This is the final part 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 behavior to be an indication of the direction or Value that one’s life is heading towards. As such, behavior is a source for constant appraisal of one’s consistency in pursuing a particular Value. Relational-ACT is founded upon a relationship model for the creation of perspective leading to change, where behavior is not an indication of moving towards a Value but exists as a pointer directing attention back to a Value it is supporting. We exist as an inevitable trajectory of intentional energy starting with Value, moving through Narrative, resulting in Behavior.
Behavior is our humanity interacting within the relational reality in which we all reside. Existing within that established social space, it not so much creates a new experience as discovers the potential residing within each situational context. This is why we cannot simply do anything we want, whenever we want, our behavior must manifest within the layered context of each personal Vision and social possibility.
Suspenseful scenes in television shows and movies are often built around the usage of light. A character will enter a dark room and pull out the tiniest flashlight you’ve ever seen, not bothering to flip switches or finding out they don’t work. An inevitable consequence is the villain will pop out of the darkness and surprise both the character and the audience, or a key piece for their journey will be missed. While it’s a useful prop for entertainment value, the image is not altogether different from real life, with our perspective being that of the tiniest of flashlights rather than a lantern or overhead light.
We enter the world, each of us, through the birth canal of our species, limited in the ways that are specific to our existence as human beings. We cannot run as fast as the cheetah, we do not possess the claws and teeth of a lion and we cannot swim underwater like a fish. From this starting point, what is possible for us is not at all infinite, and further constrained by the genetic, familial, and societal conditions that encapsulate our lives.
This Vision of Personal Expression encompasses all of our behavior, not just our outward physical reactions, but our mental and emotional behavior and the triggers that lie within us waiting to be clicked by circumstance. We do not and cannot see ways of behaving that do not lie within that possibility, though thankfully our Vision can move, as it does each time we react in ways that we wish we hadn’t and later recognize a different way of behaving in the future. The judgment of wanting to have acted differently can only happen because we are now in a different context, with a moved Vision of what is possible. Judgment does not mean accuracy, rather it’s a recognition of our desire to become better versions of ourselves.
Behavior exists as insight to our inner lives since we act based on what we believe ourselves capable of. Behavior is also an indicator of what we care about since we are triggered by what we find important and meaningful. Thirdly, behavior is also helpful in determining how our perception or self-narrative has limited us. Relational-ACT seeks to shift the focus on individual acts that leads to debilitating judgment of the whole person, by instead exploring each response within the context of the person’s life and their framing of it. This doesn’t remove responsibility so much as allow the relationships of our lives to show us new ways of reaching for the best of who we know ourselves to be.
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?
A 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.
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.
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.
The 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
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)
This “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.
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
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
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.
In 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:
The perception of how central the belief is to a particular area (Value) of life.
How many other areas (Values) of life the belief is connected too.
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.
This 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:
The perception of how central the trauma is to a particular area (Value) of life.
How many other areas (Values) of life the trauma is connected too.
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.
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.
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.
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)
The nature of our mind’s “I” is a delightful example of illusory control. We possess it when we wake up, lose it when we go to sleep and rarely consider the variations that reside between those two states. We hardly ever need to. Contemplation of our conscious lives is left to the supposed fanciful depths of philosophical analysis and is a point of acceptable ignorance for most of psychology. Only when things “go wrong” do questions of just what our mind is and how it operates come to the surface, much like we go about our lives blissfully ignorant of what occurs around us, until that fateful moment when we stub a toe or are struck by an object we swear appeared out of nowhere.
Thankfully we are not just our mental lives, we have bodies as well. More accurately, we each are a mind that resides and expresses itself within and through a body. The very nature of how our minds construct our perception of the world is through the mechanisms of the body. That natural, mechanistic and purely material process brings along for the ride of life a quality of change centered on the principle: “Identify that which is different.” This principle is a guide, providing us the great power of adaptability to the flux and flow of reality, and offering a means of differentiating that which supports or undermines our perception of reality.
“We learn that we are separate beings in the world, distinct from what is other than ourselves, by coming up against obstacles to the fulfillment of our intentions—that is, by running into opposition to the implementation of our will. When certain aspects of our experience fail to submit to our wishes, when they are on the contrary unyielding and even hostile to our interests, it then becomes clear to us that they are not parts of ourselves. We recognize that they are not under our direct and immediate control; instead, it becomes apparent that they are independent of us (Frankfurt, 2006).”
While the existence of a world beyond our own body is the basis of recognizing there are immutable facts about the world, facts that do not change however much we will it otherwise, this bodily experience runs headlong into our mind’s ability to form perceptions through data selection.
Go down memory-lane, it helps if there are physical pictures available, and you’ll quickly notice in the pictures that the body now moving about is quite different than that which came out at birth and developed as a child. Now, notice the differences between memory and photos, where in memory there is never a reflection upon that different body, the perspective is always projected outward where your body doesn’t reside. Our sense of identity gets its feeling of continuity precisely because the quality of change, pervasive throughout our lives, is not selected for when considering the memories of our life.
