Introspection Part 3, Why do we avoid our inner lives
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.