The old saying that nothing stays the same except death and taxes is about as useless during tax season as it is when faced with a global pandemic. Both situations induce anxiety to varying degrees and both are subject to change given the degrees of governmental involvement in our lives and what we’re dealing with personally, socially and, globally. What is fundamental to both and to our lives in general, is change and the accompanying feeling of anxiety.
Words are the building blocks for civilization as we know it. They are the means through which we manifest thought beyond the barrier of our internal world. Attempt to imagine a world without them. You literally are incapable of even considering it without a parade of sentences, paragraphs and dissertations. Behind the curtain though is to see that words are arbitrary, without any intrinsic definition or particular meaning. Examples exist throughout history, both in social evolution (like in the Internet slang of LOL) and groups actively engaging with it differently (like with the word gay).
When it comes to words for emotional experiences, we’re describing complex biological and environmental interactive systems through a simple verbal mechanism. This is both amazing and a requirement for communication. Imagine for a moment attempting to have a conversation with someone where you had to detail every neurophysiological change as it occurred. You’d never get anywhere. For that matter, use the term ‘tornado’ and everyone knows what you’re referring to despite very few people being able to describe the meteorological mechanisms for its creation and activity.
Where we get into trouble is when we take words and apply them backward, falsely reducing or removing complexity from our experience. To use the ‘tornado’ example again, it would be extremely unwise to attempt mapping the path of one by simply referring to the term itself or a simplistic definition of ‘spinning air.’ There’s a host of complex systems in play that the term hides to make communication faster.
Similar happens for our emotions. An increased heart-rate and perspiration, with slight skin flushing and pupil dilation could mean you’re frightened of an approaching wild animal or it could mean you’re sexually aroused. For that matter, it could mean both fear and arousal. Now perhaps you see the problem of working words backward to our experience. It would be quite unhealthy to apply arousal to the first experience by limiting yourself to one word and equally (though with different outcomes) problematic if the only thing you allowed yourself to think was fear when approaching sex.
Let’s explore anxiety. It’s an assessment about change, any change, that is occurring in the complex interplay of our external and internal environments. Often this change has an unknown source and/or unknown consequences. Have you ever felt anxious and were confused as to why? That you quickly created a story to explain it doesn’t make the confusion any less real. As well, neither does the story mean the provided explanation is fully accurate. This lack of fully capturing the experience within a word is where the potential for freedom resides. What you have to do is pursue it.
Move Your Body
The mind/body “problem” is about as useful as the nature/nurture “debate.” Both offer a false choice when looking at complex situations and any thought to having one influence the other in a one-way direction is equally unhelpful and inaccurate. We do not have a mind and a body, we are an ‘embodied mind.’ That means what we think is integrally related to bodily systems and, by extension, to the environment our bodies interact with and within.
This perspective is exactly why words cannot be used to contain our experiences fully and why attempting to do so results in unhealthy behavioral habits. Take the sensation of hunger, where the vast majority of the time you’re actually just thirsty, but because we’ve constrained a physical experience to a word with a single definition, we behave towards it by eating when we don’t have to and thus contribute to unhealthy weight gain. Further, any idea of mind OVER body is also removed because they’re not separate. Instead, think of mind INTERPRETING body.
Interpretation means using your imagination to expand your reactions to your words. Just because you feel anxious doesn’t mean you have to react to it in the same way each and every time. In fact, if you reflect a bit on your past, you will quickly realize you already don’t. This is not a new skill to learn. Rather, it’s a skill to use more broadly. This is what is actually happening when people say mind OVER body; it’s not telling your body that the sensations aren’t what they are, it’s training yourself to react to them differently.
