do take on significantly more meaning and importance when we do them on purpose—when we meant to do them, when we intend to do them, when we thought about why we did them before we did them. If you get a promotion at your job because you worked hard, proved yourself worthy, sought the promotion and it was given to you, this will mean a lot more to you than if you obtained the same promotion because you happened to be there when someone else left. Either way, the promotion doesn’t suck, as long as you are up to the new responsibilities and there are other perks (better pay for instance). With the intent and awareness that you are trying to do good work and then be recognized for it, you are going to feel better about yourself and the promotion itself than if you hadn’t given it much thought. This kind of thing is true in everything you do. Everything. If you note to yourself on the way home that you haven’t played with your dog in a few days, and then when you get home, you lie on the living room floor and play tug of war with her rope toy, it will feel more satisfying than if you just happened to spontaneously pull on that toy—because you did it on purpose, which means you did it with purpose.You can do nothing with purpose unless you intended to do it and also knew you intended to do it before you did it, which is not possible without digging into yourself, thinking about your intentions, become aware of them as they arise—all of which is possible only through introspection. To sum it up: introspection will help you live a better, more fulfilling, more meaningful, more satisfying life.

Introspection will slowly erode the fears you have of yourself. In Firewalking on Jupiter, in the chapter “What is Mental Health, Part 2,” I defined “mental health” (being mentally healthy) in much the same way: “’mental health’ is 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.”Every time you take the risk of looking into the metaphorical mirror of yourself, of seeing some part of yourself you might not want to see, it becomes easier to do so. I see this so often in therapy. I see this over the years in my own life. If you decide to make a daily effort toward greater introspection, even when it might cause you discomfort, you will also find it less necessary to engage in activities to avoid seeing yourself (activities which might be harmless or might be destructive).

Clients who engage in all kinds of activities to avoid looking at themselves when they first start in therapy find this less and less attractive as they grow more comfortable with who they are and realize their capacities to come to terms with parts of themselves they thought were impossible to cope with. Most often, these fears have something to do with things they have done or that have been done to them in their past. Jim’s parents berated him for years, telling him how disappointed they were in the choices he made during and after college. His resentment and the way he has internalized their criticisms are now so strong he sees them only on holidays, says little to them when he sees them, and can barely discuss them in his sessions with me. Over time, as Jim grows more comfortable talking with me about those years of criticisms, he can more clearly see that he himself regrets some but not most of the decisions that formed the basis of their criticism. He has for years attributed to his parents both a fair share of responsibility for the way he feels about himself but has also used them as a way to avoid coming to terms with his own regrets. When Jim learns that he can expel and let go of his own regrets and how he can now make better decisions based on those regrets, his resentments against his parents becomes more manageable, to the point that he feels comfortable talking to them about it, and only then can see how he can reconcile with them in a way that brings a closer connection for him, his wife and his children. Now, if his parents attempt to criticize him, which they still do from time to time, he has through introspection discovered ways to directly address those criticisms in the moment by telling them when he is open to their advice and when he is not. Jim is now able to predict his own reactions because he is aware beforehand what he is willing to tolerate from them. In other words, whatever he says to them now, he does so on purpose, with full awareness of the internal strengths and resources he possesses to be able to tell them what he is and is not willing to hear and why.

More important than Jim’s capacity to directly address his parents in the moment, his new capacity to let go of resentments, his willingness to bring his wife and kids to his parent’s house more often or invite them over, his capacity to talk about them with me and others, letting go of his desire to turn on “the game” when he sees them to avoid conversations—more important than any of these is the fact that Jim can now so much more easily think about himself, his life, his direction, his past and his future, his feelings, all the time, especially when he is alone.

Being alone with nothing much to do can be a very hard thing to do if you are not very comfortable thinking about yourself. Ask yourself this: how often in your life are you alone with nothing to distract yourself from the fact that you are alone? For most of us it is either almost never or just plain never. This might be why sleep aids are a huge business. Nighttime, in bed, with everything turned off—and the only thing occupying your mind is your mind—might be the only time most of us ever catch a glimpse of being with ourselves without distraction. In the car, you have the radio, podcasts, audio books, or a friend in the passenger seat or kids in the back seats. Next time you are in the car alone, try turning the radio off, listening to nothing, just your thoughts. This is introspection for no reason other than introspection.

Some people think they have to go to a meditation center, or sit in a particular room in a particular position with the appropriate state of mind to do this. You don’t. You can introspect anywhere, anytime you choose. This is precisely what I was doing on the bus at the age of 14, moving my finger back and forth on purpose for the first time. Finding comfort with your uninterrupted thoughts, letting them go wherever they take you. is a goal worth achieving. It might be the single greatest goal worth achieving—a kind of love of self in action (or through inaction). It is the goal of many religious and meditative practices. If you can be comfortable with no interruptions from yourself because you have become that much more comfortable with yourself, then when you are with others, when you find distraction, or are necessarily occupied by distraction in your life, those distractions will be there “on purpose.” You will have decided that it is okay or necessary to be distracted, not because you need to avoid yourself (you don’t anymore), but because the distraction fills your life in some important way. You will cherish time alone to be with your thoughts, your feelings, your perceptions, and you can then intentionally choose when to move out of your comfort with yourself into the world in a kind of transcendence that is only possible with the practice of regular, frequent and honest introspection.

The initial goal of introspection is usually to learn and then sort out some thorny internal issue that is causing you a problem. For me, introspection took on a much more serious purpose than moving my finger back and forth when I became aware of how my life was being damaged by drug and alcohol addiction—it became acutely necessary for me to ask: “why do I want to fill my body with chemicals that make my feelings go away?”

What I am advocating here is to stick with introspection even after you may have sorted through some particular issue, to see introspection as a goal in itself, to continue self-discovery and the way it can help you become for your whole life more comfortable with who you are, with what you think and feel, with how you interact with others, with life itself. I am advocating introspection as a way of life—to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself all the time, every day, in every situation you encounter, until it becomes a habit as familiar as breathing, walking, waking up and going to bed. With each new discovery you make about yourself, you will have a greater capacity to do everything in your life “on purpose” with more awareness of why you are doing it and with how you will likely feel after you have done it.

Don’t wait until your life is at its end to look back and ask how you feel about what you have done with your life. Start now. Start asking now what you want to do with your life now, how you feel about it now, how you want to see your life as you live it. This is the goal of introspection—forever increasing your ability to see yourself in your life as you live your life. Certainly, that has to be a goal and a practice worth having. There’s no reason to wait. Start now. And then just keep doing it. Keep asking yourself, whenever necessary, whenever you think about it, “where am I in this situation?,” “How do I feel about this decision I am considering?,” “what have I learned about myself today?,” “Do I have any business I need to attend to in any of my relationships to feel more satisfied and resolved?” The questions are endless because we are all so deep, so complex, and so full of great potential that we can ask ourselves these kinds of questions for our whole lives until our last breath and never run out of more questions we could ask. So ask. Ask yourself, “who am I?” Then ask yourself, “who do I want to be?” and “How do I want to be?” And then never stop asking, so you can continue to be what you are always becoming.

 

 

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

 

Introspection Part 7, Intersubjectivity

Friday, June 8th, 2018

There’s this scene in the movie The Elephant Man that was transformative for me.  I saw the movie in my late teens.  In the movie, the main guy has a disease which disfigures his whole body, including his face.  In this particular scene, he is running from reporters.  I think he’s in a hospital.  At the end of a hallway, a dead-end, he confronts his pursuers, a crowd who want to ask him questions, take his picture, but he doesn’t want to talk to them. He’s had enough of being a freak to others.  They don’t seem to care how he feels, but he will make himself heard.  Despite his difficulty in speaking clearly, he slowly, emphatically utters to them this simple demand that he be taken seriously, “I am not an animal! I! Am! A! Human! Being!”

In this profound reprimand, the main character demands they consider his feelings. He demand they take into consideration his subjective experience—to imagine what it means to be him, and not them! He wants to be left alone, and demands they understand this, that this is the least he should be able to expect from them, to be treated with respect and humanity, with dignity, no less than what they expect for themselves.

What if we all started with this proposition in all our relationships? And coupled with this demand to have our subjective experiences accounted for by others, we also found hypocrisy intolerable, which would mean that we could not demand from others what we ourselves demanded from them.  This would mean that we would want to form all of our relationships as including at a very basic starting point that they will take our subjective experiences into account and that we will take their subjective experiences into account. This is intersubjectivity—the intersecting point when two or more people engage with each other as subjects, while treating each other as subjects.  The starting point for all of our relationships and interactions would have embedded in it this simple and powerful proposition: “I want you to take into consideration when dealing with me my subjective experience and I will take into consideration when dealing with you your subjective experience.”

I bet I can guess what you might be thinking.  You’re thinking, well, we already do this all the time in our relationships, so why do we have to have a word (intersubjectivity), let alone some guy’s blog post, to describe it?  If this happens to be what you’re thinking, I have an answer ready. We don’t do this, hardly ever.  Sometimes we do, but fleetingly at best, and usually only in our very most important relationships (where failure to account for the other’s subjective experience doesn’t get us what we want), or in relationships where it doesn’t cost us much to do it (like with the cashier at the grocery store, who might be taking a long time and frustrating us, but we understand he is just doing his job and seems to be struggling with it, so we don’t complain).

I should admit here that the idea of treating each other as subjects didn’t originate in my head. During a recent discussion with a friend, the concept of “subject-to-subject” relationships came up in the context of sexism. The observation had been made decades ago that men often treat other men as subjects, and expect themselves to be treated as subjects by other men, but they often didn’t, and still do not, treat women as subjects. They treat women as objects to meet their needs, whether those needs are sexual or other role-specific needs (mother, sister, daughter, caretaker).  I don’t think this is controversial (meaning it seems so obvious, if not also seriously terrible, that it can’t really be open to much of an argument against it). The solution is obviously for men to treat other men, and all women (and all children too), as having subjective experiences of their own. I’d even say we should, to the extent possible, apply these concepts of intersubjectivity to all sentient beings, whether human or not. That’s my soapbox though, and not necessarily the point of this blog, so I will step away from it (for now)!

I should also admit that I was introduced to the word “intersubjectivity” in a book discussing the philosophical basis of the meaning of symbolic representations of ideas and how that meaning gets shared between individuals in a group.  So, I suppose I have “hijacked” the word to describe what I am attempting to explain here: that where two subjects meet in a relationship, and they acknowledge their own and the other person’s subjectivity simultaneously, that intersection, that “shared space” between them, the “in-between” space, with all of its ramifications, can be summed up in the word “intersubjectivity.”

My thoughts then expanded to many of the kinds of relationship issues people bring up in therapy. Specifically, it occurred to me that many of these problems would evaporate if both people in the relationship treated each other at all times as if the other had their own independent subjective experiences (which they do anyway) and that each had the right to expect the other to consider their subjective experiences in all their interactions.

What does it mean to treat someone else as if they had their own subjective experience?  I suppose to start with it means imagining what the world looks like to them.  We know what the world looks like to us.  Step 1: imagine the possibility of others seeing the world just as we do. Step 2: imagine what that would be like for them—to imagine the world as we see it.  Step 3: imagine them wanting us to see the world as they see it.  Step 4: try to see the world as they see it. Base what that world would look like on what you know about them—their attitudes, history, feelings, their personality, what scares them, what makes them happy, what they like, don’t like, what they want and don’t want, how they see you, their job, their school, their friends, their family, how they see themselves.  What you don’t know about their world, ask.  Ask them.  If you want to try to imagine what their world looks like and there are blank spots in your imagined world of their subjective experience, fill them in by asking them.

Immanuel Kant was a really important philosopher from Germany.  He talked a lot about morality. One of the most famous things he said (I am paraphrasing here) is that we should never treat others as merely a means to an end, we should always treat others as ends in themselves.  In other words, we shouldn’t use people solely for our own gain, for our own purpose. We should treat them as having the right to have their needs considered, no matter what our needs might be. I guess you could say this is a kind of intersubjective morality.

Intersubjectivity is a never-ending process.  It’s just like self-discovery. If you are engaged in self-discovery, invested in it as a way of being in your life, there will always be more to discover. The same is true for discovering someone else’s self. They are no less complicated than you. They have new things happening within all the time, just as you do. So, intersubjectivity is a way of always deepening your understanding of the other person, and in so doing, deepening the connection between you. This takes time, of course, but you have time, plenty of time. The attempt is the thing that matters. Imagining your relationship partner’s view and experience of the world around them becomes a constantly improving thing over time, but only if you are trying.

Aside from deepening your relationships, intersubjectivity, if you and the other person can be committed to it, will help you avoid and resolve conflicts. You will each know the other expects at all times consideration of your subjective experiences to the extent possible.  Hopefully, you will also realize that you can never actuallyknow what someone else’s subjective experience truly is. This would require that you become them, which of course is impossible. In the attempt though, in the wanting to know, caring enough to imagine and then consider what the other person might be experiencing, probably is experiencing, could be experiencing, you will tailor your behavior, words, priorities, to what you can imagine they might want, they might appreciate, they might hope you will do. And when you aren’t sure, remember, ask them.

Co-dependency would vanish with intersubjectivity.  I’ve defined co-dependency in Firewalking on Jupiter, as arising from two mistaken assumptions and the behaviors based on these assumptions: (1) “your needs are more important than they really are,” and (2) “my needs are less important than they really are.”  With intersubjectivity, these mistakes would be essentially impossible. If you required in your relationships that the other person take into consideration your subjective experiences, inherent within that demand is the expectation that your needs will be no less important to the other person than their needs are to you. If your demand for intersubjectivity were met by the other person, they would point out to you that you were allowing their needs to become paramount, while submerging your own needs, as part of the reality and the ideal of intersubjectivity.  I suppose I should say something here about the difference between equality and equity.  I am not suggesting that intersubjectivity requires two people to always treat the other’s needs as equal to their own, at all times (equality).  Needs differ in terms of importance, of course. Sometimes your needs are more important, and should take priority over your partner’s needs, sometimes it’s the other way around (equity). The important point is that no one’s needs are always more important or less important, which would be both unequal and inequitable (and not possible with intersubjectivity in place).

Abuse, in all its forms—verbal, physical, sexual, emotional—would also vanish with the practice of intersubjectivity, at least theoretically. I define abuse as being the result of an intent to harm.  If you demanded intersubjectivity in all your relationships, the other person would know that what they are doing was harming you.  You would of course know they knew this as well.  You wouldn’t stand for it.  You’d demand they stop, immediately, or you would leave the situation or even the relationship, depending on the severity of the abusive behavior and its repetition.  I truly wish that this were the case in all abusive relationships.  It would be the case if all relationships had at their core the demand that each person’s subjective experience were considered and attended to by the other person.

Intersubjective relationships, like I am trying to describe here, will also deepen your understanding of yourself. Think about it: if you demand from others that they treat you as a subject with your own world of experiences, you will need to be prepared to share with them what your subjective world is like.  You will need to be able to articulate many of the kinds of things that comprise and fill your thoughts and outlook.  You can hardly expect others to know what you are like as a subject if you don’t know yourself.  Nor can you expect them to understand what your inner world looks like to you if you can’t explain it to them. If you and others in your life, even just one other person in your life, are committed to this idea, each of you will learn from the process of sharing these subjective experiences much more about yourselves as you also learn about each other.

