Posts Tagged ‘existential’

Introspection Part 9, Being interesting

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

In the last blog post, I described the difference between existence (you as you are right now) and being (you in the process of becoming what you want to be).  Being is preferable.  Being means frequently asking yourself where you are headed in your life, your head, your values and morality.  Being isn’t just about goals, although they play an important role in being. Being is about a constant desire and attitude about wanting to be a better version of yourself, however you define “better.” The state of “being” is the ability and desire to say to yourself “I am right now in a better place in myself and my life than I was (pick a time in your history) and headed in the direction of being in an even better place.” Being is central to the importance of introspection because existence requires no self-awareness—being does.

I have a number of clients who probably met their initial therapy goals within the first year or two of seeing me, but then came back later or continued their therapy for other reasons. These clients sorted out the particular issues that were bothering them when they first came to see me. In the process of sorting through these issues, they became accustomed to “being,” to self-examination with the purpose of continuing to move in a direction toward greater satisfaction with themselves and their lives.  They also became accustomed to having someone to help them continue the process, to set new goals for themselves, to regularly challenge their daily decisions. Many of these clients see me infrequently (once a month or less). They have embraced being as a way of life for themselves.  Many clients also figure out how to do this on their own by the time they are done with therapy, and no longer need my assistance or encouragement. Either way is fine with me. As long as they continue the practice of becoming more of what they want to be for themselves, I will be happy for them.

You can set your mind to particular directions when thinking about what you want to become.  Start with what you are—really get to know who and what you are right now.  For more on ideas and tools for this, see Introspection Part 4.  At some point in the process of getting to know yourself as you are, you will have the capacity to think “what about myself do I want to emphasize, what part of myself do I want to grow, to focus on, and become more of that?”  It is much easier and more likely to lead to successful outcomes if you can say “I want to be more of thisabout me” than to say “I want to be more like that person.” Although having good role models is also an important method for self-improvement. Also, when you do think of other people, you can ask yourself, “what do I like about that person, about their personality, their lifestyle, their behavior, decisions and attitudes.” From there, you can ask yourself, “what parts of those things are already a part of myself that I want to grow and encourage?”  In either case, start with you and become more of whatever that is, so it will always be genuine, so you won’t be trying to become something you’re not, just because you see it in someone else and think you should be like them. You shouldn’t. You should be like you, only more. This is being. This is being… interested in yourself.

One of my favorite questions when getting to know a client is to ask them, “what do you think makes you interesting?”  Obviously, I don’t just ask this out of the blue. I also ask this question in many different ways, depending on the context. And it is certainly not one of the first questions I ever ask anyone.  I think I like the question for two reasons. First, I am almost always surprised and delighted to hear the wide variety of answers I get. Often clients have to first reorient their thinking about “being interesting” because they might never have thought of themselves as interesting, or asked themselves this kind of question so directly before. The process of therapy can be very helpful in this regard because it is by its nature demonstration that they are interesting—they can see by my curiosity about them that I am interested in them, that I find them interesting. After what is usually a fairly short period of time, most clients start to become much more interested in themselves.  They don’t just wait for the next therapy session for me to suggest questions about themselves. Clients start asking themselves all kinds of questions on their own, in between sessions, which is fantastic! Once clients are able to see themselves as at least having the possibility of being interesting, they are full of answers about what makes them interesting.

I have had clients tell me they consider themselves interesting because of the thoughts they have that they rarely if ever share with others, so others don’t think they are as interesting as they think they are.  Clients have histories and curiosities that they find interesting, but often tell themselves that others won’t find those things interesting.  I think this might be partly why social media has become so popular—it is much easier and much less risky to find others interested in what you find interesting, regardless of how narrow or obscure that topic might be.  Lately, I was taking a look at Reddit.  It was really amazing how diverse people’s interests are.  It took me easily half an hour just to scour through all the “subReddits” to decide which ones I wanted to follow when I signed up.  I unchecked categories of groups and didn’t even look into many general and specific topics I might have wanted to see.  This was a really great way to see the huge variety of interests that others have which I do not share.  That’s fine.  That’s great in fact, because it opens up so many ways others can connect to their own interests, which will almost certainly be shared by some other people, no matter what those interests might be. Once a person begins to think they might be interesting, they begin to take their own interests more seriously and become more curious, more invested, more confident about pursuing those interests. In doing so, they become even more interesting.