When feeling anxious, grabbing the nearest comfort food is not a necessity, any more than when feeling angry doesn’t require punching something or someone. One of the first behaviors to learn when expanding how you respond to your emotional assessments is to take a walk (or similar). Yes, I know, this may sound ridiculous, but it really is that basic, if not that easy. We have trained ourselves through a lifetime of connecting words to actions to believe one necessitates a particular form of the other. Unlearning this is not an easy or quick process, but we need to start somewhere. Here’s a set of directions to get you started:
Name the feeling
Think of other situations you may have felt similarly
List how you responded differently
Consider your context and select a healthier reaction
Anxiety during pandemic
When late for a meeting, paying bills, approaching an anniversary
Calm breathing, think of what you have instead of what you lack, consider the needs of the other person
Focus on what you have, rather than what is absent
The selected reaction does not have to be perfect. It can even be repetitive if such is healthier than the alternative. The point here is to expand your reactionary toolbox. Remember the wisdom of “when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”? Well, here is the application. If you only have one way of dealing with an emotional assessment, more and more situations start being dealt with in the same way.
Unfortunately the desire for consistency and simplicity leads us to make and then never challenge the connections between words and experience. Here is where acceptance comes in.
Acceptance is about broadening awareness to then rest in the space between seeing and doing. This is the difference between acceptance and wallowing. The latter is about diving into a particular reaction and dwelling there. Acceptance sees our profoundly human way of assessing our experience through words and slowing down our felt need to respond immediately. This is why mindfulness/meditation training is so helpful, because it is a great tool for building the space between thought and action.
In this time of individual, societal and global anxiety, expanding the space between thought and action is how we move forward in healthier ways. Anxiety is both inevitable and completely natural, there is no shame to be had in feeling it. Thankfully our humanity allows us to feel it and then learn to react in new ways.
It all starts with sleep. How you finish your day determines how you start your day. A good night’s sleep is the cornerstone of healthy habits and healthy habits are the foundation of self-care.
No matter what your objectives are, it is difficult to implement new routines when we are tired. I have discovered through trial and error that having an evening routine helps me get for sleep. My routine begins much earlier in the day.
Evening Sleep Routine:
Avoid caffeine after 12pm
1 hour before bed if I still feel awake, I drink a relaxing cup of herbal tea
Preview the coming day – make list of appointments, organize items needed, plan wardrobe
30 minutes before sleep put away all electronics
Hygiene and ready for bed
Contemplative reading of a physical book or meditation
At a sleep seminar I attended, the professor encouraged us to not drink coffee after 12, because it’s half life was 5.7 hours. Caffeine interferes with our sleep cycles and prevent us from entering deep restorative sleep.
It has been shown a a drop in body temperature happens before sleep, so if you still feel awake a cup of herbal tea make help. Use this time to preview your upcoming day, so that your sleep will not be disturbed by thoughts of things you may forget.
I avoid external stimulation at least 30 minutes before bed, such as tv, exercise, or a book I can’t put down (reading is one of by obsessions) because when I get caught up in a book, game or show, all my good intentions fly out the window. It is much easier to avoid temptation than to interrupt it.
Creating a consistent way of getting ready for bed will send your brain the signal it is time to slow down; include skin care and other hygiene practices.
Once I am in bed I mentally think of what I am grateful for, I may read some contemplative book, one with short entries or meditate for 10 minutes. Then I’m asleep ready to embrace the adventure of a new day.
What steps can you take to improve your sleep and build the cornerstone of your healthy habits?
I don’t know about you but I am always surprised by how difficult I find it to maintain my self-care routine. I know how much better I feel when I do 30 minutes of cardio or 30 minutes of mobility exercise (which is stretching/strength training in motion), and mindfulness practice every day, yet one little bump in my plan and my routine crumbles.
It’s disheartening when my routine crumbles. My self-talk turns nasty and I know I have let myself down. Often breaking my wellness routine leads to a cascade of poor choices. I didn’t walk, so it doesn’t matter if I have pizza, or sit and binge watch “Lost in Space”. Keeping commitments to myself is the foundation of self-care.
I’ve been listening to a book by William Ury called, The Power of the Positive No, which says that for many of us, our biggest challenge is to say NO to the things which take us away from our YES. I understand this idea. If I am deeply committed to my YES of self-care, including good food, lots of movement, and meditation, then it is easier to say NO to the behaviors that interfere with these intentions.
Today I am spending some time journalling, visualizing, and exploring all of the underlying benefits of my self-care YES. I will condense my new knowing into a short statement or symbol which I will use to remind me of why my YES to self-care is so important, and then study it before bed, upon waking, and a few times during the day. I will add at least one gratitude to my end of day practice about self-care to acknowledge that I treated myself well today.
