Why We Need to Build Community

Why We Need to Build Community

Just how much of yourself do you need to change to belong to a community? What are you giving over when signing on that dotted line, whether it’s an actual sheet of paper, verbal declaration or taking on the community’s label? There is much talk about tribalism and the seemingly inherent problems it creates, pitting one group against another in some form of quest for supremacy. However, tribalism does not demand such conflict, nor does it require a mentality of versus, as if a contrary perspective must be viewed through a militaristic lens. Community…

“…offers the promise of belonging and calls for us to acknowledge our interdependence. To belong is to act as an investor, owner, and creator of this place. To be welcome, even if we are strangers. As if we came to the right place and are affirmed for that choice.” (Block, 2008)

This interdependence that Block discusses is in line with the relational reality at the heart of human existence. We are driven to make sense of our lives and doing so requires determining just what is true, i.e. what beliefs we are to identify with to help us derive meaning from the behavior we put into practice. It is within community that we find the means of searching for truth and what is acceptable to believe. This starts with our families and is added onto with our peers as we grow up. Eventually it gets spread out into broader categories of political parties, religious organizations and other social identifications.

Important to be remembered is just because we’ve moved on from old communities and/or expanded into others, in no way do the ideas we held previously fade away into nothing. As a consequence we never reach a point of complete objectivity, where there exists no influence upon our minds beyond our individual thoughts/emotions. These social identities are intimately linked aspects of who we are. There is no “I” without the connections that have come before and exist now. If there’s any doubt about this, remember the next time a parent knows just what button to push, an old romantic interest gets your heart racing or thoughts of experiences past inspire new behavior.


Do We Need Conformity in Community?

Recognizing the innate and inevitable role that community plays in the building of our sense of self and the selection of our beliefs, leads to questions of our own autonomy and independence.  This is where the problem of social conformity rises, when the group identity has become so pervasively powerful that to question outside the proscribed ideological box is to invite ridicule, ostracism and a fragmentation of personal identity.

“James Robertson, author of American Myth, American Reality (1980), writes that myth is not only the story itself, but also unconscious attitudes extrapolated from stories and applied to real-world events. Myth is unconsciously drawn on and handed down from generation to generation as a model for understanding human nature and the world we live in (Robertson 1980: xv). Our thoughts and actions are based on sets of assumptions, often accepted without question and transmitted to friends, acquaintances, and offspring through our deeds and expressions without the slightest bit of conscious awareness. Since many of these messages are communicated non-verbally, the recipient is left with the impression that their conclusions are self-evident and require no further inspection. Opposition to these basic truths is seen as undesirable because it challenges and subordinates our sacred world-view; the illusion that ours is the only way.” (Morris, 2016)

Block (2008) mentions that a community has the feeling of having “come to the right place and are affirmed for that choice.” Morris, utilizing Jungian archetypes, explores this further with an understanding of myth. Rather than just a story, myth includes unconscious lessons that were handed down through families, and assumptions taken from within the connections of our friends and family, with the whole structure being taken as “self-evident.” This is the power of community, the ability to form a worldview and instill it within people in such a way that it is not questioned.

seeking-the-illusive-communityThus we come back to the question of conformity. It’s not so much that we need conformity and therefore seek it out, no, it’s that we’re driven to it by the very nature of our communal lives. This is not necessarily a bad situation. Structures for determining truth, the means of contemplating ethical behavior, customs, etc. are all part of what it is to live as human beings. Where these forms of conformity lead us astray is when such is no longer capable of holding enough of the ever-changing world to allow us the freedom to expand and seek out the near-infinite potential laden within humanity. We feel this pull every time we do that which we should and not what we desire, every time we ask a question and are told this is the way it is.


Effective Change

We have, then, a two-sided force focused on determining the right way to live: one that is prodding us to join and be counted, another that is wanting to be noticed from within the crowd. Neither is necessarily anti-human, only when one is ignored to the dismissal or detriment of the other does the rot of stagnation grow.

“The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together?” (Block, 2008)

We are no more going to remove the pressure and need for community than we are going to remove completely the notion that individual voices are meaningful. Shifts in community come from a recognition that there is a coherency for a reason, to bring together disparate people in a homogenous search for a well-lived life, but that such a pressure should not quiet the voices raised in thoughtful inquiry. They too are in the same search as the rest of us and perhaps, just maybe, it will be their voice inspiring others, that together, with a newly vitalized community, will send us onto new paths of discovery.


© David Teachout


Block, P. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Morris, R. B. (2016). American cultural myth and the orphan archetype. European Journal of American Culture, 35(2), 127–145. doi:10.1386/ejac.35.2.127_1

Further Reading:

Pinkard, T. P. (1994). Hegel’s Phenomenology: The sociality of reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Living Through the Maps of Your Mind

Living Through the Maps of Your Mind

Traveling usually requires directions. They may be obsessively precise or they might be confusingly opaque, but whether you’re deciding to turn down such and such a street or taking a right at the end of the fence-line, there’s still some level of guided movement involved. With GPS, the history of more broadly keeping an eye on where we’re going seems to, however, have gone away. Stories litter the Internet of people who got into accidents because they followed the GPS directions without paying attention to their surroundings. A base assumption seems to be that technology cannot fail, despite almost daily reminders of the opposite.