If you start from the proposition that you will expect at all times with all people that your subjective experience will be considered (varying in depth by the nature of your relationship and reasonable expectations of what they can and should know about you), you will be in a position to know when to assert your needs, and when to acknowledge the other person is attending to them as best they can. Of course, you will also be setting yourself up for grave disappointment, often.  That’s the nature of human interaction. We are all the time forgetting to account for the needs of others when those needs conflict with our own, when their needs are getting in the way of our needs.  Frustration abounds.  We have to temper our expectations with reality.  Many people you come across every day of your life will not give a whit about your subjective experience. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want it, or even at times demand it, but it does mean you will need to accept “you can’t always get what you want.”  Even in your most important relationships, you and others will never achieve anything close to perfect or constant intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity, as I’ve described its meaning and practice here, is an ideal, something to strive for, something you know you will never completely achieve, but something worth attempting, as often and as deeply as you can, especially with those relationships that are most important to you.

Give the idea a try. Start with yourself. Start by wanting others to treat you as a subject, even though to them you are an object (they themselves are their only subject). Ask to be treated as a thing that has a subjective experience. When you are not being treated that way, and you believe you have a right to expect it (like from your partner or family member), explain what you want.  Or, I suppose you could have them read this blog post and discuss it with them, to come up with your own mutual understanding of what “intersubjectivity” means to you.  Then offer to do the same for them, and then do it, even if they don’t.  I am all the time trying to treat others as subjects even when it clear they don’t treat me as a subject. Of course, I am human and also often treat others as an object when I absolutely should be treating them as a subject. Remember, no one is perfect!

 

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

Introspection Part 6, Self-acceptance

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Introspection Part 6, self-acceptance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Introspection Part 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)jupitercenter.com.

Introspection Part 4, Tools for self-discovery

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

It occurs to me that in addition to all the negative reasons one might not engage in self-exploration I noted in Part 3 of this series on introspection (fear of emotional pain, family or gender negative messages, avoiding  responsibility), some of us do not engage in self-exploration because we just don’t really know how to do it. So, I am concluding this series of blog posts on introspection by offering some basic tools to begin and carry on the process of introspection.

Notice yourself.

Pay attention to what is happening to you, with you, within you, as often as possible. Some call this “mindfulness” (a word hopelessly overused in therapy circles). I just call it paying attention. It is the gateway to all manner of self-exploration. It can be done in so many ways, and it takes no effort other than willingness and remembering to do it.

You can pay attention any time you want. In a meeting at work, make a conscious effort to notice stuff you’ve maybe never paid attention to before. Pay attention to the way you feel when a certain colleague drinks from her coffee cup. Does it bother you? Do you care? Is she sloppy with it. Does it make any difference to you how she drinks her coffee? Yes, this is trivial. Paying attention to the trivial is a good start, because you are at least paying attention, and the stuff you are noticing is therefore not terribly deep or have the potential to be uncomfortable. The trick is to pay attention as often as you can remember. This will not be natural at first. Our minds go out into the world. We naturally want to pay attention to what is happening, without giving a lot of thought to how it affects us internally. This is like a new muscle you are exercising—it will be weak at first, so you have to use it, a lot, for it to become stronger.

Part of paying attention or noticing all that is happening around you and within you is encouraged by curiosity. I have written about Curiosity in Firewalking on Jupiter. If you have that book, it has some ideas about how to increase your level of curiosity and how that can provide all kinds of benefits. Simultaneously paying attention to what is happening around us and what is happening within us is the only real way to know in any given moment how we respond to the world. Doing this repeatedly, checking this time against the last time something similar happened, is the only way to start recognizing patterns. Next time you have a meeting with your coffee drinking colleague (see above), check to see if it bothers you the way it did before. If it does, could it mean there are other things that bother you about her that you are not paying attention to. If not, it might mean you’d been unfair to her before and were just in a funk yourself. Whichever is the case, paying attention over time, from one context to the next, and from one context to a similar context, will not only make you better at seeing yourself in a situation, it will also help you rule out irrelevant information about yourself and the world around you. Over time, you will get better at zeroing in on the things that can teach you, inform you about who you are, tell you what matters to you, and why.

Meditation.

One form of paying attention is meditation. Meditation is in some ways nothing more than a structured way to pay attention by letting go of all your other thoughts from the day. If you sit for 5, or 10, or 30 minutes, doing nothing but sitting, perhaps with your eyes closed, with someone guiding the meditation, or just silence, you will be paying attention to what you happen to be thinking, feeling. The idea is to sit within your observer self, and just observe. Observe the bubbles of thoughts coming up. Don’t chase them, or grab them, or follow them. Let them rise to the surface, break open and reveal what they are, while you, the observer, in meditation, realize what you have observed and then let the next bubble come. This is meditation, and it is a great way to get to know all that you are, without stress, urgency, and with acceptance. A regular practice of meditation can help increase your level of self-knowledge, while also helping you come to accept yourself as you are, without worrying so much about who you think you should be. That would be a nice goal, anyway.

If you aren’t sure what to think about meditation, or how to do it, you might want to consider finding a meditation practice location and community. In most major cities, there are several. They may or may not have some religious background (for instance Buddhism). But the approach to meditation is going to be roughly the same, to help you find ways to go within yourself and just experience what is happening at that moment. If the community you find pushes its religious aspect too much for you, look elsewhere, until you find a place or community that feels comfortable to you.

If finding a community isn’t an option for you or is something you do not wish to explore, an alternative is to find other personal tools to help you on your way with meditation. It could be a book, a video, an audio tape or CD, or software. There are now multiple apps for your smartphone which can help you get started with meditation, guiding the process, and offering different options for the kind and duration of meditation that works for you. No matter what option you choose—by yourself, or with some tool, person, or community—meditation can supplement other ways for you to look into yourself, all of which are forms of introspection.

Somatic experiences—what is happening in your body.

The term “somatic” simply means “pertaining to the body.” So, all I am suggesting here is to pay attention to your body as well as your mind.

Many of the physical symptoms clients tell me about might be related to their emotional states, or inner lives, which they can access best by telling me how their body feels or reacts. This is not surprising considering that mental health diagnosis criteria (like depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar) contain many physical symptoms as well as mental symptoms. Anxiety, for instance, includes “easily fatigued” and “muscle tension.” Depression includes the feelings of either inability to be still or moving very slowly. You can use your own body to gain access to the way you feel even or especially when it might be difficult for you to articulate or identify the actual emotions or mental states you are experiencing.

A really good example is the way people often describe something that sounds like a panic attack. They don’t often come in and say, “I had a panic attack.” Instead, they tell me they had an experience that felt like they were going crazy, or were very anxious, and that their heart was pounding, they were sweaty, had difficulty breathing, they thought they might be having a heart attack, it came on suddenly, lasted for several minutes and then went away. These are all potentially symptoms of a panic attack. If these kinds of symptoms happen repeatedly, it is possible to begin to identify patterns of when they happen, under what circumstance, which can help to identify the underlying triggers, causes and possible solutions so they don’t keep happening. Of course, if you are experiencing significant chest pain and think you might be having a heart attack, don’t assume that it is a panic attack. It might actually be a heart attack requiring immediate medical attention.

The close relationship between our body and mind is undeniable. Some would even say the mind is merely part of your body. At some level, this must be true—without our bodies, our minds would simply not exist (leaving aside questions of the afterlife for others to contemplate). So, it must be true that our body affects the way our mind feels and the way our minds feel affects how our bodies feel. If we have trouble accessing our mental states, we can look to our bodies for some clues. If I am tired more often than I should be, if I lack energy most days, if I tend not to get excited about things that normally excite me, I might have some kind of flu or other illness. If I don’t have a flu or other illness, I might also be suffering from a kind of depression. By paying attention to the way our bodies feel, especially staying in touch with our bodies, over time, we can learn a great deal about how our moods arise and change in relationship to the way our bodies feel. This is just another form of getting to know ourselves, another form of introspection.

Record what you experience and later reflect on it.

I would just say, write it down in a journal (I’ll come back to this in a minute), but that isn’t always the favored approach for some people. I have clients that prefer to draw, paint, take pictures, write poetry, all as ways for them to gain access to their inner states. I encourage it all. The commonality is that they are using their own creative means and preferences with the intent to pay attention, to notice, to explore their inner selves. Their created “artifacts” (artwork, music, poetry) are ways for them to go back to those inner states later and contemplate what they might have meant, where they might have come from, what those states tell them about what they want and don’t want in their lives, in their relationships, in themselves.

I happen to think writing stuff down in some kind of journal is important, even if you also have other modes of creative expression. I was in a therapy session with a visual artist who brought his drawings in to show me how he used drawing as part of his introspective method. He had some really great interpretations of his drawings. So, it was useful, interesting and fun. On several occasions though, as I asked questions about various parts of the drawing, he was not able to articulate or remember specifically why he had incorporated those particular elements, but felt sure they had had meaning at the time he did the drawing. He noted that, if he had written some of these thoughts down, in addition to doing the drawing, he’d have the words in front of him to more clearly recall what he’d been thinking or feeling when drawing that particular piece.

The act of recording in some way what you have thought, felt, realized, remembered, considered, or in whatever other way come to know some part of your inner self will require you to put it into action, mental action. If I don’t record my inner life, this is often what happens. I think a thing. It passes. I forget it. No realization. I think a thing. I write it down. In the act of writing it down, I have to consider what the thought is, how to describe it, how it might relate to other thoughts, feelings, perceptions and various mental states. Even if I never re-read that journal entry, the process of writing it down helps me sort through it, make sense of it, come to know it, and integrate it into my greater self. If I write a thought of feeling down, or compose music about it (my thing), and then later read what I wrote or listen to the music, it can bring me right back to the exact thought or feeling in that previous time to reconsider from a different perspective a different version of myself. I will realize the difference between how I felt or thought then and how I think and feel now. I will see change, notice growth, and become more integrated over time. Do this. Repeatedly. And you will notice changes within yourself over time.

I kind of do the same thing with my client case notes. Clients have often found it very helpful to go through their session case notes with me, so they can see my observations and written comments about their issues and how they dealt with those issues differently, over time. They can see their growth. It can be very encouraging for them. You don’t need me to do that. Keep your own “case notes” in the form of your own personal journal, and then go back over it from time to time to notice the changes you are making, how you are making them, and how you can continue to do so.

Writing in a journal need not be complicated, long or time consuming. I had a client who did both meditation and journaling. After she meditated, she would write down just a few words to describe what she experienced as part of her meditation, so she could reflect on it later, or share it with me in therapy. It might have been things like: “lonely, bored.” Or, “envious of sister.” Or, “content, peaceful.” See, it doesn’t have to be complicated, difficult, or negative either. Some people do the same with important dreams, so they can gain access back into what the dream was about. A simple keyword or phrase is all they need to remember elements of the dream, and then they can often go all the way back into some important part of it. The same can be true for recalling a past mood state or a particular situation that was bothering you.

Writing longer journal entries can also be good, because you might have contradictory or opposing feelings, thoughts, and perspectives at the same time. Writing about it can help you pinpoint the nature of the contradiction, and resolve it right then and there, or at least give you ideas about what you might want to do to resolve the inconsistencies at a later time. Writing in a journal, whether using basic feelings words, or longer passages, can also help you get the vocabulary you need to think in feelings terms when having the feelings, and can help you get practice in sorting your feelings out when you have the space and time, which will help you be able to do the same thing in moments of stressful interactions with others. When I write in my journal, I often look up words in online dictionaries or thesauruses to find the right word to describe what I am feeling or thinking while writing. I had a pretty strange and twisted educational path, so I’ve been doing this a long time. It is one of the main ways I’ve increased my capacity to describe my experiences, whether while writing, or just thinking, or talking with a friend, colleague, or client.

Catharsis: exploring your feelings through other people’s art.

Creating your own art, music, writings or recordings of any kind is just one way of getting your feelings out there, where you can see them, know them, experience them. Another way is through allowing yourself to be moved by the artistic creations of others. Think of all the love songs that might have made you swoon for someone you loved, or cry over someone you loved and then lost, or the movies that were tragic that had you on the point of tears, or sobbing, by the end. This is catharsis.

Dictionary.com defines “catharsis” as “the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.” In the context of this discussion, I am not so interested in the “purging” aspect of catharsis as I am in the feelings it allows you to know, to explore, understand, and eventually, put in perspective as part of your overall inner self. The more you are able to sort through the feelings you have as part of the cathartic experience, the less scary it will seem, because you will see difficult emotions within the context of your greater self, your whole strong self. Feelings of pain, fear, doubt, confusion, anger will be a subset of other parts of you that are strong, safe, secure, grateful, and solid. You will learn how to experience feelings in the moment that do not make you fear how you will rid yourself of such feelings. The advantage of catharsis is purging, but it is also understanding your inner self, as part of introspection.

So give it a try, if you feel strong enough—go see a movie, or watch one at home, that you know might encourage you to have difficult feelings. If you don’t feel strong enough to do this on your own, that’s okay, invite someone you trust to watch it with you. Sometimes sharing a cathartic experience with someone else can create a kind of emotional closeness and intimacy that you otherwise wouldn’t have. Even better, if you feel the desire to discuss your experience with the other person afterward, you will gain a deeper understanding about yourselves than catharsis by itself, and by yourself, would otherwise bring you. Next time you hear a song that you know often moves you emotionally, try to let it move you, don’t hold it back, see where it goes.

Consider a daily reading routine.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a daily reading book, called “One Day at a Time,” which has a single short page with a few passages to get your mind thinking in new directions about you, your life, and your relationships. Al-anon has a similar daily reading book, called “Courage to Change.” The self-help section at your bookstore and at Amazon have many varieties of books you can use, to be read in small sections, to get the “juices flowing” with self-reflection. Some people say it helps them to do this at a certain time of day, either first thing in the morning, at lunch, or at bedtime. Whatever book or time works for you is fine. The point is that you might need some help getting your mind headed in the direction of self-reflection, especially if you are new to introspection, or if you are prone to allowing daily affairs to consume your thoughts. A daily reading book can do this. I thought about making a reference to my own book here, but just couldn’t overcome the obvious self-promotion, so I will leave it out (noting only my sheepish grin).

I find it can help to have these kinds of books around even if it is not part of a daily routine. When I am in a mood, and I feel “off,” or something is bothering me and I don’t know what it is, I might read from one of my daily reading books, which then prompts some thinking, and then I might write about it in my journal to narrow down the issue or see where my thoughts lead me.

Another option is to read a passage from a book you like, one that is focused on self-improvement in some way, or it could be a religious text, and then discuss this with someone you trust, someone who you believe is interested in hearing your thoughts and insights about these kinds of things (see below).

Talk about yourself with others.

Like mindfulness, or noticing, whatever you happen to be experiencing, making it a habit to talk about yourself, your inner self, with others, will go a long way toward helping you explore your inner self. Think of it as like role-playing introspection, but with someone else. They can then also give you feedback on your discoveries. Obviously, you want to do this with someone you can trust. By trust, I mean someone you believe will be open to whatever you might discover about yourself, and share with them, without undue judgment or unsolicited advice, someone who will accept your insights as you explore them. The more you do this, the easier it will become, until it feels fairly natural. In addition, while you are sharing what you discover, you may find yourself expressing feelings you didn’t even know you had before sharing your thoughts and insights.

This is really part of the nature of catharsis. It goes back to something I mentioned in Part 3 of this series of blog posts on introspection—we can have a feeling without experiencing that feeling (denial, repression), but we cannot genuinely express a feeling without both having the feeling and experiencing it. In other words, sometimes the only way we end up experiencing the feelings we already have is to express the feeling. This is also why journal writing, or recording our inner states in some other way, is an important part of introspection. Recording through art or journaling is basically sharing our inner lives, but sharing them with ourselves, until we decide to share them with others.