Situations come and go more often than we are usually comfortable admitting, in which we wish we’d done other than what we did in fact do. We may attempt to pass the behavior off as a result of hunger, sleep, another person’s actions towards us, the weather, hormones or a mental diagnosis, but all of these are simply pointers to some version of the common phrase: “that wasn’t who I really am.” In other words, we are quite comfortable with imaginatively projecting a version of ourselves who acted other than what actually happened. We empathize with, and perhaps even envy, a version of ourselves that exists only in our mind.
Explore Your Future Self
Thankfully imagination is not tied only to a past of recrimination and self-doubt. It can move into the future as well and bring with it versions of yourself that indeed do exactly what you desire to do. The same mechanism can be a tool for leaving us stuck in a past of impossibility, where we get caught up in a world that now never could be, or allow us to explore a future that we in fact do want to live in.
The nature of the present rarely allows us to consciously select what we supposedly find most important. Only in contemplating what we wish we’d done differently or in looking to how we’d like to be, does what we seemingly most highly Value come into focus. That Value is used to color an entire situation in what has become fixated as being most important.
Narrow Perspective is A Trap
There’s a trap here though, one of narrow perspective-taking. Bring to mind those occasions when something seemed to suddenly appear out of your peripheral vision. When driving and paying attention only to what’s in front of you, suddenly to have an animal dart from the side. When focused on a task and startled by someone suddenly being next to you. Perspective-taking is powerful, but it is also extremely limiting. We lose sight of what is around us. While this is great for pushing behavior in service to a goal, it is incredibly poor for keeping in mind the broader world and all its influences.
What you’re doing when using the past to pass judgment is funneling it through a present already mired in its own limitation. Values guide the selection of behavior to support them. When you say you should have done otherwise you’re effectively saying you should have cared about something differently in that moment. But that’s the problem right there, you’re no longer in that situation which existed. Further, you’re no longer the you that existed then. You’re someone new, someone who has more information than previously, someone who has the capacity to judge what has come before because there is now a ‘before’ to consider.
A Value Always Exists
The fact is that the you in the past did care about something, a Value that called out a behavior to support it. The behavior was something which, in that context, was seen as the only possible thing to do. If you pause and reflect for a moment, odds are you’ll be able to see what that Value was and perhaps acknowledge that it’s still something you care about.
Here is where the imagined you of the future can be greater than the past. It simply has more to build with. The future can be one of recognizing how in every situation is a Value that may be selected to guide behavior, yet acknowledging how there are always more Values that matter to you. Rather than getting caught in the trap of narrow perspective and risk behaving in a way that undermines or ignores a Value, you can take the time to contemplate what all there is you care about and how best to support them.
Self-control is not about control or shaming or manipulating yourself through a technique. Self-control is the flexible mental space to see the many Values that exist in a given moment and act within that greater appreciation towards the best version you believe yourself capable of being.
The future awaits the you that you want to be.
Yong, Ed. Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self. The Atlantic. December 6, 2016.
Raised voices. Increased heartrate. Narrowed vision. All the physical hallmarks of a discussion that devolved into argumentation and conflict. That these same physical experiences can also be seen when participating in a game with a team or during intensely intimate moments with one’s partner, should make us pause. We quite quickly write a particular story to provide us direction for our behavior, but the ease with which this occurs can blind us to how else life is lived. If there’s even a shred of dissonance in your mind right now, that’s actually a good thing. Growth, personal and group related, occurs at the edges of comfort, not at the center of contentment.
Seeking Shared Values
At the heart of so much interpersonal conflict is seeing the other person or party to be devoid of anything shared with oneself. The groundwork for doing so is established through the dismissal of similarity, of what we share as human beings. It isn’t enough to rest there though, since to ‘be human’ is too vague. What we can start with is recognize our capacity to care about parts of life and identify those things through the naming of Values.
