Posts Tagged ‘self-awareness’

Introspection Part 10, Avoiding Narcissism

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

Having spent the last several months writing about “going inside yourself” (introspection), it occurs to me that I should take a breather and answer the question, “is there such a thing as too much introspection?”

I want to say “no” because introspection is so much a part of my life as a therapist and a person in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction and I see its benefits every day all around me.  The truth is, I do think it is possible and not healthy to be overly focused on yourself. Self-focus is especially problematic when it excludes a person’s ability to focus on others and on the external world, which is when we move from introspection to “narcissism.” Before getting into a broader discussion of the dangers of narcissism, I do want to say that becoming more introspective, to almost any degree, is not the same thing as narcissism.  Narcissism is a way of seeing the world, not just yourself. Narcissism, in the extreme, means believing “everything is about me, and only me, all the time.”  There is no reason introspection has to lead to narcissism, but someone who tends toward narcissism would be well-cautioned against allowing introspection to further that tendency.

In Greek Mythology, Narcissus was a hunter well known for his beautiful looks. He was considered “proud,” in the sense that he disdained those who loved him. Nemesis (one of the Greek gods) noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died.

 

You have likely read or otherwise know about the psychological ramifications of narcissistic personality disorder, which is characterized by: “persistent grandiosity, excessive need for admiration, and a personal disdain and lack of empathy for other people.”  In other words, when a person suffers from narcissistic personality disorder they might quite literally be unable to see things from another person’s perspective because they are so locked into their own perspective.  When I have known people in my personal life who had strong narcissistic tendencies, I have wanted to tell them, “I exist in the real world, as a separate and distinct being, not as an extension of you” because they seemed to have great difficulty or didn’t seem to have the capacity to recognize that my perspectives and needs were not the same as theirs.

 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association—and used by most mental health care practitioners for diagnosing their clients and patients—lists the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, emphasizing that the symptoms typically without the commensurate qualities or accomplishments and the symptoms create a significant impairment to living a normal healthy life (paraphrasing here):

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people;
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.;
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions;
  4. Needing continual admiration from others;
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others;
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain;
  7. Unwilling to empathize with the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people;
  8. Intensely envious of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them; and
  9. Pompous and arrogant demeanor.

Obviously, these are not the kind of symptoms I want anyone striving for with introspection.  In fact, most of us exhibit some or many of these symptoms at various points in our lives. To the extent we do, introspection will help us recognize them within ourselves and in our behavior toward others, so we can minimize or eliminate them as part of our way of being in the world.

I had a client some time ago, we will call him Aaron, whose mother exhibited many of these behaviors and was just very self-centered (everything had to be about her) during his childhood and adult life.  We were discussing his general disdain for people in groups and how it negatively affected his outlook whenever Aaron was in public, and even often when he was at work.  As we parsed through his emotional reactions and the reasons for them when he was in public, he suddenly exclaimed, “I see narcissists” (referring back to the movie, The Sixth Sense, when the little boy says “I see dead people.”) We later referred back to his exclamation somewhat jokingly when he caught himself projecting his mother’s extreme level and frequency of narcissism to other people who might not have had the kind of issues his mother had, but had displayed similar traits.  I tried to show him over time that we all, Aaron included, act with narcissistic motives and tendencies, and this is normal and can even be healthy and necessary, up to a point. Aaron’s exclamation, “I see narcissists,” is a way of saying he suffered from a kind of hypervigilance (see my blog post, “Hypervigilance” for more information) directly related to narcissistic behaviors, which makes sense in light of his childhood experiences with his mother.

Despite the dangers of narcissism, it begins as an essential tool of survival. Think of a baby. Total narcissist.  She cries with the full expectation that someone will come to meet her needs immediately, you might even say with a strong sense of entitlement, often becoming more agitated and angry as time passes by without bringing to her whatever it is she thinks she needs in that exact moment.  And we, as parents and caregivers, rush to meet her needs, of course, with little care for what we may need at the moment. And the baby certainly gives no thought to our needs—is in fact incapable of giving any thought to our needs. Without this level of complete self-absorption, babies would not survive.  Without some level of self-centeredness, we as adults would go through our lives forgoing our most basic needs, which we often do, for various reasons: conflict avoidance, shame, low self-worth, we don’t want to “impose.” So, even in adulthood, some level of narcissism is healthy and necessary for us to have what we want and need in our lives.