As it is with GPS, so it is with the mind and our mental maps of experience. Part of the assumption for GPS being wholly accurate is a likely ignorance concerning just how it works. For some people, there’s some vague notion of satellites and/or cell-towers, but even there the exact mechanisms of what is going on are as obscure as getting directions from a resident of a small-town without any road signs. Thankfully our minds, much as with GPS, work well enough that the blips in their functioning rarely cause catastrophe. Unfortunately, this means they get mostly ignored or shrugged away with little further introspection into what might be missing from our view of experience.

Let’s start with a couple declarations, in agreement with Fauconnier and Turner’s (2002) book The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities:

“…Nearly all important thinking takes place outside of consciousness and is not available on introspection…” and “…the imagination is always at work…”

If true, these starting points have a great deal of explanatory power when it comes to a broader understanding of those times when the mind makes connections we find profoundly unhelpful and/or unhealthy (obsessive thoughts and feelings) and sends us down paths that fundamentally change our notions of who we are (psychosis and other pathologies).

Just What Is A Mind-Map?

endocrinologyA typical map is a representation of the physical world and can serve multiple purposes: directions, land contours including elevation and slope, and the locations of various items, depending on need. A mind-map is much the same, a way of representing the world of our experiences to provide structure for the selection of potential behavior, the means of justifying that behavior through fundamental schemas and Values, and organizing the relationships of our lives.

As Lakoff and Johnson (1999) note:

“Living systems must categorize. Since we are neural beings, our categories are formed through our embodiment. What that means is that the categories we form are part of our experience! They are the structures that differentiate aspects of our experience into discernible kinds. Categorization is thus not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience.”

Categories are more than the signs seen at a grocery aisle, they are means by which our minds differentiate the whole of our experiences into disparate parts. Fundamentally we begin with the category of Identity, as in “me and not-me.” Were we incapable of separating our bodies from everything else, we’d have a hard time determining how and whether to react to objects, indeed the very notion of “reaction” assumes the mental framing of a relationship between two objects and infers a type of cause-effect relationship as well. Also at this fundamental level there is a category of Space, as in “inside and outside,” that when connected to thoughts and emotions we describe them as happening “inside us” and their effects orchestrating reactions “outside of us.”

These categories are not simply mental constructs, they have immediate and direct effects in how we live our lives. In fact, they are the means through which we act!

“Because relations that verbal humans learn in one direction, they derive in two, they have the capacity to treat anything as a symbol for something else. The etymology of “symbol” means “to throw back as the same,” and because you are reacting to the ink on this paper symbolically, the words you just read evoked a reaction from you…” (Hayes, 2005)

Just as the words, symbols representing linguistic concepts, on a page spark reactions in us, so too do the actions we take based on our mental categories. Unfortunately these categories do not exist within the realm of experience, they are instead ways of organizing our experience. This purpose is not at all concerned with providing Truth, rather is bent towards providing a guide for the relational interactive reality of our actions.

Consider the latter category of Space and its relation to thoughts and emotions. Were this a Truth and fully accurate, then a person’s feelings and thoughts would never interact with others, thus providing justification to the idea that “I can’t make you feel something.” When we recognize that the categories are about organization instead of a fully accurate representation, then we begin to see why empathy is such a powerful experience; it is a transaction occurring at a more basic level than our categories would have us initially believe.

Categories are simply one, however basic, aspect of mind-maps. It might help to think of them as the symbols on a physical map, letting you know what is meant by the short-hand  representation. There are also schemas (relationally-bound structures like Principles) to bridge our Categories and a process like Blending (Faucconier & Turner, 2002) that allows us to take aspects of one experience and help us expand our understanding of another, as in through analogy. All of these work through the broader mapping process of building associations.


A Winding River of Relational Associations

“When we think, we arbitrarily relate events. Symbols “carry back” objects and events because they are related to these events as being “the same.” These symbols enter into a vast relational network that our mind generates and expands on over the course of our lives.” (Hayes, 2005)

Consider the fact that lines and symbols on a map do not actually exist upon the land being traversed. This may bury the needle in obviousness, but such notions are often so “obvious” that the power of their effect is ignored. Lines and symbols on a map are a form of collective agreement, as a species across varying geographic locations and forms we’ve landed on a relatively universal means of organizing our planet. However, none of these things exist or have meaning outside the contours of our minds. Earthquakes, sea-level changes, erosion, etc. all routinely shift our maps at a base physical level and the political/military changes and conflicts change them at the level of ideology. Our maps are arbitrary, and sometimes capricious, not in the sense of not having any meaning, but that the meaning is quite clearly so capable of being changed at a moment’s notice.

Our mind-maps are not much different. We connect disparate data points into lines and symbols, stretching categories into schemas, living through Principles and Values as if these things have a life outside the relational bonds we live and breath through. They don’t.

As human beings, we can and do quite often engage in behavior that is contrary to stated goals, contrary to our well-being and incompatible with the goals and well-being of others. Our mind-maps are similar enough precisely because we’re all human and therefore allow us to organize ourselves enough to create societies and come to a consensus on things like the creation of physical maps. However, the associational process that supports all this is not a simple one-to-one or uni-directional.

“Humans think relationally…” and “are able to arbitrarily relate objects in our environment, thoughts, feelings, behavioral predispositions, actions (basically anything) to other objects in our environment, thoughts, feelings (basically anything else) in virtually any possible way (e.g., same as, similar to, better than, opposite of, part of, cause of, and so on).” (Hayes, 2005)

Consider that a singular social event like a protest can be looked at in almost as many ways as there were people participating within it. We each, every one of us, utilize mind-maps to organize our understanding, come to conclusions and therefore set us on a trajectory of response. Nobody does this differently, there is only variation in the information that is selected to support conclusions, the schemas being applied and the resultant behavioral response.