Declaring someone or a group ‘doesn’t share my/our values’ has become the go-to place for easy dismissal. The reality is that one of two things is happening: one, the means through which the value is being supported is not agreed with, and/or two, the value for which the behavior is supportive is not the same across both parties. Consider working late at your job and someone judges you for it, declaring you don’t value ‘family.’ One, this may be how you’re supporting family and two, when deciding on your behavior, the initial guiding value was of financial security or personal integrity. In both perspectives ‘family’ is not dismissed. The only person seeking to remove that value is the person passing judgment.
Notice that in the dismissal, the lack of engagement is the point. Once the other is made ‘other,’ there’s no reason for dialogue as there’s nothing in common to start the conversation. The person passing judgment wins by default of them declaring a wall around what is and isn’t a proper way of viewing your behavior. The whole of human experience is then limited to their singular place within reality. All else is subordinate. You cease to exist as an autonomous agent within the broad spectrum of human potential. There’s no exploration and therefore no possibility of growth for either party.
Life is not the book of mazes you picked up for entertainment as a child. There is no single path to the end because the end is more like a mountain range of many peaks instead of a dot on a map. This is good news as it means the potential for human flourishing is varied. You don’t have to be doing the same thing as another to find meaning, purpose and to live ethically.
The ultimate end of human acts is eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well, which all men desire; all acts are but different means chosen to arrive at it.
Connecting our behaviors to what we care about, our Values, requires stories or narratives. We move within the world through the roadways and paths laid down by our stories. Unfortunately, any time we focus too exclusively on the path we’re on, we tend to not see what’s around us, including other potential or actual paths. In this day of Google Maps it’s easy to narrowly consider one and only one way to get to a destination. However, try bringing out an old-school physical map or simply not have the AI tell you where to go, instead opting to view the broader map and decide for yourself. Odds are you’ll both see more and find routes you otherwise never would have thought possible.
Seeing the other pathways is key to understanding other people or groups. This isn’t about agreement, it’s a concern for exploring the variations in human expression. If you’re able to step back from behavior and see the story of how a Value was attached to it, suddenly there’s the potential for a dialogue that otherwise was impossible.
Dialogue has recently been receiving a bad reputation. To have a conversation with someone has suddenly been conflated with agreeing with them, as if giving someone a ‘platform,’ whatever the size, is a declaration of support. The principle simply doesn’t hold, else we’d have to say support every thought that finds itself on the platform of our conscious lives. Not sure about you, but disagreeing with things that enter my mind is part of good ethical practice.
Acceptance is the space within which disagreement has room to be healthy rather than dismissive. Acceptance isn’t agreement, nor is it lazy. Acceptance is an acknowledgment of that the state of affairs, whatever they may be, is part of the shared reality you’re in. I accept thoughts of depression, not to give them voice, but to acknowledge they’re already a voice. I accept my feelings, not because they’re always helpful, but to have them take up the space they already have instead of giving them more than they deserve.
The opposite of Othering is not “saming”, it is belonging. And belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our differences, in a society where “we the people” includes all the people.
Accepting different behaviors is to appreciate the cognitive dissonance at the heart of life. We can disagree while acknowledging that if circumstances were different, and they most certainly have been in the past, we’d be doing things we find objectionable upon later judgment. Seeing that possibility allows us to live through the wisdom of “there but for the grace of god, go I.” Our shared humanity includes the good, the bad, the gray and uncertain. Being willing to wade into dissonance, into conflict, with a desire to understand starts with noting none of us have humanity exclusively to ourselves.
Communication is more than words being exchanged between two or more people. It’s also more than the non-verbal physical cues made famous by such shows as “Lie to Me.” When people engage in dialogue, they’re seeking to build a relationship of perspective with reality and, if reality doesn’t fit quite well enough, get the other person(s) to agree regardless. This is true whether the discussion has to do with broad, socially significant, political opinions or the varied intimacies of one’s emotional state.
The significance of binding perspective to reality cannot be overstated. Opinions aren’t just mental states, they’re the means through which we gather the disparate pieces of reality and bind them to create an experience. That we all like to be right begins to make sense here, given the potential weight carried by our thoughts. Combine these two points and the many forms of communication can be seen in a new light.
We can start with cultural practices.