Is the answer to narcissism less focus on the self? Yes and no.  It’s a balance.  I advocate a very high level of focus on the self, for all of the reasons cited in these posts about introspection (and all over my website and other writings).  Yet, focus on the self need not ever come at the expense or to the exclusion of focus on others; friends, co-workers, strangers, and even animals.  Introspection should be balanced with “transcendence,” which I describe in a chapter with that same name in Firewalking on Jupiter, by which I mean simply to move out from and beyond yourself.  Introspection is looking and moving inward.  Transcendence goes in the other direction: looking and moving outward.  The capacity to do both, often, and sometimes at the same time, can give you the flexibility to interact with others and with the world that is adaptable to your needs, the needs of others, and even just the beauty of being in and with nature, music, art, or the person lying next to you in bed. Imagine yourself at the edge of “you.”  You have inside of you all of your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, attitudes, desires, goals.  Outside of you there are people, nature, food, activities, work, finances, the necessities of daily life and the ups and downs of various circumstances.  You stand on a line right at the edge of both, just within yourself, aware of both whatever is happening within you and aware of whatever is happening outside of you, travelling within and outside of yourself to engage with whatever is most important at the moment. This is the balance of introspection and transcendence.

The answer to narcissism is not less introspection, but more, although with different motivations at different times.  Use introspection to know yourself, what you want and need and figuring out how and from whom you can most appropriately meet those wants and needs.  That’s the first step. Yes, it is self-centered, so far, but it isn’t narcissistic yet, because it leaves open the possibility that you will also be able and willing to entertain and meet the needs of others, while also meeting your own needs. That’s the second step. Listen to others, often. Then use introspection to find out what others might want or need from you, and how they will be effected by your asking them to meet your needs.  What will change for them if you do ask, and they agree, to meet your wants and needs.  And what have you learned by listening to them about what they might want and need from you—are you willing to meet their needs too?

Now we are back to “intersubjectivity” as described in Introspection Part 7.  Intersubjectivity is not the opposite of narcissism.  It is a counterpoint, a check on narcissism. By practicing both introspection, focused on self-awareness, and intersubjectivity, you will be able to explore and obtain your wants and needs while avoiding the pitfalls of self-absorption—which involves allowing your focus on yourself to come at the expense of others. With intersubjectivity as part of introspection, you will demand from yourself, as well I hope from others, that you always consider both your needs and theirs, never just one or the other. And then, when you’ve decided on your own which needs you think are most important (starting with yours, but not always yours), you will be able to improve things for yourself, while also having the chance to improve circumstances for others. In the end, a balanced practice of introspection, transcendence and intersubjectivity can help you improve all of your relationships, while ensuring that a high level of introspection does not lead to narcissism.

 

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 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 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.

 

Hypervigilance

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Moral Conviction

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a victim

Friday, December 16th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Coasting

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

You can only coast in one direction.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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.

 

Pride

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Judgments

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

We all say we don’t like to be judged by others, and yet, let’s face it, we all judge others. Does this make us hypocrites? Not necessarily. It depends on what you judge and how you use judgments.

There are a couple of different ways to judge and to be judged. There are also different ways we experience being judged. I guess it depends on who is doing the judging, and why. If you ask your friend for their opinion about something, and then they give you their honest opinion, even if it also includes within it a judgment about something you’ve said or done, you probably won’t feel too bad about it. It might hurt to hear it, but you also recognize you needed to hear it and appreciate your friend having the courage to say it. Even if you conclude your friend is wrong in their opinion (and judgment), you did ask for their opinion. And you probably have enough trust in them to know that their response is well-intended, whether valid or not.

On the other hand, if someone else (not your friend) gives you their opinion and judgment, and you didn’t ask for it, you will likely feel at least some resentment, or a great deal of it, depending on the nature of the judgment and how removed they are from your “circle of ethical regard” (the people whose opinions you trust). We might also resent an unsolicited judgment when we rightly conclude they don’t have sufficient information about our situation or who we are to make the judgment, which is part of the reason they are not in our circle of ethical regard. They are jumping to conclusions and accordingly, we don’t trust those conclusions.

