I recently had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Jared Levenson from “Eating Enlightenment” for a podcast interview. We covered a lot of topics, including shame, it’s relationship to eating disorders, religious ideology and my own journey from fundamentalism and how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be used in therapy and life in general.
I want to take a moment to look at how ‘tunnel vision’ works. We’ve all heard of bias and, if you’ve been reading me for any length of time, will recall I am at pains to remind people that bias is not only inevitable, it’s not something we can ever get away from. The best hope we have is to set up habits of introspective critical thinking as a counter to bias, to engage consistently with those habits and construct our lives around them. This means actively engaging with people and ideas you may not agree with. It means, when in dialogue, learning the other person’s perspective such that you can present it to them in the best way possible that they would agree with. It means recognizing how no single position or idea defines the whole of who a person is. Ideas matter, but so does intention. We can appreciate how a person wants to make the world better from within their own perspective, even as we condemn the real-world consequences of implementing their ideas.
The core of a healthy society is our collective ability to wrestle with big ideas, to learn how to be resilient in the face of difficulty, and to recognize that thoughts are changeable. To do the latter, we must engage with them, even if, when it comes to our own self-destructive habits, we do so for the purpose of letting them go.
Was a pleasure chatting with Jared and I encourage everyone to not only listen to our chat, but take a look at the services he has to offer.
I recently received a question concerning shyness and the person was convinced that their lack of confidence had resulted in the destruction of all their relationships. As I’m sure there are more people than this person who are working through their own level of shyness and lack of confidence in making social connections, I thought to share my response in the hope that others will gain something from it.
One of the best pearls of wisdom I’ve received is from Russ Harris’s “The Confidence Gap.” In it he notes: “competence breeds confidence.” I mention this and explain it further in my response below and I highly recommend people reading the excellent book.
Now my response:
If you are not writing this while sitting in a cave in the middle of nowhere, having run power cords from a village miles away, I’m going to assume that you have some various forms of social connections, whether that be friends of some kind and/or work connections. Let’s back up from the universal statements that you’ve “tried everything” and how this shyness has “ruined my life and relationships.” I think you’ll notice that you do in fact have relationships, the issue is that they aren’t what you would like them to be.
Which is perfectly fine to be frustrated about! Here’s why it’s important to step away from the universal condemnations: you have the skills to move forward, you’re just not seeing them and that lack of sight is making it difficult to build off of them in new ways.
Begin by looking at what you already do: how do conversations usually go? Do you go out at all? How do you respond to questions/inquiries in life and at work? It doesn’t matter whether your responses to all these are the ideal of what you want them to be, the point is to see what you’re already doing.
Once you’ve taken note of what you’re doing, consider next what you’re avoiding by not expanding on those skills. What is it about social connections that has you so worried and anxious that you don’t pursue them? If the answer is some form of rejection, note immediately that you’ve already achieved this by avoiding that very thing! Seriously, avoidance is fulfilling all your fears while lying to you about being helpful. Avoidance is an emotional narcotic, setting up the pitfalls you’re afraid might happen and then pushing you in anyway.
So, what next? If you want your life to continue the way it is, then by all means don’t change your behavior. If you want something different, then you have to try something else and a quick way of doing so is building off of what you’re already doing. Even if what you’re doing is 2% of where you’d like to be, it’s amazing what doubling that effort every week or so will lead to. Confidence is a trap when we try to seek it first, it’s like fool’s gold, shiny and great, until we run smack into our doubts again and it crumbles. Focus on the doing, no matter how small, and build up from whatever level of competence you’re currently at. Eventually your confidence will rise as you do more of what you want and this time it will last.
As a last point, acknowledge to yourself that this is going to suck. Anxiety isn’t necessarily a sign that what you’re doing is wrong, it’s simply an assessment that what you’re doing is different and outside your perceived norm. You’re going to have this feeling as you grow. Say hi to it, hug it, thank it for letting you know you’re exploring life and then let it go on its way have served its purpose. If you have to be present and let it go often at first, that’s ok too, emotions have a way of becoming a habit and like all habits, they’re difficult to change.
There’s a sense of empowerment in describing a personal experience as unique, special or otherwise different than anybody else’s. In particular when it comes to difficulty, a unique status builds a space for dismissing the wisdom of others and provides the ground for accepting its potential insurmountable quality. How often have we heard someone, when confronted by clear objective advice, say: “yes, but my situation is different”?
Certainly each situation, difficult or easy, is different in the sense of being built out of the particular variables in your life. However, at the level of principle, at the level of usable and workable life-skills, the differences are far outweighed by the similarities of both being human and living in a generally homogenous society.
People are Unique, Relationship Skills are Not
Which brings us to how particular forms of relationship are somehow intrinsically different than other forms. As a starting place, let’s consider ‘relationship’ as any form of interaction between two or more people and/or objects. The qualities that change are the depth of the connection and the extent of the effects. Because of those changes we apply different labels and judgments as to their meaning and importance.
Let’s be clear: you have as much of a relationship, at this base level, with the chair you’re sitting on as you do with the person you’re having sex with. If you don’t believe me, imagine that chair suddenly disappearing and you having an immediate intimate connection between your backside and the hard floor beneath you. Yes there was a relationship involved and just because you took it for granted doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. In fact, that very lack of awareness is often at the heart of so many difficulties in any form of relationship.