Dialogue with Humanity
Contrary to the majority of felt experience, our thoughts are rarely unique creations. They’re far more likely to be derivatives from our social upbringing and cultural backgrounds, to promotions of something we recently read and likely didn’t critique long enough. The latter is especially fun in conversation if confronted by someone who does immediately know more than we do, as our shallow understanding is highlighted. Did I say fun? I meant embarrassing.
The reason for the non-careful assumption inherent of many of our opinions depends on how critical you want to be about our humanity. For those with a more negative view, it’s due to our inherent laziness as thinkers. A more reasonable take has to do with time-management. It’s simply easier to assume that the information we personally encounter is more likely true than not. Taking the time to critically analyze everything that crosses our mental space is not only impossible (since a great deal is unconsciously taken in), but it’s really poor resource-management. We’re far too busy living our lives to halt at every thought.
One of those ways we’re living is through culture. Consider cultural practices as mental shortcuts to meaning. Ever had a word that you used but didn’t know if it was the right one? Or hear one that you didn’t know the definition of? Sure you could look it up on you smart phone, but that takes time. Better if everything you hear has built-in definitions that you absorbed through experience. Enter cultural practices.
However, those built-in definitions and meaning can pose just as many problems as they solve. How aware is the person of their own history and what they’ve absorbed as normal behavior? How much self-ownership do they have concerning the meaning of any particular practice? Are they open to the practice having other meanings or purposes?
Remember, culture is a short-cut to meaning, a device for carrying entire narratives or stories tying together reality. If the weight of individual opinions is so heavy, and that’s just for a single person, imagine the exponential increase given to a story that has time/family attached to it.
Dialogue through Culture
To attempt addressing the very real difficulties, when considering a cultural practice, we can ask first what the purpose is. The person will provide a story. That story will give structure to the meaning the behavior has for them. It will be really easy now to immediately agree or disagree with the story, based on one’s own assumptions. Good conversation/dialogue is generative, it builds greater understanding. It isn’t warfare with two parties lobbing linguistic hand-grenades at each other.
Before engaging with the story, a full stop needs to happen. Use this space to reflect on:
1) identifying what shared Value the behavior is serving to support…
2) identifying whether that shared Value holds the same level of importance for each of you in the context you’re in.
To keep it simple, let’s take the practice of washing one’s hands. The primary Value to be supported is likely going to be Cleanliness, but is such always primary in awareness? If you’re rushing to the bathroom in the middle of a movie that you spent far too much money to see in a theatre, is Cleanliness going to be the top concern or is Time-Management and Pleasure? If someone saw you not wash your hands and immediately began chastising you, claiming you clearly didn’t care about Cleanliness, your response would likely be anger/frustration. Why? Not because you got called out for not caring about something you do in fact care about, but because the other person clearly doesn’t care about Time-Management and Pleasure! See the irony? The other person cares about those things too, it just wasn’t their priority in that moment, precisely because they aren’t you.
Starting with Value allows us to get behind the stories/narratives that so easily catch us up in the moment. At that point, another person’s behavior no longer stands on its own, instead being caught by our own construction of reality and judged accordingly. Importantly, this isn’t, at this level, about morality, nor does it remove issues of ethics. We’re simply looking at having good generative dialogue. Frankly, if a chief concern is to convince another person the error of their ways, no better place exists to start than with what you have in common and an appreciation for your shared humanity.
Does the clothing make the person or the person make the clothing? While this question is typically related to dresses and women, the inquiry knows no gender. At the heart of the question is a consideration of the relationship between the created and the creator, between form and function. Clothing is not simply about covering the body, it functions dependent upon the intent of the person and the social context in which it is worn.
Follow along for a moment and we’ll get to the broader issue. In Western countries we notably wear black to funerals, brighter colors to weddings. The associations cannot be overstated, with one acknowledging an ending and the other a celebration of a type of birth or beginning. We have expectations of what to be worn at job interviews, on romantic dates, to music concerts depending on the genre. Importantly for the latter, location matters as well. Rock music played in an open stadium brings a certain dress-code, whereas the same music played in a concert hall by an orchestra will inspire a different response.