If you write in a journal, or paint, draw, sculpt, compose, or engage in any other form of recording your exploration of your inner life, sharing any of that, especially with the intent of letting others know the parts of yourself that prompted the piece, can be very helpful, for all of the reasons I just mentioned. Feedback is good, as long as it is with someone whose perspective, agenda, motives, and insights you trust.

Here’s another important aspect of sharing your introspective findings with others. It will begin to change the way you pick who you spend time with, whether friends or family. The more you share about yourself, the more you are likely to surround yourself with others who are actually interested in knowing you, the real you, the inner you, the complete you, both inside and out. Those who do not value what you are on the inside will respond to what you have to share about yourself in a way that may increasingly bother you. You will start to choose others as primary people in your life who are likewise dedicated, or at least interested or open, to the idea of introspection, from you and with themselves. Of course, friendships are a two way street. So, hopefully, as you become more comfortable with exploring your inner life and sharing it with others, you will also become more interested and comfortable in learning about the inner lives of others in ways you previously hadn’t. This will be the topic of the next blog post in this series on introspection, which is about something I call “intersubjectivity” (relationships based on a the premise of mutual interest and capacity to account for each other’s subjective experience). The idea is, once you become more acquainted with the tools that work for you for self-exploration, and become more comfortable and accepting of who you are, you will be more able to imagine what it might be like to be others, including those with whom you have relationships. Most important, the more you know about yourself and what matters to you, the more you will ask that others know and attend to these things about you too.

Seek professional help.

This almost goes without saying, especially coming from a therapist: if you are not sure you are ready to use the tools in this discussion, reach out to a mental health professional to help you. I would not be where I am today, if I had not started out by getting the support I needed at various points from professionals who helped me get perspective on what I could handle at those points where it was most needed. I encourage you to do the same if you have any doubts about your own capacity to engage in deeper introspection on your own.

It is entirely possible that you might need some help getting started down the road of meaningful introspection, either because your family or cultural background frown on such things, or because you have issues that are understandably more difficult than you can handle on your own. Maybe both reasons are true for you. I have been in this situation more than once in my life, and so have many of my clients. I am always glad they reached out to me when this was their situation. The tools above should be viewed as possibilities, but only when you know you are ready. Having a professional guide you to help you understand your own needs and capabilities is very important if you believe your inner life, your emotional or mental state, are not stable enough to do this on your own, at least not initially. A qualified mental health professional can then also give you objective perspectives on what you can handle, and when, and how much. Introspection is an important part of growth, but can also benefit from moderation with the assistance of someone more familiar with the process than you might be.

Having a professional who has the experience, tools, and objectivity to offer a safe and effective space for you to explore your inner life and issues can be absolutely necessary when the issues you might need to confront and resolve pose the risk of further harm without that help. A good example is a person who has experienced some kind of trauma who wants to heal and resolve the pain from the trauma, but doesn’t know how to do so without re-enacting trauma scenarios and re-traumatizing them, which can happen without proper resources and assistance. Likewise, even if you are otherwise doing well, it can be really important and even just helpful to seek guidance about the ways you might particularly benefit from introspection and the kind of tools most appropriate to get you on your way. For those trying to overcome normative prohibitions against introspection (see Introspection, Part 3), having someone as a supportive and encouraging person along the way might help you get traction and sustain you in your own process of self-discovery .

Consider using all of these tools, together or separately, as needed.

The format of this blog post is somewhat artificial. By separating these various tools, it makes it seem like you should do one or the other of them. Of course, this doesn’t have to be the way you engage in self-discovery. It’s not the way most people do. Use these tools in combination with each other, in whatever way makes sense to you at the time. I have clients that do a daily reading, write in their journal, bring their journal to a therapy session, and then go home and start a drawing based on all of these. Each step has at its core a common specific intent: learning more about who you are and why you do what you do. With this knowledge and experience, you will be well on your way to identifying what you want to change about yourself and your life, and far more likely to be open to making those very changes so you can have more of what you want in your life.

 

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

Introspection Part 3, Why do we avoid our inner lives

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Introspection Part 2, the value of self-discovery

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

Every once in a while I run into a person who tells me they think introspection and self-awareness are a waste of time. I have even on occasion been told that introspection encourages negative feelings about ourselves, by causing us to dwell on difficult issues. I am almost universally so surprised by these ways of thinking about introspection and self-awareness, I find it difficult to respond. Yet, without a basis for understanding the benefits of self-awareness or how to obtain it (through introspection), the difficult feelings and moods it can force us to contend with might seem both daunting and pointless. It seems valid to have a concern about introspection becoming a form of self-absorption. The answer to this issue, though, is not to avoid introspection, but to balance introspection with transcendence. While I believe at a fundamental level that paying attention to your thoughts and feelings and where they come from is vital to living a satisfying life, I also think we need to reach out, to move outward into the world, to “transcend” ourselves in order to become and stay connected to everything outside of ourselves (see my chapter, “Transcendence” in Firewalking on Jupiter). Maybe then, the kind of balance I believe in is one which carries us inward through introspection and outward through transcendence, each as needed, and each as might be beneficial depending on the circumstances we encounter within ourselves and with the world. Readiness and willingness to go in both directions seems an essential part of living a full, rich, and genuinely satisfying life.

Some would say that knowing one’s self has an intrinsic benefit that needs no further justification, that greater self-awareness provides a rich experience within ourselves, and creates an ever expanding space to explore all that life has to offer, that this should be enough for anyone to want to engage in introspection. I tend to agree. I agree not because I am a therapist. Rather, I became a therapist because I had already come to believe in the powerful benefits of self-exploration as necessary for personal growth and change. Even if you don’t agree, there are also very specific and practical reasons to gain self-awareness beyond knowing one’s self better for its own sake.

The corollary benefits of greater self-awareness are predictability and flexibility. By exploring our inner lives, we get a better sense of the way our deeper motives influence our choices, thus allowing us to make choices more in line with how we want to live our lives. Introspection can also help us understand the patterns of responses in our relationships at home, in our communities, and at work, so we aren’t surprised by our reactions to others. This way, we can begin to identify certain kinds of behaviors in the moment and choose to act differently, if warranted, than we have in the past. In fact, this one benefit of introspection is essential to any kind of meaningful change in how we interact with the world. Once our identity (who we are) is set at about the age of 25, it cannot be changed. The good news is our personality (how we interact with the world) and our choices of behaviors can change in some pretty important ways. This change cannot happen unless we understand how we interact with the world and how that affects our lives and relationships. None of this can happen without introspection leading to greater self-awareness.

Introspection is the only way we can step outside of a conversation and “see” it “objectively” to learn how we are “in the conversation.” If we can’t step outside of ourselves and see ourselves more objectively, how can we know what we need to do differently to improve our interactions with others, to improve our relationships, to improve ourselves? We can’t. It may seem kind of funny that to get the outside perspective, we need to go into ourselves, through introspection. Here’s why. Think about any argument or conflict you might have had recently, any conversation that was for some reason mildly or greatly uncomfortable for you. Look back at what they said, what you said. The only way any of that will make sense to you, the only way you can learn from that argument or conflict is to pay attention to why you felt uncomfortable, to explore what was underneath your discomfort. The only way you will be able to get a sense of why the other person seemed to be uncomfortable is for you to pay attention to what you were doing that might have made them uncomfortable. This is introspection.

Jules and Bobbi have a great relationship, but the holidays always put them in a difficult position. Jules doesn’t like to spend time with family at the holidays. He wants to avoid the whole thing. Bobbi is just the opposite when it comes to the holidays. She wants to see her family on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, sometimes the day after Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve. They have difficulty discussing it every year, so they mostly avoid it. Jules goes with Bobbi to maybe one or two family gatherings, but not all of them, and he doesn’t want to stay too long. Last week, they argued about it, again. Bobbi brought it up, said she wanted to know what to expect from Jules, what to tell her family about which events he’d be coming to. He didn’t want to talk about it. They were both uncomfortable. Bobbi ended the conversation (there wasn’t much of one), by asking Jules to think about it and let her know. They watched their “show” that night in an uncomfortable silence and went to bed. Bobbi wants to know what she can do to improve their capacity to discuss the issue. Jules doesn’t want to think about it, or explore it, at all, but is willing to do so to ease the tension between them. I ask Jules about his family. He says they are not close, and most of them live in other states. I ask about his history of the holidays. His responses are short, don’t give me much information. Bobbi confirms that my inability to get anywhere on this issue with Jules is similar to her lack of success in getting Jules to open up about this issue.

At this point, there isn’t much I can do to help Jules and Bobbi resolve the issue of the holidays, for one reason: Jules is not willing to engage in introspection. It makes him very uncomfortable, especially on this issue. He might not even be aware of why it makes him uncomfortable, it just does. I can see no way for him and Bobbi to be able to come to a peaceful and satisfactory resolution of this issue. Bobbi refuses to spend the holidays away from her family, but also wants to be with Jules. That is not going to change, because she has no interest in changing her priorities during the holidays. Without knowing why Jules is so uncomfortable with the holidays, neither of them can make the kind of changes that might be possible if they (especially Jules) had a better understanding of these issues, how they affect Jules, why they affect Jules, and what might put him at ease with them. Is it the gift giving? The religious aspect, like going to Church on Christmas Eve? Is it the closeness of her family? Does someone in her family trigger some deeper historical aversion for Jules? Does their closeness make him feel even more lonely than he already does due to the distance between him and his own family? Any insights into these kinds of issues would be a valuable gateway for helping Jules, and helping Bobbi to help Jules, by giving him the kind of support he might need. As things stand, though, Jules’ unwillingness to explore his feelings, history, thoughts, moods, responses and reactions make improvement impossible. We have hit a wall, and no bricks will be removed until Jules decides to engage in some form of introspection. Bobbi and Jules will continue to either avoid the subject, or have uncomfortable conversations and silences and holidays.

I don’t really have to prove the value of introspection. If introspection had no intrinsic value, we would not be the way we are. For just a moment, think back to my blog post, “Introspection, Part 1,” where I created the image of the conscious and unconscious, in which you are sort of hovering over a pool of water, with bubbles coming up from the water, and bursting out onto the surface, after which you can either pay attention to this or that bubble. The you that is hovering is your conscious self, the water is your unconscious, the bubbles are thoughts, feelings, memories, all kinds of mental states emerging from your unconscious to your conscious. You have considerable control (but not complete control) over how much attention you decide to pay to all of the bubbles, or particular bubbles, as they emerge. If introspection and self-awareness were not vitally important to our well-being, we would simply not have this capacity, this way of being within ourselves. We have this capacity, we are this way, precisely because we need to know why we do what we do. We need to recognize our patterns of interaction, which must include underlying motivations for our decisions, if we are going to be able to predict the way those patterns will influence us in the future, how they will compel us to act in certain ways when we encounter certain kinds of situations. Introspection gives us this kind of predictability—the ability to predict how we, ourselves, will want to behave in the future to have a greater chance of obtaining whatever it is we seek. If we are not willing to do this, to explore ourselves, to look at those bubbles and pay attention to the important ones, we will be stuck, lost, confused, always waiting until the next uncomfortable situation, wondering without understanding why we are uncomfortable, and what can be done to make us less uncomfortable the next time. We will be like Jules, and all of the people around us will be like Bobbi, puzzled and frustrated by our inability to understand, cope, communicate or change.

In my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, in the Chapter, “Mental Illness, Part 2” 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.” So, I guess you could say that my way of describing what it means to be “mentally healthy” is to regularly engage in introspection at whatever depth is required at any given point in time, to improve our capacity to know our triggers, motivations, and behaviors (predictability) so we can then make better choices in moments that matter to us and our relationships (flexibility). For a deeper discussion on the benefits of flexibility, you may want to read the three chapters on this topic in Firewalking on Jupiter, including the first part, which is aptly called “Flexibility is the hallmark of mental health.” Here, though, I will merely emphasize that flexibility allows us to make different kinds of choices. We won’t know which kinds of choices are available unless we know our own limits and capabilities. To know this, we must know ourselves, through introspection.

Now that I have shed some light on the benefits of introspection, in the next blog post on this topic, I will try to explain why people often avoid introspection despite what seems to me to be its obvious benefits.

 

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

 

Introspection Part 1, What is introspection?

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

A friend recently read my book, Firewalking on Jupiter. He liked it. He thought it was useful in a variety of ways. He thought the book did a pretty good job of explaining how to address different issues you might need to address depending on who you are and what you discover about yourself—things like guilt, anxiety, anger, shame, loss, lack of meaning, and identity. I do not take it for granted that someone who reads my book will enjoy it or find it useful, so it was nice to hear all of this. Then he said something I hadn’t heard before, or thought about really at all. He told me the book made the assumption that those who read it already know what introspection is, how to do introspection, have sufficient self-awareness to identify their issues, and are fairly far down the road of believing in the value of both introspection and self-awareness.

I will admit, I was stunned. I realized right away that there was no part of the book that actually went through the process of what introspection is and how to do introspection. My oversight is based on two circumstances. First, I had been engaged in the various acts of introspection for so long in my own life, I made the mistake of assuming those reading my book would already be well acquainted with it. My long history of doing introspection goes all the way back to when I was a teenager, in drug treatment, learning about the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (I’ll get back to that in a later part of this series of blog posts, as part of my explanation for how to do introspection). The other reason is that I had been practicing therapy with clients for 10 years when I put the book together, so I made the mistaken assumption that my audience would be people already engaged in therapy, either with me or someone else, well on their way to understanding how to incorporate introspection into their daily lives.

This, then, is the first in what will be a series of blog posts that will explain the basics of introspection, including what it is, how to start, how to maintain it, various tools you can use to help you along, and also the benefits of introspection, which is greater self-awareness, hopefully leading to positive change and growth.

Let’s start by defining “introspection.” Dictionary.com defines “introspection” as: the “observation or examination of one’s own mental and emotional state, mental processes, etc.; the act of looking within oneself.” In its simplest terms, introspection means “self-examination” (on an emotional, mental, and perhaps spiritual level). At some basic level, we all engage in self-examination all the time. We must. We are constantly having conversations with ourselves inside our heads. By participating in these conversations, we are at some level “looking within one’s self.” Are we really paying attention to the conversations though? Are we asking ourselves why the conversations we are having at any given moment are headed in one direction, and not another? Have we considered other aspects of our inner self that might help explain why that particular conversation is happening at all? Only when we take the time, the energy, and the “stance” of stepping outside of our internal conversations to look more closely at them are we truly engaged in the act of introspection. We aren’t just “having” the conversation with ourselves. When we are introspective, we are “examining” that conversation and the other inner states that underlie or influence that conversation.

It has always seemed helpful to me to think of our minds as having at least two primary layers: the conscious layer (what we are aware of at any given moment) and the unconscious layer (the murky place where thoughts and feelings come from before we are aware of them). When I think of these layers, I also like to think of thoughts and feelings, ideas, moods, and perceptions as things that “percolate” within us. Think of the conscious part of yourself sort of hovering above some water. The water is murky, not clear. You can’t really see too far under the surface of the water, but you can tell there are things moving around under the water. There are constantly bubbles “percolating” to the surface, and then ideas and thoughts and perceptions and feelings inside these bubbles emerge, coming to the surface for you to consider, to explore further, or ignore.

