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?
We often create stories to address one problem, only to have it take on a life of its own. More difficult is when such a story is religion and the tendency towards absolutism is a strong psychological pull. Jung’s “The Undiscovered Self” helps us see where when dealing with fanaticism we may unwittingly pull similar tendencies from within ourselves.
Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
Popular sayings and cliches abound. Songs are written as odes to and diatribes against. Lives are made and destroyed in its embrace. The forms it takes are at the center of social debate and religious theological musings. The nature of love guides, shapes, cajoles and inspires a host of behavior. Yet rarely does any of it bring us closer to an understanding of just what it is. Like referring to sleep as that thing we do when we’re not awake, noting the behavior inspired by love gives us much to discuss, but seeing any commonality is a bit more difficult.
What makes the situation even more compellingly frustrating is there exists no commonly understood definition of emotion either. With this in mind we can turn to a discussion of emotion by Daniel Siegel as it relates to attachment in his book The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. For Siegel, emotion serves the purpose of linking differentiated, or separated, parts. As in psychology with the linking of child to caregiver, or the sociological linking of individual to group, emotion is the process of binding these disparate and differentiated parts into a coherent whole. How this is applied to love as a particular manifestation of emotional energy is where we turn to next.
Love Binds What Is Thought Separate
When we love we are not simply noting the casting outward of a feeling but acknowledging a recognition of union amongst differentiation. What love is, is a counter to disillusionment, the opposite of dissociation, the cure to ennui and it knows only expansion. When we see union as the fundamental ground of our being-ness, love provides a space for certain behavior to emerge from it. Life-giving and respectful, cherishing that which helps life expand and progress. Differences become variations of unity rather than held up to show separation. When loving another it is within this unity, a conscious recognition of an interconnected existence. We celebrate in all their nuances the person in front of us just as we celebrate those around us and she or he who stares back in a mirror.
I have loved many people, just as I am quite certain those reading this have loved many as well. I love my family, I love my friends and lover, those who are no longer in my life and those who are merely tangentially connected to it. I love the song I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz and how when the subject of the song is shifted from a singular person in front of you to humanity as a whole there is only an expansion of meaning rather than confusion, a quickening desire to not give up even as the skies get rough, to make a difference and not to break or burn, learning to bend and acknowledge who each of us is and what each of us isn’t and who I am even in the midst of it all.
All of this, all of these manifestations of love are encapsulated within a singular term and yet at no time is there a flatland of feeling, a singularity to how such a feeling of love is to be felt. There is instead an allowance for gradations, for nuance and depth. Love is joyful exuberance within the process of this celebration, bound with the threads of our relational reality. We hold that space and by doing so find that love brings peace, a commitment to growing understanding and an expansion of life’s expression.
Being lost is not seeing the paths all around because of looking for the ‘right’ one. We encourage freedom of imagination in our kids because we want them to not get locked into bad habits. We entreat each other to think outside the box when confronted with adversity and seemingly insurmountable struggles. Corporations hire coaches and gurus to help make the stagnant, movable again. Our very existence as a species is due to the variations possible within the seeming limitations of genetics. Life changes, expands and manifests in new ways precisely because it is not caught in a singular way of being.
As in life, so then in each and every human being. Living is ever-expansive because our potential is not limited by any single identity or story of who we are. Being trapped, stagnant, and confined is what occurs when we get locked into a narrow way of visioning who we are and therefore what we are capable of achieving. This is true of ourselves and, given the interconnectedness of relational reality, of those we look upon.
A Restricted Vision
Sin, within the framework of conservative fundamentalist religious traditions, is a way of framing humanity within a restricted vision. It is a declaration that the wholeness of humanity is found within a story of depraved, immoral and inherently self-serving boundaries. It removes intent and will, replacing it with an assumed knowledge of what lies beneath or at the core of a person. Behavior ceases to be a window into the multiplicity of human rationale, of the varied reasons, thoughts and stories of justification, and becomes an empty expanse unworthy of exploration. Why did the person do what they did? Well, we can look at what they say, but really it’s this thing called sin, the insurmountable evil at the heart of humanity.
The problem of sin is not simply that it’s a false idea, but that it separates us from looking at our potential. Our varied lives of layered thought and emotion become lies and obfuscations hiding us from our ‘true selves.’ This process of singular-visioning inexorably leads to shame and doubt, shame of who we are and doubt about our capacity for change and growth. Unfortunately this process is not limited to the notion of sin, it occurs any time we select a rationale for our behavior, separate it from the interactional and reciprocal reality of our relational lives, and make it the unalterable core of who we are.
