Character sometimes seems like a notion from the 1800’s. You judge a person by his or her character. There are probably different meanings for the  notion of character, but mostly it has a fuzzy connection with “being a good person.” We need to be able to live with ourselves, and believing we are good persons makes that way more comfortable. So we care about what it means to be a good person.

Character is about moral stance, and over time, psychologists have come to understand that a person’s moral stance is created as the result of a developmental process. Lawrence Kohlberg, as part of a 1958 dissertation, described six stages of moral development that people pass through. These stages provide moral reasoning that makes the person increasingly successful at resolving moral dilemmas. This is why they are considered linear stages. Different people move through all of them, but some people seem to get to a certain stage and stay there.

Kohlberg’s stages start with small children who do the right thing to avoid punishment. As they grow a little bit, they follow rules because it will benefit them personally. As adolescents, people want to fit in and so they follow norms of their group and by adulthood, they understand that rules are necessary for society to function. The fifth stage is recognizing that different people might have different ideas of what is right and wrong, and rules might not always be useful or applicable.

Kohlberg’s sixth and final stage of moral development is a universal ethics orientation where people can empathize with other people’s thoughts and feelings and they make decisions based on their own internal sense of ethical right and wrong. They develop a sense of universal ideals. For people who are able to mature to this stage of moral reasoning, the standards of what they believe is ethical are carried as thoughtful, reflectively chosen ideals. They make decisions and take actions in line with those personal ideals, whether or not anyone else knows they are doing this.

This is the important point. For a person with character, it is not the judgements of other people, the rules of their organizations or the laws of their community that regulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, it is their own judgment. This does not mean that that person ignores social mores or disregards the opinions of other people. On the contrary, he or she is more tuned in to the ideas of other people because learning and growing are part of that ongoing developmental process. And because each of our choices continues to create us as people.

So this comes back down to the conversation between me and me. Only I will know if I have done the difficult, but better, thing. Only I will see my choices in the context of my ideals. So ultimately, character is something I create decision by decision and something only I can truly know about myself.


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Dragged by Karma or Led by Vow

Shohaku Okumura, a great zen teacher, has said you will either be “dragged by karma or led by vow.” In psychological terms this means you will live out the imprinted patterns of behavior, thought, feeling and belief that you are used to or you will live out a commitment to the ideals of a self that you aspire to be. In other words, you life will be mindless reaction or conscious proaction. To put it yet another way: You are, at every moment, living through habit or through choice.

Each action you take, each thought you endorse, each feeling you believe strengthens a perspective–a world-view–that is one of many possible world-views you hold. Those perspectives are built and solidified by repetitive attention and action. If you are not reflectively recognizing what you are choosing, you are left with an increasingly rigid default point of view. Ultimately, with a commitment to a conscious, thoughtful effort, you can become truly liberated from unseen self-sabotaging motives. At least most of the time.

We want to be in charge of our lives, the agents of our actions, and the decision-makers for our choices. Sometimes without realizing it, we see ourselves replaying old habits, or even more frustrating, habits of people in our families. Genuine change, and therefore genuine freedom, is possible with a serious decision to get to know what we care about, what we want, and what we are able to do. And then reconnecting with that decision every time we get off track. We really can become the people we want to be by incrementally building our self of the future and not getting stuck in our self of the past.


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The Courage to Know

When you decide to engage in long-term therapy with a good therapist, you are entering into an ongoing dialogue which has as its focus in the internal workings of your mind. It is a route toward increased intimacy with yourself. It is often emotional or psychological pain that drives us to this project, but once there, we begin to learn the wonder of the complexity of our own minds. There is more to us than we think!

So first, we create a relationship with a therapist who is patient, kind, and thoughtful. We have to have that chemistry that we have with people we want to be friends with. In other words, we don’t feel alienated from that therapist. We begin to feel safer. More complicated feelings, thoughts, and ideals begin to surface. The relationship becomes calmer, even mundane at times.

We have a fear. Perhaps subtle. That what we will find inside of ourselves will be messy, broken, or destructive. We get to the threshold of deeper connection with ourselves and we hesitate. Do we want to know about our own inner pain? What if we hate ourselves as people, or worse, what if we have mean and hurtful motives? The relationship with a stable  accepting person creates a psychological space in which we can discover our true selves–if we have the courage to do that.

We will encounter parts of ourselves that we wish were better. We will find that we are not as perfect or as good as we wish we were. Somehow we come through that disappointment in ourselves and find that we are part of a larger reality. We can come to appreciate ourselves as we are, integrating those different parts into a whole person. And by extension, we can appreciate and accept other people wth their anxieties and their imperfections. We get to a place of no longer feeling bad. No longer feeling disappointed. We begin to see the complex miracle of ourselves as whole persons.