A related idea for how we exist within ourselves is to think of two kinds of selves within each of us. There is the “observer” self and the “observed” self. The observer self can sort of see or watch what we are thinking, feeling, or doing. The observed self is the part of us that is doing the thinking, the feeling or the doing. Imagine any activity you’ve done, and this will be true. Let’s say you are gardening. You are planting a small tree. You are completely engrossed in it, thinking and feeling little else other than the act of digging a hole, putting the dirt aside, putting water in the hole, removing the roots from the container, separating them a bit, putting the roots in the hole and adding soil around them. This whole time, you might be having momentary and fleeting thoughts about other things, including how you will spend the rest of your day, a walk or a bike ride later, dinner plans, but they come and go with little attention. Your mind hasn’t even been paying attention to your thoughts, either about the tree or anything else. The observer part of you has essentially merged with the observed part of you. There is something even sort of relieving about this kind of work due to the very fact that it is so engrossing. You are giving your observer self a break. Then, you pause from your work, you assess what you’ve been doing. You realize your back is aching, wondering if you should have asked for help in light of the size and weight of the tree and the difficulty of maneuvering it into the hole and holding it upright while refilling the hole. You begin to wonder why you didn’t ask for help, what this says about you, and your relationships with others. Now, the observer part of you has kicked back in, or it has left its merger with the observed part of you and become separate from it again, where it begins to assert to you what it observes.

In both of these ways of describing our “inner conversations,” the percolating idea and the “observed” and “observer” self idea, introspection is about paying attention with intentionality. In the percolation idea, introspection means intentionally deciding which of the bubbles that just percolated you want to pay attention to, to follow, to understand, to expand upon, and which bubbles to ignore, and thereby also gain an understanding of why certain bubbles should be attended and others ignored, for your own personal growth and change. Similarly, in the “observer” and “observed” self analogy, introspection means actively and intentionally deciding what you are observing, of bringing back to your conscious awareness the various acts of planting the tree, why you are doing it, how you are doing it, rather than passively allowing your observer self to fade out and then back in at will. If we decide when we want to pay attention or not pay attention to how we are thinking, feeling or doing, we are doing what some call “mindfulness” practice, which is an important part of introspection. If we are paying attention to our thoughts feelings and actions in order to explore these things and gain a better understanding of ourselves, we are engaged in the act of introspection.

In the next part of this series on introspection, I will discuss the benefits of introspection. Later, I will discuss more about how to actually do introspection, including various tools to help you improve your capacity for introspection, like writing, creativity and deeper conversations with ourselves and others.

 

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

 

Relationship Communication Styles

Thursday, October 5th, 2017

Communication Styles

The way we communicate with each other is usually based on our perceptions of a situation that tell us how we need to express ourselves to get what we want from that situation. Communication “styles” (or approaches) can be broken down into four categories: “passive,” “assertive,” “passive-aggressive,” and “aggressive.” You can see from the names of the categories, they progress from least intrusive to most intrusive, at least to the outside observer. This post will discuss the reasons we choose these categories, their impact on our relationships, and how to use that knowledge to move toward more healthy ways of choosing to communicate.

To get started, I’ve created a table below that provides a way of “seeing” how each of the four communications styles fit into a whole picture.

Communication Styles
Style: Passive Assertive Passive-Aggressive Aggressive
External Appearance:  Silent Statement Silent/Statement with Glare Yell
Inner Experience:  Let it go, not important Need to say

Something

Anxious or angry, conflict-avoidant Angry
Motivation:  Not Responsible  Responsible Not

Responsible

Responsible
 Healthy: GenerallyHealthy Generally Healthy AlwaysUnhealthy Generally Unhealthy

 

Some of the boxes in this table are probably pretty self-explanatory. For the others, take a look at the first column, which describes each row. Let’s go through the first column to the left of the table. I’ve already mentioned the four categories of “styles” at the top of the table. The next row, “External Appearance,” is how each of the four communications styles look to the outside observer. For instance, when someone is being assertive with us, they are simply telling us something about their wants and needs. They aren’t yelling (that would be aggression), and they aren’t saying it while also glaring at us (that would be passive-aggressive). Silence as just silence indicates a passive, nonchalant, I don’t really care approach. Probably the hardest distinction to make for the observer is whether someone is acting passively or passively aggressive. In both cases, the person communicating passivity may not want it known how they feel about a given situation. The difference is in how they feel or experience the situation internally. I will address that issue next.

The third row in the table, “Inner Experience,” is designed as a short-hand way of describing how someone choosing each of the four communication styles might make the decision about which style to use. So, let’s say Jim and John are sitting in their living room, trying to decide where to take a hike on a Sunday afternoon. Jim really wants to hike near the river. John doesn’t want to drive that far, but doesn’t really care. He is “passive” about it because he recognizes it is more important to Jim than it is to him and wants to respect Jim’s wishes. He agrees to go to the river. But now let’s say John remembers he wants to get back fairly quickly from the hike because he has other plans later. He tells Jim, “I don’t think the river will work for me today. It will take too long to drive there and back along with the hike.” He’s being assertive, stating his needs, without yelling, without any other observable or intended message that goes along with his assertion. Jim, however, is annoyed, more than a little annoyed. He feels like lately John has been regularly prioritizing other things over him (including the plans John has later that day). He says “fine, tell me where you are willing to hike, and I guess we will go there!” with just a little too much emphasis. He doesn’t wait for a response, but just leaves the room. I think we can all recognize this as at least mildly passive-aggressive. Note that the difference here is that Jim does care where they go—that the location of their hike, and John’s response to that location, is perceived by Jim as being about something more than the hike itself. Jim perceived that John’s response says something about Jim’s importance to John, and he feel hurt. Now John is mildly angry, maybe a little “pissed off” at Jim for what he considers Jim’s immature behavior and response. John walks into the kitchen where Jim is “sulking,” and says with a raised voice, “Why do you always have to be so sensitive? It is just a hike. Now, I don’t want to go on a hike at all anymore. You can just go by yourself!” Jim doesn’t say anything, just glares at John. John goes upstairs and jumps in the shower. Here we have gone from passive, through assertive, passive-aggressive to aggressive all within a couple of minutes.

The choices we make about which style to use often come far faster than we even realize. We may not be consciously aware of either the reason we are choosing some specific style, or which style we are using in any given moment. The reason we choose a particular communication style has to do with two primary motivators. The first one is illustrated by Jim and John’s interaction—we choose a communication style based on how important we perceive our needs in any given situation (how important we consider what we want from the person we are communicating with). The second primary motivator is the point of the fourth row in the table above: do we want to take responsibility for what we communicate. This can be a little confusing, so let me explain what I mean for each communication style. When we are being truly “passive” (and not passive-aggressive) we have no strong emotional reaction about what is being said by the other person, at least in terms of feeling the need to respond, so there is no need to take responsibility for saying anything. When we are being “assertive,” we have decided that there is a need to communicate our want or need in response to a given situation, that what we want is important enough to justify taking “a position,” even if it might mean the possibility of conflict. When we are assertive, we know we will be partly responsible for causing the conflict by making the assertive statement, but the risk of conflict is either small, or justified by our need to state our position.

Passive-aggressive communications are the result of feeling like we need to take a position, but we don’t want to be held responsible for the position, or the conflict it will likely create. Think about sarcasm. I’m sure you’ve had the experiences of someone saying something sarcastic, in which they are pretending to be funny, but saying something that has some real feeling in it, maybe even offensive. So, you tell the other person you found their comment offensive, and they say, “c’mon, don’t be so sensitive, I was just kidding.” They’ve made a statement, taken a position, which has now caused conflict, but are stating the conflict is entirely your responsibility for the way you’ve reacted to their “joke.” Or a more simple example, taken right from the table above, is the “silent glare.” Which says, “I am not saying anything, but I think we both know I am saying something pretty serious.” No matter how you react, you are the one who has caused the problem, because, after all, they didn’t say anything, and might even deny they were glaring. Or maybe you yourself have given the sarcastic remark or the silent glare, and can relate to the experience in that way.

The reasons we don’t want to take responsibility for our position when we are passive-aggressive can vary pretty widely, but generally come down to these three: we are insecure about whether the position we are taking is justified, we do not trust the other person will take our position seriously, or we have a fear of conflict that is related to previous conflicts with this person or some other historical pattern that might predate this relationship (e.g. family history of poor conflict resolution). I will address how to move away from passive-aggressive behaviors below. For now, though, if you are interested in limiting passive-aggressive behavior as much as possible, it will be important for you to examine why you are conflict-avoidant, either in general, or in particular relationships and situations.

The bottom row on the table is kind of interesting. Note that the only column that I consider “unhealthy” (meaning always unhealthy) is passive-aggressive. I will come back to that. The “passive” approach is “generally healthy” because most of the time, if we are being passive because the issue at hand is not all that important to us, it is a good idea to just let it go, to pick the battles that are important to us, to let things roll off when they should. Passivity is not always healthy though. If you are avoiding assertiveness, for instance, due to either fear of conflict, or some kind of self-worth issue, being passive can actually make this worse, and you may end up digesting negative feelings, building resentments, and then “blowing up” later because you’ve been holding all these things in. Assertiveness is “generally healthy” when well chosen due to the need to take a position, for which you are willing to risk conflict, if it occurs. About the only time I can see assertiveness being unhealthy is when a passive approach might be better, when we make the mistake of thinking something is more important than it really is, when we feel the need to take a position, and maybe we’ve just created or risked conflict with someone for no good reason. In general, though, assertiveness kind of assumes that you are saying something in a reasonable manner (as opposed to passive-aggressive and aggressive communications), so even if there is conflict, it is likely mild and not problematic.

As an aside, but one related very much to this topic, I do not view conflict in a negative light. I often tell couples in therapy that conflict in a relationship is like breathing, it is always there, always necessary, and need not be difficult. For a more in-depth discussion of how my views on conflict, conflict-avoidance and conflict resolution, I have written several chapters on these topics in the book,“Firewalking on Jupiter.”

You might find it puzzling or surprising that I consider the “aggressive” style of communication “generally unhealthy” and not always “unhealthy.” In very rare circumstances, I think it is necessary to be aggressive in our communication. A good example is when a parent is unloading their car, has their hands full of grocery bags, and their toddler Emma, who has been told to come toward the house, is instead about to meander into the street. An aggressive shout, “Emma, come here, right now!” might be absolutely necessary to avert the looming danger. As a general rule, however, aggression is almost never a good communication style. It is almost never, except in extreme situations like the example above, necessary or beneficial. It can lead to a level of conflict or pain or emotional injury that is not only unwarranted, but simply wrong. From a strategic point of view, aggressive behavior is rarely successful in getting a person what they hope to achieve, unless all they hope to achieve is rejection, mistrust, fear, and pain. This is why it must be limited to circumstances in which those kinds of responses are worth the risk of getting your point across (e.g. in an emergency).

I’ve saved until the end the passive-aggressive communication style because it is the only style which I consider “always unhealthy.” I had to think about this for a while, but I still can’t come up with a scenario in which it is healthy to be passive-aggressive. Maybe for no other reason than it is, kind of by definition, disingenuous—pretending to be passive, while actually being aggressive. Like aggression, it is also strategically kind of dumb because it so rarely gets you what you probably actually want. I mean, it might be successful in the moment. For instance, if what you want is attention to a certain issue, or to get “your way.” Passive-aggressiveness never results in conflict resolution that puts the matter behind you, though. It comes with the residue of mistrust, of indirectness, of not really getting to the issue that underlies the issue at hand.

Let’s go back to Jim and John. Jim goes upstairs, tells John he’s sorry, but could they please still go for a hike, to the river. John doesn’t want to, but concedes to avoid further conflict. He goes. They have a nice hike. John is pinched for time later. He resents it, but makes it on time to his other plans that evening. Jim resents that John didn’t really hear that it wasn’t about the hike, it was about Jim feeling like John doesn’t prioritize him. They resolved the conflict in the moment, but might have actually made things worse because they buried the issue of trust and priority by both acting like they resolved the conflict about the hike. The conflict never really was about the hike, but Jim’s behavior made it seem like it was about the hike because he didn’t want to engage in the conflict resolution about the trust and priority problem he perceived in the relationship. It is likely Jim doesn’t trust his own motivation for the conflict, he think he might be overreacting to John having other plans later in the evening, so he avoids that conflict, while still making his point.

If Jim were able to examine what is really bothering him (feeling devalued) and were able to trust himself and John enough to want to talk about it directly, they might not have had any conflict about the hike at all, and their evening would not have been spent resenting each other for what was never communicated directly. If Jim had chosen to be more direct, more assertive with John, rather than passive-aggressive, he would maybe have been able to also pinpoint the source of his insecurity, some of which may very well be justified, and then addressed by himself and also by John, resulting in real conflict resolution and greater satisfaction for both of them.

I suppose I could have called this blog post: “how to recognize and avoid passive-aggressive behaviors” because our reliance on the passive-aggressive communication style and behaviors is by far the most problematic in the conflict resolution strategies I see with couples in therapy. I am guessing this is because outright and repeated aggression quickly dissolves relationships (as it should), whereas passive-aggression can be just as problematic in its failure to actually resolve conflict, though not so immediately destructive. The thing to avoid is wanting to take a position, without wanting to take responsibility for the position you’ve taken (passive-aggressive). Moving away from the passive-aggressive style to the more healthy passive and assertive styles requires a greater self-awareness of the motivations for your responses in the moment, and whether you think you are willing to take responsibility for taking a position (assertive) or that it isn’t worth taking responsibility (passive). Moving in this direction will help you gain a stronger sense of self, a greater trust in your ability to resolve conflict, and can have an amazing healing effect toward greater understanding and mutual consideration in most 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)jupitercenter.com.

 

Hypervigilance

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

When does a healthy feeling become unhealthy?

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

A client struggles with self-doubt. Don’t we all. Yes. Of course we do. In this case, though, the self-doubts were emotionally devastating for her. She asked, “how do I get rid of it, this self-doubt?” Fair question, in light of her present difficulties with it. I pointed out that, like all feelings, self-doubt is a mixed bag, having both beneficial and harmful impacts and influences. Without self-doubt, we might never learn from our mistakes because we’d have little incentive to go over things we’ve done that cause us difficulty when we think about them. Self-doubts force us to do this, which is why it feels uncomfortable. Self-doubt, when taken to a level that is not justified by the circumstances or doesn’t go away for hours or days, can be crippling and unnecessarily painful, keeping us stuck looking at the “rear-view mirror” of our recent or distant past, asking over and over again what we did wrong, what we might have done differently, with no end in sight for this kind of relentless digging at a wound. Sound familiar?

This is not actually a blog post about self-doubt, although it very well could be. What I say here applies equally to self-doubt as it does to the entire range of human emotion. No, the topic here is much more broad. After reminding the client with self-doubt that negative emotions—called this not because they are always negative, but because we think of them in negative terms due to the painful way we experience them—can be “beneficial” or “harmful.” She not surprisingly asked, “how do you know if the self-doubt you are experiencing is good or bad?” The topic of this blog post is an expanded version of the answer I gave to her.

In the book, Firewalking on Jupiter, I wrote a chapter called “The DEA and CIA, making a life plan for yourself.” That chapter started as an outline for a graduation commencement speech I gave at Stillwater Prison (for prisoners who had completed a number of different educational programs). In the chapter (and the speech of course), I layed out a three-pronged approach to determining whether an act (something you might want to do) is “good” or “bad.” Consider: (1) the intention behind the act, (2) the act itself, and (3) the consequences of the act. I won’t go into any detail about all of this since I’ve already written about it elsewhere. If you’re curious, you might want to go take a look at that chapter.  Without intending to do so, the answer I gave to the woman suffering from self-doubt about how to determine whether a feeling is “good” or “bad” has a very strong correlation to my “scheme” for determing whether a proposed action is “good” or “bad.” This was my answer to her question:

When you think about any feeling you might be having, to determine if the feeling is helpful or harmful (“good or bad”), ask yourself these three questions. First, what is the cause of the self-doubt? Second, is the intensity and duration of the self-doubt itself rationally related to its cause? Third, is the feeling leading to other symptoms or impacts that are harmful?