What is a judgment? In its simplest terms, a judgment is a thought or position about the value we attribute to a thing. For the purposes of this blog entry, I am not referring to financial, intellectual, artistic, or historical values. I am restricting the discussion specifically and only to moral value judgments. A moral judgment is a way of seeing something as good or bad, a little good, a little bad, or really good, or really bad, or not that big of a deal either way. When we make a moral judgment about someone else, we can be making a value statement about that person, their behavior or both. I strongly believe it is important to make a distinction between these two kinds of judgments. The reason is simple, and very powerful: people who do things we think (judge) are wrong, are (almost) always still good people who did a bad thing. When we judge people, as people, based solely on something they did, we are likely “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Let me illustrate this point. When I was working in the prisons, I had a rule of thumb for the “Healthy Relationship” classes I taught there: I did not restrict attendance by the nature of the prisoner’s conviction. I didn’t ask and didn’t feel I had the right to know the nature of the act that brought them into the prison system. I didn’t want my students to feel judged in my class. I wanted to take all of them at face value, as individual people, based on what they said in class, how they acted, how they presented themselves to me, right then. I wanted them to know I respected them as people, and made no judgment about them, based on previous behavior, at least for the purposes of the class. One time, as the class was ending, and the prisoners were leaving the room, a prisoner (I’ll call him Jeff) stayed behind to check on an administrative issue he’d been having with one of my staff (in addition to teaching classes in the prisons, I was also running a program to help prisoners and their families). Jeff didn’t like my responses and started to become hostile and threatening, moving closer to me, despite my telling him to back off. One of the prisoners who’d just walked out the door came back into the class (I’ll call him Andrew). Andrew walked up to Jeff and asked, “what’s going on here?” Jeff told him, “its none of your business.” Andrew said, “I’m making it my business, so get out of here.” Jeff left. Here’s the kicker, Andrew had previously told me he was serving his last year of prison after having been there for many years and we both knew if he’d gotten into a fight with Jeff, which he was clearly prepared to do, several years could have been added to his release date. A few weeks later, I asked Andrew why he had risked extending his prison sentence so close to his release date for me, a person he didn’t even know. This is what he said: “You were the first person here to ever treat me like a human being, a real person, with respect. I owed you for that.” As he said this, tears welled up in his eyes. Think about this. Here is a hardened prisoner, who’d been judged by everyone he’d encountered for years. He risks having substantial prison time added to his sentence to protect me, solely because I refused to judge him for whatever he might have done in the past. Good thing I’d given him the benefit of the doubt. These many years later, I still feel deep gratitude for the nobility he showed me that day.

In addition to wanting others to refrain from jumping to wrong conclusions when they make judgments about us, we also don’t want others making judgments about whether we are good or bad people solely based on what we do. We know we are good people but we sometimes make mistakes, just like everyone does. I think we also instinctively know that when others judge us based on our mistakes, there is something inherently hypocritical about it—that they have no right to judge us because they too have made plenty of mistakes.

There’s a great song that gets to this point really well. It’s called, Help Me Somebody (on the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne). Part of the song says:

“Talkin’ funny and lookin’ funny,

talkin’ ‘bout somebody judge me,

you make yourself look bad.

You need to take a good look at yourself

and see if you’re the kind of person God wants you to be.

Ain’t no big thing.

It’s a small thing.

What! People! Think!”

We need to be free to be who we are, without fear of being judged. I think it is a good thing to not want to be judged, especially when the judgments of others are unwarranted or when they come as judgments, not about what we do, think or say, but about the kind of person we are. If we know we are basically good, decent, and honorable people, we should not have to put up with being told otherwise by anyone. If we are subjected to this kind of judgment, we should be careful to avoid internalizing it, which can become a powerful and debilitating source of shame.

Judgments can also be used as a form of subtle or not so subtle manipulation. A moral judgment can be used to imply the following: “You shouldn’t do that or be that way (insert trait or behavior the person dislikes and wants you to change) and you would be better or more likeable if you did it this way (insert their preferred version of you).” This kind of judgment is used to make you feel bad about yourself in order to get you to change something about yourself or the way you do things solely because the person making the judgment wants you to change. Their desire that you change is not sufficient by itself to warrant a moral judgment. Clearly, this is an inappropriate and harmful use of judgments, whether it is someone else or we ourselves who are doing it. A direct statement like “I do not like it when you do (insert issue)” doesn’t imply that you or your behavior is wrong. It just states that you are doing something the other person doesn’t like. There is no moral judgment involved. It is one thing for a parent to tell their teenager to stop stealing money to buy pot (an obviously warranted moral judgment). The parent has an outright obligation to tell their child to stop doing this. It is quite another thing for one partner to tell another they are wrong for wanting to spend time out with friends because they have a duty to stay home with their family (see below).

