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.
I recently received a question concerning shyness and the person was convinced that their lack of confidence had resulted in the destruction of all their relationships. As I’m sure there are more people than this person who are working through their own level of shyness and lack of confidence in making social connections, I thought to share my response in the hope that others will gain something from it.
One of the best pearls of wisdom I’ve received is from Russ Harris’s “The Confidence Gap.” In it he notes: “competence breeds confidence.” I mention this and explain it further in my response below and I highly recommend people reading the excellent book.
Now my response:
If you are not writing this while sitting in a cave in the middle of nowhere, having run power cords from a village miles away, I’m going to assume that you have some various forms of social connections, whether that be friends of some kind and/or work connections. Let’s back up from the universal statements that you’ve “tried everything” and how this shyness has “ruined my life and relationships.” I think you’ll notice that you do in fact have relationships, the issue is that they aren’t what you would like them to be.
Which is perfectly fine to be frustrated about! Here’s why it’s important to step away from the universal condemnations: you have the skills to move forward, you’re just not seeing them and that lack of sight is making it difficult to build off of them in new ways.
Begin by looking at what you already do: how do conversations usually go? Do you go out at all? How do you respond to questions/inquiries in life and at work? It doesn’t matter whether your responses to all these are the ideal of what you want them to be, the point is to see what you’re already doing.
Once you’ve taken note of what you’re doing, consider next what you’re avoiding by not expanding on those skills. What is it about social connections that has you so worried and anxious that you don’t pursue them? If the answer is some form of rejection, note immediately that you’ve already achieved this by avoiding that very thing! Seriously, avoidance is fulfilling all your fears while lying to you about being helpful. Avoidance is an emotional narcotic, setting up the pitfalls you’re afraid might happen and then pushing you in anyway.
So, what next? If you want your life to continue the way it is, then by all means don’t change your behavior. If you want something different, then you have to try something else and a quick way of doing so is building off of what you’re already doing. Even if what you’re doing is 2% of where you’d like to be, it’s amazing what doubling that effort every week or so will lead to. Confidence is a trap when we try to seek it first, it’s like fool’s gold, shiny and great, until we run smack into our doubts again and it crumbles. Focus on the doing, no matter how small, and build up from whatever level of competence you’re currently at. Eventually your confidence will rise as you do more of what you want and this time it will last.
As a last point, acknowledge to yourself that this is going to suck. Anxiety isn’t necessarily a sign that what you’re doing is wrong, it’s simply an assessment that what you’re doing is different and outside your perceived norm. You’re going to have this feeling as you grow. Say hi to it, hug it, thank it for letting you know you’re exploring life and then let it go on its way have served its purpose. If you have to be present and let it go often at first, that’s ok too, emotions have a way of becoming a habit and like all habits, they’re difficult to change.
Often it seems that the internet is where good dialogue goes to die. The human tendency for confirmation bias becomes a glaring practice when faced with a near-infinite amount of information. The desire to feel right is supported, pushed along and given constant reinforcement by the capacity of online groups to be established quickly and easily controlled membership. Want to find like-minded people? Holler long enough and the walls against further inquiry will spring up with every ‘like’ and supportive comment.
While the need to create community is innate, the way we go about it can create the disconnection such a search seeks to avoid. When an interest in ideological purity trumps that of expanding understanding, the result is an isolation of parts of humanity and an avoidance, if not deliberate ignorance, of the fact that no single idea or human action exists in a void of its own making. There is always an interconnected context, always a relational reality in which idea and deed are embedded.
Proselytizing is the attempt to convince someone of the rightness of one’s position, with zealotry focused on a shift in language towards agreement rather than an engagement in expansive dialogue. These terms are often used in a religious context, but their practice is not contained there. Due to that context, the notion of proselytizing often gets a negative feel, but our lives are often defined within that term, having decided we’re right about a thing, we fervently seek to spread that truth. The extent of our promotional behavior is not based on our feeling of being right, as that exists almost always. Rather, the degree to which we act is limited by the depth of importance we give to the opinion and how supported we feel.
Why We Seek Community
An increase in either importance or support is why we seek community. However, because such a focus becomes ever more restricted the result is a loss of seeing the bigger picture. The zealot is never more dangerous than when at the front of a mob, nor ever more fervent in their righteousness than if the opinion is deemed cosmically important. Lost is recognizing the nature of truth being relational, an interactive dynamic between the reality-universal and the reality-subjective. The latter does not so much create as cordon off aspects of the broader canvas to make a smaller picture. Focusing only on a particular understanding or way of viewing a situation is staring so closely at one tree that the forest of variation ceases to exist.
This is about acknowledging and exploring the broader reality holding the pieces of every limited perspective. All dialogue contains the subjective precisely because it is communion between two or more human beings, each possessing a phenomenological, or what it feels like, experience. The rightness of one’s opinion has little bearing upon the acceptance of it by any other person. In focusing so strongly on the rightness of one’s opinion, the recognition of the other person’s concerns, fears, development and existential progress tends to be forgotten. Any of us who have fought valiantly against an opinion only to at some point in the future find ourselves agreeing with that very point can attest to truth’s acquisition being partly contingent upon one’s place in life.