How often have any of us faced failure and in the midst of defeat, callously declared “I’m just a loser” or “this is just who I am” or “I’m only ever going to be this way”? We may not be thinking of sin, but we are most certainly embarking on a similar path of limitation. Similarly, when we break someone else’s behavior down to a singular reason, we are artificially limiting our understanding of their humanity.
By selecting merely one potential rationale for our decision-making, we have cut ourselves off from the complexity that is our story-making, the formation of our identities. Instead of the multiple interconnected layers of a full life, we are crushed beneath the weight of simplicity and the desire to forge a clear direction forward. This process is not concerned with health, well-being or truth; it is a means of razing the trees to the ground to save the perceived forest.
Every one of us makes decisions based on a variety of factors, explicit and implicit, historical and future-projected, conscious and unconscious. Further, none of us are immune to prejudice, bias, appeal to authority and the myriad of other emotive-logical cognitive failings. To be called out for one stone out of place and have the whole of our identity-structures or personal narratives defined by it is to place the need for righteous judgment above and beyond that of humanistic understanding.
The determination of right and wrong does not occur starting from the assumed superiority of a singular position. This is where culture wars and the relationship fights we later feel ashamed for having gotten into, begin from. An understanding of ourselves and others begins where morality does, within the relational network that is our humanity. Individual actions can still be judged, but they need not overshadow the whole of that person, nor should they become the main or only lens through which we see ourselves and one another.We do not walk the path of understanding those around us if we begin and end with what we disagree with. Separation only furthers itself, it does not rejoin what was sundered.
Growth along the scale of human progress is a waltz between what we believe ourselves capable of being and the depth and quality of the relationships we live our lives through, it is not a sprint to a pre-determined goal. Dwelling in the space of potential means identifying the infliction of pain and move to reduce it by stretching the bounds of our empathy through touching the strands that bind us together.
The tempestuous connection between nature and nurture, empiricism and social analysis, science and philosophy, has largely been a concern with self-knowledge. When we look in the mirror, ponder our behavior and seek greater understanding of our relationships, we are caught in a bind of where and how to look. When seeking to offer explanations, do we consider our internal mental states or the external behavioral interactions? To what degree does my body, or more specifically my brain, interact with my family and environment? Are the results of this interaction a determining force upon who I am and what I will do in the future? A potential frame to resolve this difficulty resides within the interplay of evolution and psychology.
A Struggle of Explanation
The history of the struggle over these questions goes as far back as Plato and Aristotle, reached a long-standing divide with Descartes and Kant and manifests in the modern debates over artificial intelligence and gene research. Much of the concern has been less focused on the questions themselves and more on the means of answering them.
“From its empirical beginnings in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century psychologists themselves, as well as other prominent nineteenth-century century social philosophers, held that the human mind had to be approached in two fundamentally different ways. On the one hand, there is the stuff of sensation, attention, learning and memory which can be studied as science through normal, if ingenious, empirical methodology. These are things that can be measured and experimentally manipulated. On the other hand, there was Homo sapiens as a social and conscious being whose essence could only be understood by interpretation of meaning – and which certainly cannot be measured. Are these even the same disciplines?” (Plotkin, 2004)
The issue of measurement continues to this day. Any time there is push-back on a reported claim of psychological research, the form such takes is usually a declaration of personal experience. Whatever the merits of this argumentation, the central disagreement is that between the so-called ‘cold’ science of the lab and the lived-in reality of the individual. People hear of experiments and then go home to their children, their spouses, pets and neighbors.
Whether through empirical experimentation or the more qualitative realm of introspection, each method of inquiry is made more complex by notions concerning the origins of human nature.
“Because of the empiricist origins of psychological science in western intellectual history as opposed to the inclination towards nativism within evolutionary theory, there has always been the tendency for each to see the other as a rival account of the human mind. Whilst this separation has never been absolute and complete it has always been a division between the two, and one that remains to a large extent. The empiricists lay stress upon the importance of experience in shaping minds, be they human or nonhuman. Nativists (or rationalists in more traditional philosophical language) emphasize that much of human nature is inborn.” (Plotkin, 2004)
The history of empiricism vs nativism has often taken root in political ideologies. When someone emphasizes the role of social programs to shift human outcomes, they’re basing such thinking on a form of empirical and therefore, experiential and malleable, ground of human nature. The contrary position is voiced in phrases like “it’s just human nature,” or “boys will be boys” or “criminal reform is impossible,” or some form of personal responsibility being so strong that it is cut off from social influence. Essentially the person is basing such an opinion on a variation of nativism.