I will take each question in turn and give a little explanation for you to consider.

In virtually everything I do as a therapist, when I am trying to help a client figure out how to address a difficult issue, I go right to asking all kinds of questions about the cause of the issue. Whether it is troubling self-doubts, mistrust of their partner, high levels of anxiety about an upcoming job performance evaluation, or difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, I want to know how the issue might be related to other things. So I ask things like: “Do you remember when (the issue) started and when it started to bother you? What was happening in your life, or in your physical presence when it started (trying to find triggers)? Has this (issue) been a problem in the past (to see if there are causal patterns)? Have others indicated to you what they think about why you have this issue? What attempts have you made to solve it on your own? What do you think might be causing the problem?” I want to look behind or underneath the issue itself to its cause because I am interested in helping clients find solutions they can use, not only for this particular instance of the issue, but solutions they can use down the road if the issue comes up again in different circumstances. Also, by identifying the underlying cause of the issue and focusing on solving that cause, rather than just the issue itself, there is an increased chance that the issue won’t return. To some extent, I discuss this method or approach to problem solving in therapy, in the chapter called “Acknowledging the problem is not enough” in Firewalking on Jupiter.

When you are trying to determine whether a feeling is helpful or harmful, locating the cause of the feeling can be very telling. For instance, if you find yourself stuck in sadness ruminating (asking over and over and over the same questions) about a past relationship that you know is done, gone, and you have already exhausted the reasons for the end of the relationship, you can have a pretty good idea that the sadness you feel is pointless, is not helpful, is only causing you to stay stuck in your grief process, preventing you from accepting the end of the relationship so you can move on. If you generally love your job, but experience lingering doubts about whether you could be doing something “better,” and then you explore the reasons you have these thoughts and find they are related to conversations you’d had with a parent, an older sibling, or some other influential person whose values are not consistent with your own, you can gauge that the cause of the misgivings you are having are not helpful, and in fact take away from your investment in the job, and might even decrease your performance on the job. This could go the other way, though. Let’s say you are having doubts about your job. You like it enough, but wonder if you’d be more satisfied doing something else. You recall that not long ago, an old friend raised the issue, which is what triggers your questions. They asked you if you were using your talents to their fullest, reminding you that you had previously told them you wanted to go back to school to learn how to do something else. This person knows you well, and you respect their thoughts and perspective. Now the misgivings you are having about your job are appropriate and helpful because the cause of those feelings is consistent with who you are, your personal values and the kind of meaning you want in your life.

The second question about whether a feeling is helpful or harmful is really about whether the experience of the feeling is what it “should be,” depending on the nature of the cause. Above, I used a term from my past as a lawyer that I think fits pretty well. I suggested asking yourself if the experience of the feeling itself is “rationally related” to the cause of the feeling. To be more specific, does the intensity of the feeling (how bad it feels) and the duration of the feeling (how long the feeling persists) make sense in light of what caused the feeling in the first place? A man whose wife dies suddenly and tragically after they’ve been together for many years will understandably be stricken with extreme and long-lasting grief. His grief is “rationally related” to its cause.

A man who breaks up with a woman after six weeks, and then can’t get out of bed for weeks is pretty clearly experiencing a level of grief that is not rationally related to its cause. A woman is laid off from her job, as were dozens of others, when her employer moved its operations to a different state. For months, she is consumed with resentment, anger, and cannot bring herself to look for another job. Again, the anger, resentment, and inability to move on to another job doesn’t seem rationally related to the cause. It is often the case that, when the experience of feelings are much more intense or last much longer than what would normally be expected from the cause of the feelings, what we think is the cause of those feeling is actually not the cause. It might be the immediate trigger, but what it triggers might be a long-standing issue from some other past circumstances.

The third question to determine whether a feeling is helpful or harmful comes down to this: “what are the consequences” of the feeling? Is it momentary, fleeting, or constant? Does it limit our ability to do things we need to do in our lives? Does it cause us to react to others in a way that is destructive to relationships or our goals? Take depression. Depression is sometimes a healthy way for us to slow down, take seriously and consider our best course of action before we act on an issue that is pretty important and about which we might have deservedly grave doubts. If the depression becomes debilitating, preventing us from engaging in our daily lives or if it leads to other symptoms that prevent us from enjoying most things, makes us feel worthless, or leads to suicidal thinking, then the consequences of the depression, even if its cause makes sense and it was initially rationally related to that cause, are problematic and must be addressed. What started as “healthy” depression becomes “depressive disorder” (unhealthy depression). As an example, we can refer to the man whose wife dies suddenly and tragically. He grieves for a few months, feels disoriented, stays home most of the time. So far, although sad and concerning, he needs to reorient his life now that she is gone. This is no small task. Of course he is depressed and feels these things. Now let’s say he quits his job, starts drinking, stops paying his bills, doesn’t return calls or texts, or when he does they are erratic and note his thoughts of harming himself. He only leaves the house to run errands, to buy groceries or more liquor. We have entered into the territory of a feeling, depression, that started out necessary, even healthy, which has slid into something that is very troubling and unhealthy, due to its consequences.

Before I conclude, I suppose I should point out that everything I have said here about “negative” feelings (like sadness, grief, fear, self-doubt) also applies to “positive” feelings (like happiness, bliss, joy, comfort). A simple example should suffice: alcohol. If you found yourself having difficulty obtaining “a warm glow” of contentment, happiness, or let’s say just comfort in a social setting or by yourself, but you were able to obtain that positive state when you drink alcohol, you can pretty much guess that is not a healthy route to positive feelings—it is an unhealthy cause. If you had a pattern of moving in and out of relationships in order to maintain your positive feelings of adequacy about your desirability, the cause of your positive feelings (relying solely on validation from others) is problematic, and so likely are the outcomes or consequences problematic, at least for the people who might end up feeling used in the wake of your relationship hopping. See what I mean? Looking at the cause, the feeling itself, and the consequences is a good way of examining whether your “positive” and “negative” emotional experiences are healthy or unhealthy, beneficial or harmful.

I know that asking about the causes, the nature of the experience of a feeling, and the consequences of a feeling or set of feelings, doesn’t actually tell us anything about how to “get rid of the feeling.” That’s okay. We need to have a sense of whether the feeling is helpful or harmful before knowing whether we should even be trying “to get rid of it.” Sometimes, when a feeling, despite its painful experience, has a healthy cause, a healthy response, and healthy consequences, the best thing to do is not try to get rid of it, but listen to it, pay attention to what it might be telling you that you need to know. When you’ve determined that an emotional experience you are having has an unhealthy cause, is an unhealthy experience, or has unhealthy consequences, then by all means begin the process  to try to address the issue and remove it from your life. If you are not able to do this on your own, by all means consider contacting a professional if you are not already in therapy.

 

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

 

Moral Conviction

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a victim

Friday, December 16th, 2016

When is a victim truly a victim, as opposed to when someone merely thinks they are a victim? Why do we question this? Probably because, often enough, we hear someone claiming “victim” status when they may not actually be a victim at all. Their justification for claiming “victim” status comes through blaming someone or something other than themselves for their predicament. Their claim is that they are an “innocent victim,” where innocent really means they didn’t do anything wrong, anything to deserve what happened to them or their situation. We find this irritating when it isn’t true, when the person claiming to be a victim is actually entirely or mostly responsible for their situation.

For the same reasons, we often disdain pity. We think pity is entirely negative, that it is reserved for those who are “pathetic,” and therefore undeserving of our consideration. When we say we pity someone, we chide ourselves for it, wanting to avoid the appearance of arrogance, of being aloft, of looking down on the person we pity. We might even resent the person we pity, for making us want to pity them, which puts us back in that uncomfortable situation of having to decide whether they deserve our pity, and whether our feelings of pity make us complicit in their predicament of being, well, pitiable. Here’s the twist, though. Sometimes a victim really is a victim. Sometimes we should feel pity for those whose unfortunate situations are created through no fault of their own. If we choose not to offer our sorrow and condolences to those true victims, doesn’t that make us callous, uncaring, cold, even cruel? Also, and actually maybe more importantly, what does “victim” status do to the person claiming they are a victim?

Let’s start by offering a definition of what it means to be a victim. A victim is someone hurt or injured, through no fault of their own, by someone or something else.

The circumstances leading to become a victim could be a bear that got loose from the zoo and mauled someone. It could be a tree falling in the wind that happens to hit the tent they were sleeping in. It could be another person who physically abused them, or didn’t pay attention while driving and accidentally hurt them. In every case, the person who says they are a victim claims in some way that they themselves are not responsible for whatever caused them harm. If this is true, then it is actually a good idea for that person to think of themselves as a victim, not just because they are, but because then it calls attention to their need for redress, for a remedy, for some measure of help to put them back to as close to where they were before the incident happened. If it’s a bear attack (I just saw a movie where someone is attacked by a bear, and now I am writing this at my cabin, where there are actually bears running around, which is why I use such an outlandish example), then the person attacked needs immediate medical attention. The zoo also needs to help them with their recovery, lost work, pain and suffering, and all the rest. The zoo also needs to figure out how the bear escaped and revise their procedures, locks, and staffing, so no one else is attacked and so bears don’t endanger themselves by going out into public.

We need to pay attention to victims in our lives to help them when they need help. This is a fundamental component of compassion, and it is what we ourselves would expect from others in our lives if we fall victim to harm. If a friend loses a job due to an economic downturn, and they are struggling financially, a lending hand can go a long way. If another friend tells you their partner just hit them and pushed them down, and they are scared, ignoring their pleas could be dangerous for them, even though you might want to be careful in how you respond to avoid getting hurt as well. Hopefully, in this situation, you and your friend can together find a solution to help them get to a safe place before anything else happens. And hopefully, your friends’ abusive partner will face the legal consequences of their actions and be prevented from continuing to abuse your friend or others.

Okay, these are some pretty obvious examples of why we should pay attention to victims, and help them when we find them or they find us. But what do we do when we think a person claiming to be a victim is not really a victim, or even more confusing, they perhaps once were a victim, but now they are contributing to the circumstances that are harming them. Let’s get back to the friend in an abusive relationship. What if this is the fifth time they’ve called with this issue. They’ve stayed at your house twice before, then went back. You also suspect they (your friend, not the partner) has a drinking issue they won’t address. Are they a victim? Before I go on, I will say this. Abuse is wrong. When one person abuses another, it is wrong. The abuser is wrong, and the other person is a victim. Even so, if someone won’t leave an abusive relationship, what can you do? Be supportive to the extent you can. Keep yourself safe from getting involved so much that you could become a victim of abuse or assault. Encourage your friend to leave, from a distance. So, here, your friend is still a victim of abuse, while also contributing to their own victim status by staying in the abusive relationship.

What about the victim? How does claiming to be a victim help or hurt them?

Maybe you know someone who seems to really believe that the world has been unfair to them for years, who believes they have been dealt a bad hand in the game of life, or that they suffered even some single event years ago that sent them down a dark road, from which they have not been able to recover. They live in their victim status, making no changes to improve their lot. They point outside themselves for all the reasons their life is not what it should be. Here’s a guess: this person is bitter. Bitterness is the result of refusing to let go of perceived harms. The harms might originally have been real, valid, and even very rough. But they are in the past, not occurring any longer, and are not insurmountable. Bitterness is a version of self-imposed powerlessness over a long period of time in which resentments seem almost “baked into” the personality of the person whose outlook has become warped by their resentments. This is the long-term effect of continuing to claim victim status when it is not accurate, appropriate, helpful, when it keeps the person claiming victim stuck exactly where they are: injured, wounded, paralyzed, limited, unable (so they continue telling themselves) to make any of the kinds of changes they themselves would have to make to overcome whatever harm might have happened to them in the past.

If someone claiming to be a victim truly is a victim, like I said above with the bear attack, or the negligent driver, or the abuse victim, stating that you have become a victim, that you have suffered through no or little fault of your own, that you need help, that you have been traumatized and need to heal, this is all good. It is also good because it allows the victim to hold the perpetrator of their injuries accountable. Here, I am not talking about the legal or financial responsibilities of the perpetrator, I am talking about their emotional and moral responsibility.

Probably the most profound example of the need to claim victim status as a part of the healing process comes up with sexual abuse and rape. We hear on the news the suffering that victims endure when their decisions are questioned as part of the rape trial. In essence, there’s a blame game going on. The jury needs to know if the person claiming they were raped consented to the sexual activity. If the accuser consented, there was no rape and the person accused is innocent of the alleged crime (rape only occurs when the sexual activity is nonconsensual). The problem is, trial courts often allow defendants’ attorneys to question the victim in ways that have little or nothing to do with consent. They question whether the victim is at least partially responsible for the rape. In other words, are they an “innocent victim” or did they “bring it on themselves?” The reason this is so completely unacceptable is that rape has nothing do with what the victim deserved or whether they are innocent by anyone’s standards. No one deserves to be raped, ever. No woman who goes to a party, regardless of what she wears, regardless of what she drinks, or says, or does, brings it upon herself for someone else to force themselves on her body. Ever. I am being judgmental, but not sanctimonious about this. My judgments are so severe because I have seen first hand in therapy the toll this kind of thing takes on someone who has been partially or fully blamed for the rape they suffered, the rape someone else did, which also diminishes the responsibility accorded to the raper.

With children, there can be no “consent.” Children, thankfully, are deemed too young to understand what they are consenting to when it comes to sexual activity with adults. So, if an adult has sex with a minor (in most cases) it is rape (statutory rape). You’d think that children would be free from being blamed from having been sexually abused or raped. Not so. Again, I have seen first-hand countless times when a woman has told me in therapy that she was molested as a child, so she tells someone (usually an adult in the family) and is then told that it didn’t happen, that she is lying, making it up, or it is her fault, that she brought it on, that she wanted it, or that she should know better than to spend time with (the raper). The result of all of these responses to the victim reaching out is the message back to her that she is not a victim, that her fears, concerns and pain are not valid. Fortunately, some of these women immediately come to the conclusion, as children, that they did not deserve what happened to them, they didn’t bring it on, and the person who told them it was their fault does not deserve their respect. Good. Well, there are also many women who, having been told as children that they brought this onto themselves, struggle for years, decades even or their entire lives, with believing it, even if they also kind of know it is bullshit.

When a victim of sexual assault (as an adult or a child or both) comes to therapy to heal from the trauma of what they have suffered, we often have to spend quite a bit of time helping them see themselves as a victim so they can target the necessary anger, rage, hurt feelings, and responsibility toward the person who assaulted them. This is a very necessary part of defining strong boundaries, to help them feel safe in their lives as they move forward, to give them some sense of power, agency, and moral certitude. So, think about this, I am saying that, for many who have suffered trauma (and this could be almost any kind of trauma, not just sexual trauma) the victim has to see themselves as a victim first. Then they need to hold the perpetrator accountable as the perpetrator. They need to push out and away from themselves blame, accountability, fault, so they can see clearly that the other person is responsible. Only then can they begin to trust themselves and the safe people in their lives to provide a safe environment for them.

The victim cannot stay in the victim state though. They will always be a victim due to what has been done to them. They need to be more than a victim though. They need to begin to exercise power. This is why sometimes it can do a world of good for someone who’s been the victim of a sexual assault to take self-defense, martial arts, or other classes that will help them increase their sense of self-protection. Leaving the victim role also requires a painful acceptance of what has happened, just as it is, without denial, avoidance, without using drugs, alcohol, promiscuity or other forms of re-enactment to deny what they have suffered. In facing the reality of what made them victims, over time, with safety always the first priority, they can grieve the loss of their sense of safety, the loss of how they’ve been violated, and through acceptance move through this grief. If they are not willing to do these things, they can stay stuck in denial, and in harmful behavior, for their entire lives. If a victim isn’t willing to see that they have been a victim, but are not only a victim, they will become stuck in being just a victim. I call this next phase of healing, post-victim status, which both validates that they have been victims, true victims, but also identifies that they are no longer stuck in their victim roles. Ideas about healing as part of the post-victim status is the topic of the next blog post.