Another reason I like asking others what they think makes them interesting is that it is the kind of question I am constantly asking myself.  “Am I interesting?” “If I am interesting, why?”  “What do I find interesting about others that I also possess?” “Can I be more interesting in that way?”  “What do others seem to find interesting about me that I like about myself?” “Am I doing interesting things?” “Are there things I used to find interesting that I am not doing anymore and want to resume?”  “When I am with others, are we doing things and talking about things that interest me, that interest them?” “Am I open to ideas about how I can be more interested in my life, in my relationships, in my work, in my future, in myself?” I actually do ask myself these and other related questions all the time.

What does it mean to be “interesting?”  To be honest, I am not entirely sure how to answer this most basic question. Maybe that is also part of the reason I like the question—no matter what I say now, there will likely be a better answer later. I do think being interesting has something to do with complexity, with being multidimensional, multi-layered, of having many facets.  I have told this story before elsewhere, but it bears repeating here (in a shorter version), to demonstrate what I mean about being multidimensional.  When my son was 12, he asked me what I wanted him to be when he grew up.  After thinking about it for a while, I told him I wanted him to be as compassionate and honest as he could be, and to be interesting—how he did those things was up to him.  Later, in his mid-twenties, he was so focused on his music (he’s a musician), he had lost interest in many other things in his life.  I told him I was concerned that his focus on music was interesting, but because his focus excluded so many other parts of his life (his education, relationships, curiosity, time for other activities), he risked becoming one-dimensional, and therefore risked becoming uninteresting.  He was hurt, of course, but understood, and agreed to some extent.  It is a struggle we all face—to be interested in what we do, while also staying open to activities, ideas and ways of being that take us away from what we do, what we know, what is comfortable and familiar.

Another way to think about how complexity makes us interesting is to think about why we consider things outside of ourselves interesting—what sustains our interest in that thing.  A painting of a single object like a flower might capture our interest for a moment, but without some level of complexity in the painting, like the background in which the flower is situated, or differing facets of the perspective in the painting, we will lose interest quickly. Or, take a real flower.  We might adore a single rose in its prime, but we do so usually because it is complex and there is much to consider.  We don’t feel the same way about a single daisy. For a daisy, we’d like to see many of them, maybe all swaying together in the wind in front of a row of trees.  Complexity also sustains our interest in food.  We tend to stay interested in food that has some mixture of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Any food that has just one of these tastes might be satisfying at certain times, but it won’t stay satisfying.  The perfume industry is constantly trying to find new formulas to capture our interest long enough to use that scent again and again. They do so by combining many different scents, to form a “bouquet” of subtle overtones and undertones.  We joke about how wine and beer manufactures will describe in great detail the complexities of their products, with beers for instance claiming their product has undertones of chocolate or cherries, while also bringing to the palette a hint of almond or honey.

Why do we need complexity and multiple layers or dimensions to keep us interested? Because we are complex. We are multilayered. We have many dimensions.  All of us do. No exceptions.  I emphasize the “all of us” part because I have met so many people who exclude themselves from this proposition. I can guess with some level of certainty that there will be those who read this and think, “not me, I am not complex, I am not multi-dimensional, I am simple.”  Or worst of all, “I am not interesting.”  There is something to be said for simplicity too, when appropriate. AA has the saying “Keep it simple,” which seems to mean don’t make a thing more complicated than it needs to be. Simplicity is not our natural state, though.  It cannot be. We are complex because life is complicated, relationships are complicated, trying to ascertain and predict things that matter to us is complicated. That is why our brains are arguably the most complicated thing we know about in the universe—we need the complexity of our brains to navigate the complexity of human life.

Embrace your complexity! Try to understand it.  Become more open and interested in your complexity as part of being more open and interested in yourself. Being interesting requires becoming interesting as a never-ending process.  Becoming interesting means seeing yourself as having multiple outlooks, feelings, thoughts, attitudes, perceptions, all the time, and trying to see them all simultaneously whenever possible.  Being interesting means being interested, interested in your life, your thoughts, your desires, your goals, your relationships, and being interested in all that you, as a complex person, can bring to these dimensions of yourself. Be interested in yourself and the world and you cannot help but be interesting.

 

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 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 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.

 

Moral Conviction

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting unstuck

Monday, January 16th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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.

 

Defining Morality

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Wrong/Bad)———————————————————————-(Right/Good)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Defiant Morality

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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