The issue of using judgments to influence or control others sometimes comes up during otherwise legitimate conflicts between couples. In my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, I discuss this issue in the chapter, What is Verbal Abuse. I distinguish between saying something about your needs (which is good) and saying something intended to hurt the other person (which is verbal abuse). Recently, a client and I were discussing this issue and came up with a way to think about it so she and her partner could remember it during an argument and avoid using hurtful language indicating a moral judgment which is not appropriate. For example, if one person says to another, “you are a terrible father,” this is a moral judgment about the person, and it is probably intended to hurt their feelings, which makes it verbal abuse. If that person instead said to their partner, “when you do (insert problematic behavior), you are acting like a bad father,” although not ideal language it is at least judging the behavior, not the judging or defining the person as essentially bad. It also allows the person to change. Can someone who is a bad father become a good father? Maybe, maybe not. Can someone whose behavior as a father is not acceptable change his or her behavior? Much more likely.

Are all moral judgments bad? Definitely not. As I said above, when we ask for someone’s judgment about what we have done, we might need to hear we have done something that should cause us concern for our moral health, to help us avoid doing similar things in the future. In fact, you could argue that this is the most vital part of a trusted friendship. It allows us to turn to others as a kind of moral mirror, as long as we make good decisions about the kind of people we allow ourselves to trust for these kinds of opinions about us. As I’ve said in other places, we don’t learn from our experiences, we learn from reflecting on our experiences. Moral judgments are a powerful teaching tool for us to look at our behaviors and make changes.

In the same vein, I think it is necessary and sometimes very important to give ourselves permission to judge others for their actions, especially when those actions have a direct impact on us. Amy found herself in long-term relationship with someone who was very possessive, who tried to control her in many ways, limiting her social contacts, criticizing her often for wanting to be successful in her job, demanding she spend as much time as possible at home. She began to think (judge) her partner was insecure without her, and was projecting that insecurity onto her, making her responsible for being around so her partner wouldn’t be insecure without her there. This judgment about her partner’s behavior and the possible reasons behind it allowed her to decide to leave the relationship when she determined it was not going to change. Amy was able to look back and accept that her partner was a great person in many respects and didn’t deserve her lasting animosity, but that she was not happy in a relationship that ended up feeling so confining. Amy could judge her partner’s behavior without making a blanket judgment about her partner as either good or bad.

Let’s go back to the beginning, where I discussed the potential hypocrisy involved in judging others while not wanting to be judged. If we know we don’t like others judging us for who we are, we should do the same and limit our judgment of others to their actions without making a judgment that those actions define them, unless in those extremely rare cases, when their actions are so unacceptable or deeply engrained that they really do define them as people unworthy of our moral acceptance. Judgments can be fine, and healthy and helpful, but can be so easily overstated and hurtful, if we are not careful how we use them. So let’s use moral judgments, but carefully and with kindness when possible.

Responsibility and blame

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empathy

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goal-setting by imagining being “there”

Friday, January 10th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright 2013, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

 

A thought for the Holidays, let others be who they are

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Let’s say you find a sibling, an in-law or some other family member you have in the past found particularly irritating; maybe you disagree with their values, politics, religion, or their lack of filters (e.g. when they drink).  Now let’s say you only see them once or a few times a year, like during the Holidays.  After the Holidays are over, you will not see them again for a long time. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a way to make sure that, almost no matter what they did or said, it didn’t really bother you, either in the moment or later on? Here’s a thought: pay attention to what they do only in terms of how it directly affects you, and pay little or no attention to who you think they are, or more importantly, who you wish they were or think they should be.  I guarantee you will be far less likely to become upset, say or do something you later regret.