What allows us the freedom to grow and change is our ability to associate multiple things with one experience and build new maps guiding us into new realms of potential behavior. A childhood considered oppressive and dominating can later be looked at as supportive if perhaps ignorant; a beggar on the street-corner can be looked at as lazy and later seen as having fallen to forces outside their control; a woman’s body considered the property of a man’s can come to be seen as the source and embodiment of their independence; and those once considered “other” and open to ridicule and mockery can eventually be seen as belonging to the same great sea of humanity we all reside within.

The journeys of our mind-maps are the lines and symbols of our interactional lives.


© David Teachout


Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2002). The Way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. United States: Basic Books.

Hayes, Steven C.; Smith, Spencer (2005-11-01). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Kindle Locations 468-470). New Harbinger Publications. Kindle Edition.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.

The I of Our Identity

The I of Our Identity

There can be only one identity, one me that is, one I that moves through events observing and directing behavior. Personal experience seems to support this notion. Thoughts and emotions seem to arise out of the maelstrom of our internal world in response to information we believe ourselves fully capable of comprehending. Yet the seeming ease this occurs obscures a wider situation. If we switch our perspective to focus on the “one off” experiences we’d start looking at ourselves very differently.

What happens when we do things that “aren’t the real me?” What are we attempting to say when we respond to someone’s opinion of us with: “you don’t know the real me”? When confronted with behaviors we’d rather we never have done, the very notion of “doing better” means we have it in us to react in different ways to similar situations, so why did we not do so the first time? These questions and the answers to them are often based on viewing the self as if there is a real version caught behind a cloud or other obscurity.

“The recognition that something phantasmic (projected, imaginary) functions as a façade behind which the real thing might be hidden is implicit in all phenomena of pretence or delusion and it is also taken for granted in the many common, quite casual, expressions that refer to the ‘real’ world, self, or social state of affairs and enjoin us to return to it. Yet the relationship between fantasy and ‘the real’ remains perplexing.” (Hurst, 2012)


This facade or image or projection is, so we tell ourselves, not the real me and yet, where does it come from and who then is doing the behavior which the facade looks upon? The reality is that while we at times feel distant from what we do and feel disconnected from ourselves, this has far more to do with a desire to not look at ourselves honestly rather than any actual description of our lives. We are far more than any one action, emotion or thought, any singular framing of image or projection, with the greatest source of our limitation being a tendency to lose sight of this very fact.


Genetics As Destiny, But Not Really

When attempting to explain who we are, inevitably family is brought up and, at least to some degree, that means genetics. This gene-centered view of ourselves has been helped along in the last couple decades with persistent headlines declaring this or that personality trait, mental illness or disease has been found to have a genetic link. At an intuitive level, this focus makes sense as genetics is the basis for life and we all spend time wondering how much of our parents are in us as we develop.

four temperamentsThe most recent form the genetic-focus has taken has been in determining introversion and extroversion, terms connected to temperament (based all the way back on Hippocrates), a previous version of the genetic-focus. Just as there are online questionnaires now to determine where one is placed on the scale of intro and extroversion, so there was a time when temperament questionnaires were all about whether one was more or less melancholic, sanguine, choleric and/or phlegmatic. Whatever scientific basis either of these pattern-analyses have, and there is definite debate, the degree to which a person is comfortable considering genetics as playing a role in their personality has as much to do with finding comfort in knowing the origin for a particular trait as it does with considering how genetics works.

“One thing that early gene-personality work overlooked is that a lot has to happen to allow DNA to code for specific hormones/neuropeptides, that then have to act at the cellular level to subsequently influence personality. In short,genes need to be expressed at a cellular level in order to influence personality, and so one place where a genetic researcher might want to look to examine gene influences on personality is at this expression–that is, what genes are being unzipped by RNA, so that specific hormones/proteins are produced?” (Psychology Today)

Finding a singular gene-trait relationship is far from simple. One way to consider this is from the perspective of our own lives, where a consideration of the influences on our life exponentially expand with each social circle we expand our vision to. There are our immediate friends and family and co-workers, followed by their friends and family and co-workers and so on. Imagine each of those individuals being a gene, with varying strengths of relationship to each other person, the resultant entirety being your whole genome. While this image is not meant to convey precisely how genetics works, it does help indicate the complexity involved.

Another way of putting it is from the same article: “…conceiving of genes and personality not as simple one-to-one relationships, but instead, as complex systems of genes that work in concert to express a personality trait.” (Psychology Today)


The I At the Heart of Our Story

identity location

When asked how personality develops, Dan McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, discussed the potential role that genetics plays in providing aspects of our personality to us, then went on to describe the notion of a life story:

“A person’s life story is an internalized and evolving narrative of the self that reconstructs the past and imagines the future in such a way as to provide life with some sense of meaning and purpose. The story provides a subjective account, told to others and to the self, of how I came to be the person I am becoming.” (The Atlantic)

Consider that personality, as much as certain grounds of it may be provided for us by genetics, is the means through which we interact with others and our environment. Further, as in a story-book, our personality is far from being singular, instead a multi-faceted evolving process taking in new information all the time and responding in as consistent a way as possible. Personality, rather than a thing separate from the world, is instead a way for each of us to organize our experiences into a manageable and, to us, coherent structure.