If anyone is shrugging at the significance of the impact of clothing choice, simply consider the days of High School and the social shame accompanying not wearing the ‘cool’ clothes, potential violence occurring if wearing shoes that are considered ‘must-have,’ and the time and mental anxiety accompanying what to wear for school pictures and first dances. For that matter, clothing stores have created an entire sales season out of ‘Back to School’ clothes shopping. Expand this a bit and consider wearing pastels or flowery-shirts to a funeral or ragged clothes and sandals to a job interview. Perhaps doing so was to make a statement, though it is precisely because the action is so contrary to expectations that the ‘statement’ will have any power (perhaps not great consequences though).
Culture Has Intrinsic Value
Clothing is simply one aspect of culture. Included in culture are a host of other issues that would not exist were there no human beings around to build and embody them in practice; religion, governmental systems, family structures, and social expectations at various levels. An initial focus on clothing helps us consider culture more broadly by 1) noting its intimate relationship to our humanity and 2) the impossibility of removing Value.
Any reflection on being human, collectively or individually, will inevitably involve memories associated with cultural practices. It is fair to say that to be conscious is to engage socially and one cannot engage socially without doing so through culture. Little wonder that the practices of culture have so much Value, they’re the means through which we initially inter-relate with one another.
Those building blocks for human relationships, the behavioral expectations and standards for interpersonal experience, are intimately tied to Values, even as they themselves are not such. Christianity is not a Value, nor is washing one’s hands after using the bathroom, wearing black at a funeral or democracy. What those practices support are Values; Spirituality, Cleanliness, Solidarity and Social Cohesion, respectively. We appreciate those Values and seek to support them because doing so is to align ourselves with one of the most basic of human needs: providing meaning/purpose.
Culture Has No Intrinsic Meaning
It’s impossible not to give some rationale for our behavior. When someone shrugs or declares “I don’t know,” the frustration felt is in no small part due to the bone-deep belief that a reason exists which must be found. Having a rationale for events is synonymous with ‘finding an answer’ or ‘solution.’ There’s a finality to it, despite, or even sometimes because of, the perceived ridiculousness of the story being told. The more absurd, the more the story is providing an answer regardless, i.e. the person is ‘crazy,’ ‘insane,’ ‘stupid’ or ‘evil.’ Such simple judgments pack the same punch as an involved story, they provide structure to the person’s experience.
What should be immediately apparent is the wide variation in our stories about behavior. Cultural practices are no exception. Religion may be the easiest example here, with group after group fighting, verbally and physically, over what is the ‘TRUE’ version of their particular mythology. Notice the Value doesn’t change, the need for Order/Spirituality remains constant. What the fight is over is the particular meaning to give to it. Does it drive behavior? Does it serve as a crutch? Does it provide a legitimate ground for morality?
When people of one group identify another as not being ‘TRUE,’ note that quite often the reasoning given is that the other simply doesn’t ‘understand’ properly. This focus on understanding as indicating legitimacy points us immediately back to the Value, but, and here’s the key, the Value as defined through the person criticizing. Cultural practices have no singular meaning because the story of their development for each person is as unique as each person’s genetic, familial and life histories. What’s often happening in debates of what is ‘TRUE’ religion (or any other cultural practice) are one’s own stories taking absolute ownership of a shared Value.
Cultural practices have no singular absolute meaning. They are derivatives of the human need to make meaning, not separate aspects of existence that people take on. To think of cultural practices as having inherent meaning is to divorce them from the humanity that gave them birth. Which is precisely where we all can contribute to a great deal of suffering.
Primacy of the Human
When considering a cultural practice, we can ask first what the purpose is for the person acting it out. They will provide a story that structures the meaning the behavior has for them. Before engaging with the story, a full stop needs to happen. This is to allow reflection on 1) identifying what shared Value the behavior is serving to support and 2) direct attention to how varied the other person’s personal history is from one’s own.
Identifying the shared Value can allow for an appreciation for why the person may deeply hold to the practice. Order, Social Cohesion, Family, and Cleanliness are nothing to easily dismiss, nor likely should they be. Once it is acknowledged how much weight the building of a story through a lifetime can bring to a Value, the strength of meaning/purpose becomes readily apparent.