Two very important caveats about this blog post. All my blog posts have a general note at the end encouraging readers to contact a mental health professional if necessary, and not rely on the blog post too much. Due to the nature of this post, I thought it necessary to add a couple of extra warnings. First, this particular blog post raises very serious issues about rape, sexual abuse, and other forms of sexual assault. It is not intended to provide anything like a complete roadmap for how to address these very deep, serious, and difficult issues. If you or someone you know has suffered from any of these kinds of trauma and is struggling with how to cope with their experiences, please contact or encourage them to contact a mental health professional trained and experienced in helping sexual assault and abuse victims. Second, this blog post also uses as examples sources of victimization that have occurred in the past, and are mostly not occurring now (except in the case of someone who chooses to stay in an abusive relationship). There are other kinds of abuse, trauma, and exploitation that create victims all the time, on an ongoing basis, and the victim cannot escape their role as victim. Take for instance victims of racism. How does an African-American, or for that matter, any person who is not white in the United States today, “move past” their victim status resulting from the racism to which they are subjected multiple times per day? They cannot. They can only learn to cope as best they can. The same can be said for those who are LGBTQ+, disabled, or are part of any number of other communities subjected to harassment, discrimination or exploitation, all forms of perpetration, all creating victims as their intended and unintended targets. I wanted to add this caveat as a token of respect and validation to those who suffer as victims on an ongoing basis, who cannot easily or completely, move into “post-victim” status.

 

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

 

Obligation

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)jupitercenter.com.

 

Coasting

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

You can only coast in one direction.”

In case the meaning of this statement doesn’t sink in right away, take a moment and think about it. Imagine you’re on a bicycle. You’ve stopped pedaling. You’re coasting. This won’t last long unless you are going down, only down. Going straight or uphill, you’ll stop coasting pretty quickly. Sometimes, you can coast and coast and not realize you’re coasting at all, not realize that the slope of your direction is down. You seem to be just taking it easy, relaxing, not having to put much effort into your ride. Meanwhile, you have lost elevation, you have been going down the whole time, without realizing it. When I am on a bike and realize I’ve been coasting for a long while, I start to think, “somewhere along the way I am going to have to pay for all this easiness with a part of the ride that will require me to pedal back up a big hill.” I only hope the hill back up isn’t too steep. Coasting on a bike is meant as a way of describing complacency and its price.

Microsoft Word defines “complacency” simply as “satisfaction.” If that’s true, there isn’t any problem with complacency or coasting. Satisfaction is good, where it is appropriate. But what if you are satisfied when you shouldn’t be, when your satisfaction is based more on lack of effort or interest, or because you aren’t paying attention, and you should be paying attention because all is not well, at least not anymore. A more robust and meaningful definition of complacency is provided by Merriam-Webster online. There, complacency is defined as: 1 : self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. 2 : an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

So, the problem with complacency, and coasting, is that you might think everything is just fine, when it actually isn’t, but you aren’t doing anything about it. You are fine with how things are because what you’re doing is easy, effortless, and you think that must mean things are good, or at least okay. This is human nature. We all do it. But it’s not good, for two reasons. First, the longer you coast (stay in your complacency), the more difficult it will be to change direction (you have to go up that big hill). Second, while coasting, you could be moving in different, more interesting or worthwhile directions, but you aren’t because the direction you’re heading in is easy. You are taking the path of least resistance, which over time is almost never a good idea because you end up settling for much less than you might otherwise have had if you’d been more proactive, more strategic, taken more risks, used more effort.

This idea of coasting first came up in therapy with a guy who was trying to figure out if he wanted to stay in a marriage he’d been in for many years. During one of our first sessions, after describing the parts of the marriage he found most troubling, I asked (something along the lines of) “how did things get this bad for you?” He said, “Well, you know, you can only coast in one direction, downhill.” He then went on to explain the incremental and insidious downward trend of his marriage. He explained how a marriage which at first had so much potential, with someone he respected so much, had evolved over years into one in which he dreaded coming home, avoided all unnecessary communication with his wife, and was seriously entertaining infidelity or divorce. He told me he’d been coasting in his marriage for years, just going to work, coming home, not paying much attention to how things were going, and then recently realized he no longer wanted to speak with the person he had previously loved more than anyone.

I guess I am in a definitions mood. So, let’s define the word “insidious.” Google defines insidious as “proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.” That about captures my use of the word. Merriam-Webster adds this to the definition of insidious: “developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent.

As an aside, I tend to look up the definitions of words frequently. Its an old habit from when I went to college after having missed much of high school due to my “extra-curricular” activities (drugs, etc.), so I had a lot of catching up to do. I am glad I developed the habit of looking words up, first out of necessity, and now because I don’t want to be afraid of any word I don’t understand or am not sure I am using correctly, and it is so easy now, just hit the “Google” button, type in “define (insert word)” and BOOM, there you are, word defined!

Okay, back to the topic of coasting. Now that we’ve defined “insidious,” see how coasting, complacency and insidious tie together? We think we are doing well, things are going fine, we are moving along, lots to see and think about, and all with very little effort on our part. We might even believe that coasting is a good thing. And to be sure, sometimes it is, for a short period of time, when we need a break, when we deserve to “sit back and enjoy the ride.” After a while though, coasting downhill becomes treacherous, and lures us into complacency, into thinking everything is fine, when things are not fine, and maybe haven’t been fine for a long, long time. At some point, we’ve gone down far enough that it can be difficult to remember what it was like when we started to coast.

The analogy of coasting is useful for understanding and working through many different kinds of life experiences. The most obvious place, like I explained above, is in relationships. But think about your job, right now. If you’ve had your job for a long time, how has it changed, become better, more engaging, more satisfying? Or, is it possible that the job has instead been just enough, that it has been relatively secure, where your main goal is not necessarily change, promotion, greater responsibility, but job security, risk avoidance, staying low on the radar to avoid being the target of a layoff during yet another reorganization. Even if this isn’t true for you, there’s pretty clear evidence it is true for most people. Aren’t you stunned a bit when you hear on the news that the average wage of Americans has actually stayed the same or fallen in buying power over the past twenty, thirty years? How can this be? I can’t say. I am not an economist or a politician. The point here is that maybe complacency has its dangers for our whole society, that we’ve all been coasting together, downhill.

Coasting can also be a problem with things we want to do with our lives aside from relationships and jobs. We might have projects we want to complete, but never get around to starting, or finishing. We might have self-improvement goals that we give up on, whether it is our education, our physical fitness, travel, or some other achievement. If we look back and ask, “why haven’t I done that (insert thing you didn’t do) yet?” The answer usually includes something like, “it was just easier every time I thought about it not to do it, to just keep doing what I was doing, to coast.” If you wanted to lose weight and become more fit, every time you woke up and thought, “after work, I am going to the gym, if even just for an hour.” Then when you got home from work, fed the dog, let him out, started to make yourself something to eat, you nestled into your home life, didn’t want to go out, easier to just stay home and go to the gym tomorrow. Not a problem. Really. Not a problem on this day or that day. It is a problem, possibly a huge problem, when it is nearly everyday, for weeks, months, years on end. The problem is the slow process of gaining weight, of losing our initiative, interest, direction, until it can feel like its just too much to deal with, becoming overwhelming, and then worst of all, you resign yourself to your situation, to continuing to coast, indefinitely. The longer you coast, the more difficult it becomes to change direction, to take a left, and another left, and go back up hill to get to where you were, to improve, to gain ground on whatever your goal.

Whether its in a relationship, at the job, with our personal selves, the way out of coasting must include first recognition that you are actually coasting, and you don’t want to continue coasting. This is where people usually come to therapy, when they have gone down the slow road long enough to realize they are not where they want to be, and now they don’t know what to do to stop coasting. Good, so far. Now, for hope. When we’ve coasted long enough to realize it isn’t good, when the insidiousness of it is no longer subtle, but obvious, clearly troubling, it can be difficult to have hope of change. I try to encourage people to do two things in this situation, just to get things moving in a better direction. First, I ask them to remember when things were better, when they weren’t coasting, but challenging themselves, when they were pedaling their bikes, putting effort into getting to where they wanted to be. They always can do this, but might need help with some encouragement and direction. Second, I help them chart a course to where they’d rather be. I ask them to describe this to me, to imagine again being where they want to be. We then set up milestones to measure the progress. We don’t try to charge straight uphill. That’s too much, and not at all necessary. Think of a hiking trail with switchbacks to get you gradually up to the ridge. We measure each turn to help see progress, which provides further encouragement.

I guess there is probably a third ingredient to making these kinds of changes in therapy, in a client’s life, and to sustain the change. Moving away from coasting to an energetically lived life, also requires a fairly significant change in attitude about struggle. To move away from coasting to a more self-directed pursuit of the kind of life that we can enjoy with meaning, we have to give up on the easy road and we have to embrace struggle as a necessary component of a life truly lived, a life we want to have, rather than the life we happen to have. Let me say that again because it is just that important: we have to embrace struggle as an unavoidable part of having what we want in life.

Life requires energy. We cannot live without food, fuel. Relationships, including friendships, a marriage, jobs, goals of any and all kinds also require energy—they all require effort, work, struggle at times.  We might wish they didn’t, but to function well over the long haul, they do. If we truly want to have what we value, we have to put effort into it. Coasting in life will never get us there. It is certainly okay to coast for a while sometimes, when you’ve earned it or when you’re worn out from struggle and effort. Then, for a time, enjoy the break. But pay attention, because if it lasts too long, you are likely no longer taking a break, but avoiding the effort of making the kinds of changes and challenges and risks that will bring you the rewards of a truly satisfying life, instead of one which has the appearance but not the reality of satisfaction, which is complacency. So, notice when you are coasting, give yourself permission to coast, for a while, but only a while, and then start putting energy back into the things that are important to you, so you can have what you really want and not merely have what happens to be there.

 

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

 

Pride

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

People fear pride, which is weird, and a bummer. Pride is good. It even seems a little sad when someone tells me they fear letting themselves feel pride. Pride is simply a way of telling ourselves we have done something worth doing, and maybe we have even done it well. So why do we fear it when it seems like we shouldn’t?

Fear of pride may be local to the cultural influences of where I live (Scandinavian, Northern European, Minnesotan) or religious admonitions against pride as a “sin.” Pride is even listed as one of the “seven deadly sins.” On a more personal basis, we may fear pride in case it shows us to be arrogant, or that what we are proud of makes others uncomfortable. But pride is an important part of mental health, essential to our feeling good about ourselves and our lives.

A wiki article sums up the two ways of thinking about pride quite nicely:

Pride is an inwardly directed emotion that carries two common meanings. With a negative connotation pride refers to an inflated sense of one’s personal status or accomplishments, often used synonymously with hubris. With a positive connotation, pride refers to a satisfied sense of attachment toward one’s own or another’s choices and actions, or toward a whole group of people, and is a product of praise, independent self-reflection, or a fulfilled feeling of belonging.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pride)

In order to avoid the confusion surrounding whether pride is a good or bad thing, I try to use other words when describing the kind of pride that has a negative connotation. Hubris is an inflated sense of capacity that leads us to make bad decisions. Arrogance is the belief or attitude that we are better people than others (conceit) or that others are less valuable than we are (superiority). Vanity is a kind of self-absorption based on a fascination with ourselves and often accompanied by the (usually false) assumption that others should be as fascinated with us as we are with ourselves.

I believe it is not only possible but important to figure out how to let ourselves feel pride in our accomplishments and capacities and entirely possible to do so without letting it become arrogance, hubris, conceit or vanity. The wiki article quoted above notes that St. Augustine described pride as: “the love of one’s own excellence.” I like this way of looking at pride, so I will assume this is a positive connotation of pride. How can we not want to be proud of what we do, who we are, who we are becoming? In fact, along with the love for others and the love of others, pride in one’s self is an essential ingredient of satisfaction in life. I want to be the best version of myself I can be? Don’t you? If you are trying to become a better version of you, and you can see ways that you are, shouldn’t you be proud of both your efforts and your results? Obviously, I think you should!

Perhaps the most important reason to let ourselves feel pride is what happens when we deny ourselves pride due to our concern that it will be perceived as arrogance, aloofness, or some other negative trait. When we deny ourselves pride, we are much less likely to allow ourselves to feel the many things that go along with pride, like confidence, higher self-esteem and recognition of the esteem of others, feelings of belongingness and good self-worth—that we have something important to contribute. In all of this, if we deny ourselves the capacity to feel and express pride in our accomplishments we are telling ourselves that what makes us great doesn’t really make us great. What a crime! What a deprivation. Why negate something so important to achieving satisfaction with who we are? If we deny ourselves pride for what we accomplish, we are also less likely to take the risks necessary to achieve something that will make us proud. There are times when we should do things for reasons other than pride, like obligation, plain necessity for life, or it is just the right thing to do. When moral or other obligations don’t come into play, though, pride is not only an essential incentive to risk failure or struggle, pride is often an essential part of the goal itself. Quite often in life, this is very true: without pride for what we have done at the end, why bother?

I have always been surprised by the negative reactions of others when I have felt pride about something I have accomplished. Very early in my legal career, I assisted in winning a significant trial. I was rightly proud of what we had accomplished. When I returned to the office, a more senior attorney chastised me for my beaming attitude, suggesting I should tone down my bravado to avoid making enemies. I was stunned. I had believed that a win by any attorney in the firm meant a win for the firm as a whole. Some took it this way, but some did not. Apparently, there were those who felt threatened by someone else’s competition, that it was a “zero sum game” (when someone “wins” someone else must be “losing”). If I had internalized that negative reaction, to the extent that I didn’t let myself feel good about winning trials for myself and my clients, how could I ever have felt good about being an attorney? Other than money, what would have been the personal reward? How could I have said to myself, “I am good at this, and getting better?” Don’t we need these kinds of feelings about what we do, no matter what we do?

Haven’t we all experienced something similar to this example? We want to feel good about something we have done. When we show this to others, their reaction might be very positive and supportive or they might react with resentment, negativity or envy. Most of us unfortunately learn at a pretty young age that we need to be very cautious about expressing our pride to others, even when that pride is well deserved and well-intended. We almost instinctively fear that others will perceive our expression of pride as meaning that are bragging, or we think we not only did something better than others, but we think we are better than others. There is something to be said for not being a poor winner. There is also something to be said for celebrating our victories. We want the first place runner in grade school to stand tall and beam a broad smile when we they receive their ribbon. We don’t want them to sneer at the second and third place runners up. Graciousness certainly has its place alongside pride.

Okay, so let’s say I’ve convinced you that pride can be a good thing. Haven’t I also agreed that pride can often become something worse, something others rightly perceive as a negative trait, something like arrogance, conceit, vanity? Isn’t there some value in modesty, which is the opposite of pride? My answer: modesty is not the opposite of pride. Modesty is the outward expression of our unwillingness to evoke or experience pride. In this sense, modesty is not good, not at all good and should not be used to temper pride.