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The Fork in the Road

We are always faced with so many forks in the road. Right? Decisions that will take us one way or another. The particular fork in the road I am talking about here is the one that is relevant to our subject: Long-term Psychotherapy. Because as it stands, people, therapists and laypeople alike, can conflate two completely distinct notions of what psychotherapy is and what it should do.

On one side of the fork, there is the rationalist view. We are solving a problem, curing a defect, or pursuing a goal. In this view, psychotherapy is a science, its effectiveness should be proven through scientific inquiry, and its process should be evidence based. The client is the consumer and the therapist is a service provider. We diagnose problems; we measure outcomes and results; we evaluate effectiveness; we fix what is broken.

The other side of the fork is the philosophical side, that of self-knowledge. In this view, psychotherapy is a continuation of a very old system of thought (back to the Greek philosophers at least) that is predicated on the idea that coming to know ourselves deeply allows us to make freer choices and construct more satisfying lives. It is a process of engaging with another person who can reflect to us who we are from an outside perspective. In this view, nothing is broken. We are building a kind of maturity and psychological freedom that cannot be created quickly or easily–and that cannot be created without the engagement of another mind.

While the first view promises certainty, simplicity, and action, the second view is more nuanced, more nebulous, and more frightening. We come to a fork in the road. Do we want to face ourselves, with the messy and discouraging tangle of motives and feelings we are wrestling with in order to have an inner freedom and connection with our own reality, or do we want to function well, feel better and get on with it? There is no right direction of course. We are always, at every moment, deciding how to use our one precious life.

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It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

Somewhere in the past I read that it is always darkest before the dawn. I don’t know if that is scientifically  true or just a feel-good axiom, but in fact, I have found it to be always, always true in real life. Our lives have ups and downs. Sometimes the downs are bigger and seem unmanageable. At those times, as trite as it is, it can help to hang onto the idea that things will get better.

Most people have moments that they can remember, recently or more distantly, where they are faced with a true sense of sinking into despair. Everything looks hopeless, and it’s difficult to see how it could get better. There is a pull to give in to a feeling of giving up. It varies what people do at those times and how long that feeling lasts. At those times, they don’t even want to do the little things that make them feel better. It seems pointless and inadequate.

But there is a type of certainty and it is this: Everything, and everyone, is always changing. Nothing stays the same for long. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. The beautiful moments won’t last forever–and that is why we need to savor them–and the terrible moments won’t last forever–and that is why we need to withstand them. Obvious, I know. But when we are in the midst of them, we cannot imagine anything else.

The universe is infused with being alive. Living energy organizes inert matter into living organisms that have motion, purpose, expression, and time-connection. In living things the cycle of being alive moves through its course. That is the time-connection. And that is why everything changes. Because we are embedded in a developmental process from beginning to end: physically, socially, psychologically. Looking back at events in our lives we can sometimes make more sense of them, or at least understand how they have shaped us.

But we cannot make sense of the moment we are in. We can only live it. We can be curious about how this particular moment will resolve itself. It will partly be a result of what we do, but not only that. The continual movement of people, things, and time will change what things mean and how they impact us. So in moments of discouragement, sometimes all we can do is remember that it is always darkest before the dawn.

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Today we are talking about personality disorders in class. Pervasive, lifelong patterns of relating and living in the world that are destructive, dysphoric, debilitating, or demoralizing. The thing is, the personality characteristics that organize a personality disorder are, for the most part, invisible to the person who has them. They are so much a part of that person’s experience of themselves and the world that they feel normal.

What happens is, relationships don’t work or are nonexistent. Jobs are unmanageable. Self caretaking is interrupted by impulsivity, strong emotions, and disorganized thinking. There are circumstances that seem to account for these problems. We don’t see that our stance toward the world is setting us up to experience life and other people in ways that isolate us and feel unfair.

Sometimes the people in our lives, our families, our friends, or our co-workers, try to tell us we are not understanding ourselves clearly. But we just feel criticized and rejected. Our lens through which we see the world is so habitual, so long-standing, and so entrenched that we cannot imagine any other possibility.

The difficult thing is that while we need to feel we can trust our own minds, and we need to feel that we are in charge of our lives, we also need to have some place, some relationship that we trust enough to be able to imagine that we might be missing something. We might be misunderstanding what we think is real. We might be misattributing motives to other people that they just don’t have.

We can’t just accept what other people reflect to us about ourselves, because they have their own distortions. At the same time, we have to have a way of checking whether what we think is true about ourselves and each other is accurate or not. The only way to get out of the endless loop of perception-interpretation error-reaction is to have some kind of mirror, some kind of external system, some at least semi-objective mind to reflect to us a different view, a different interpretation, or at least a different possibility.

