Who Is in Charge?

Having an internal locus of control leads to a sense of agency which leads to action which leads to growth. Gerd Gigerenzer

When we take full responsibility for our experience, we begin to gain mastery over our own lives. We know that we cannot control everything that happens. We know that there are injustices, accidents, and harmful intentions. And yet, ultimately, we make of our lives what we are able to make. We cannot do anything about some of the things that happen to us and with us. But the art of living is, in some sense, making the choices we are able to make and learning which ones we have to let go of. Our freedom comes, not from ensuring outcomes, but from putting our efforts toward what we choose to work toward.

Developing the skills to navigate our lives is a lifelong practice. We constantly learn and revise, fall down and get back up. We have losses, which are anything that happens which we do not want to have happen. We learn to withstand losses, to share them and turn toward our solid relationships. We learn to cherish the gifts and build where we can. Long term therapy is about learning to reflectively recognize our own inner distortions and obstacles so that we can make clearer, more accurate choices at each of the small crossroads in our lives.

There are many ways to come to know our inner lives better. The important point is that there is value, immeasurable value, in developing an intimacy with our own deeper selves. The outer world is clearer; we come to an appreciation of ourselves; and by extension we come to an appreciation of the imperfect people around us. It is easier to duck difficulties and avoid our own inner conflicts, but that only provides short term relief. As usual, the easy way is not necessarily the most constructive way to go at building our lives.

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So I am in the middle of reading “Brain Energy” by Christopher Palmer. The author is a psychiatrist at MacLean Hospital, which is part of Harvard University, and a professor of psychiatric education. Palmer writes that mental illness, or psychological distress, is fundamentally a metabolic disorder of the brain. He claims that metabolic disorders underlie many of our chronic conditions, including heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes, in addition to contributing to many psychological disorders diagnosed as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and addictions.

Palmer considers many contributing causes to psychological distress, including genetics, medications, hormones, inflammation, sleep and light, food, drugs and alcohol, physical activity, love, adversity, and purpose in life. His contention is that our current treatments do not work because they do not address the fundamental causes of distress, but simply suppress symptoms. Palmer’s contention is that we can substantially improve our mental (and physical) health by making lifestyle changes that support and repair our mitochondrial function, which regulates our metabolism.

This argument is in line with a recent article published in Aeon online: The Empty Brain by Robert Epstein. Epstein argues that brains are not like computers. At all. Epstein says:

“We are organisms, not computers. Get over it. Let’s get on with the business of trying to understand ourselves, but without being encumbered by unnecessary intellectual baggage. The [Information Processing] metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the DELETE key.”

In other words, we are complex living organisms each with a unique set of experiences, perspectives, and behaviors that emerge from the situations we are in. As we make efforts to build our most desirable lives and to reach our own ideals for ourselves, the strategies we adopt and invent will vary from person to person and for ourselves over different times in our lives. It doesn’t mean there is no benefit in learning from other people’s experiences, including the experiences of professionals, but it does mean that we are responsible for coming to understand ourselves and making decisions about how to construct our lives. No one has the secret. Or the right answer. We can learn from other people, but we create our own lives. We may never have certainty, but we can continue to improve.

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The Reality We Hope For

Sometimes we become so attached to our thoughts that they become a part of our identity. We assume that what we are thinking or feeling makes us a good person or a bad person. And not only that, but our views feel like the essence of who we are as people. As a result, when someone else has a different view, or questions the basis of our own views, it feels like a personal attack or a large moral issue. We feel threatened on the level of our existence. I guess this is what philosophers mean by existential. It does matter that we have judgement about our lives and our preferences, but it also matters that we engage in processes of communication that are expansive and curious.

Upstream from our thoughts and feelings we have a set of values: the core meanings that matter to us. What we value says something about who we are, and in many ways we believe we value the good. That means that people with similar values feel like good people and people with different values feel like bad people. And that is why we get so polarized: because we have divided ideas into good and bad. And in many ways that is important. We put our resources–time, energy, and attention– into what we think matters. Since our resources are limited, we want to use them in the service of what we think is good.

So we have to have preferences. But sometimes we view other people as unidimensional: we forget how complex people are and how there could be a range of important values. We reduce other people to polarized views of their opinions. It seems to me that many people are dismayed by the divisiveness both locally and globally, but we don’t know how to join harmoniously without giving up what we think is important. Do we need to provide for our citizens? Do we need to educate our citizens as our most important resource? But how would we do that? Do we think too much help disables people? These concepts arise from our deeper values, and they do not represent simple cause and effect realities. The Buddhists say that whatever is going on is emerging from the existing conditions. It is not caused by one thing, but emerges from many.