There is a time for standing on one’s ground with feet firmly planted, but more often than not dialogue should be less about being right and more on living a life where there is no ‘other,’ no ‘enemy,’ no ‘contrary force’ sitting across from us. Celebrating the process of sharing and expansion that is generative dialogue within our connection to others may result in a greater appreciation for the forest of human existence.
This is the second of a 3-part series looking into the essential characteristics of Relational-ACT, the counseling philosophy behind the services provided by Life Weavings. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), created by Steven Hayes, considers the ‘self in context.’ That context is explored through what is referred to as ‘relational frames,’ the ability of the self to explore experience through the building of perspective. Relational-ACT is founded upon a relationship model for the creation of perspective leading to change. We exist as an inevitable trajectory of intentional energy starting with Value, moving through Narrative, resulting in Behavior.
Narrative is a broad term that holds the notions of perspective, structure and intentionality. It is the process through which we decide what is important to us among the vast information in our experiences, organize our responses and direct the attention of others to the self-image we’ve constructed.
There is simply too much information in even the most simple of experiences for us to ever be consciously aware of it all. While the analogy can only be taken so far, consider life experience like a computer, with programs running in the background, but you’re only using one at a time. Perhaps, like me, you’re switching between multiple programs all the time, but the reality is there’s only one at a time you’re consciously using. Also, depending on what is being worked on, not all the programs running in the background will be accessed equally.
That background processing is similar to the experience of our everyday lives. We are inundated by information in the form of social, familial, personal, emotional and ideological programs (or memes). We must be selective in the building of our conscious experience, otherwise known as perspective.
A major consequence of this narrowed vision that we experience as conscious life is a false sense of our comprehension. Simply because we are not currently aware of those programs running, and all the information they contain, doesn’t mean they’ve stopped or that they aren’t making connections with one another. Our mind/brain’s are associational devices, connecting disparate pieces of information with other pieces. It’s why we can remember new things when recalling older experiences. It’s why multiple people can experience the same trauma and have different memories of what happened and different reactions. It’s why our emotions can connect us within so many experiences.
Behavior is any action taken in response to an event or to encourage a particular response in return. Behavior is both learned and evolving in the sense that we can associate or connect multiple items to build new responses. How we select our behavior begins with the window of our perception. That window is limited by what we have learned and the extent of the information we have available. We don’t do anything without a purpose and that is contingent upon our narrative associating information onto the stage of our present.
This way of looking at behavior means there’s no action that ‘isn’t the real me’ and allows for exploration when it’s stated ‘I don’t know why I did that.’ We’re now back to the consequence of a narrowed vision. Because we can’t keep consciously aware of every connection being made between all the information churned around in our minds, there are times when our actions don’t seem to fit the verbalized story of ourselves we’re telling. This is where calls of hypocrisy come up. Also, because we can only keep track of a small amount of the information we’re processing, the story we tell of ourselves may not always offer enough of an explanation to us. This is particularly true when, upon reflection, we realize that had we acted differently, the consequences would have been far more beneficial. Unfortunately such thinking forgets that the ability to reflect necessitates having more information.
The idea that ‘hindsight is always perfect’ is true not because we’re foolish, broken or corrupt, but because we can only decide our actions based on what we currently know. Action/behavior by its very nature will add information to our lives, in no small part because it is a way of looking back through the window of our perspective to see what we missed the first time.
Narrative provides the structure for determining what it is we will pay attention to, in order to direct our actions for a purpose, to result in the establishment of an identity within relationships. We have an innate desire to belong, but equally so we want to maintain a sense of self. Thus our identities serve the two-fold purpose of identifying for others that we are a part of something larger than ourselves even as we do so from a centralized notion of “This is me.”
One way of looking at this is seeing our relationship with identity as that of an old-style drawing compass. The circle we draw is the social group our identity connects us to, even as the center point determines the size of that circle. Anything within the circle we will feel connected to, whereas everything outside it becomes “other.” This simplification makes it easy to believe we only have the one, but no single identity can ever encompass the whole of any one of us.
Our personal stories grow out of what is important to us, guiding our responses to life and providing a grounding for our interactions. We never cease being in relationship, even as the details of those connections ebb and flow in importance based on the context our self-images are constantly shaping.
Relational-ACT recognizes the power of narrative as it leaps forward from our Values to provide the structure for our identities and guides us in developing behavior to interact with ourselves and others. By exploring our stories we can peer back through the windows of our perspective, see what we missed and find the space to grow.