Even if you do or say nothing in response to the sometimes irritating behavior of certain family members, if you go into the Holidays with this attitude, you will have a more relaxed, peaceful and enjoyable time.  Know who they are, why they irritate you, expect it’s coming. Then choose in advance to accept them as they are.  Don’t be shy about standing your ground if they say or do something that encroaches on your integrity or self-respect.  Other than needing to standing your ground when you absolutely must, though, pick your battles, and mostly pick the choice not to have a battle, let it go, accept them as they are, knowing you will be dealing with them for a short time and all will be well in a few hours or days, until you see them next time, which is a long ways off. You can then enjoy yourself now and not let yourself worry about having to deal with them next time.

Happy Holidays!

Copyright 2013, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

 

The Power of Tenacity

Monday, August 19th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright 2013, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

The Gift of Therapy: My own experiences as a therapy client

Monday, April 9th, 2012

 

During one of the first few sessions, clients sometimes ask me if I have been in therapy myself. Not surprisingly, they find the question awkward because they both want an answer and consider it important and because they are not sure if it is okay for them to ask. As with almost anything in therapy, I think a client should ask what they think is important for them to know about me, and then I will hold myself responsible for telling them whether I am willing to give them an answer. Sometimes the answer is no, I do not want to share that information. That exchange itself can be a good therapeutic moment, even if the client didn’t get what they wanted, because I try as hard as I can to ensure that they know I still wanted them to ask, because they couldn’t have known I didn’t want to share the information they wanted from me until I told them. And much of the time, if I think sharing the information will be good for the client, I will gladly answer their question So, this blog is a way to avoid all of that awkwardness, if possible, by answering the question about me and therapy in advance of the first session of all future clients (that care to read this blog): yes, I have been in therapy. In fact, I have been in therapy multiple times, at several different points in my life. Sometimes the therapy has not been helpful, and has even been a real turnoff, and at other times, it was a godsend. I have no magical answer about why it worked sometimes and at others did not. I can give you some clues though, in case you want to know.

 

First, let me share with you a couple of real turnoffs that will tell you a lot about when and why therapy definitely did not work for me, and which still inform much of what I do in my own therapy practice—to help my clients stay as far away from those kinds of experiences as possible.

 

When I was 11 or 12, my father took me to a therapist. I can’t tell you what prompted my dad’s exercise in self-help. If I had to guess, someone else told him to do it (like a school or the county). I didn’t want to go, I remember that. It didn’t seem I had much choice though, so I went. I think I thought it was like going to the doctor (first mistake). The guy gave me the whole speech about confidentiality, telling me everything I told him would go no further. I trusted him (second mistake). After telling him all the kinds of things my dad had been doing to me (basically, beating the crap out of me), this guy didn’t believe me, told me he thought I was making it up, and then told my dad (third mistake). Guess what my dad did to me when we got home? Yup, he beat the crap out of me.

 

Fast forward four years. I’m 16, trying to stay off drugs. Back in school after dropping out for almost a year. Depressed. Bored with school. Hating myself. Not wanting to go back to drugs, but not sure what I wanted to do. I had a good foster mom (bless her heart, for real). She strongly suggested I give therapy another try, knowing what happened before. I trusted her (not a mistake). I went. Nothing terrible happened. Nice guy. Good looking, I think. Nice hair, nice smile, nice office, nice compliments toward me. I didn’t buy it. Seemed to good to be true, or just not very helpful. So, I went for a while, then started missing appointments, then stopped going. Good in a way, because it helped me get over my fear of therapy, and therapists. It also left me feeling therapy was pretty useless.

 

Okay, one more lame therapy story (I’ll try to put you “there” by telling it in the present tense, like it just happened). I was going through a very painful breakup in my 30’s. I was really sad. I call a clinic in Uptown, Minneapolis. They have several therapists, one is available for a session that day (hmmm….). Okay, I need to talk to someone, anyone. I go. I start to tell him what’s grieving me. I want to say he interrupted me in mid-sentence (doesn’t that sound dramatic), telling me I smelled like cigarette smoke. Um, yeah, I say, cause I smoke (I did back then). So? Well, he launches into this ten minute lecture about how smoking leads to depression, and all kinds of health issues, finally suggesting the answer to what ails me is smoking. He kept at it, despite my assurances that this was not a topic I wanted him to talk about. I knew smoking was bad, and I didn’t care. That was the problem, not the smoking, but the not caring. He wanted to set up an appointment but asked me to promise to quit smoking immediately. I didn’t do either. I never went back, and smoked at him in my mind for about two weeks. By then, I’d gotten a grip on my grief.