Monogamy vs Polyamory
With this understanding of ‘relationship’ in mind, we can look at two general labels or forms of relationship: monogamy and polyamory. Broadly speaking, the difference between the two is the latter allows for, if not is always engaged with, more than one sexual partner, usually with the intention of doing so within an agreed-upon level of commitment. That latter point of commitment distinguishes polyamory from, say, swinging. Honestly, there are numerous ways of looking at this and the point isn’t to get bogged down in minutiae.
Below, you’ll see a Venn diagram of “Relationship Problems” within monogamy and polyamory. This is not supposed to be indicative of how everyone views the differences, it’s just an example, albeit one with a list that seems to be offered up quite regularly.
Relationship Problems = Being Human
Let’s get the conclusion being offered here, contrary to the diagram, out of the way: there is simply no relationship problem that is different in kind between any form of relationship. The differences are always the particular variables involved, not some issue uniquely found within a particular relationship form. Further, the skills needed to address problems are generalizable across all the forms.
All of the problems here indicated are quite possible in any relationship between two or more consenting human beings. What the form of relationship will change is the quantity of the type of problem being dealt with and differences in the, hopefully discussed, agreements made between those involved.
Take for instance ‘hierarchy,’ a problem that supposedly only exists in polyamory. The complaints that “he’s married to his job” or “I’m a gamer widow” come to mind and those are just two. The inevitability of making choices concerning the priorities of interests is not solely the purview of a particular relationship form. The type of choices available will change, but that’s true of every relationship.
Unfortunately, there are any number of people in monogamous relationships who believe they’ll never have a problem with their partner loving someone else more or having to deal with being a priority.
On the other side, take “wanting to be intimate with other people.” To say this isn’t a problem within polyamory is to offer an idealized form rather than any practical reality. One of the stereotypes often encountered by people who label themselves polyamorous is the assumption they want to have sex with any and everyone. Not only is this not true, but typically the desire, when it does arise, is not immediately acted on without concern or discussion with the others involved. In that sense, the desire (a profoundly human emotional inevitability) is a problem, it’s just being handled differently and, hopefully, with a lot less melodrama.
Unfortunately, there are any number of people in polyamorous relationships who think they’ll never have to worry about being bored, or being concerned about whether they or one of their partners is getting too close to someone else.
What a Different Form Can Help With
The issue here is one of exclusivity, a belief that a form of relational connection cuts you off from potential struggles of being human. The problem with a hyper-focus on differences in relationship forms is two-fold:
One: there is much wisdom to be found from people engaging in different forms that can be of immense use in whatever form you’re currently involved in and…
Two: believing the form of relationship you’re in excludes you from having particular problems will result in being blindsided when they do happen.
What a look at different forms can give us is an appreciation for the vast potential in human connectivity. It is truly beautiful and wisdom is found in seeing how different forms deal with problems that arise. There are undoubtedly numerous behaviors that can be used in your form of relationship without compromising the agreements you have with your partner(s). Taking a look can be part of any journey you’re on with whoever is with you.
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.
This is the first of a 3-part series looking into the essential characteristics of Relational-ACT, the counseling philosophy behind the services provided by Life Weavings. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), created by Steven Hayes, provides a great foundation for counseling/therapy. Through study and application, I began to personalize it, finding the focus centered upon a philosophy that is relational at its core. Relationship is far more than a descriptive of human connection, instead being seen as a fundamental way of looking at our lives and effecting change.
Relational-ACT looks at our lives as an inevitable trajectory of intentional energy starting with Value, moving through Narrative, resulting in Behavior.
Values are the cognitive manifestation of an emotional state. No feeling exists unattached from a particular situation or object (person, place, or thing). This is because feelings are an initial evaluative tool. They’re an immediate way for us to start the path of our response to a situation or object. The way we describe our relationship between an emotion and what is being evaluated is through the use of a Value.
Two important points here about Values: one, they are not synonymous with behavior and two, they are an intrinsic part of humanity. Let’s unpack both.
Consider the value of community. How many ways can that Value manifest? School? Family reunion? Work? Church? Online group? Public interest gathering? Now think of a person from one of those types of communities, like a school, coming to your online group and declaring the Value of community can only be found in their school and how dare you believe that you hold that Value as important.
Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is. Values do not demand a particular behavior, as if there are ‘true’ and ‘false’ versions. This is because Values exist as a universal evaluative device to direct our attention to what’s important to us. They are the thinking side of our emotional identification, a cognitive short-hand to display our interests to ourselves and others.
The words people use for their Values are culturally derived, as is also how they manifest them. Culture here includes family, social environment, all relationship forms, local community and country. All these ways of differentiating us from one another do not remove the vast amount of similarities because of our shared humanity.
Remember that Values are not synonymous with behavior, there are multiple ways to show how one considers a Value to be important in their life. Further, if a person doesn’t show a Value in a particular situation, it does not mean they don’t care about it. Do you Value honesty? I’m sure you do. Would you be honest if it led to the harm of another? Likely not. Does that mean you no longer care about telling the truth? Of course not!
This seeming disconnect of one Value in order to express another is because Values are situationally driven. Remember that they’re evaluative tools, not behavioral directives. Values aren’t being removed, they’re just being selected within a context to help us determine how we’re going to relate to a particular situation or object.