We don’t have to agree with a particular practice, nor do we have to agree with the rationale given in support of it. However, if healthy dialogue is going to happen then we must first acknowledge that differences exist in those stories precisely because of the shared quality of being human.
Considering culture, we simply cannot lose sight of the human as a primary concern. To divorce or separate culture from the human being is to constrain humanity to a singular vision of what ‘should be.’ Such a divorce will drive the ‘war of ideas,’ a potentially fruitful dialogue exploring human expression, to simply ‘war.’
Starting from a deficit is always frustrating because after all the work done and resources used to get oneself to the surface, you often find yourself exhausted by the journey. Further, deficit thinking has us defining ourselves from the perspective of where we’re going, not where we’ve come from, it can feel that no movement has occurred at all! Unfortunately this mentality is exactly what we bring to ‘goal setting’ and it’s precisely why the spiral of shame and self-doubt is so often the end result. Thankfully we can give up goals by instead looking at achievement. The way to do this is to reframe our behavior within a consideration of Values.
Values are not Behavior
Values are not synonymous with, or at least not fully understood or fulfilled by, particular behaviors. This may at first sound obvious, but it’s not typically how we assess and judge ourselves and one another. When was the last time you chastised yourself for not going to the gym and instead binging a tv show? When was the last time you judged another as being dishonest based on a particular situation? For that matter, when was the last time you felt yourself unfairly judged when you went with being supportive rather than being honest? Or, how easy is it to think of a time when you gave up on supporting one Value, like Honesty, for the purpose of saving someone’s life, job or prevent being hurt?
All of these scenarios bring us to three conclusions:
Values never go away
Sometimes in supporting one Value in a particular way, it may mean not supporting another in a way we’d otherwise do
Context often drives what Value(s) we’re focused on
Consider the difficulty of judgment, both of others and ourselves. Often it happens where one family member will declare you don’t love them because you don’t treat them exactly the same way as another. The accusation is often met with stunned frustration because of course you love them, it’s simply that you interact differently due to the nature of the particular connection, the context in which a behavior occurred and what the other person’s interests may be. A more obvious example would be if one of your kids declared you didn’t love them because you don’t treat them the exact same way as your spouse. Clearly the claim is absurd, the very nature of the connection leads to different behavior. Importantly, the Value itself never went away.
Life is a constant juggling act of supporting what we care about, utilizing the behavior we’ve learned to associate with particular Values and doing so within contexts of which we often have no control over the particulars. Consider self-esteem or integrity, where ‘standing up for yourself’ is a common advice given. Yet, when faced with a hostile work environment or unhealthy personal relationship we won’t follow the advice, instead opting for another behavior. Where we often then shame ourselves, the reality is we did act to support a Value, but instead of Integrity, we acted on Financial Security, Safety, Peace, etc. What we’re concerned with here is not a judgment about long-term consequences, but a proper evaluation about why we do what we do in any given moment.
Those moments are context-driven. We are not likely going to be able to focus on Health when we’re incessantly surrounded by junk food and find it difficult to gain access to healthier alternatives. It’s little wonder in that context that Pleasure takes center-stage. We’re not likely to work on Self-Esteem/Image when coming out of an emotionally abusive family, surrounded by unsupportive community and/or lacking in skills that our specific society finds useful. I say “likely” here because there’s always personal stories of people seeing their way through adversity; this is about the general experience. In fact, behind every story of success despite adversity you’ll find that the person did the one thing we’re about to bring attention to: expanding perspective.
Daily Valued Living
Rather than goals, let’s consider what we’re already doing in our lives that is helpful and expand on that. Rather than getting caught up in a hyper-focus on one behavior, let’s consider how we’re always seeking to support what we care about.
Identify an area of your life you’d typically set a goal based on lack or self-denial
What Value is associated with that area?
Select 2-5 other Values that come to mind, or are associated with, that initial Value.
What are healthy behaviors to support that Value?
Consider how others are supporting those same Values and how you may bring such behavior completely or in part, to your own life.
Each step is about starting from your humanity, at the center of which is what you care about, and building upon what already exists. From that foundation you can increase your confidence in what is behaviorally possible by enlarging your competence in how you support what matters to you. Noticing what you’re already doing is exactly the opposite of getting lost in the contemplation of what you’re not. The latter is an ever-expanding sinkhole and we know where it sends us: nowhere.
