People who read this blog regularly know that I am not a preacher of “your thoughts create reality”. That prescription creates more burdens than it alleviates. I had an interesting thought recently, though, about the metaphors we use to describe our lives. Metaphors are a great way to vividly express complex thoughts and feelings in one simple picture. No wonder people like to use them. However, I thought about times those words might be limiting.
Think about what words you use to describe success. Is it “clawing your way up”? Why do we represent success as “climbing a ladder”….or directionally “up” at all? The top of a hierarchy, that’s why. (Of course I could speculate as to why the status pyramid is represented as top-down, since it makes just as much sense to put the leader at the bottom, supporting the whole structure. Sky-based religions in which heaven is up? Leaders standing on platforms, or hills? Anyways.)
In any case, nowadays more people are, or considering, working for themselves. Is the “up” metaphor relevant anymore? At “the bottom of the heap”, you may feel squished, or sat on – but the supportive earth is also there. So what about sinking into success, or mellowing down into it? If you are currently experiencing difficulty, have you described yourself as “stuck”? Now imagine you are literally, physically stuck in something. Not a pleasant sensation, is it? Now look back at your life: are you really stuck, or did someone just tell you you were, and you started using that word? Whose metaphors are you using? :)
What words do you use to describe your current situation, and what you want to do next from there, and your goal?
Do the words you use imply struggle, or relaxation? Condensing and tensing, or expanding? Letting go, or holding on? Effort, or ease?
Maybe some of you reading this have regrets about past career or life decisions. Sometimes you know you made a mistake, learned from it and know exactly what you would do differently in future. What about the ones you still haven’t come to terms with? Or when you know what you would do differently, but it’s no good since you’ve already had your only shot at it?
The kind of situation you turn over and over in your mind wondering if you made the right decision….or you know you didn’t, and worry about it.
Now, look back at the situation or event and say “how was I right?” or “how was the situation right?” Don’t answer the question right away….just hold it in your mind. Maybe you won’t even come up with an answer today, tomorrow or the next day.
Like many simple-yet-difficult concepts, I see this misunderstood frequently, so I will be thorough in describing what it is not.
Making yourself right is not justification for hurt that you caused others in the past, or for planning to cause harm in future (because you “can’t do anything wrong” after all!) You can be right and still have genuine regret for causing harm.
Nor does it make others “right” for hurting you (I see this view forced on people, “your soul must have chosen to be abused” etc. and I find it disgusting.)
It also doesn’t involve assumptions about others, e.g. “I kicked him out of my house, and it hurt to do it, but it was the ‘tough love’ he needed to make a better life for himself” – most of us have a hard enough time knowing what our own true path is, let alone someone else’s.
There is also no rationalizing and “finding the positive side” of any event in your life, e.g. “I suffered but it happened so I could learn compassion.” You may very well arrive at this insight or realization later, but the meaning in suffering cannot be forced prematurely, based on someone else’s idea of “spirituality”. You can read or hear the concepts, and even believe them, but words are no substitute for knowing and experiencing it yourself.
Besides, insight may not even involve a “bright side” at all. It could just mean seeing where the event fits into the bigger picture, gaining the perspective such that the event “just is” rather than is positive or negative. Or it becomes irrelevant. This perspective and knowing is in my opinion one of the greatest benefits of personal growth work.
This post is inspired by one of the tips in Cherie Carter-Scott’s Negaholics.
I have noticed that, especially on Internet discussion boards and comments, people feel the freedom to perform what I refer to as “psychic back-alley surgery” on each other – tell others what they should do, what they need to change, or criticize their behaviours, thoughts and/or character. I can’t say whether this is any more or less than it was in the past, I will just talk about what I observe now.
Some people would say it is the “anonymity” of the Internet that makes people feel free to say things to people that they never would to their face, but I believe it is due to two other trends.
1) A trend in psychology, at least in pop psychology, towards reductionism, i.e. breaking a mysterious whole (how to be happy? How to attract women/men?) down into its parts so that, theoretically, anyone can follow the same procedure and get the same results. Examples: neurolinguistic programming (NLP), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and the “pick-up artist” manuals. It becomes more socially acceptable to treat ourselves and others as a bag of parts, as though it’s possible to separate and “surgically remove” an offending behaviour, thought, or way of being. As though it weren’t connected to everything else.
2) Psychological analysis and self-improvement has gone pop culture mainstream, through the New Age movement, Oprah, Dr. Phil etc.
When you take yourself apart and put yourself back together, without some inherent organizing principle, do you get a Frankenstein’s monster?