So if that is true, then we are tasked with creating the conditions out of which will emerge the perspectives and actions that align with what we think is important. In other words, how do we facilitate the emergence of the reality that we hope for? Oh dear, this is getting way too philosophical. The point is, we care, and that is a good thing. And also we can make space to be curious about other people’s views without betraying our own. And those views are not feelings or thoughts, but choices about what matters, and what matters to us is vital to our identities.

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Private Reasoning and Public Reasoning

It seems that the philosopher Immanuel Kant described two types of reasoning: private and public. He thought true maturity was the capacity to reason about our lives with resolution and courage. We are simultaneously living our lives on two levels. (Kant didn’t say that exactly, but I’m using that thought to explain the main idea.) We have the practical, personal aspects of our lives and we have the larger, social aspects of our lives. So we are thinking about how to do our jobs and how to take care of our families and how to be healthy and happy. And we are thinking about the larger systems we live within–the social, global, political systems and their impacts and management.

To put it concretely, we think about how fast we are driving in relation to the speed limit and make judgements about whether we need to slow down or speed up. That is private reasoning. But if we think about whether there should be speed limits, or whether this speed limit is reasonable at all, or whether respecting speed limits is a good thing in every case, that is public reasoning. I guess it means that private reasoning affects only me and public reasoning is about the larger society.

Kant thought that for a society to be truly mature, or enlightened, people must engage in both kinds of reasoning. We have to follow rules and do our jobs and take care of each other, but we also have to step back and evaluate our lives, our rules and our jobs and make judgements about the larger picture of our communities and ourselves in the world.

This idea gets complicated when we have feelings about these kinds of reasoning. Antonio Damasio writes in “Descartes Error,” that if we don’t have feelings, we cannot reason. We have to know what we care about in order to have judgement and reason. But at the same time, we can get so attached to our ideas, our reasoning, that we are unwilling to step back and reflect on our perspectives. It is difficult to recognize that we are filtering our experience and our opinions through world views that are received or learned. We somehow come to think that we have a privileged, accurate perspective of reality and we have difficulty recognizing our own distortions or being open to other views.

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From Object to Person

It has been my great pleasure over many years to talk with people about their unique paths toward inner growth and integration. Sometimes I talk with people individually and sometimes I talk with people who are couples. I have been enchanted recently to see that some couples evolve from seeing their partners as objects to seeing them as persons. I had not quite thought of this change in this way before. This shift is evidence of a deep kind of growth for each person. I will have to pay attention and see if it is usually in tandem with each other or if sometimes one person makes this jump before the other person does. Currently it seems to me that it can be either co-created or individual (one-sided).

In psychotherapy there is a set of theories that are called “object relations.” In these theories, there is a recognition that we cannot have a self without early reflections from an other–primarily mothers. So these theories understand human distress as a disturbance in the person’s learned process of creating relationships with other persons, who are designated as objects. Object relations theories were a huge step forward from Freud’s view, in which there was little interest in the other people or the relationships, but just in the internal “drives” in the infant and adult. But even though these theories were better, there is something odd about calling a person an object.

Earlier I wrote about Aristotle’s view of friendships. Aristotle thought there were three kinds of friendships: Friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of admiration. This third kind of friendship, where we want to come to know another person because we admire their values and their ways of going at life, is really about wanting a real understanding and interaction with that other person–regardless of ourselves or the effects on us. It is about wanting to have a relationship with that other person as they really are, and not as we need them to be. This kind of relationship is based on a deep respect for who the other person really is, in their own life, separate from us.

There is often the assumption early in a relationship, with friends or lovers, that we are going to make each other happy–because that is what happens in the beginning of a new relationship. We feel so happy to have found each other. So we assume that is its function. But the drivenness of infatuation fades, and the other person turns out to be a real person and not a cardboard character and not the fantasy we have in our heads, and the rubber hits the road. When this happens, some couples are disappointed but figure that is just life, no one is perfect; some couples give up and divorce or separate and look for the next infatuation rush; and some couples try to regain the illusion of infatuation between them.

But sometimes, when I am sitting with a couple, as we are talking through the disappointments, hurts, missteps and unskilled actions, a couple will have the courage to question their own assumptions.They will stop blaming the other persons for making them unhappy, and they will genuinely recognize that they themselves are the authors of their own unhappiness. They will begin to recognize how they are using each other as objects and not allowing themselves or each other to be real, flawed, human, human beings. And they will also recognize that they are each seeing themselves as an object who has to be what the other person wants or needs them to be.