 

Along the way, though, in my late twenties, I had the very good fortune to meet a great therapist, who also seemed to be a great person. Craydon worked at a nonprofit therapy center for poor people in the skid row part of San Francisco (which is where I lived when I was a poor student living there). At the end of our second session, after telling him some details about my childhood, and that much of it was from what others had told me because I could remember virtually nothing from before I was about 12, Craydon paused, looked over his notes nervously. Then he said, “Okay, Michael, I need to tell you that I just graduated with a Master’s Degree in therapy, and I don’t even have my license yet. Based on what you’re telling me about what has happened to you, I do not think I am qualified to work with you. You really need someone with a lot more experience and education. I will need to talk to my supervisor, who has a license, and a Ph.D. I think you should see him, he will be much more able to tell you what you need to do to get a handle on all of this.” (I am paraphrasing here).

 

His complete sincerity, compassion and humility were so refreshing, like nothing else I’d seen in a therapy office before. I told him I thought he would be perfect. I said I wanted to work with him because he didn’t try to tell me who I was, what I needed to do, he just wanted to listen, to talk with me, and that was exactly what I needed. He smiled, and agreed to try. I saw Craydon every week for an hour and a half for three years, until with a license, his own office in a nicer part of town, more confidence, and no less compassion, he told me, “I think you are close to ready to being done in therapy, Michael.” He was right, for that part of my life, for what I was trying to do then, which was to make sure I understood how the violence inflicted upon me as a child still worked its way through my mind. I’d just become a father before starting therapy with Craydon and was very worried that I would do to my new son what my father had done to me. Now that my son is an adult, I wish I could find Craydon to tell him how much he did for me and for my son—I did not end up becoming to my son what my father was to me, cruel, mean, or violent. This is the power of therapy, and is part of the reason I am now a therapist, because I have seen what it can do at the right time with the right person in my own life.

 

I have since then, from time to time, sought out therapy to address more specific situations. I have been more selective about who I see because I have learned the importance of the kind of connection you can make with a therapist, either positive or not. Sometimes even when the connection is really good, and the therapist highly competent, the work doesn’t go well. Some time ago, I saw a family therapist to try to save my marriage. The therapist was highly recommended by someone I trusted very much, who is herself a really good therapist. Despite our marriage therapist’s insights, knowledge, and skill, she was not able to help us figure out how to save the marriage. My sadness about the end of that marriage might never completely go away, but I still feel very satisfied that I found a good therapist to work with us. I can look back and honestly say, if she were not able to help us, that’s a pretty good sign that the marriage needed to end, despite my sadness about it.

 

It doesn’t take a long time to obtain the benefits of therapy if you know what you want, and are willing to do the work to get it. I saw a therapist during a very difficult time in my son’s life, when I was struggling to figure out what I was supposed to do to help him, feeling both helpless and some despair. I saw a sharp attentive solution focused guy. After three sessions, he said, “what seems to be bothering you is that you know you are in a ‘no-win situation’ but won’t accept that is how it is. So, my suggestion is that you remind yourself as often as you can by telling yourself, ‘this is a no-win situation.’” As simple as it sounds, he was absolutely right about what I was doing, and his suggestion worked very well, as long as I kept telling myself the truth—that I was in a no-win situation and had to accept it for what it was. I did not need to return to that therapist.  I had gotten what I needed in a short time because what I needed was very specific, very contextual.

 

As a person who now provides therapy to others, I feel very fortunate to have had a well-rounded basis of experience as a therapy client. I have learned from these experiences some basic and powerful ideas about what works and what does not work. I try to use these experiences in the therapy I practice with my clients now, so I can help them avoid the foibles of my predecessors while hoping to give them some part of the almost miraculous benefits that have been given to me by some of my therapists over the years. Who I am as a therapist now, and what I have learned works for me as a therapy client, does not apply to everyone, and that is how it needs to be. We need to find what works for us, for whatever issue and whatever time in our life we decide to seek the help of someone else in therapy.

 

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.