For those who know me and my philosophy of empowerment coupled with good boundaries, you will likely already be guessing my answer to the question of how to temper pride to allow its full fruition without the trap of arrogance. We can temper pride, not with modesty, but with humility. What’s the difference? Modesty says: “I am not all that good at… (insert capacity or activity).” Modesty is nearly always contrived, attempted, if not downright false. When we express modesty, it is more obligation (others will expect me to downplay my talents, achievements, or what I have just done that makes me feel pride) than authentic feeling. No thanks. Humility says: “Even though I might be pretty good at… (insert capacity or activity), I am not that big of a deal, I am no better than anyone else, there is still so much I am not good at, I am merely human.” Or, as I often say to myself, sometimes to temper pride to avoid arrogance, “I am just some guy.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because the point goes back to something I said in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, in the chapter called, “The Relief of Humility, I am just some guy.”

Pride is not in any way inconsistent with humility. I’d even go so far as to say, humility, real humility, the kind that reminds us always of our extraordinary limitations as faulty frail human beings, gives us permission to feel and express pride in the few things we do well, so we don’t have to worry so much that our pride is arrogance. If we feel both pride, when appropriate, and also humility when appropriate, we can let go of our fear that pride will be perceived by others as arrogance, vanity or conceit because we will know it isn’t any of those things and their perceptions are wrong; it is just pride, and pride is good, necessary, beneficial and often deserved. So go feel proud of something you’ve done!

 

Responsibility and blame

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

Desire for personal growth, and the kind of change that comes with it, is usually driven by a recognition that things as they are now are somehow unsatisfactory, problematic, or just more difficult than we want them to be. Somewhere there is a situation that needs changing, a problem to be resolved, a challenge to be met, or a task to be completed. I am a strong proponent of personal change. Not a surprising sentiment, coming from a therapist. I tend to believe that my life and your lives, all of the time, are chock full of issues to be addressed, things needing to be resolved, barriers to be overcome, which are all great justification for personal change. I have explained in other blogs and in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, how we must first acknowledge a problem in order to be able to solve it. This blog is more specific—it explains how responsibility plays a crucial role in the identification of the causes of a problem and how this is necessary for personal growth. In relationships with others, allocation of responsibility amounts to acting on the proverb: “own what you own, don’t own what you don’t own.”

Every law student takes a class called “Torts.” It is the class that teaches them about “liability” for various things like car accidents, medical malpractice, and other forms of personal injury. The word “tort” in the legal sense (not to be confused with Torte, which is a dessert food) comes from Latin via Old French, meaning “wrong or injustice.” When things go wrong, we (all people) tend to want to know whom to blame for it. Certainly, blame and liability can be taken too far. As you may know, I used to be a trial attorney. I once was involved in a jury trial when taking blame too far became a real problem for me (and my client). I was polling the jury pool before the trial began to see if they might have a problem with awarding money to my client if we proved the other side had done something wrong (take my word for it, they had—done something wrong). One juror mentioned the then recent case of the person who sued McDonald’s when she spilled coffee on herself because, even though she spilled the coffee, and knew it was hot when she did it, she claimed the coffee was hotter than it should have been. The rest of the jury pool laughed, and I think I did as well. Just my luck to get a jury trial going right after the infamous McDonald’s coffee case. Fortunately, we were able to overcome this juror’s concerns about frivolous blaming and prevailed in our lawsuit. Thank you very much!

Looking for someone to blame when things go wrong is not just common—it seems to be universal. It’s human nature. And it makes sense at a certain level. Whenever we encounter any kind of problem, we want to know how it happened so it isn’t repeated, so it can be avoided next time. Makes a lot of sense. In the law, we want to attribute “fault” so we know who should or should not get compensated and who should suffer the cost of that compensation. Without getting into the details, the law can actually be quite complicated in its allocation of “fault,” especially when there are more than two parties involved. I used to be involved in construction litigation cases that involved more than 10 separate companies, some or all of whom may have shared a percentage of ultimate liability for the problem that gave rise to the lawsuit.

When we step away from the law, and just look at human interactions, human living day to day, the structure of human relationships, or even just communication between people, finding “fault” doesn’t do much good. Fault is about blame. Fault is about who should pay or who should be punished—to make things “right” so we feel better about what happened, so justice has been done. Fault doesn’t get us anywhere toward actually solving a problem. Fault is limited to looking back into the past. Personal growth and change is about looking into the future, while being mindful of how we got to where we are. When my clients in their sessions tend toward attributing fault, I encourage them instead to think in terms of responsibility. Fault says, “YOU did this thing and YOU were wrong.” Responsibility says, “you did THIS THING and it needs to change.” Both statements might be true, but the emphasis and intent are different. Responsibility is more directed at behavior and its consequences, whereas fault is directed at the moral character of the person.

Responsibility, rather than fault, is necessary to solving our problems. If we don’t learn to take responsibility for our behaviors, we cannot learn from our mistakes. And we all make mistakes. As the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember (or acknowledge or understand) the past are condemned to repeat it.” Responsibility is about paying attention to your part in how you got to where you are, either on your own or with others, so you at least know what not to do the next time.

Let’s take an all too common, and difficult, therapy situation to explain how thinking in terms of responsibility instead of fault is a more effective way to solve problems and achieve personal growth. Michelle and Andy come into therapy after their teenage daughter Lila has been admitted to a drug treatment program. They are fighting over how Lila became involved in drugs—they are blaming each other, accusing the other of various kinds of things: “you were not paying enough attention,” “you were too lenient with her,” “you were too strict,” or “you wanted to send Lila to a school known to have problems with drugs.” All of these things might actually be true, meaning they each played some part in how Lila ended up in treatment. Fighting over who’s fault it is, however, will get them nowhere, and will actually increase the likelihood of further harm to the whole family.

If Michelle and Andy are both able to re-orient their thinking from blame and fault to responsibility and how they can actually change, they will be in a much better position to be supportive of each other and Lila. Michelle has been travelling extensively for work, leaving it to Andy to carry the lion’s share of input into Lila’s daily activity. Andy wanted to send Lila to a smaller charter school because his friend Peter’s son had encountered similar problems at the same school Lila is now attending. After talking about how to change their levels and type of input into the problem (in other words their own respective responsibility for the problem and how to change it), Michelle says she plans to tell her supervisor at work that she needs to cut down on travel, to delegate some of that work elsewhere, at least for a while. Andy tells Michelle he knows Lila is open and eager to switching to a smaller more focused school where she may be less overwhelmed than she is at her current school. Michelle is glad to hear this from Andy, not having realized how much Lila has been dreading going to her current school each morning. They both want to be more open with each other about their concerns for Lila and Lila’s needs. They agree to allow Lila to participate in choosing a new school if she is also willing to agree to seek out new support resources for her drug issues. They plan to bring her along to the next session so we can talk about these issues with her directly in a supportive solution-focused way.

The breakthrough in this couple’s work could not have happened unless both Andy and Michelle were willing to take a look at their own responsibility for the problem. It is not likely either of them would have been willing to look at themselves if they hadn’t stopped blaming each other. Looking at problems through identification of responsibility rather than fault tends invites everyone to look at their contribution to a problem because it less charged, less threatening. Talking about fault and blame creates hostility, defensiveness, and entrenchment. Talking about responsibility opens up possibilities for doing things differently.

Responsibility can also mean power—the power to change. As in, “I had the power to do (this problematic thing), so I must also have the power to change (and do something differently).” I want my clients to take responsibility for themselves, to grab this power to change, and use it’s recognition as both an incentive for change and as a way to learn how to solve whatever problem they might be having. If we refuse to take responsibility for our own conduct, if we blame others for our own situation, we then give up power to change what we can change ourselves and become unable or unwilling to see patterns that could be hindering our growth and happiness.

Chris has had many short-term relationships, frequently suffering breakups for various reasons. Chris blames the other person in each of these relationships for the breakup, finding reasons (some of them deserved) that the other person caused the breakup. What Chris doesn’t realize is her part in each of the breakups—that she finds reasons to quit the relationship and then creates circumstances that contribute to the breakup, all so she can avoid rejection and abandonment when things start to become a little unstable or difficult. Until Chris realizes her part in sabotaging her relationships, she won’t be able to parse out the fear of abandonment that drives her destructive behavior or the ways she creates circumstances that lead to the breakup. Until she takes responsibility for her own issues and behavior, Chris will likely continue the pattern of short-term relationships that end in painful breakups when what she really wants is stability. If Chris continues to blame others completely for these breakups, she will be forced to continue to wait for the ideal partner (who will never come) who does everything exactly right so she can finally have a stable relationship.

Don’t get me wrong. I do want my clients to hold others in their lives responsible when doing so is both deserved and reasonable. Only then can they make the decision about whether the other person is willing or able to change and how to respond. If that person is willing to change, they can work together toward that change. If that person is not willing or able to take responsibility, including the need to change, my client can decide how to react to bring about whatever change they can make on her or his own (e.g. accept the other person as things are or distance themselves).

It kind of goes without saying that taking responsibility for our own behaviors, attitudes, and decisions is a good idea simply because it is the right thing to do. When we acknowledge our participation in a problem, especially if we also acknowledge the need to do things differently in the future, we reassure others that we have integrity. We can also relieve ourselves of the guilt we might feel if we didn’t take responsibility for what we did.

Most of the time, it is a good idea to acknowledge our own responsibility even when others do not acknowledge their responsibility for an issue. It rarely costs us much to do so, as long as we are not falling into a pattern of taking responsibility for what others have done or expecting them to take responsibility for their part solely because we did (even when we think they should). Balancing our own responsibility against the responsibility of others can be one of the thorniest issues in all of our relationships. It seems possible to achieve this balance only if we are first willing and able to identify our own responsibility and what we need to change before we consider and identify the responsibility of others and then hold them accountable for their responsibility, regardless of whether they are willing to do the same. This becomes easier over time, but always starts with “own what you own” before you “don’t own what you don’t own.”

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)jupitercenter.com.

 

Empathy

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Empathy is a very important part of my role as a therapist. Without it, the therapy relationship would feel and even be, robotic, mechanistic. What makes therapy human, connected, real, interesting and therefore valuable to the client (and me) is my ability and willingness to try to imagine what it would be like to be my client, as they are, in their situation. This is what makes empathy different from compassion, as I define those terms. Compassion exists when we say to ourselves “I feel bad for that person because they are… (in a bad situation, etc.).” Empathy exists when we say to ourselves, “I know what it is like to be in that person’s situation and can imagine how it would feel to be in that situation.” In therapy, I try to take this a step further, knowing full well it isn’t really possible. Like I said above, when I empathize with a client as their therapist, I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be in their situation, with the added element of imagining what it would be like to be them (not me) in their situation.

This is more difficult than it might seem. In order to really be able to imagine what it would be like to be someone else in any variety of situations, you have to really know and understand someone. People are complicated. No matter the context in which you meet someone, it takes a while to get to know a person. When that person is a client in therapy, they want to be known, by me, the therapist. So, they are nearly always far more open and candid than they would be if they were not in a therapy session. Still, trying to imagine what it would be like to be someone else, especially when that someone is suffering from some kind of serious emotional turmoil (as they are in therapy) is difficult, but necessary. Clients often tell me that to trust a therapist, they have to conclude their therapist “gets it,” which I take to mean that they feel known and understood by the therapist, that the therapist “gets” what it would be like to be them in their situation.

Why is empathy as I describe it essential to therapy? If a client doesn’t think their therapist can imagine what it would be like to be them in their situation, how can the client believe the therapist really understands their problems, their unique and valid difficulty resolving their problems, and how to help them solve problems they have not been able to solve themselves. Without this trust, I don’t think clients can accomplish much of anything in therapy. I am not alone in coming to this kind of conclusion. In graduate school, we read a book that reached a similar conclusion. The book is called “Escape from Babel: Toward a Unifying Language for Psychotherapy Practice” (written by Duncan, Hubble and Miller in case you are interested in buying the book). It is a “meta-study” (a study of other studies) about what makes therapy successful. The rapport between a client and their therapist is the second most important factor for success in therapy (second only to the client’s level of motivation for change). In other words, does the client feel a connection to therapist such that they believe their therapist “gets it” (understands the client and their problems)? If the answer is yes, therapy stands a much greater chance of success. Oh, and by “success,” I mean the client thought the therapy was valuable in helping them achieve their goals.

Another interesting point came out of the meta-study in Escape From Babel: the kinds of “techniques” used by the therapist were far less important to success in therapy than the relationship the client and therapist were able to form. Prior to reading this book and being in graduate school to become a therapist, I had been a therapy client with several different therapists using many different approaches. When I read that conclusion in Escape From Babel, I knew it to be true from my own experience. I don’t mean to suggest that therapeutic approaches are completely unimportant. They are just less important than the connection between the therapist and client. Put another way, in my experience, and as implied in the book, no matter what approach a therapist might take, and how good they are at implementing that approach, if the client doesn’t feel a connection to the therapist on a basic human level, chances for success are not great, especially if the therapy work that needs to be done runs pretty deep and can’t be resolved in a few sessions.

Where does empathy come from? In general human terms, we are born with the capacity to empathize (except in very rare circumstances). Our willingness to cultivate empathy depends on how safe we feel within ourselves and in our relationships. The more secure we are with who we are, the more we will be able to move past ourselves to reach out to others, not just to care about them, but to get to know them at a deep enough level that we can imagine being like them. It might be easier to put myself in an empathetic state in therapy because I feel secure as a therapist most of the time. I am able to risk the emotional vulnerability that comes with empathy in therapy because I know empathy is a central and basic need my clients seek in therapy and I trust my ability to “be them” in my mind while also staying grounded in myself so I can simultaneously “see them” from my perspective.

As a therapist, I am always asking myself questions like this: “based on what I know about David, would he have the ability to recognize his unconscious motivations for the way he reacted to his boss in the story he is telling me?” I then imagine being David in an argument with his boss, who is a woman. I imagine what it must be like for David to have a boss that reminds him of the wife that just left him, taking the kids with her. His boss doesn’t know this, and therefore may have no idea why David reacted so disproportionately to her criticism of his work, which, while seemingly unreasonable, didn’t warrant David’s vehement response. I come to the preliminary conclusion that David may not have understood his own reasons for reacting so strongly (in the session, he is aggressively describing the negative personality traits of his boss). I ask him if his boss sometimes reminds him of his wife. He disagrees, says they don’t look or act anything alike. I then compare criticisms his wife had given him before she left (which he had told me in previous sessions), which are fairly similar to those his boss recently leveled against him. He recognizes the connection, starts to talk about how he fears his boss will fire him, in much the same way his wife did. He tells me he fears going through the grief and loneliness of his divorce all over again if he is now fired. David cries a little, and so do I. We share memories of the pain he experienced and expressed in previous therapy sessions leading up to and through his divorce.

David now has a better understanding of his own emotional landscape. David’s ability to trust me is also sustained because he could see me trying to imagine being him in his argument with his boss after going through the recent and painful divorce. It is precisely because David trusts my understanding of his pain and anguish that he is able to listen to my suggestion that his emotional reaction to his boss might have been misplaced, or at least exaggerated. He decides to tell his boss what he has learned about his reaction, hoping that, by letting her know, she may be willing to let go of any residual resentment she feels for the way he reacted. David can do this without expecting her to recant her criticisms because he understands how he needs to change, regardless of whether anyone else around him (including his boss) changes.

Empathy is vital to therapy. Yet, empathy is also very much one-sided in therapy. I empathize with my clients, actively, regularly, and out loud. I do not expect or want my clients to try to empathize too much with me. A little bit is good because I am after all not just a therapist. I am a man. At a minimal level, when I expect a client’s consideration of my needs, this can be good role modeling for a client to step outside of herself or himself. Beyond that, expecting or allowing a client to become too empathetic to a therapist’s needs can get in the way of the client’s ability to stay focused on their issues, so I try to contain it to a modest level. We are, after all, in therapy to meet the client’s emotional needs, not mine. If I need empathy to the extent I want it from my clients for my own emotional needs, I will find my own therapist.