This is the first of a 3-part series looking into the essential characteristics of Relational-ACT, the counseling philosophy behind the services provided by Life Weavings. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), created by Steven Hayes, provides a great foundation for counseling/therapy. Through study and application, I began to personalize it, finding the focus centered upon a philosophy that is relational at its core. Relationship is far more than a descriptive of human connection, instead being seen as a fundamental way of looking at our lives and effecting change.
Relational-ACT looks at our lives as an inevitable trajectory of intentional energy starting with Value, moving through Narrative, resulting in Behavior.
Values are the cognitive manifestation of an emotional state. No feeling exists unattached from a particular situation or object (person, place, or thing). This is because feelings are an initial evaluative tool. They’re an immediate way for us to start the path of our response to a situation or object. The way we describe our relationship between an emotion and what is being evaluated is through the use of a Value.
Two important points here about Values: one, they are not synonymous with behavior and two, they are an intrinsic part of humanity. Let’s unpack both.
Consider the value of community. How many ways can that Value manifest? School? Family reunion? Work? Church? Online group? Public interest gathering? Now think of a person from one of those types of communities, like a school, coming to your online group and declaring the Value of community can only be found in their school and how dare you believe that you hold that Value as important.
Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is. Values do not demand a particular behavior, as if there are ‘true’ and ‘false’ versions. This is because Values exist as a universal evaluative device to direct our attention to what’s important to us. They are the thinking side of our emotional identification, a cognitive short-hand to display our interests to ourselves and others.
The words people use for their Values are culturally derived, as is also how they manifest them. Culture here includes family, social environment, all relationship forms, local community and country. All these ways of differentiating us from one another do not remove the vast amount of similarities because of our shared humanity.
Remember that Values are not synonymous with behavior, there are multiple ways to show how one considers a Value to be important in their life. Further, if a person doesn’t show a Value in a particular situation, it does not mean they don’t care about it. Do you Value honesty? I’m sure you do. Would you be honest if it led to the harm of another? Likely not. Does that mean you no longer care about telling the truth? Of course not!
This seeming disconnect of one Value in order to express another is because Values are situationally driven. Remember that they’re evaluative tools, not behavioral directives. Values aren’t being removed, they’re just being selected within a context to help us determine how we’re going to relate to a particular situation or object.
Shortcuts are not just inevitable, but acceptable as part of everyday living. Our mental short-cuts, or heuristics, make it impossible to fully consider everything we are told and faced with. We communicate and if it were pointed out that some or much of what we hear is not the whole truth most of us would shrug and explain that the whole truth simply takes too much time and energy to understand, that we know enough to get by. We parse out our energy to focus on the things that matter and take on trust much of what we hear.
Trust, here, is essentially a form of authority, we accept that the other person has, in a given context, a greater possession of truth than we currently do. Whether it be a teacher, scientist, minister, politician, or simply the person we’re currently listening to, we trust what is said. This decision to trust is itself based on a shortcut, we accept that person’s authority due to having previously determined them as being aligned with or supportive of our view of the world. In other words, trust in authority is essentially a manifestation of confirmation bias.
The selection process for determining our authority figures is based on unconscious biases, how and where we grew up, what relationships have shaped our attachments, and our educational backgrounds (to name but a few variables). We call this process our “gut” feeling and while it is often wrong, our minds self-servingly remind us of the times we were right and so we go on trusting an intuition that has little greater propensity for fortune telling than simple chance.
All forms of knowledge are an extension of our identity. Reason or testing in a lab is referred to as a “heady” process or something that occurs outside of ourselves. Intuition is referred to as something we “just feel,” therefore having the greatest connection to who we are and resulting in having a greater weight given. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the hubris with which we tell stories of how events happen to us rather than the reverse of we belonging to greater events of which we are not the center.
Intuition, gut feelings and the like shouldn’t be completely ignored (likely it’s impossible
to do so anyway). Rather, they are limited and should be worked at, like a muscle, with other forms of knowing being used to supplement and support. A common case for this need to expand is when judging the actions of another. Information doesn’t exist like floating data points in the sky, waiting to be plucked by each person. Just as we select our authority figures from within the maelstrom of our relational lives, so then information exists within it as well. Every piece of evidence is selected, considered and weighed within the worldview of the individual, shaped as it is within the inter-subjective relational reality with those we are connected. In the rush to reach a conclusion, it is precisely these times when we should both listen to our shortcuts and hold them in deepest wariness.
Our shortcuts can be right, they can point us in a direction of truth, but they are a limiting force upon imagination and reason. However right they may be initially does not mean they should guide us indefinitely. A shortcut feels right precisely because of its lack of nuance, its reduction of the variables considered in any given situation. Judgment within this reduced vision limits the person making the judgment and the one being judged. It allows for no imagination, no newness of progress or room for change. The vastness of the world in which each person lives, the potential each has available to them, is looked over with a blind-eye.
The opposite of shortcut-judgment is compassionate understanding. This is not about excuses, but possibilities, not verbal warfare but generative dialogue. The goal is not so much the reaching of a conclusion but an expansion of perspective.