Some people believe in “faking it till you make it” and that may work for some people and for some issues. However, I believe that a “change” (in behaviour or thinking) needs to be rooted from something inside you in order to really take hold. And perhaps both people who want to change, and “experts” telling them how to do it, focus too much on altering the results (external observable behaviour or differences in it) and not on the causes (the inner self, desire, fundamental psychological needs, soul) when we try to make “changes”.
As I see it, the inherent organizing principle that allows change to happen is to view the person, whether yourself or someone else, as whole, complete, and un-disassemblable. Furthermore, undesirable behaviours or thoughts or symptoms come from imbalances or disconnections within the whole, not from a “bad part” or parts that need to be removed.
Of course this raises the question “If I am whole and complete within myself, and OK the way I am, what do I need to ‘change’ for?” It is for this exact reason that I see the process of personal growth as expansion or inclusion rather than change (i.e. “I used to be like this and now I am like that”) No, all of it is part of you. :)
Knowledge of yourself as a complete and indivisible whole has benefits. You are far less likely to
succumb to the weariness of the “self” that needs to constantly be “improved”. Self-knowledge also provides a useful anchor as you sort through the mountains of information available out there in the
self-help and how-to genre. You can tell what will be harmonious with you, and what will not.
Obviously different advice works for different people, but I am interested to know about your experiences.
Which responses from people or ideas led you down what you feel was the wrong path? Which ones led to success for you (however you define that?)
Did you ever give advice or support to someone else that really helped them? What was it?
Let’s say you are dissatisfied with your life in some way. Is the cause personal or societal? Notice what emotions arise in you just from hearing that question.
Micki McGee in Self-Help, Inc.:
“I have yet to find a best-selling self-improvement book that prompts one to consider, for example, the following: “If you could live in a world where profit were not the motivating force of production, what would your life look like?” or “How would your life be different if the nutritional, medical and educational needs of children were the top priority of every individual, every group, and every institution?” or “How would your life be different if racism/sexism/anti-Semitism or other religious intolerance were no longer a structuring principle of social relations?” Were such questions part of the discourse of self-improvement culture, the writing exercises found in self-help books might be a remarkable tool for social transformation. One’s realization of one’s self might genuinely lead to societal change (though the steps between imagining the idealized future and realizing it would likely involve a good bit more than imagination.) However, in its current insularity, the literature of self-improvement directs the reader to familiar frameworks, namely, what should one seek for one’s self narrowly conceived as a private individual rather than as a citizen or stakeholder in larger and more public arenas.”
“Self-improvement culture, as it actually exists, derails the opportunities for indivdiuals to understanding injuries or grievances as part of systematic social problems. [….] The literatures and practices of self-improvement culture do this in two ways: first, in self-improvement literature, victims are anathema, and second, when victimization occurs, it is almost exclusively located in the past, in the lost world of childhood, where the family, imagined as isolated from society as a whole, is named as the cause of the violence or injustice. [….] Thus the usual political strategy of organizing individuals around their grievances is short-circuited, and culpability is turned back on the self. Problems and grievances are cast as personal “challenges” that the individual must strive to overcome. [….] What the literatures of self-improvement do offer is the promise of power, however limited in scope and mistakenly located it may be in isolated individual action. Traditional political organizing, for example, the recruitment strategies of labor organizers, builds on a sense of aggrievement and then moves the aggrieved individual to locate his or her power in the group, forging a sense of collective identity that is not wholly a function of victimization but takes victimization as its starting point.”
In this way, self-help can be said to reinforce the social status quo, or at least not to challenge it. Whether this is intentional or unintentional (I’m steering clear of conspiracy theories for the moment), in my opinion it would be at minimum convenient, to a relatively small group of people who wanted to gain disproportionate economic and social power over a relatively large group of others, if those others believe their problems are all “personal challenges” rather than symptoms of unhealthy, unjust or exploitative social systems.
Furthermore, notice recent propagation of catchy pop-psych memes, specifically the freedom people now seem to feel to tell strangers on Internet discussion boards, for example to “stop complaining and look at your own self and your own role in it” or similar. Now, nobody has to regulate the populace against rebellion or broader scale social change. They regulate themselves.