Those reliable, committed, long-term relationships are rare and precious. It is not easy to find people who are sufficiently healthy and stable to hold still when we are flailing around. People who will stick with us when we are off track or difficult or confused. Who don’t need to be right or powerful or better. Just present. Therapists, friends, significant others. Not easy. When you find them, try to recognize them and do your part to keep the engine of the relationship going.

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Generational Growth

If you are studying to become a family therapist, you learn in class that family patterns go back seven generations. This means that when we try to change ourselves and the ways we love and work, we are attempting to override multigenerational habits. We know from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit that habits become a neurological imprint. We cannot “unlearn” a habit, because it is imprinted, but we can substitute a different habit. That is why it is so easy to revert to unwanted habits if we are not paying attention.

Ways of relating are habits. Ways of relating to ourselves are habits. They are habits in the sense that they are mostly automatic, and we do not necessarily recognize what we are doing. We don’t notice the implicit ways of relating to ourselves and others. They seem normal. Much like anthropologists say “don’t ask a fish about water,” we do not always recognize the “normal” we are used to.

So there is a way of going at living a life that has to do with making effort and pursuing growth. It has to do with seeking a deeper experience of this one and only life. It entails continued practice at becoming aware of the water we are swimming in so that we have freedom to make different choices instead of thoughtlessly following what is familiar. We work at recognizing the habits we are used to and deciding deliberately whether we want to keep them or do something different.

There are many ways of going at this task of making ourselves free, each with different focuses and different effects. Mindfulness meditation makes us aware of the moment. Physical disciplines like Tai Chi and Yoga bring our awareness to our bodies and how they function to contribute to our subjective experience. Depth psychotherapy helps us examine our habitual ways of understanding the world and define and choose different ways of doing that.

An interesting effect of these persistent efforts at growth is that they change our patterns, and, by extension, the patterns of the people around us and in our families going forward seven generations. This is remarkable. Having been a psychotherapist for many years, it is increasingly clear to me that every effort we put into personal growth benefits not only ourselves, but also those around us and those people in the future who will be affected by us and by those around us. I see children who have now grown up and who have energy and curiosity about what is possible in their lives because they saw their parents break out of narrow perspectives.

What we are doing is demonstrating the possibilities of living a reflective life, of working toward a deeper experience of our lives, and of the action of practicing what is important to us. Those possibilities, as well as the example of seeking improvement, become a resource for ourselves and for those people we care about. As someone said, “It’s kind of a twofer.”

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This is drawn verbatim from the following article:

“Thinking Differently: Principles of Process in Living Systems and the Specificity of Being Known”

Louis W. Sander, M.D.

Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12(1):11–42 © 2002 The Analytic Press, Inc.

“The scene was drawn from some three minutes of movie film taken of our research team out on the lawn during a home visit with one of our new neonatal subjects on the eighth postdelivery day. (In those days [1958], that was three days after mother and new baby had returned from the hospital.) One of the team was standing on the lawn talking with the father. Mother was sitting nearby holding her new baby and talking with the leader of the team. The baby became increasingly fussy and mother tried to quiet her but was unsuccessful. Mother became a bit embarrassed in the presence of the leader and decided it was time to bring out refreshments. So she gave the baby to the father, who was standing talking nearby, and went into the house. The next two or three minutes of film show the father standing on the lawn, holding the baby in his left arm, continuing to talk to the researcher, during which time the baby simply fell asleep and the two went on talking. Run at normal film speed of 30 frames per second, this is all one sees.

“Over the same few minutes, now run frame-by-frame, one sees the father glance down momentarily at the baby’s face. Strangely enough, in the same frames, the infant looks up at the father’s face. Then the infant’s left arm, which had been hanging down over the father’s left arm, begins to move upward. Miraculously, in the same frame, the father’s right arm, which had been hanging down at his right side, begins to move upward. Frame by frame by frame, the baby’s hand and the father’s hand move upward simultaneously. Finally, just as they meet over the baby’s tummy, the baby’s left hand grasps the little finger of the father’s right hand. At that moment, the infant’s eyes close and she falls asleep, while father continues talking, apparently totally unaware of the little miracle of specificity in time, place, and movement that had taken place in his arms.

“How do we account for such specificity of connection between father and baby? Was there a “representation” of the father’s little finger in the newborn’s brain? Did she know “where” it was, to grasp it? As father’s hand came over the infant’s body, father extended his little finger, separating it from his other fingers; otherwise the baby could not have grasped it. How did he know the baby wished to grasp it? How could the movements of father and baby fit so precisely in time and in place, eight days after the baby had been born? Are we looking at some principle of wholeness,—that is, building on an underlying principle of specificity in time, place, and movement that joins directionalities between component subsystems—a joining that is necessary to construct coherent wholeness in a “system” that can be said to “live”?”