In fact, an active consideration of the body is rarely selected for contemplation during the vast majority of our experiences. We only take notice of it when passing a mirror, come into contact with another object or are otherwise forced to consider our appearance because of social mores like “what should I wear to this interview.” The same can be said of a great many other things in our lives, they come to the fore of our conscious consideration only when having jarred our otherwise smooth journey from moment to moment.
This lack of neutrality about the world points to how we are actively engaged within it. We do not operate from a wholly separate place, we are embedded in the world, its objects providing structure for our actions and as focuses for the creation of meaning and purpose. This is accomplished by the selectivity with which we conduct our lives and out of which we form our beliefs. We actively promote behavior that encourages the continued acceptance of our beliefs and dismiss or otherwise disregard behavior that does the opposite, whether that behavior belongs to ourselves or those around us.
It is this active selection that brings us to the nature of delusions:
“A delusion is a belief held by an individual or group that is demonstrably false, patently untrue, impossible, fanciful, or self-deceptive. A person with delusions, however, often has complete certainty and conviction about their delusory beliefs. They resist arguments and evidence that they are wrong” (Psychology Today)
Before going further, here’s an overview of the standard types of delusions (also from Psychology Today):
Erotomanic – a belief that someone, often famous, is in love with them
Grandiose – a belief that one is special or possesses special abilities
Jealous – strong belief that a partner is unfaithful or has cheated
Persecutory – belief that someone or group is conspiring against
Somatic – a belief that some portion or entirety of one’s body is strange or not functioning properly
These types all have in common the careful selection of information to fit and/or support the continued belief. Further, as the definition above notes, the person has “complete certainty and conviction” that what they believe is an accurate portrayal of their experience. Indeed, it is that very careful selection of information that allows for the depth and certainty of the belief to continue.
Looking at the types and considering one’s personal history, there shouldn’t take much time to find examples, albeit of a much smaller degree. Believing that one is capable of something others know is patently impossible. Being convinced that one’s partner is unfaithful, or someone is out to get you. These happen to all of us, at different times in our life and leading to varying degrees of personal disruption. As noted above in our exploration of personal experience, it is filled with gaps of information we rarely desire to fill in unless pushed to do so. Therefore it is safe to say that, contrary to the opinion that those suffering from delusions are somehow different from or outside the norm of humanity, the process that gives rise to their beliefs is fundamentally no different than everyone else.
What characterizes the difference between the pathological identification of a delusion and standard beliefs are two qualities:
The degree to which a person resists arguments and evidence.
The harm to self and/or others that the belief directly results in.
Unfortunately for those desiring an easy answer to the nature of pathology, these two qualities are not objectively simple. This lack of clear lines leads to declarations of delusion being used as condemnation or pejoratively when faced with someone with whom there is disagreement.
However, mere resistance to argumentation does not mean the person is delusional, unless the conclusion to be reached is that we all are. Evidence does not exist without an ideological structure to explore it and count it as evidence for or against a particular proposition or belief. Harm, outside the obvious of death and dismemberment, is frightfully difficult to clearly demonstrate and often has as much to do with what is considered contrary to the status quo than a nuanced consideration of the person’s wellness.
Thus it is that we come back to the beginning, to the nature of our mind’s “I” and the body within and through which it relates within and to the world. There are very real harmful beliefs that can be called delusional. The identification of them and interventions created to curtail their destructiveness should be pursued vigorously, but done so with the humble understanding that the delusions do not separate those who have them from the rest of us. In fact, their existence should be a constant reminder that our minds operate in much the same way and the distance between normality and pathology is in no small part a matter of perceptual degree.
Reflect on almost any day and there will inevitably be recalled an event where one’s reaction was either stronger than retrospectively desired or perhaps even came out of seeming nowhere. Unfortunately for our own continued self-doubt and the hurt affected in others, our emotional and subsequent behavioral responses are not often carefully constructed, but arise as if flame from a struck match. Being caught up in a moment of emotional reaction is a foundational part of being human, where we find our emotional mind and the behavior that results is generally much quicker to respond and more drama-inducing than our rational mind subsequently desires.
We know our emotions generate behavioral actions and inspire further reactions precisely because of that cognitive tool called empathy. Empathy is the ability to reflectively identify an internal feeling as being similar in kind to another’s internal feeling and is the ground upon which every relationship, personal and public, grows. Consider empathy as being like a swiss-army knife of emotional union. The number of tools available for empathy is limited by the imaginative capacity of each individual. That capacity is the means to actively construct the tools or forms for empathy to connect with in the other person. One way of looking at this is considering imagination as a connect-the-dots image-maker expanding the reality we’re aware of. The available dots and their connections stem from the disparate parts of our past and present experiences. Fantasizing and daydreaming are but a couple of specific references to this general process. We never simply make things up out of nowhere, we’re always drawing from our experiences.