“From a psychological point of view the Twentieth Century has been a colossal diversion (certainly in the West) from an examination of the way individuals are created and maintained by their environment. The quality of thought Plato gave in his Republic to the kind of cultural diet most suitable for its future leaders is barely conceivable now, where about the most we get is cursory studies or literature reviews to show, for example, that television has no influence on violence. Our emphasis, as I have already indicated, is very heavily on the inside, on mental factors such as choice and will, and moral factors mostly seen as personal, such as ‘responsibility’. Because of this, our gaze is diverted from the social world around us and our preoccupations are with self-transformation of the personality rather than political transformation of the society beyond the boundaries of our skin.
We have become absolutely to depend on the notion that it is possible to change aspects of ourselves we find inconvenient, to erase the inscription upon us of the environmental influences which surround us. Rather than accepting that experience marks us for good and all, we wish to insist – indeed have come to expect and demand – that its effects can be counselled away.
But would it really be so terrible if psychotherapy didn’t work in the way we seem to expect it to? Perhaps if we were shaken out of our bewitched fascination with imagination and ‘virtuality’, the wishful invention of interior worlds which have no embodied substance, we might come to see that paying sober attention to the realities of social structure and of our relations with each other as public, not simply private, beings is an option. A difficult one certainly – not so easy as dreaming and wishing – but at least a real one. What this would entail is a recognition that maybe prevention is more possible than cure; a down-grading of psychology in favour of an up-grading of politics.
Where, though, would this leave individuals? Would we not, for example, be in danger of depersonalizing ourselves and risking becoming part of a grey, undifferentiated mass, prey to totalitarian solutions of the kind too often experienced already in this now dying century? I really don’t see why this should be. Politics doesn’t have to be dishonourable. There is no reason in principle why we shouldn’t be able to resurrect a politics whose central concerns are with such things as liberty, justice and equality. Very difficult, certainly; naïve, Utopian, idealistic, I can’t deny. But at least not, like the psychology of self-creation and self-transformation, impossible.”
As Smail suggests, somebody has to start dreaming. But so often stating these dreams out loud in public is immediately met with a response of judgment or evaluation: “there’s no way that could happen for everybody worldwide, economic/political/whatever systems don’t work like that” or “what are you personally doing to make this happen?”
Personal integrity is certainly an admirable goal. Note the popularity of the Gandhi quote “be the change you wish to see in the world” – quoted so often I don’t know if that is even the original wording. It is difficult to be a leader and get others to follow you if you don’t practice what you preach. But does “being the change” refer to changing personally, or changing in groups?
Especially if you are a very conscientious idealist, it is easy to focus so much on integrity that you think you can’t accomplish anything until you’ve worked out all your own problems. Oh, and especially if you’ve been reading about the Law of Attraction, you interpret the failure of your change initiatives (or of people to respond favourably to them) as being caused by your own “negative thoughts”!
Note that the authors I quoted above do not discount individual actions. Instead they are saying that societal factors (e.g. government, economics) have significant (if not determinative) influence on the individual, but are largely ignored as a cause of individual distress by both the self-help industry and psychotherapy. Collective action is needed to alleviate individual distress.
So, the next time you hear someone mention a possibility for social change, instead of jumping right to evaluating it….consider responding with a moment of stillness for contemplation of the new thing that has emerged. Maybe even an attitude of “what if?”
Here’s mine for today.
Imagine a society where everyone who wants meaningful work has it, and anybody who finds their job unrewarding has options, isn’t stuck in it for practical reasons (for most people it’s financial, “I hate my job but I have to pay the bills”)….they can find something that pays the bills but is also personally fulfilling.
This might even involve a duty on the part of employers to provide people with meaningful work (or ways to make even the “…well, somebody has to do it” work meaningful). Imagine that!
Yes, there are real obstacles. Just….sit with me in the “what if” for a while.
More details here.
This issue has already been over-discussed so I’ll do my best to leave out what’s already been said.
I am commenting on it because most people are looking at this issue on the level of this particular family. (Some have taken a historical perspective though, pointing out that men’s fashions, in other cultures and/or at other times in history, have been much more colourful, ornate, flamboyant even).
I am going to look at it on the level of our society.
We have created “modern” North American society such that old-fashioned gender divisions are becoming obsolete. Women can not only (theoretically) have just about any career they want, they also in most cases have to work in order to financially support themselves and their family (see this video for discussion of US median family income trends). Men not only have the option to stay home and raise children, also in an information and technology-based economy, increasingly the jobs available to them require that they sit at a desk and collaborate with their colleagues. No hard labour is required, and there are no predators or other physical dangers to protect against, so the aggression of times past would be highly out-of-place in that setting.