When this shift begins to happen, it is sometimes as if they see each other for the first time. Not as how the other person makes them feel and not how the other person provides functions for them, but as a vulnerable person in a challenging world, sometimes magnificent and sometimes petty. And then there is a point where they have freedom from the expectations of each other. And then they can truly decide, even every day, to stay together as partners in life–not merged, but joined hand in hand– or they recognize that their initial decision to join forces was based on a terribly inaccurate illusion and that they cannot co-create lives in tandem. And that’s okay because it is real, and it frees them to be themselves. And for me, because I sometimes have the privilege of sitting with a couple when they begin to make this shift, it generates this profound sense of awe. There just is no other way to explain it.

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Intrapsychic Pain

Intra means within. Psyche is mind. Pain is feeling hurt. Intrapsychic pain is feeling hurt inside of your mind. Intrapsychic pain is created and becomes a habit due to experiences over our lifetimes. We are not born with it. It is learned because of our life experiences. Intrapsychic pain is what the Buddhists refer to as suffering. Pain is inevitable in life, but sometimes we are our own worst enemies, and we make the inevitable distress of everyday life worse by adding on our own intrapsychic pain. The distress might be unavoidable but the suffering is optional.

We cannot chose to have a completely distress-free life. We cannot avoid the unexpected losses and problems of normal everyday life. But we can learn to recognize and repair our motives for creating intrapsychic pain. We can learn to see how we make our lives more unhappy, more difficult, or more stressful than necessary. It is easy and feels reasonable to blame our difficulties on something outside of ourselves: other people, bad circumstances, political conflict, or bad luck. When we do that, we don’t feel responsible, and we don’t feel like we are doing something wrong, so it feels better. But the downside is that when we believe we are victims of outside circumstances, we create an experience of being helpless in our lives. We know we cannot control the world, and so we feel stuck with the unhappiness in our lives.

But when we can see that we are making things harder, we are piling suffering onto unavoidable unhappiness, or we are complicating an already complicated set of demands and tasks, we can begin to have some choice about what we do about that. We can learn to say “no” to our own internal self-sabotage, instead of “no” to the outside world. We can reclaim agency in our lives and regulate what we can regulate: our internal stories. It is difficult to see that we are distorting our reality. And it feels bad. But the way to freeing our minds is recognizing what is real, based on the information (data) that we have, and what is not reality, but interpretation and open to revision.

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Uncertainty and Belonging

Recently I am hearing from a number of people that they are feeling somewhat untethered. They aren’t doing enough or the right things or they don’t know what to do. They are uncertain, fearful, and also trying to be hopeful. They don’t recognize this directionless version of themselves. They feel vulnerable or isolated. Some people are seeking distraction or pain relief from the fear. Or they try to invent strategies to control the future.

I looked back at my notes from Sharon Saltzberg’s book Faith. (Definitely read it.) Here is what she says: “The classical definition of faith in Buddhism is: to draw near, to place the heart upon, to set forth.” She contrasts faith with belief: “It’s not the existence of beliefs that is the problem, but what happens to us when we hold them rigidly, without explaining them, when we presume the absolute centrality of our views and become disdainful of others.”

And here is where faith in her definition leads to belonging: “Being alive necessarily means uncertainty and risk, times of going into the unknown. If we withdraw from the flow of life our hearts contract. We hold back so much that we feel separate from our own bodies and minds, separate from other people, even people we really care about. In the grip of other intense emotions, like grief and jealousy, we might feel anguish, but fear shuts us down, arrests the life force. To be driven by fear is like dying inside.”

She quotes Rilke: “Rilke wrote: ‘So you must not be frightened…If a sadness arises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness like light and cloud shadows passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think…that life has not forgotten you.'”

Our attention shifts from the unwanted experience to our awareness of it: “The open nature of awareness can bear anything without becoming damaged. Relying on this unsullied nature, we can see whatever happens to us as part of the rising and passing of all phenomena. This understanding doesn’t make us passive but gives us the ability to see things with a different perspective—knowing that there is always an intact place within us….

“Our passion, our joy, our calm, and our confidence are all rooted in this offering of our hearts to an expanded vision of who we truly are and the love and awareness we are capable of.”

This feeling of belonging and trusting the larger reality is a decision and a commitment. A decision to see ourselves as part of a larger story and a commitment to keep returning to engaging with our lives and being with our experience. Questioning, yes, doubting, yes, but even then, remaining open to a larger vision. We belong because we see that we belong. Our feeling of isolation and separateness is just an illusion. Amazing.