These image-constructs are as multi-varied as the narratives we have of ourselves. Similarly then to our own stories, the image possibilities are contingent upon the health and extent of our attachment dynamics within human inter-relational experience. As Schipper et al. (2013) note:
“Frith and Frith (2003) argue that the processes of assessing others’ and one’s own mental states are closely related. This relation of assessment processes suggests that empathy deficits might lead to difficulties in assessing one’s own mental states (Moriguchi et al., 2006), possibly holding for cognitive as well as emotional states (Samson, Huber, & Gross, 2012). Therefore, deficits in empathy might relate to difficulties not only in reading and labeling emotions of other people but also in reading and labeling one’s own emotions. If this is the case, empathy deficits are likely to trigger emotion dysregulation.”
We can unpack this by going back to the notion of imagination as a connect-the-dots image-maker, empathy then filling in that form with the feeling of interconnection. One example of this kind of thinking is the images people create out of stars, connecting the dots of celestial entities into known images. Picture a section of sky, where each pinprick of light is a reference point for experiences in life. Then attempt connecting those dots, noting how doing so fills in the stories we have of our lives. Now picture a section of sky for another person. Ignore for a moment that they have their own lines of connection and see how certain points of light seem to overlap with your own, similarities in experience matching up enough so that when the story gets told there’s material there to identify with, or as is more commonly said, empathize with. These near-overlapping points may be as subtle as the clothes a person wears to their manner of speaking, and as complicated as ideological identification and unique cultural behavior. Making this a bit more complex, the extent of our ability to note overlapping points is in no small way contingent upon our intent. We can shrink or expand the actualized points of potential overlap depending on our intent or desire.
Empathy as a cognitive process never stops, it simply ebbs and flows based on the extent of the forms available via imagination to connect with another person. Low empathy can be considered here as having a reduced number of forms available for connection. This may be due to personal history, even as it may be due to the context of the relational situation. Whatever the limitations, they are not a fault of the person so much as an indication of the extent to which a relationship will form. Let’s be very clear here: no action committed by an individual exists outside of a relational construct. What one is capable of manifesting with one person may be quite different with another and this is entirely based on the potential that resides within the combined space of inter-relationality. All a higher empathic ability indicates is a person’s larger repertoire of imaginative constructs allowing them to feel connections within more situations with a more disparate number of people.
Going back to our celestial analogy, the dots overlap but whether they are seen by each person as doing so is contingent upon the potential forms available to each person. The greater number of images able to be imposed the greater the empathic possibility. Note that the images of each person do not have to agree. One person may see a fish, the other a cougar.
Here is where difficulty arises.
“Considering the presented information, we assume that a healthy amount of empathy builds the foundation of an effective emotion regulation. This would not only imply that empathy deficits in terms of low empathic abilities might trigger emotion dysregulation, but also assume that a too high amount of empathy is a potential trigger of emotion dysregulation” (Schipper et al., 2013).
We feel before the constructs of our relational forms develop. This makes sense, as in order to build a form for something we have to have an idea of what we’re working with. The ebb and flow of empathy starts with basic forms found in our original attachment relationships, usually with our care-givers as babies and children, and then expands as new forms develop based on new experiences. Each connection we engage with shifts our capacity to imagine new relationship forms, expanding the means through which we experience life.
Our ability to regulate our emotions is found within the extent to which the forms we have at our imaginative disposal are able to deal in a healthy manner with these new experiences. A low-empathy ability will be constrained by fewer forms available and therefore a person will feel a level of dysregulation when faced with situations/experiences that don’t fit. The flip-side of dealing with this will be for the other person a sense of perceived control and a struggle to step out of the limited forms of relationship the low-empathy allows. A high-empathy ability may at first appear as if it wouldn’t be a problem, but dysregulation can occur when the forms available are so numerous that there is difficulty in determining how best to relate. The flip-side of this will be a sense of not knowing which aspect of the person is going to show up for the next encounter.
Notice that in neither of the two empathy levels is the constraint found only within one person. Empathy and the forms it manifests through do not exist outside a relational reality/context. The extent of a potential relationship is a combination of all that is brought to the union between two or more people. While the experience of feeling constrained by a limited relationship form can be stifling and the experience of dealing with someone who doesn’t know how to fit can be frustrating, this is not a summation of the whole person. Placed in a different context and/or with a different person and the difficulties will melt away, though perhaps also simply manifest as different difficulties.
Relationship as a foundational quality to reality manifests within humanity through this imagination/empathy mechanism. Empathy never stops. Whether we consciously acknowledge its continued presence or not, the flow of our relational lives will change what behavior we manifest. If we keep our imaginations stunted through the rigidity of our thinking, the result is the same as if we were to attempt the chaos of having no form at all: the dysregulation of our lives. The path between rigidity and chaos, where active engagement with living means evolving our ideas of relationship, is the path of greatest exploration, personal expansion and emotional expression.
Schipper, M., Petermann, F., http, al, et, Georgi, E., Gyurak, A., & Rueda, P. (2013). Relating empathy and emotion regulation: Do deficits in empathy trigger emotion dysregulation? Social Neuroscience. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17470919.2012.761650