When discussing the human need for coherence and comprehension of living, Hurst (2012) notes:

“It is most ‘realistic’, or closest to being true to the human condition, to admit a degree of uncertainty or undecidability concerning what happens and admit the possibility that there could be more to events than human cognition can cover.”

That uncertainty drives both the continued conscious engagement with an expanding life and the shifting nuance of our personality structure. We want to be prepared for as much as possible, to not be wracked by the winds of fate and chance. The way we do this is by working through the varied perspectives we’re connected to, in other words, the people we have relationships with.

“The semblance consists of multi-facetted appropriations of events, which incorporate, not necessarily harmoniously, my singular perspective (personal experience), the shared perspectives of various groups of others (consensual reality), and a phenomenal or objective ‘facticity’, which is intersubjectively shared among most humans because we share certain faculties.” (Hurst, 2012)

social interactionThis “semblance” of Hurst is the approximation of reality that our minds create,
essentially a perspective. Think of perspectives as the processing force of our personal identity (personality), with the facade we project to others being the outward face or response at the end of that process. If someone asked our opinion on a matter, we’d be letting them know of our perspective, shaped as it is by all the influences (past, present and considerations of the future) in our lives. That perspective will be threaded through the structure of personality you have that is determining how best to act within the situation, providing a face for others to interact with.

Looked at this way: perspective threaded through personality to build a facade or presentation to interact with the world, provides a much fuller picture when we talk of who we are. Rather than stalling at introversion or extraversion, melancholic or choleric, we see how our personalities are responsive from within a vast interconnection of social relationships. Instead of “I’m shy because I’m introverted,” it’s “I act shy because it slows down the number of interactions I deal with and is how I’ve learned to work within the world.” Instead of “I’m social because I’m extroverted,” it’s “I engage actively in building social relationships because I’ve learned to deal with the world through information gathering.”

By looking beyond personality labels to an exploration of personality systems, we move past static responses to situations and into dynamic places of potential behavior. Forces like genetics may have set a particular spectrum of possibility for each of us, but within that arch is a virtually unlimited ground for human expression if we but learn and stretch.


© David Teachout



Hurst, A. (2012). On the meaning of being real: Fantasy and “the real” in personal identity-formation. South African Journal of Philosophy, 31(2), 278–289. doi:10.1080/02580136.2012.10751775

Kraus, M. W. (2013, July 11). Do genes influence personality? Retrieved June 26, 2016, from Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/under-the-influence/201307/do-genes-influence-personality
Further Reading:

Further Reading:

Eysenck, H. J. (1990). Genetic and environmental contributions to individual differences: The Three Major Dimensions of personality. Journal of Personality, 58(1), 245–261. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1990.tb00915.ri

Roberts, S. E., & Côté, J. E. (2014). The identity issues inventory: Identity stage resolution in the prolonged transition to adulthood. Journal of Adult Development, 21(4), 225–238. doi:10.1007/s10804-014-9194-x



Being Present in the Space of Grief

Being Present in the Space of Grief

Grief, as much as it often inspires thoughts of separation, is our mind’s way of recognizing over and over how close we truly all are. Loss is as much a part of life as growth, each movement a step away from one space into and towards another. There is no gender, economic status or race that is exempt. The form loss takes and the way each of us works through the consequences will differ, though never in such a way that it cannot be felt by someone else. Grief binds us together like strings connecting a human collage, disparate pieces being reminded they all exist on the same canvas.


A Foundation of Empathy

Separation and bonding, frustration and mirrored tears, the duality of grief can be bewildering, regardless of whether it is initially felt by one person or joined in with another. The process of empathy is not the formation of a bond, but a focus on one that is already there. One definition is provided by Preston and de Waal (2001):

“…any process where the attended perception of the object’s state generates a state in the subject that is more applicable to the object’s state or situation than to the subject’s own prior state or situation.”

Don’t worry if the wording is confusing as the attempt is being made to offer a general definition for multiple distinct processes. Essentially it’s noting that empathy is any process where one person (subject) views another (object) as having a particular feeling or thought (state), such that what the person (subject) now feels or thinks is more in line with that of the other (object). In other words, empathy is a form of replacement of one’s own mental status for another’s.

The process has many forms, from the identity-melding of an infant with their mother to shedding tears when confronted with the suffering of another. Further, the degree of empathizing is not the same for everyone or for each situation.

“The more interrelated the subject and object, the more the subject will attend to the event, the more their similar representations will be activated, and the more likely a response. The more similar the representations of the subject and object, the easier it is to process the state of the object and generate an appropriate response.” (Preston & de Waal, 2001)

Empathy’s degree of response will increase in direct proportion to:

  1. How close the person believes/feels themselves to the other person or situation
  2. How similar the experience of the other is perceived to be to the person’s own

If a person holds a worldview that separates themselves from others and has a shallow background of experiences, then empathy has little to build upon. Consider this from the starting place of imagination, where the broader one’s vision of life is, the greater amount of available information there is for imagination to make connections that empathy can then use. This is one reason why we tend to feel a greater sense of loss for friends and family and loved ones than for near-complete strangers and why even those who we are close to will grieve over a loss that we find incomprehensible. No reaction on this scale is more or less human, more or less real, it is all a manifestation of empathy’s continued processing of information.

grief spillover

Seeing the Pain, Seeking the Human

Grief is the acknowledgement of connection to someone or something that has been lost. However much pain is involved, the foundation is that of connection, of being able and having the opportunity to feel with more than yourself. Any uncertainty or confusion can be mitigated by reminding ourselves of this, that the loss is real and connection comes first.