However, this debate over experiential or nativistic is not so simple as labeling a political party. No person is consistent with either. As an aside, a noticeable difference occurs when opinions are concerned with themselves or with others, with the former being weighted by experiential influences and the latter being utterly nativist in its condemnation of the person’s irresponsible behavior. The examples are a reminder that these questions and the means of answering them have been not only been plaguing us for millennia, but have real-world consequence.
Nature vs Nurture
For a decade or more, the debate over Nature/Nurture has been seen as having an answer in their combination. Bringing up the dichotomy is, these days, to induce a round of groans and protests that ‘of course it’s both!’ as if mere declarations are answers. While the disconnect has been noted as false, the way they are combined continues to be vacant a universally agreed-upon response. One potential answer is within the very theory of evolution that for so long was ignored by psychology.
As opposed to Lamarck, who saw evolution as that of external forces impressing upon the malleable organisms, Darwin was selectionist, or, better, interactionist.
“Organisms, he argued, occur in innumerable variant forms. These differences, variation, are caused by events internal to each organism and occur in advance of and unconnected with changes in the world. Selection, natural selection as Darwin called it, is the process by which some of these undirected (sometimes misleadingly called “blind”) changes are incorporated into an integrated bodily structure and function better suited to survival and reproductive competence (fitness), and somehow transmitted to offspring.” (Plotkin, 2004).
Essentially Darwin, and evolutionary theory after him, saw organisms as being in the world, where change is a complex interplay between the internal world (what later would be understood as genes) of the organism and the external world within and through which they exist. This begins the discussion not at the level of the individual, where debates of experience and nativism, nature and nurture, play out, but at the level of relationship, of the interaction of organism and environment. To focus on one or the other is to ignore that the fundamental unit of reality is relational interaction.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty is one philosopher who’s thought offers a way of rethinking through this dynamic, with the notion of ‘flesh.’ As Garza and Fisher-Smith (2009) describe it:
“Understanding the body as flesh seeks to fundamentally surpass the terms “body” and “mind” as a framework for understanding human bodily existence. The flesh describes how the body is never a mere object among other objects, but rather emerges as intentionality incarnate. It is the vehicle of being-in-the- world, that by which we have a world and understand people and things.”
To describe ourselves as being in the flesh is to admit our inextricable ties within the world in which we live. Our flesh is not impermeable, it breaths, sweats and takes in the stuff of our experiences. Our flesh processes the reality of a world broader than itself through the lens of its own needs/wants. Our flesh embodies pain and suffering, pleasure and joy, as interactions of an internal world answering the impetus of that which is outside our skin.
Plotkin (2004) describes one way evolution can be understood, a way that fits within the relational model noted here. This idea moves beyond the common framing of a focus on features, which often leaves behind the being as a whole. Instead:
“…evolutionary processes operate both within our minds as well as between them, an idea sometimes referred to as universal Darwinism. We are the way we are because there is a common set of processes that governs the transformation of living systems, be it the change in species in geological time or alterations in the memories and thoughts of an individual within their lifetime.”
This common set of evolving processes does not work differently at a macro or micro level, they are the means by which living systems transform. The study of the individual components is only ever fully helpful when placed within the broader context of relationship. A purpose throughout the history of psychology is one of attempting to better understand humanity to better effect change. Looked at through the lens of evolutionary processes, we do not lose sight of the forest for the trees, we do not focus so exclusively on neurology that we forget our brains are embodied, we do not look at pathology as an illness of the individual but a response from within a larger environment. We do change and such is always defined and brought about in context.
“…we are mind and body and each of these dimensions of existence implies and interpenetrates the other. It is this ongoing dance of interpenetration that is the flesh and thus the ground for our concernful being-in-the-world. It is the ground for our experience of self and other, mind and body, self and world—the elemental relatedness out of which these aspects of human existence emerge.” (Garza & Fisher-Smith, 2009)
We construct our personal experiences, the relationships we engage in and the seeming choices we make through the mind’s eye that is our conscious lives. As we do these things, we typically believe that we are mentally coherent, sane and possessed of a degree of accuracy we deny to those who disagree with us. Unfortunately it is that last point, the acceptance of a quality that is denied to another, which often defines mental health. In other words, mental health or mental illness is often used as a means of differentiating Us and Them.