 

A Theme for the Holidays: Stay frosty, stay flexible

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Last year, I wrote my first blog about the holiday season, in which I gave my take on how we can best address whatever might come up for us when we spend time with our family over the Holidays.  I feel this need to say something again this holiday season, maybe as a kind of annual part of my own holiday ritual, by putting out something about what I’ve learned from doing therapy with clients over this past year. I guess it’s a chance to do a recap on some themes that have come up in therapy.  I also know for many of my clients that the holidays are a trying time, in part because expectations for them and from their families are different than any other time of the year. So a holiday blog seems like it might be a way to help people think about their options for how to experience the holidays in a less difficult, more enjoyable way. I also fully recognize that my clients and others come from vastly differing cultures and traditions when it comes to the Holidays, with some spending many days with their families, to those who have little or no tradition and spend little or no time with their families during what others call the Holidays.  So I try to make these blogs pretty general, yet still useful, as best I can.

The general theme of this year’s holiday blog is actually two-fold: (1) stay frosty and (2) stay flexible.  “Stay frosty” is an attempt at a catchy reference to the Holiday season; so in that sense is a little tongue-in-cheek.  It is not meant to encourage you to stay aloof, distant, detached, or alone (as in “stay cold”). “Stay frosty” is a military term that I remember first hearing in the second movie of the Aliens series of movies.  It basically means, “be on the lookout” for unfriendly situations.  Simply put, it means “be aware.”  I am using it to describe the importance of being aware of your own mental and emotional status as you spend your holidays, and be aware of the mental and emotional status of others.  The Holidays are a time of often heightened expectations by family members from other family members.  You might be expected to act in certain ways you during the Holidays that are only true at that time of year (e.g. more involved, more committed to events, or even just interacting with people you do not see at any other time (old uncle Charlie) etc.).  This can cause confusion or resentment within families because the rules have suddenly changed or have reverted to rules you haven’t had to live by for years in your now mostly separate life.  Staying frosty about your own feelings about these changed rules and about others changed expectations will help you make decisions about how to respond to these changes in ways that will accomplish what you need or want from the event without later regretting it.

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How important is your past in therapy?

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Clients are often (justifiably) concerned about getting stuck or dwelling on their past for months or years as part of the therapy process. Sometimes clients have a concern that therapy might encourage them to rely on their past as “an excuse” for whatever their issues might be in their current lives (“I can’t get my life together because, when I was a kid all this bad stuff happened to me…”). This blog will explain that this is not how I practice therapy, and is not the experience clients have in therapy with me.

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Depression and Anxiety: Flip sides of the same coin, Part 1

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

In part 1 of this series of blogs on the relationship between depression and anxiety, I discuss how they are often related by their both being a response to a difficult task or issue.  In Part 2, I describe how depression and anxiety become such problems when dealing with difficult tasks or issues. Finally, in Part 3, I explain how my clients and I work together to rid their lives of depression and anxiety.

What’s “The Coin”

Therapists and therapy clients know that depression and anxiety often go together. I’d even say depression and anxiety are flip sides of the same coin. The difference between depression and anxiety often comes down to how we respond to certain kinds of problems, either by slowing down (depression) or speeding up (anxiety) or both (feeling anxious about slowing down when we think we need to be speeding up). I’ll get to the flip sides of depression and anxiety in the next blog, but first, let’s answer the question: what’s “the coin?”

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What is “mental health,” Part 1

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

During my first session with clients, I often suggest to them that while they are thinking about which therapist might be a good fit for them, they ask themselves this question, “how does this therapist define what constitutes ‘mental health’?”  I wonder to myself, if asked that question during an initial session or phone call with a client, and without warning about the question, would most therapists be able to answer it?  I have my doubts.  This, I think, is because at least for now, we seem to very stuck on the question, “what is mental illness” when it seems we should (also) be asking “what is mental health?” Isn’t the goal of therapy to get to a place of mental health? I think it should be.  And you aren’t going to get there if you don’t know where “there” (mental health) is.

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Gestalt Prayer by Fritz Perls

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Yesterday, I visited with my mother for a few hours, showing her a bit about how to use the internet beyond email. She recited a line from a poem to offer some insight into a relationship issue we were discussing. She only knew one line, but didn’t know the rest of the poem, or who wrote it. So, I showed her how to “google” it (typing the entire line inside quotes in her google search box). It turns out, a famous psychotherapist wrote the poem back in the 1960’s. It also turns out that the little “prayer” sums up pretty well two or three of the blogs/articles I’ve recently posted on “Authenticity,” “Anxiety,” “boundaries,” and “Selfishness and Love.” If you read the poem (below) and you read those blogs/articles on this website, you’ll see what I mean.