“Supporting Someone In Grief” (O’Connor, 2006)

  • Listen attentively. Allow space for silence and reflection.
  • Don’t use language that minimizes the loss or attempts to problem-solve
  • Remind the person there’s no deadline for grieving; they can take all the time they need.
  • Provide practical as well as emotional support, months and years after the loss.
  • Encourage lots of rest, nourishing food and moderate physical activity.
  • Acknowledge anniversaries.
  • Allow each person his or her own grieving style; there is no ‘right’ way to do it.
  • Encourage use of community services if needed.

This list from O’Connor is fundamentally about using our skills of empathy to acknowledge the uniqueness of the other person’s loss even as we seek to find something to connect to and help carry the burden. With an understanding of empathy, we can consider better how to be present within the space of grief. If we are uncertain how to be there for another or frustrated at our lack of understanding, a focus on fault is far less helpful than a consideration of where one finds themselves on the scale of empathy. Thankfully this scale is moveable.

Our ability to be present in the space of another’s grief, to share the bond of humanity, is, as was noted above in discussing empathy, expanded or limited by the vision of our lives. Merely acknowledging that the way we see the world does not encompass all of it allows empathy to grow. Actively engaging in experiences that move the boundaries of our comfort allows empathy to expand. The extent of our humanity’s expression is limited only by the depth to which we seek to explore it. When being present in the space of grief, we are taking part in a fundamental process of the universe, the cornerstone of the human spirit, that of relational reality.


© David Teachout


O’Connor, T. (2006). When grief is good. Intheblack, 76(8), 75-76. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/211289208?accountid=134574

Preston, S. D., & De Waal, F.,B.M. (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25(1), 1-20; discussion 20-71. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/212324365?accountid=134574

Further Reading:

Center for Creating a Culture of Empathy

Pomeroy, E. C. (2011). On grief and loss. Social Work, 56(2), 101-5. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/863249357?accountid=134574


A Context for Every Self

A Context for Every Self

“Who we are is a story of our self—a constructed narrative that our brain creates.” (Hood, 2012) The how of that construction provides ample space for frustration when our actions don’t fit what we believe ourselves to be; confusion when what we say is not as clear to others as it seems to be to us; and anxiety when confronted with terrible events and are unsure how to continue moving forward. Unfortunately the nature of self and how it is constructed is still a hotly debated topic with no clear winner, which means what is offered here is one opinion, though one with an eye towards helping some of the frustration and confusion diminish so we can meet adversity with greater clarity.


A Matter of Terms

To start, we need to look at a few ideas:


For most, this is a simple and rather painlessly easy task to answer, it’s “me” or “I.” Unfortunately that doesn’t really answer anything, as such is simply replacing one term with another. What we’re looking for is how the “I’ or self-concept is structured, the means through which it is formed so differently as the billions of people on the planet. With that in mind we can look at what is offered by Showers and Zeigler-Hill (2007):

“A starting point of research on self-structure is the assumption that the self-concept is contextualized. That is, a person’s self-concept in reality consists of multiple selves, distinct identities that are represented by organized bodies of both declarative and episodic knowledge (Cantor & Kihlstrom, 1987).”

Before getting too caught up in the verbiage, let’s break it down. Essentially the self-concept or “I” is a mixture of different forms of knowledge brought together into cohesive wholes. To use the story analogy, consider the self-concept as a book, with the various selves as the chapters, each of which contains declarative (facts and statements) and episodic (perceived experiences and situations) knowledge.

Importantly the selves here are relatively coherent in themselves prior to exploring any links to the self-concept or “I.” This is why we can have a “work-self,” a “private-self,” a “out-with-friends-self,” etc. The social and environmental context provides a holding space in which a particular self feels safer or more authentic. Nobody expresses themselves in the exact same way in every situation. Again from Showers and Zeigler (2007):

“All models of specific structural features allow for contextualized multiple selves, and most imply that individuals define their own multiple contexts for their identities. That is, the contextualized self is actively constructed by individuals who shape their own self-categories and contexts as part of their general motivation to make sense of the world and to function adaptively within it (Heider, 1946; Kelly, 1955; Mischel & Morf, 2003). Thus, contextualized identities may correspond to some combination of internal states (‘‘me when I’m happy’’), external environments (‘‘me at work’’), roles or relationships (‘‘me as a friend’’), or experiences (‘‘success’’).”

Authenticity is not about being the same all the time, but whether the variations in our behavior link to a broader pattern. In other words, can a person who knows you come to expect a particular set of actions when within a new situation based on what you have done before? There is certainly room here for the problems of assumptions and the common problem of thinking we know more about another person than we actually do, but essentially the charge of “hypocrite” is a declaration of “based on what I’ve seen before, you should be acting this way but aren’t.” We consider ourselves to be the same person not because there’s only one self, in this usage of the term, but because each self interrelates with all the others to varying degrees. How those selves connect is where we turn now.

Compartmentalized and Integrative:

multiple-facesThe multiple selves of the “I” can be brought together in two general ways: compartmentally and integrative.