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Carl Rogers’ Fully Functioning Person

I’m just reading this paper from 1963 (“The concept of the fully functioning person”) in which Carl Rogers, the creator of person-centered psychotherapy, describes how a person becomes as a result of person-centered psychotherapy. Here is what he says:

“A person functioning freely in all the fullness of his organismic potentialities; a person who is dependable in being realistic, self-enhancing, socialized and appropriate in his behavior; a creative person, whose specific formings of behavior are not easily predictable; a person who is ever-changing, ever developing, always discovering himself and the newness in himself in each succeeding moment of time. This is the person who in an imperfect way actually emerges from the experience of safety and freedom in a therapeutic experience…”

What is interesting is that he has an idea of what a psychologically healthy person would be like. Sometimes we get so focused on what is not working, that we forget to form an idea of what it would be like if everything were working. We know that we will have challenges in life, that we will have happy times and unhappy times, that we will make mistakes and we will not always understand things enough to make good judgements. Sometimes we expect one hundred percent happiness and perfection all the time, and we feel disappointed, and incompetent, when we can’t make our lives feel that way. We feel like there is something wrong with us and that other people have figured something out or have some secret or some key that if only we knew what it was, we would never be sad, or angry, or lonely again.

Perhaps the trick is realizing that if we can meet our experience, moment by moment, with flexibility instead of rigidity, with a basic trust in life and in ourselves, and with an acceptance of imperfection, that is the best anyone can do. Then we will find that our responses to our experience are both appropriate and proportional–we will be sad about things that are sad and angry about things that are unfair and happy about things that are good, and all those feelings will match the magnitude of the experience. We won’t be manipulating reality to match some inner expectation or picture.

So part of our growth over our lifetimes, is freeing ourselves from imprinted habits of thinking and feeling so that we can be open to the reality we are in. So many people have said to me recently, something akin to: “I wish I could go back to the way things were before.” And if you stop and think about it, in that earlier, better time, were you appreciating it as you were in it? So five years from now, when you look back at this time, what are you going to wish you had enjoyed or done or paid attention to? Maybe you can do that now instead of feeling nostalgic later.

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Bad Faith

So I am reading an essay about Simone de Beauvoir’s book “The Coming of Age,” which is about how we respond to older people. One of the interesting concepts in the essay is the explanation of de Beauvoir’s idea of bad faith. There are two kinds of bad faith: denying the facts is one and denying our freedoms is the other. The example given in the essay is this: If a waitress applies for a job as a CEO, then it is bad faith about the facts: a waitress does not have the skills to be a CEO generally. But if the waitress believes she will never be anything other than a waitress, then this is bad faith about freedom.

This is an interesting idea about living within the reality we inhabit, while also recognizing the genuine choices we have. And that distinction is a judgement call. I find myself thinking, “well, what if the waitress COULD be a CEO?” Which, of course is a side track. The real issue is learning how much to work for, expect, reach for, and envision and how much to recognize the very real limitations of our lives in the world. What I see is that most people shoot too short and expect too little of life. But there are always people who have an unrealistically high expectation of what they should be able to do or have. I guess we have to figure out that middle space where it is a reach but not out of reach in order to figure out where to put our energy and time.

Mostly I continue to be amazed by the continual growth and creation that people are able to build in their lives. If I were going to try to guess the future for almost anyone, I’d be wrong most of the time. That makes it endlessly suspenseful and fascinating to be part of another person’s life, for however long that happens. Sometimes I will ask people, “What were you like ten years ago?” Most of the time, they think they are smarter and more developed in many ways, even when life itself, and their circumstances, might be difficult. Perhaps the best approach is to be curious and flexible in responding to ourselves and where we are. It is bad faith to expect more than life is able to deliver, but it seems like a more painful kind of bad faith to expect less than we ourselves are capable of.

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It’s Too Much Trouble

In Japan they have a word for a person who thinks everything is a hassle–mendokusagaria. This is a person who thinks everything is too much trouble. They roll their eyes and sigh heavily whenever they have to do anything. It’s a funny word. For them, everything feels hard to do. I can relate.

When I lived in Japan, I had a very good friend Mary. Her mother was British, so she had an understated approach to everything. She would say, “I just have to tidy up, and I’ll come over.” This always struck me because when you put it that way, it’s no big deal. When I thought about it, I realized I was saying to myself, “Things are a mess. I have to muck out.” If I had just told myself I was going to tidy up, it would have been a lot easier. Mucking out is a major undertaking, but tidying up is fairly simple.

We know that our perception of an experience or a challenge can affect our experience of it. The way we define what we are dealing with makes it feel manageable or unmanageable. It’s not that we can drastically change the size of the job, but we can drastically change our experience of it. We do have to gather our energy to tackle something difficult, but whether that feels energizing or burdensome can be affected by our story about what we are doing.

Just like with everything else, what we do with our minds is more powerful than anything in determining our subjective experience. The filters through which we see reality affect what it means to us. If making an effort gives me the apprehension of being overwhelmed, then I am resistant to what life asks of me. And it is the resistance that makes it hard.

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