“Biological instincts are still there,” you might argue, “that mild-mannered computer guy might need to get out his aggression at the boxing ring.” Quite possibly. However, it is pretty hard to argue for the sanctity of gender (specifically how important it is for boys to dress and act like boys and for girls to dress and act like girls) when most of the practical things we do from day to day minimize it or do not require it. What remains of gender roles aside from the biological aspects of sex and reproduction (which I’m sure most people can figure out on their own) is an image, or a fetish.
What concerns me here is not the gender issues specifically but viewing this in the larger context of what I call “sound-biteism”. In our information-based society, every day we are exposed to progressively more information competing for our time, attention, effort, and money. It creates a situation where if you are going to get through to people, both in marketing and in everyday communication, you had better be short, snappy, and easy to understand.
I completely support making communication understandable. My concern however is the side effect of sound-biteism….if the simplest and clearest communication wins, then people start expecting everything to come to them in sound bites that are easy to understand, and require no effort on their part to understand them. “I must know immediately upon seeing this product what it can do for me. I must know immediately on seeing this person what their sexual preference is based on the way they are dressed.”
People become far less willing to take the time to understand complex issues, to ask questions to find out what is going on.
Is this a concern to anyone else?
It is a cherished and unquestioned belief in self-help that people have choice in their lives. The theory goes something like this: the state of your life is a result of every decision, little and big, that you have made up until now, so those who want to improve their lives should improve the quality of their decisions.
A necessary precondition for choice is that it is possible for a person to control or at least influence the situation they are in.
In some circles it is taboo to question whether one really has choice over one’s situation because lack of choice is associated with….victimhood! Helplessness! Nooo!
I find myself asking, however, whether control is really as helpful or empowering an alternative to helplessness (feeling screwed by fate, etc.) as it is said to be.
There is always the flip side: if things go wrong and it’s true that you do have control….guilt and racking your brains about how it would have been better if only you had done things better, which might ironically (and in my view, predictably) make you feel worse than when you started.
Here are three articles that explain the flip side of choice and control better than I could.
http://tomstine.com/no-control-no-control-no-control/ (Particularly notice in the comments how people are not comfortable with the notion of “no control” and try to negotiate it or make exceptions.)
When evaluating a thought or philosophy as to whether I will adopt it or not, I think about not only whether it makes me feel happier (personal benefit), but is it also flexible enough to get me through a wide variety of situations, and is it consonant with how I want to be in the world, not only with myself but with other people (ethics).
And for me, thinking about how little control I actually have….is liberating! It doesn’t make me feel disempowered or helpless, or make me want to blame people or circumstances.
Session #1: Tuesday, June 7, 5:30-7pm
Session #2: Saturday, June 11, 10am-5:30pm
Session #3: Saturday, June 18, 10am-3pm
Session #4: Tuesday, June 21, 5:30-7pm
Location: to be provided to participants (King & Spadina area, Toronto, ON)
Price: $325. Spaces in the workshop are first come, first served, maximum 10 people. Your payment by cheque or Paypal (via email address) reserves your spot.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangements, and I will send you a brief “pre-workshop snapshot” to complete so I can get to know you, your current situation and your needs better, and a document package (via e-mail) to read before the workshop and for use during it.
This workshop is for you if you know your career could be more fulfilling, but can’t figure out why your dreaming doesn’t seem to turn into doing. Or, you have decided exactly what you want to do, and need support as you work through an exciting but scary time.
Stop trying to be a superhero! Give yourself the self-knowledge and group support you really need to change your situation without guilt, struggle or perceived inadequacy.
If this workshop is your first introduction to personal growth work, the workshop will be a comprehensive framework for your future progress. If you’ve already done some work and consider yourself a “shelf-help” junkie (but the promised happy and fabulous life seems a long time coming) the workshop will help you put your knowledge into a structure and setting where you can actually make use of it.
Session #1 will explain why you may have had some roadblocks in making changes up until now, and tell you what you can do about it. There will be some introductory self-awareness exercises.
In Session #2, the sequential self-awareness exercises will continue, turning confusion into clarity. You will use that clarity to set a goal for the next 3-6 months that feels right to you.
In Session #3 , along with the group’s brainstorming and support, you will develop a personalized roadmap to reach your goal, anticipating any pitfalls and making sure you are ready for them.
Session #4 will be a follow-up, giving an opportunity to share successes with the group, creatively solve any challenges you have faced, and keep your momentum going.
- Stop improving and start being
- Experience space and calm around your goals
- Use your newly found self-awareness to clarify, make decisions and take action without striving or struggle
I look forward to seeing you there!