Here’s the Poem:

“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.”

(Fritz Perls, 1969)

ADHD and Therapy: beyond medication

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

ADHD and Therapy: Beyond medication, giving a voice to distraction

As a family therapist who works with parents of children with ADHD, I often stop and ask myself, “what am I doing with my clients in therapy that medication is not doing by itself.” My clients with ADHD benefit greatly from therapy even when it seems they are also benefiting from medication. What are they getting out of therapy that they are not getting from their medication? Here’s one answer: they become able to identify things in their lives that add to their distractibility so they can learn how to reduce the impact of those things on their ability to focus, finish tasks, remember where they put things, etc. If the cause of at least some of the attention issues is external, then medication isn’t enough because medication cannot do anything about the child’s environment. Discovering these external causes can take several hour-long therapy sessions, especially with kids. Knowing the environmental problem is often not enough. The child might need to form his or her own coping mechanisms with the help of adults around them. Even if the cause of the attention issue is internal, medication might still be insufficient because the child might need to form capacities for self-soothing, calming the fidgetiness, and how to escape extraneous thoughts and feelings (anxiety and worry). These are all places that therapy can help to identify and help the family to help the child cope with their ADHD.

A longer description of how therapy can help with ADHD is posted on my “Articles” page.

Anxiety–a story of two powerful mistakes

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Why do we have anxiety? We experience anxiety when we want control over outcomes that are important to us. In this sense, anxiety itself is not a problem. A professor back in graduate school had a saying about anxiety: “without anxiety all rabbits would be dead on the railroad tracks” (if they didn’t jump like mad off the tracks when they heard the train, they’d get hit–and be dead). Just like rabbits, we need anxiety to motivate us to take care of important issues, to avoid certain kinds of problems, to make us aware of potential dangers, to get us thinking really hard about things we need to do and not do.

In fact, like anger and conflict (see my other posts about those issues), anxiety is an inevitable, and often just plain necessary, part of life. So, anxiety is not good or bad, and we need to be sure to separate what’s normal and healthy anxiety from what becomes a problem to deal with in therapy. Anxiety becomes a problem when it is no longer helpful and is harmful to the person experiencing the anxiety. This kind of harm can come in many different “flavors”–as in “panic attacks,” which have a fairly specific set of prescribed attributes including a number of physical symptoms, but which may be related to any number of different triggers, or apparently no identifiable trigger at all. There are forms of anxiety and fear about very specific kinds of situations, which are called “phobias.” Most people are familiar with the more common phobias, including “agoraphobia” (fear of leaving your house or being in public), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and social anxiety (fear of social situations).

The most common form of anxiety among my clients, and perhaps most therapy clients, is given the name “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” which essentially means a lot of worrying about a lot of different topics, that the client finds difficult to control, and which comes with a variety of other symptoms such as sleeplessness, fatigue, irritability, edginess, etc.

As in most of my blogs categorized as “therapy insights” (like this one), I look for common threads among my clients to try to see patterns in how certain kinds of problems occur, and if possible how they can be solved. Anxiety seems to be the result of one or both of two kinds of mistakes about control: (1) “I must control something over which I actually have no control; and (2) I do not have control over something that I need to control.

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Abuse and Self-Love: stop the myth

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Clients often express either doubts about not loving themselves or outright inability to feel love for themselves, which in all cases has been related to physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse.  Its as if they’ve learned that experiencing this kind of trauma prevents them from loving themselves, which in turn prevents them from loving others and fully engaging in their important adult relationships. The second part–difficulties with maintaining attachments in relationships–is true enough for many abuse survivors. That’s easy to confirm by listening to clients’ descriptions of their relationships. The first part, though, is dead wrong.  We who have suffered serious abuse of one kind or another, and are still around as adults to talk about it, and in particular therapy clients who by their very nature have decided to actually address the abuse, cannot have reached that point without a very large amount of love for themselves. There is no point in denying this fact, and there are many good reasons to accept it, for their own benefit. If people truly convince themselves they feel no love for themselves, the barriers they will have erected around this believe make it very very difficult to address unfinished business and the residual emotions and memories of the trauma. (more…)