Posts Tagged ‘introspection’

Introspection Part 6, Self-acceptance

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Introspection Part 6, self-acceptance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Introspection Part 5, Your inner narrative

Sunday, February 18th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Introspection Part 4, Tools for self-discovery

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

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

Notice yourself.

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

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

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

Meditation.

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

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

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

Somatic experiences—what is happening in your body.

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

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

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

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

Record what you experience and later reflect on it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider a daily reading routine.

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

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

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

Talk about yourself with others.

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

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

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

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

Seek professional help.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Introspection Part 3, Why do we avoid our inner lives

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Introspection Part 2, the value of self-discovery

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Introspection Part 1, What is introspection?

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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