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Unconscious Intention

Can we have intentions of which we are unaware? What does it mean to have an intention if it is not a conscious intention? For most people, what they are aware of in their minds is all that there is. In other words, their cognition and self conscious ARE who they are. This kind of person becomes impatient, or worse angry, at the idea that what they are thinking or even what they are aware of feeling, are not all that there is to what their minds are doing.

We can imagine there is much more to what our minds are doing, though. Take that classic example where you buy a bag of candy for Halloween and find when you get home that you have eaten half the bag without realizing it. At some conscious level you have the intention to eat healthy, but there is another intention, which sometimes prevails. We can think of all kinds of examples where we have done something or said something which surprised even ourselves.

The problem with this reality is that it threatens our sense of being in charge of our own minds. If my mind can have intentions and generate feelings and actions that I am not aware of, then it has a mind of its own so to speak. It’s unnerving to think we can think or do things on purpose but not knowing it is on purpose. How are we supposed to be moral, or kind, or good people if our minds can just willy nilly do what they want.

And then there is the next thought: What if I am secretly a terrible person and my mind has intentions to be harmful or selfish or vengeful but that is not the sort of person “I” want to be? What if I am at odds with my own deepest self? And who is the “I” anyway? The person who is conscious of herself or the unconscious me. Is the unregulated me more authentic than the regulated me? If I get to know myself will I dislike myself even more than I already do?

It is easier and a lot less painful to ignore the possibility that I have an unconscious with intentions and meanings that shape my experience. I want to be a good and loving person. What do I do with all that messy rage,  selfishness, and sadness? What am I supposed to do about the part of me that I don’t like in myself?

Ultimately, in the trajectory of human development, we come face to face with ourselves. When we choose to avoid the pain of knowing our own vulnerabilities and limitations, we enter into a constricted frame of mind that leads to isolation and bitterness, or, alternatively, a state of simplistic denial that prevents us from living our lives with depth and meaning.We cut off parts of ourselves and send them into exile.

What is the alternative? The work of coming to know ourselves well, of inhabiting the fullness of who we are, of accepting and loving all the parts of ourselves–because they are all come by honestly–takes a lifetime. It is the road less travelled, the steeper path, the greater effort. It is the more difficult, painful, complicated way of being ourselves in the world.

What’s the point? The point is genuine intimacy with ourselves, and by extension with other people. It is the expansion of who we are into an experience of interest, delight, and appreciation. It is living our lives fully rather than letting them pass us by unnoticed. The stages of our lives come uninvited. Time passes anyway. It might as well be interesting.

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Motivation and Resistance

Sometimes it seems that the concepts of motivation, resistance, procrastination, and avoidance are merged together. We believe we are not motivated when the truth is, we are very motivated, we are simply stopped by resistance. We think we are procrastinating (putting off until later) when we are really avoiding (not wanting to do at all).

With some reflection, we can easily feel the difference between a lack of motivation (I have no interest in that task even though I should do it) and resistance (I want to do it but I can’t get myself to do it.). These are similar but different from procrastination (I will do it, but later.) and avoidance (I want to do it but I’d rather not experience doing it because it is unpleasant or effortful.)

There are a number of books about motivation which are interesting, like The Procrastination Equation and Drive, which help with understanding motivation, but most leave out that pesky problem of resistance. Sometimes wanting to do something more, or fearing not doing it more, does not result in our doing it.

Resistance is about something perhaps not even in our awareness that blocks our doing what we want or intend to. Exercise is a good example. We criticize ourselves for insufficient motivation or lack of discipline but the basic obstacle is really a separate motive. Resistance might serve useful purposes. For example, it could be an unconscious awareness that we should not do what we think we ought. For example, we might be getting a cold, or have exercised too much in the last couple of days.

Or, resistance might be something else–some inner block that works against our best self-caretaking intentions. Our minds are complex, and they contain useful, constructive intentions as well as sabotaging, self-defeating motives. It seems odd that we would have internal motives that are bad for us, but they are really habits of thought or feeling that are imprinted early in our lives. Without our recognizing it, they can kick in and affect how we feel, how we think, and how we behave.

Pushing through resistance only seems to make it stronger. It seems that backing up and choosing the smallest possible step toward our goal and doing that for the satisfaction of that step and that alone is a workable  approach. In the face of resistance, like dealing with a stubborn child, we might be more likely to prevail if we woo ourselves onto a success spiral by making each step small enough to be a sure thing.

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