By promoting to ourselves the daily ways we support our Values, we remind ourselves that we are constantly in service to them. By expanding what is possible through noticing how others support our shared Values we build a greater repertoire of behavioral tools to work through the struggles that inevitably come up. Isn’t that what we’re all ultimately interested in anyway?
When I was a kid there was a toy I loved, a kaleidoscope of sorts, where you looked in one end and by turning the other end, sifted grains of multi-colored sand to make different patterns. You couldn’t add any new grains, you couldn’t change the colors. The only thing you could do was change the speed with which you turned the one end. We have a tendency, as human beings, to attempt isolating one or another grain or color and believe by doing so we become capable of seeing the entire image. In fact, not just the entire image, but every potential image.
When was the last time you felt shame? Doubt? Self-criticism? Do you remember what it was about? Now, do you remember what it wasn’t about? That last question may be rather jarring. Let’s put it another way: what are you not thinking about right now? Hmm…. yeah, likely even more confusing. Let’s try something different. Pick an object, any object, around you and stare at it. Now, without looking away, describe what’s behind you. Obviously there are shortcomings to this as you may be in a familiar place, but I hope the point is made. There is an entire reality living, breathing, existing outside of your momentary perception, both in sight and in mind. So why the isolating focus on any one thing?
To have our focus be easily swayed would have really put a damper on our survival potential as a species. Were we the proverbial dog gallivanting after every ‘squirrel,’ we’d have walked off a cliff, got eaten by an animal or missed out on catching our food. In other words, we’d have died. To survive we needed the capacity to focus, which came with the tangential skill of ignoring everything else. So next time someone points out that you were ignoring them, just blame your biology. I’m kidding. Really.
A Perspective Reminder
Let’s come back to the shame and criticism piece. Or, if you’d like, the self-congratulatory and joyful piece. It really doesn’t matter, because you can participate in the focus/ignore process with any of the above and more. Within ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), this is called fusion, which I’ve written about here. The difficulty with fusion is that the whole of who you are and the surrounding extent of reality gets removed from consideration. And that contributes to a whole host of problems.
Depression? Focus on self-doubt and criticism and ignore the vast majority of time you’ve lived without failure. Anxiety? Focus on what has or could go wrong, ignore the vast majority of events that were either neutral or went correctly. Relationship difficulty? Focus on what she/he did wrong, ignore the majority of behavior that was loving or neutral (as a strong caveat, this is not about when abuse is occurring and if such is happening, absolutely should you remember that and use the reminder to get help).
Step outside the typical mental health therapy categories for a moment. Ever considered yourself incapable because of who you are, your gender, your family, or some other part of yourself?
Notice that as you focus on a trait, characteristic, event or identity, the ‘self’ or who you are gets more and more hidden. This doesn’t mean we get rid of these things, it does mean we consider more carefully what we’re doing when we think this way. It takes practice. That practice begins with the simple acknowledgment: “I am more than any single thought, feeling or behavior.”
As soon as shame, self-doubt and criticism occur, we can learn to reflect on what is being hidden by those labels. Here are three skills to work on:
Asking yourself: What am I not noticing? The question may seem counter-intuitive, but that jarring feeling may get you outside of the rut you find yourself in.
Change focus: bring your attention to physical sensation, like the feel of your clothes against your skin; or to an object in your immediate experience, noting as many characteristics as you can; or if you’re stuck in a memory, deliberately and imaginatively place yourself as an observer instead of a participant.
Shift perspective: pursue a different story, like the old choose your own adventure novels; imagine how someone from a different socio-cultural background would think; or deliberately change the thought/feeling by singing it or mimicking it as the voice of your favorite actor or fictional character.
Who you are is more than the sum of your parts, it’s perspective too. What we considered life-ending as children, we can usually laugh at now. Our thoughts about love and hate have gone through many evolutions as our lives have unfolded. Our smiles have gotten deeper. Our concerns have gotten broader. What we consider important has changed. This is all for the good, because the world is a lot bigger than any one of us and that means there’s always room to grow.