Empathy is clearly not just important in therapy; it is important for all of us because it teaches us how to be more flexible, adaptable, and to predict how we can improve our relationships with others. It must, because empathy requires us to step outside of ourselves (in our imagination) and remove from our considerations (as best we can) what we would do, and instead focus on understanding why others do what they do. When we read a book, watch a movie or play, or listen to a friend tell us about characters, relationships, and behaviors that are foreign to us, yet capable of being understood, we grow as people because we try to imagine what it would be like to be those characters in those relationships, engaging in those behaviors. If this were all there were to empathy, it would be little different than fantasizing about how others live their lives. Empathy comes into play when the thing we are imagining is difficult, difficult and painful for the person(s) in the situation, and difficult for us to truly comprehend their situation—because it causes us to feel something like the pain we imagine they feel. Yet, we do it anyway, despite the discomfort, the pain. We do it because we care; we care about that person, or at least care about their situation, and want to help them get out of their situation. This is also what makes empathy more compelling than compassion. Compassion tells us to care about the suffering of others, which is beautiful. Empathy goes further, and tells us to force or allow ourselves to experience something like the experience we imagine others feel, even when that is painful, difficult, and avoidable.

The difference between compassion and empathy is illustrated by a compelling parable told on the TV show, The West Wing. I saw it quite a while ago, so the details are fuzzy, but it goes something like this (truth be told I might be unwittingly modifying it a bit): A guy finds himself down in a hole and can’t get out. He yells to a stranger walking by, “Hey can you help me get out of here?” The stranger says as he keeps walking, “I feel for you down there, but there’s nothing I can do.” A priest walks by, the guy in the whole says, “Hey Father, can you help me get out of this hole?” The Priest says, “I will say a prayer for you.” The Priest keeps walking. Then a friend walks by, sees his friend down in the hole, jumps down into the hole. The guy in the hole says, Why’d you do that, now we are both down here and are both stuck.” The friend says, “I’ve been down here before, and I came down to show you the way out.” The stranger and priest show limited compassion. The friend shows empathy by “being with” his friend down in the hole.

Empathy is such a good thing, it is difficult to imagine when we should not empathize with others. All that comes to mind is limiting empathy when we ourselves feel nearly overwhelmed, or when our empathy is being exploited, as in a co-dependent or abusive relationship. If empathy is such a good thing, then why is it not as common as it seems it should be? I have two thoughts on this. First, true empathy is difficult, even emotionally draining at times. It is even more difficult if we don’t really know ourselves very well. We can’t really imagine what it would be like to be someone else in a given situation if we don’t know and understand them pretty well. How can we expect to truly understand someone if we don’t know ourselves? We can’t. So, empathy requires self-knowledge, compassion, and a willingness to risk emotional vulnerability within ourselves, so we can stay “grounded” within ourselves while also reaching out emotionally to “be where they are.”

The connection between a client and therapist can run very deep if there is adequate understanding, vulnerability and risk taking on both sides. The benefits of successful therapy are amazing, truly amazing. I say this both as a therapist and as a previous therapy client who knows from both sides what success in therapy can mean. So, if empathy in the context of therapy, where it is almost completely one-sided ( the therapist empathizes with the client, but not the other way around) is so important, just imagine what the benefits are for having deep and genuine empathy in a two-sided relationship, like with a good friend, your partner, sister, or colleague.

Real empathy also requires a good dose of humility. Humility means that we realize that we have limits, we are not necessarily any more important than anyone else. As I’ve said in other writings, humility to me means “I am just some guy.” If I want to be genuinely empathetic, I have to be able to tell myself, “I could have ended up being just like this person, in their situation, even though I am not, which means I am no better than they are.” Only then can we really imagine what it would be like if we were in fact just like that person, in their situation. Once we are on their level, whomever they are—spouse, co-worker, sibling, friend, stranger—we can much more easily relate to their experience and allow ourselves to be truly connected to them and their situation. What if you could bring deep and genuine two-sided empathy to all of your important relationships? You can. And I hope you will for your sake and for theirs.

Goal-setting by imagining being “there”

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Setting goals is something is an important and early part of the therapy process.  As part of the goal-setting process, I ask questions like these: “How will you know when you are ready to be done in therapy?” “How will things be different in your life?”  “How will you feel about the problems that brought you to therapy?”

Jim, a client who has been struggling for 10 years with depression, might answer these questions by stating his ultimate goal in therapy is to “no longer believe that depression controls my life, and I have the ability to recognize its influence and minimize or eliminate it when it comes up.”  Nice goal Jim! At first, Jim doesn’t really believe it will ever happen, but he can at least imagine what it would be like if it did happen. That’s a fine way to start. When Jim can say this about himself, “I am now where I hoped to get when I started,” he is ready to be done with therapy.

It occurred to me recently that I do this in my regular life, outside of therapy, but with some slight differences that are reflective of the different context (my life instead of therapy). When I was in high school, I didn’t know how to set goals for myself, especially anything longer than a month or two.  I’d ask myself, “what do I need right now that I don’t have?”  I’d answer, “money,” “a car,” “some clothes.” I’d get a job to get money for now.  Fair enough.  But that only “gets you by.” What if you want more?  What if you want growth, evolution, change that will bring you meaning?  What if you want a different job, but not just any old job, or to leave a relationship, or start a new relationship? These longer term goals require at least three things, self-awareness, imagination and continuous follow-through.  Self-awareness is necessary to understand what you might actually want and what you think you can actually accomplish (being realistic and also expansive based on who you are). Imagination is necessary for this (the point of this blog): being able to conceive what it would be like for you to have accomplished the goal. Continuous follow-through is necessary because, with almost any long-term goal, there will be setbacks, distractions, interruptions, and unanticipated barriers that you will need to contend with as you strive toward that goal.

So, here’s why imagination is crucial to setting important long-term goals. Think of any goal, a career goal, a relationship goal, a life goal; in order to make it worth pursuing you have to believe it is at least possible to achieve and that it is worth achieving if you can.  If you can’t imagine yourself having reached the goal, neither of these two things will seem sufficiently real to warrant the pursuit of the goal. I don’t think it is possible to have a meaningful direction without first having at least some kind of destination in mind. A destination requires imagining what it would be like to be there!

I remember being in college and having this vision of being in an office in a tall building with a great view of some downtown in a big city.  I was at a desk, wearing a suit and tie.  I saw me there, at the desk, looking out the window, proud of my accomplishment.  I saw myself as a successful attorney.  I didn’t know where the office was, the kind of lawyer I would be, the city, any of that.  I remember the pride of it, though.  Fast forward 6 years, and there I was, in an office overlooking San Francisco Bay, in office on the 21st floor of a building at Kearney and California Streets practicing employment law.  Would I have pursued the legal career if I hadn’t been able to visualize myself in that office and how it would feel to be there?  Actually, probably not.

I am suggesting it is possible and greatly advantageous to perform the process of goal setting in your life in the same way I do with clients in therapy, not just for therapy-type goals, but for all goals.  Here’s the process.  First, ask yourself, “what kind of (job, relationship, situation) do I want?”  Second, “what would it be like for me to have that (job, relationship, situation)?” Third, “what would it take for me to have that?”  Fourth, “what do I need to do to get from where I am right now to what it would take to have that (job, relationship, situation)?”  Then, chart a course for yourself to go from where you are right now, to where you want to be with that goal.  As you move toward it, keep visualizing the goal, adjusting along the way what you need to do to stay on track toward that goal. 

Like almost everything in life, this is an evolving process, needing change and modification along the way as circumstances change; as the unpredictability of life creeps in, as things get in the way that you need to overcome, remove, resolve. Jim looked back at the goal he stated when he started therapy, several years later (yes, it was a long, but worthwhile process), he remembered not thinking it was possible to rid himself of the negative influences of his depression, and yet because he had the ability to imagine being there, he was able to focus on it through the hard times, the setbacks, the times he felt like giving up.  Remembering all of this during his final therapy session made reaching the goal all the sweeter for Jim. 

If you can keep your “eye on the prize” and stay with the vision that helped you create and believe in the goal at the start, you will stay sufficiently motivated and clear in your direction to stay the course toward meeting the goal.  When you achieve the goal, don’t forget to look back at your original vision and congratulate yourself on how right you were when you thought the goal was worth achieving and might actually be achievable!

 

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)jupitercenter.com.

 

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)jupitercenter.com.

Personal Heroes

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

This is a modified version of a chapter in the book I wrote about my childhood. The book is called, “Twelfth Child.”  It is not published, but now and then I use parts of it when I speak and bits and pieces of it have shown up here as part of blogs and in other places on this website.  I recently spoke at a nonprofit that does human services work, including therapy, for marginalized populations (a very strong passion I continue to share).  I used this as a handout for part of that presentation.  I thought I’d share it as a blog here for those who might be interested in part of the reason I get so much meaning out of doing therapy and therapy-related work.  Here is the chapter:

 

There are real heroes out there. I know. I’ve met them. I don’t mean celebrity heroes we never meet. I mean personal heroes—people who intervene when there is trouble in our lives. A hero has a choice, and does not do what they do for recognition. A hero is not a hero without the desire to act when there is no reason they should act, save necessity. According to the great philosopher Immanuel Kant, it is the nameless heroes which deserve the greatest praise of all—those that do the right thing, not out of hope for recognition, or because they think they are supposed to, but because it simply feels like the right thing to do. A hero helps someone else live a better life because that’s the kind of person they are. That’s it.

 

I cannot remember the names of all the heroes that have come into my life, and feel guilty for that. They deserve to be remembered, and much more. Those that do stand out in my memory stand out for good reason. These I call my personal heroes; not heroes to you, or maybe anyone else but me, but heroes they are, all of them.

 

In second grade, school staff must have noticed something was very wrong inside Michael Kinzer’s little head. Michael was a constant distraction for the teacher, seemed always to be getting into fights with lots of different kids, and never did what he was told. Michael was usually very far away, in a different world. Something was wrong, and needed intervention. Enter a counselor. He was a man. Nice, good looking, maybe 30 to 40. I can’t really remember. He came to my school on Tuesday mornings. I never saw him around at any time other than when he came to see me. He took me out of class every week and spent an hour with me. I told him nothing about what my father was doing to me. I knew the consequences too well. I wanted him to come, to show me how to throw a baseball, or just sit and talk on the playground. I have no idea what we talked about. I knew he was very worried about me. It never occurred to me that there was anything he could possibly do stop the beatings at home.

In third grade, the school nurse became a small hero for a day, in a way. My shoes had been canvas tennis shoes at one time. Now they were flip flops, with the canvas ripping from the rubber souls. It was dead winter, and my feet were wet and freezing every day after recess. The school nurse either noticed, or a teacher told her. She called me down to her office to take me shopping for new shoes. I pleaded with her not to do it, telling her my parents would buy me new shoes. She insisted. I had never bought new shoes before. I was thrilled, though scared of my father’s reaction, and my brothers’ jealousy. I was told to pick any pair I wanted. Consumer freedom tasted good. All my clothes and shoes had always been bought for me, or were hand-me-downs. The raised tendons on my feet today continue to tell the tale of shoes always a size or a year too small for my growing feet. At home that night, I was beaten so badly my father couldn’t let me go to school for a few days. I don’t know if there were inquiries or not. When I did get back to school, no questions were asked. I was glad to have a new pair of shoes. Getting beat was worth it. Heroes reappeared now and then, but never with enough power, information or concern to do much of anything about what must have been fairly obvious.

 

Heroes also come from places you might least expect. More than anyone else, my brother Paul, three years older than me, helped to protect me from my father. Again and again, he took beatings onto himself to help me get away, knowing that he was bigger and could partially defend himself. He may also have known that my father didn’t question Paul’s heritage and the beating would not be as severe as what my father had intended for me, the outcast, the abomination. Either way, of all my siblings, Paul deserved a special heap of praise for his courage.

 

Heroes can be dangerous, because they don’t always know they have the power to do only enough to leave you worse than you were before you met them. After my mother left when I was 12, we were told to go to a counselor at Catholic Charities. I went, but didn’t want to. The counselor convinced me that I was safe in telling him anything that was going on. I did. Boy, what a huge mistake. I remember telling him everything I could within the short time I had, hoping he would put a stop to it, and get me out of that house. I pleaded with him not to tell me dad, warning him that I would be beaten if he did. He did anyway. He told me he didn’t believe me, that I must be lying to him, and that my father had the right to know the kinds of things I was saying about him. Need I say what happened then, when my father brought me home? Of course I was beaten for it, and never went back.

 

One name I will not ever forget: Lorene. It is no exaggeration to say I would likely not be here to tell you this story if it were not for Lorene. Or, if I were here, I might be scratching this story out on pads of paper in a prison cell or a padded cell. Thank God for Lorene. Lorene was my social worker from the age of 12 until I was 18. She saved my butt so many times I cannot tell you. When my mother left, all hell broke loose. My father’s violence became homicidal. I knew it was only a matter of time before he would kill me. My brother Paul was the first to go into foster care, with the rest of us quickly to follow. The first time I met her, I called her on a pay phone, after my father had tried to hit me in the head with a baseball bat. He had wanted to kill me. He missed me entirely, this time. I told Lorene baseball bat and said I would never return. She suggested we meet at a restaurant. We talked over a dinner. She believed everything I told her, without hesitation, or suspicion. She intervened once and for all by removing me from my father’s house within a few weeks, and was smart enough not to let him know that I had anything to do with her intervention. She was discreet. She seemed to understand the possible consequences of being careless when it came to what my father knew and didn’t know. The County forced me to return home when I was 15, but Lorene kept a close watch on my father, and when he tried to cut me in the neck with a wood saw, removed me from my father’s home again, permanently.

 

Sometimes a hero becomes a hero when they help you find other heroes. Lorene did this, by introducing me to the foster parents I would have from the age of 16 until I completed my first year of college. Carol and Russ were the real deal—Russ had lived in foster homes as a child and was now returning the favor. Carol was a naturally very giving person and derived much of the meaning from her life by helping kids like me get a chance to succeed in their lives. We are still in contact on a fairly regular basis nearly 30 years after I moved out. What was special about them? I never had any doubt about their motive. In previous foster homes, I had known parents in it for the money (by cramming five boys into two smallish bedrooms out of sight of the rest of their biological family), in it for the work (by making us cut and stack wood without pay every other weekend so they could sell the wood for extra money), or for the control (by kicking me out when I did not want to be adopted). Carol and Russ were none of these. They were simply heroes, doing what they could to improve the lives of the kids in their home, at great personal cost, which was rewarding to them just because they knew they were doing something important, something special.

 

A few years ago, I called Lorene at her office. I told her who I was, not even sure she’d recognize the name. She knew who I was immediately. I called her to thank her for all that she had done on my behalf. I also told her what I had done with my life to that point (family, house, successful career as an attorney, and sane). I told her I wanted her know it could not have happened but for her. She cried. I cried. It was very very nice.

Personal heroes mattered to me because they came into my life at exactly the right time—when I needed them most. I could not have been helped by any personal hero, though, unless I were willing to trust them. I only trusted those mentioned here because I believed each of them genuinely cared. I wasn’t always right in those I trusted, but I would not have trusted any of them if I thought they were bogus, pretending to care. When those that really cared reached out to me, I am so glad I responded by using what they had to give to improve my life. I hope you will do the same when you need to.

 

Copyright, 2012, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.