Compartmentalization is about keeping selves as separate as possible. In staying with the story analogy, it would be like chapters being removed and given to a reader in no particular order and with little hope for getting the whole. There remains the potential for links to be found, but it’s difficult to do so, particularly if the contexts are widely separated.

Integrative structuring is about actively holding multiple selves with a focus on their linkages. This does not mean becoming a single self, rather it’s about dwelling on the similarities within the differences. Another way of putting it is noting the basic Values that a person holds, even as they manifest in different ways for each self as it moves within a particular context. A person can hold to the Value of honesty, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to share every intimate moment of their partner with people at work or express all a company’s inner-workings at home.


Finding Mental Health within Self-Concept

The process of a self-concept being formed is a constant journey of taking in new information, revision and an exploration of whether any new self will allow one’s expression in particular context with as much authenticity as possible. However, any knee-jerk responses should be curtailed immediately. While it may be easy to see where compartmentalization can lead to greater degrees of hypocrisy, both it and integration are tools, not systems connected to a black-and-white judgment.

Consider a person who’s job is difficult in an emotionally draining way or if it is perceived that a particular situation calls for a shifting of one’s Values for expression, perhaps where honesty is suborned to personal safety. Compartmentalizing is, in these situations, greatly helpful. Calling out hypocrisy is to ignore the demands being placed on the person. There are, however, consequences to using this tool.

“…for individuals with relatively compartmentalized self-structures, daily self-esteem reports fluctuated with the number of positive and negative life events occurring on that day. Moreover, compartmentalized individuals’ self-esteem was especially sensitive to a laboratory manipulation of social acceptance or rejection. In other words, compartmentalized individuals seemed vulnerable to dramatic shifts in self-evaluations in response to daily events.” (Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2007)

Notice that the vulnerability is related to the person’s connection with social relationships. Because the person’s various selves are more disparate or disconnected, there is a greater degree of instability when faced with adversity outside of the original context that called for compartmentalizing. As a behavioral example, the need for expressing more control in one’s personal life may be an attempt at mitigating the stressors outside of their separated work life.

None of this lets integration off the hook for potential consequences.

“Studies of structural self-change are consistent with the view that greater integration may often reflect an ongoing struggle to resolve negative self- or partner beliefs. This struggle may or may not be successful in the long run. Our findings suggest that it is most likely to be successful when the structure is positively integrated or when stress or conflict is low.” (Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2007)

master reconnectionIntegration is not an easy tool to use. By deliberately attempting to bring disparate chapters together to create a coherent book, it’s often like being handed them one at a time and without either headings or chapter numbers. As in the compartmentalizing behavior example, control may be utilized as a means of lowering stressors in order to diminish the perceived conflict between multiple selves.

Certain ideologies may be considered helpful in working with either of the tools available. A belief in an ordered world of black-and-white judgment can provide the grounds for finding comfort when faced with the feeling that a self is too different from what the world seemingly asks to see. For that matter, the inner conflict of working through integration can be salved through a belief in the need for a higher purpose, in any form, providing a way to link certain parts and leave others alone.

“Campbell et al. (1996) define self-concept clarity as the extent to which the contents of the self-concept are clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable.” (Campbell, Assanand, & Paula, 2003) The difficulty here is that internal consistency and confidence do not immediately translate to health or any social good. The contents of any self-concept are self-servingly selected by the person in question.

What may need to be kept in mind is that the formation of a self-concept or personal story is a constantly evolving one.  What to be wary of is whether one has stopped asking questions. Where stagnation emerges, growth has stopped. Integration may indeed be linked with a greater degree of psychological well-being, but integration is a tool for residing in an on-going struggle for internal cohesion. Such a journey is one that never ends, even as there can be found a degree of comfort in the exploration.



© David Teachout

Featured Art by Elreviae


Campbell, J. D., Assanand, S., & Paula, A. D. (2003). The structure of the self-concept and its relation to psychological adjustment. Journal of Personality, 71(1), 115–140. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.t01-1-00002

Hood, B. M. (2012). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Showers, C. J., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2007). Compartmentalization and integration: The evaluative organization of Contextualized selves. Journal of Personality, 75(6), 1181–1204. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00472.x

Further Reading:

Alatiq, Y., Crane, C., Williams, J. M. G., & Goodwin, G. M. (2010). Self-organization in Bipolar disorder: Replication of Compartmentalization and self-complexity. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 34(5), 479–486. doi:10.1007/s10608-010-9315-1

Turner, J. E., Goodin, J. B., & Lokey, C. (2012). Exploring the roles of emotions, motivations, self-efficacy, and secondary control following critical unexpected life events. Journal of Adult Development, 19(4), 215–227. doi:10.1007/s10804-012-9148-0

Reconnected Value: Working through Moral Injury

Reconnected Value: Working through Moral Injury

Trauma is a profoundly human experience, happening to anyone regardless of gender, race, or profession. The degree of its effect is varied, the form it takes is most certainly tied to environmental and cultural context, and what is called into question are the deepest aspects of our lives. While trauma is often immediately connected in terms of mental health with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), there is another framework being explored, that of moral injury. Despite moral injury’s current primary connection with military service, the exploration of it and attempts at offering a frame for working through it, can be helpful to anyone having experienced trauma.