Within the world of Us vs Them, to be mentally healthy is considered a quality belonging to the dominant, whether it be an individual person or a culture. The pejorative use of “you’re insane” is practiced in debate to demean or otherwise dismiss the contrary party, by selecting one or another behavior or idea, removing it from a broader context and then condemning it. When this singular behavior or idea is placed against the now broader and more comprehensive position of the person making the judgment, seeing the other from a paternalistic high ground becomes easy.
Let’s note first that calling another person “insane” or “crazy” for the purpose of denigration or dismissal is puerile at best and demeaning to those who truly do suffer from a debilitating and/or clinically disruptive pathology. That those who are using this condemnatory wording typically have little knowledge of psychology is an easy observation, as is the equally obvious point that the purpose is not one of diagnosis in the pursuit of helping the other. Psychology, specifically therapeutic practice and the diagnostic skills that are one support for it, serves as a means of generating understanding through empathic communion. It is about sharing the space of humanity in which we all reside and seeking through relationship bonds to support the person moving into a greater and more healthy expression of their life. Using any form of diagnosis, clinical or arm-chair, to dismiss or otherwise remove the other from a mutually beneficial space of generating understanding is as profoundly unethical as it is dehumanizing.
Declarations of “insanity” seem to be offered when faced with two situations: 1) an idea or behavior that is not agreed with and 2) as a substitute for being uncomfortable.
There are few areas in life where disagreement is on greater display than that concerned with religion. Within many social circles it is commonplace to mock or otherwise demean the religious ideas of others as being insane, “obviously” stupid, and/or indicative of mental illness. The memes alone, were they applied to a minority group, would be considered a profoundly disturbing display of dehumanizing dismissal. Rather than looking at the whole of a religious system as a means, tentative at best, to give structure to an uncertain reality and therefore as an attempt to address the existential crisis we all must work through, examples of ideas or behavior are isolated and taken as singular proof that if a person believes or does x their entire life can be characterized as a waste-product of a mental illness.
At the base level of individual observation, we are all profoundly conservative. Our fight/flight/freeze response is generated by a sudden change in perception as we are jolted out of the assumption of a continuity of experience. When faced with a behavior or idea that is considered odd or otherwise weird, we fall back on, largely unconscious, standards supplied to us from our socio-cultural backgrounds. Every generation laments “the kids these days,” even as every community shakes their collective head at the new person moving in with non-“traditional” hair, piercings, clothes, spouting political rhetoric, etc. Being uncomfortable, or what is otherwise known as the “ick factor,” is then dealt with by declaring “there’s something wrong with the person.” That “something wrong” is the perceived lack of a mental health quality.
Sadly this tactic of declaring the behavior and ideas of those identified as different or strange or simply other, does more than diminish the struggle of those who truly are suffering from mental illness, it radically limits our ability to consider the enormity of the human experience.
There are few ideas now considered amazing that were not initially thought of as impossible or ridiculous. Everything from fashion to the expression of social bonds has evolved from and through various iterations that now would be looked at as politely quaint if not absurd and horrendous. We exist, each of us and our communities, in a bubble of our own limited cognitive structure. What is “normal” and “correct” feels that way precisely because it stems from a projection of our own identity.
“Individually and collectively, our very existence depends on our ability to reach accurate conclusions about the world around us. In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions” (Schulz, 2010)
Noting the limitation of our individual and collective perceptions is less about embarking on some flight into cosmic relativism, than it is concerned with humbly asking bigger questions when faced with that which we disagree or find uncomfortable. There is no set of values that is somehow present in one and absent in another; we all pursue truth, admire honesty and seek to maintain our integrity (to name but a few examples). Disagreement and discomfort are not indicators of the other person’s lack of care for these things, it is a pointer towards the profound breadth to which humanity seeks to answer how we put them into action.
Rather than using disagreement as a means of identifying and then dismissing the other as “insane,” we can instead seek to understand the why and how of the person’s worldview that led them to this idea or behavior. In the end, there may need to be steps taken to ensure the safety of self and society, but such will be done from a place of a broader understanding and appreciation of humanity, not as if seeking to excise a cancer.