What are your givens?

What are your “givens?” This question probably doesn’t make any sense to you. And yet, it might be the most important question there is. 

What’s a “given?” It’s a thing about yourself that you just know, in your bones, to be true about yourself. It is just a given.

I came up with this recently while talking to a client named Diane, a parent who was concerned about her teenage son. She was confused about her capacity to help and said, “he just seems so lost.” I asked her, “if your son was sitting right here (gesturing to an empty chair next to me) and I asked him, ‘what do you take to be a given about yourself?’ would your son have any kind of answer?” Diane looked perplexed and fought back some tears. I further explained, is there something your son could say about himself that would just be a known truth about himself, the kind of person he is. She said, “well he’s a good athlete. He performs well in baseball and soccer.” I pressed her a little further, telling her I wanted to know more than just what he’s good at, or what he does with his time. I wanted her to think about his personality traits, his motivations, what you can count on him to do in various situations. 

I asked Diane why she had tears in her eyes when I asked her the question about what her son might say about himself. She said, “I am sad because I don’t know what he would say and it makes me feel like I don’t know my own child.” I tried to comfort Diane by reminding her that therapy sessions are often like this; that I will ask a question the client could not have anticipated, in part because I am using my own kind of language and perspectives that make sense to me, and I offer them as new ways of thinking that might help her, or any client. I also said her tears and her questions—her desire to know her son—were the most important thing because it showed how much she cared, to be making the effort to come to therapy to explore how she can be more helpful to him. I said, “it might even be a given about you that you are the kind of parent who deeply cares about your child, even when you are not sure what to do to help him.” Diane smiled, clearly comforted by the thought. I encouraged her to sit with her son and pose the question directly to him, not as a challenge, but as a door to further contemplation for both of them to get to know each other in a new way. One way she could do that is to first explore within herself what she takes as a given about herself, create a list of those things (her “givens”) and then share this with her son during their discussion to invite him to think about his own givens for later discussions.

My reason for asking this question was to help the client find ways to help his son with self-esteem and self-acceptance and to help him get to know himself better. I also encouraged her to read my blog posts on “Other People,” especially “Other People, our moral mirrors, Part II,” which explains how the main task of being a teenager is to figure out who they are. In other words, teenagers are in the business of exploring the question, “what are my givens?”

This topic also reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with Teresa, a colleague that had terrible stage fright when she was asked to do any kind of public speaking. We were doing short video introductions of our therapy practices for an organization we were both associated with. I was fortunate enough to be called up right away, and blew through it easily, having had a lot of experience with speaking in front of others in a previous career as a trial lawyer. After several of us had completed our videos, Teresa went up in front of the room to do her recording. She was so nervous, she could not finish a two-minute introduction video about herself, despite having had many years of successful practice behind her. Teresa became so frustrated and embarrassed at not being able to complete it, she walked out of the room in tears. Later, she came to my office seeking any suggestions I might have to help her get through her fright and finish the video. I suggested to her that she find something unassailable, something immutable, something she knows about who she is, something that cannot be taken away from her even if her speech, presentation or whatever she is doing in front of others doesn’t go over well, something that will remain true about her once she walks off the stage, and the presentation is over, regardless of how the presentation went. 

She asked, “well what about you? What do you know about yourself that helps you get through stuff like this?” To be honest, I was a bit surprised at the question, and didn’t have a ready answer. So, I asked myself, “what do I know to be true and important about myself that remains true and important even if I flub a presentation?” My answer to her in that moment (just one thing but it sufficed) was this: “I know I believe in authentic struggle. I am willing to struggle within myself and with others if I believe the struggle is necessary to get to a better place for myself or for my relationships with others, or to make the world a better place.” Since then, I’ve come up with many other examples of things I know to be true, fundamental and important about the kind of person I am. I’ve created my own list of “givens.” Getting back to my conversation with Teresa, I turned it around on her again, and asked her to come up with just one thing she knew to be true about herself that she thought was an important part of who she is—much more important and permanent than the trivial and temporary risk of embarrassment that comes with being in front of people. I think she came up with a couple of different things, but among them that I can still remember now, she said, “I am kind and generous.” Enough said. I encouraged her to hang onto that thought, that knowingness, and keep it close, remember it often. I encouraged her to re-do the video presentation knowing in that moment that she was kind and generous even if the video didn’t go well, that being kind and generous was far more important than having a good video.

Without knowing it then, or using the new language of this blog post, I was asking Teresa “what are your ‘givens’?” It occurs to me now that it would be a good idea for all of us to ask ourselves this question and to have at least a few ready answers. So I encourage you to ask yourself, what do you know to be true about yourself, that you consider important and fundamental to the kind of person you are, that you can use as a platform to do all of the other things you need to do in your life, that remain true about you even if you fail at other things? Whatever your answers might be, they will be unique to you. You can use your “givens” in moments of self-doubts, like Teresa doing the video, or Diane’s anguish about helping her son, to move through those times with a certainty that you will remain valuable and good, no matter what might be happening in the moment. I ended up saying something like this to Diane about her son. I suggested that, as parents, we want to help our children enter into adulthood with a “platform of givens,” which means a short but very important list of things they know to be true about themselves, that don’t change with circumstance, that they can use for the rest of their lives, that they can build upon as their self-awareness grows and they see patterns with how they approach life. We want our children to have a basic sense of themselves and to feel good about themselves, to have self-esteem and self-acceptance based on accurate reflections about the kind of people they are becoming. For more on the topic of self-acceptance, see my blog post “Introspection Part 6, self-acceptance.”

At the end of my session with Diane, feeling somewhat better about ways she could help her son, she jokingly asked, so, do you also happen to know the answer to this question: “what is the meaning of life?” We both laughed, and suddenly I had a thought, an answer, and said, “yes, I guess I do, the meaning of life is knowing your givens and living by them.” How’s that for quick thinking! That’s a topic for at least another blog post, or maybe even a book. I have touched on this topic in my blog post “Moral Conviction.” Very briefly, what I meant is that what we know to be true about ourselves goes to the heart of how we interact with the world based on the kind of person we are, based on our moral convictions, and based on our personal values (what we consider to be important ways of being a good person). If we know these things about ourselves, and we make decisions in our lives as often as possible in line with these “givens,” we are much more likely to be on a road that helps us greatly with feeling content with ourselves not just in that moment, but in our overall life direction. This is ultimate “self-acceptance on the move.” 

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 qualified mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.