Studies of PTSD have looked at trauma through the lens of fear, most often connected with an identification of potential or actual harm to self. Moral injury looks at trauma from a frame of ethics or moral schema. Trauma’s destructive potential reaches across the domains of mind and body to a level that is viscerally existential. The accompanying feelings, ranging from despair and anger to shame and isolation, draw a person’s focus from the social to the deeply personal. It’s not simply that trauma inspires fear and wariness that makes it so debilitating, it’s that the mind turns in on itself such that what was thought to be clear is now no longer so, what was believed to be true has been cast into shadow.  To explore that, we need to consider first the structure of how people form their perspectives.

 Viewing the World through A Moral Lens

We are, as a species, rather obsessed with determining what is just and right. When faced with adversity, common phrases like “that’s not fair” or “it’s just not right” abound, often accompanied by calls for justice, changes to a system, and/or a deep-seated feeling that something just isn’t right.

“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)

While Schulz is discussing “right” in the sense of accuracy of knowledge, the accompanying feeling is, I believe, where an innate ethic for living begins. Each usage of “right” is a form of assessment, an appraisal of the world and in particular, one’s relationship to it. We need to be right not merely because it feels good, but because that feeling of goodness provides a path for how one proceeds with their life.

brain to worldIn other words, no declaration of what is right, as a belief or statement of perceived fact, is absent of a degree of certainty as to its connection with how one should be or act. To use a philosophical phrasing, there is no statement of an “is,” in the sense of the world being a certain way, without an accompanying feeling of connecting such to an “ought,” or this is how the world should be now or always.

There are of course variations in this feeling. A person will have far less righteous indignation if another disagrees with them about what car manufacturer is the best, than if the debate is about when life begins as it pertains to abortion. For that matter, keeping with the car manufacturer example, the degree of emotional weight will shift precipitously if the discussion is expanded, in certain circles, to which one best exemplifies the values of their particular country.

Note the shift and there begins to be seen a frame of the appraisal relationship from person to world. We can say that the degree to which a person’s declarations of fact or belief are accompanied by a feeling of moral weight, is determined by:

  1. The perception of how central the belief is to a particular area (Value) of life.
  2. How many other areas (Values) of life the belief is connected too.
  3. The degree to which those areas (Values) are considered fundamental to self-image.

Let’s go back to the car manufacturer example. Whether another person agrees is incidental for Point-1, but add in how the manufacturer is or may be connected to nationalistic pride for Point-2 and that such is considered quite important in Point-3, the result is fiery exultation. If, however, the example is that of when life begins as it pertains to abortion, then Point-1 is often sufficient for accruing a great deal of moral weight, increased even more as other areas (Values) of life are considered and believed important.

The reason Values are associated with areas of life is because this is how people think and talk about their beliefs when there is moral weight attached. Remember that being right is about an accurate appraisal of the world, it is the projection of the relationship between the person and the world of their experience. We frame these relationships through the verbal short-hand of Values.

We can take a few common Values as examples:

  • Honesty/Trust: the relationship between one’s inner assessment and outer declaration
  • Family/Friendship: the relationship between self and others
  • Independence/Freedom: the relationship between one’s desire to act and the ability/social-support to do so
  • Integrity: the relationship between one’s stated adherence to a particular Value and the continued alignment of their behavior with it
  • Self-worth: the relationship between the internal-individual and external-social assessment of importance

Note that none of these Values have any particular form of behavior attached to it. Further, none of them come with any built-in, or innate, number for their importance. Indeed, that very importance may shift depending on the circumstance. There are situations where honesty may be considered subservient to life if telling the truth is perceived as leading directly to harm. Many find situations where their family or a friendship is considered more important than their self-worth. This in no way means that honesty/truth or self-worth no longer matter to the person, it’s simply that we assess a situation via a shifting hierarchy of Values, not in one that is rigidly formed..

Where we get into mental health trouble is precisely when Values are no longer looked at as tools for assessment, but as identifiers for an absolute connection to a particular behavior. Instead of looking at ourselves as relational beings, we are reframed as rigid automatons. Within this rigidity is where moral injury finds room to fester and a return to relational-ness provides the space for healing.

 Healing through Meaning-Making

The utilization of Values as an initial or foundational tool for experiential assessment grants an immediate moral weight to situations that is difficult to disconnect. When a person lies, it is immediately thought of as a betrayal, and only later, if ever, is there a consideration of why the person acted that way. When we ourselves act contrary to a particular Value, the chastisement and accompanying sense of shame happens first, and only later, if ever, is there an attempt at understanding the contextual constraints that led us to that behavior.

psi2This exploration views people as meaning-making  beings and seeks to understand how the gears of that process can be gummed up through trauma, sometimes so badly as to result in serious deficits to mental health. As part of this view of people as meaning-making beings, Values are here considered universal, though clearly the how of their manifestation in life and the degree of their importance, is both individually and socio-culturally determined. Our Values do not separate us from one another or contribute to a sense of shame and loss. Rather, it is the rigid conflation of particular behavior with Values and the conception of Values as belonging to a hardened hierarchy instead of a situationally-shifting one, that leads to the lasting harm of trauma.

“In a study of 23 clinical professionals with extensive backgrounds working with Veterans, Drescher et al. (2011) found that the most commonly mentioned warning signs of a moral injury included social problems (e.g., isolation, aggression), trust issues (e.g., lack of confidence in social contracts), spiritual and/or existential issues (e.g., loss of faith, questioning personal morality), self-depreciation, and a sense of betrayal, as well as PTSD and other mental health symptoms.” (Currier, Holland, & Malott, 2013)

Consider all these symptoms from within a framework that looks at Values as tools for assessing the relationship between self and world. We have here negative behavioral manifestations for Values of trust (lack of confidence in social contracts), spirituality (loss of faith), self-worth (self-depreciation), community (isolation) and integrity (betrayal). Is it then any wonder that the person no longer feels confident in their ability to assess their relationship to the world? The very tools previously used to do so have been shown, at least so it is believed, to be worthless.

Not every traumatic event, thankfully, results in the same degree of lasting mental health effects. To determine why, we can use the same three criteria here as before, substituting trauma for belief:

  1. The perception of how central the trauma is to a particular area (Value) of life.
  2. How many other areas (Values) of life the trauma is connected too.
  3. The degree to which those areas (Values) are considered fundamental to self-image.

Consider the betrayal of trust. Points 1-3 are all concerned with meaning-making, the structure of a person’s worldview and the degree of their connection to it. This is why the suffering from broken trust is greater when it happens with those closest and diminishes to almost nothing if the person or organization is considered to have little connection to the Value. Moral injury occurs when a particular Value is 1) cut off from a relational hierarchy and placed in an absolute one, 2) that Value is then connected indelibly with a particular form of behavior, 3) the behavior is violated.

This tri-part path for moral injury is why such trauma associated with the military and other organizations of rigid structure is likely so high; their centrality to a person’s life is all-encompassing, the areas of life they’re connected to are equally broad and the person’s self-image is deeply conflated with that of the organizational structure. When such a system is considered to have failed, there is little room for maneuverability; the person’s individual assessment tools, or Values, have been disconnected from the profoundly human relational system.

“The meaning-making model posits that recovering from a stressful event and its distress involves reducing the discrepancy between the appraisal of that event and global beliefs and goals within the person (Park, 2010). Meaning making coping such as positive reinterpretation coping has been shown to decrease the initial appraisal-global meaning discrepancy, which results in decreased distress (e.g., Folkman & Moskowitz, 2007).” (Riley & Park, 2014)

“Global beliefs” (see Footnote for further explanation) is synonymous here with one’s basic system or schema of Values . The discrepancy noted has been here looked at as a difference between the relational hierarchy of Values that is innate to each person (global beliefs and goals) and the rigidity with which Values are often associated with particular behaviors of self and/or other (appraisal of event). The hoped-for healing occurs when this difference is decreased.

light from a door To decrease the discrepancy and effect change upon chronic symptoms requires an appreciation for one’s innate ability for meaning-making and reclaiming Value as being centered within humanity her or himself, not in any particular behavior. This is an active, continuous response to experience of noting the variability in Values each situation possesses and how any single situation does not encompass the whole of how Value can manifest in a life.

This is a reminder that we as a species and individuals lie, cheat and steal, but we also show love, charity and forgiveness. A broken promise is not the end of honesty and trust, anymore than a lost dollar is the end of wealth and personal potential. The meaning-making of Valued appraisal is at the core of our self-stories, each narrative brimming with creative possibility. No situation, organization or ideology can hold that potential in its entirety and we should not let any restrain the healthy growth and exploration of our lives.


© David Teachout

Featured Image by Dylan Guest


Nash, W. P., & Litz, B. T. (2013). Moral injury: A mechanism for war-related psychological trauma in military family members. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(4), 365–375. doi:10.1007/s10567-013-0146-y

Riley, K. E., & Park, C. L. (2014). Problem-focused vs. Meaning-focused coping as mediators of the appraisal-adjustment relationship in chronic stressors. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(7), 587–611. doi:10.1521/jscp.2014.33.7.587

Schulz, K. (2010). Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Further Reading:

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., & Malott, J. (2014). Moral injury, meaning making, and mental health in returning veterans. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71(3), 229–240. doi:10.1002/jclp.22134

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., Drescher, K., & Foy, D. (2013). Initial Psychometric evaluation of the moral injury questionnaire-military version. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 22(1), 54–63. doi:10.1002/cpp.1866

Turner, J. E., Goodin, J. B., & Lokey, C. (2012). Exploring the roles of emotions, motivations, self-efficacy, and secondary control following critical unexpected life events. Journal of Adult Development, 19(4), 215–227. doi:10.1007/s10804-012-9148-0


“Contemporary models of coping suggest that maladjustment after trauma ensues from a mismatch between distressing realities associated with the stressor and one’s meaning system. According to Park (2010), there are two distinct aspects of this meaning making process, global and situational meaning. Global meaning refers to a person’s fundamental beliefs/values, goals, and subjective sense of purpose–all of which function together to infuse life with security and significance. Situational meaning largely refers to a person’s appraisal of specific events. Per Park’s model, the magnitude of posttraumatic symptomatiology corresponds to the extent to which certain dimensions of global meaning have been violated by a traumatic event. Challenges in recovery, as observed in cases of moral injury, may then arise to the degree that Veterans cannot integrate the appraised reality of their warzone experiences into global meaning and/or they cannot accommodate beliefs/values or life goals to “make sense” or (situationally) construct meaning out of these stressors. The process of working through such discrepancies is considered successful if the experience is reappraised in such a manner that it is either integrated into global meaning or if the Veteran adaptively revises his or her disrupted meaning structures to match the appraisal of the stressor.” (Currier, Holland, & Malott, 2013)