Self-Awareness & Self-Acceptance

DSCN3602+If we think of ourselves as a ‘community’, rather than a single ‘person’ we have started down the path of self-awareness and self-understanding — and of becoming a more balanced and complete individual.

Four of the five large (empty) circles shown in Stage 1 are ‘new lands’, planets if you will that are largely outside of our awareness. We may not even know they exist. Or, if we are vaguely aware of them, they feel foreign, and are often viewed with suspicion, even aversion — the ‘no, that’s not really me’ pieces of ourselves. The small black circle, representing our consciousness, shows us living in a single space, encircled, limited. We haven’t yet looked through the telescope or knocked, with curiosity, on our next door neighbour’s door. There’s nothing unusual about it.

Screen Shot 2022-07-07 at 10.38.14 AMIn Stage 2, our ‘awareness’ shifts slightly — or, more properly, expands. We continue to view things from our original ‘self’ (small black dot) — but we develop a sense of these ‘neighbouring selves’. Think back to the first time, as a child perhaps, when you left your home property to explore your ‘street’, maybe heading off to attend school. ‘Home’ continues to be your primary base of operation — but other, similar ‘houses’ now become a part of your world.

The move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 is significant. A number of changes in our conscious awareness occur.
– First, we move our primary point of view to a more central location — namely, into the centre of our ‘solar system’. Instead of the ego-centric, single-minded, ‘Earth-bound’ perspective, we allow that these ‘other worlds’ are a part of our space — and not ‘foreign bodies’ that occupy the house next door, or the neighbouring street.
– Secondly, we risk exploring these other selves. Recall first visits to a friend’s house. Instead of walking past and wondering who all occupies the dwelling, you go in, explore, and meet the other occupants — parents, siblings of a friend.
– As was likely true in childhood, the inhabitants of these ‘other spaces’ were people we already knew and liked. These were the ‘comfortable, easy places’ to visit and explore. Other ‘houses’, we came to know, were occupied by less appealing residents. Naturally, we tended to give a wide berth to those places; perhaps even developing a dislike of, deserved or not, the individuals, wishing they’d ‘move out of the neighbourhood’. Nevertheless, this second group is a part of the community and will remain so going forward.
– Our work in Stage 3 is to begin to understand and identify the parameters or aspects that define and characterize these other places in our consciousness. A useful exercise is to recall your immediate neighbourhood as a child. Who lived next door? Which houses did you frequent? Which ones did you avoid — and why? Which ones remained something of a mystery, had a particular ‘feel’ to them? Which ones became familiar destinations? Did you develop ‘short cuts’ to and from certain places? Were some ‘pathways’ well travelled, others risky and little used — and why? With this exercise, is it possible to suspend judgment of each of these ‘houses’; to think of them in neutral terms, without attaching a label, positive or negative, to them? The exercise is simply to remember, not evaluate or judge.
– Our perspective, as began with Stage 2, moves to a fully centralized posture. We effectively still ‘live our house’; but are aware of the neighbourhood. And we’ve begun to investigate.

Stage 4 is by far the most challenging shift. Now, instead of occupying one ‘place’, we allow that there are many selves. We recognize these aspects as significant pieces, parts of the whole. Our ‘core self’ will continue to be the centralized ‘bus driver’. But we begin to spend time in the other dwellings, ‘staying over’ in other houses. As with the ‘neighbourhood’ analogy, some elements will be acceptable, places where we like to hang out — the best friend’s home. Others will be more difficult to tolerate, perhaps being avoided, denied as a ‘piece of you’.

The critical work in Stage 4 includes a number of aspects:
Recognition of not just the ‘who’ occupies a particular place, but what their ‘purpose’ might be. Why are they in the neighbourhood? What do they bring to the community? There will always be ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Learning to allow someone to remain, despite the differences in values, beliefs, behaviours between ‘them’ and the core self can be very difficult. A simple exercise in recognition is to create a descriptive label for your various elements. Personally, my critic, my empath, my competitor, my cynic, my analyst are all part of the constellation. They have their roles, all of which contribute, many of which conflict, one with another. Could I do without some? Unlikely. Would I prefer one or two might be less present? Almost certainly.
Acceptance that all aspects are a part of the fully formed ‘you’. Like any neighbourhood, each aspect ‘moved in’ for a reason. Stage 4 is about getting to know these ‘subs’ (sub-personalities) and cultivating a relationship with each that allows their presence.
Learning from each aspect. If we can suspend judgment, we are more open to listening to what each of these individuals has to say, what they have to teach us. As is often the case, the more ‘difficult’ a resident is, the more important the lesson might be. Developing a sense of ‘voice’ is also critical. As with neighbours, not all ‘sound alike’. Learning to recognize ‘who is speaking’ — and giving them ‘air time’ — is a part of Stage 4. As these are all ‘pieces of us’, we have the potential equally to modify their ‘styles’. The neighbour who throws open the window and yells at us to get off the lawn is less likely to be heeded than one that uses a softer approach. Some of our aspects with be crusty, loud, inappropriate, and intolerant — benefiting from a bit of ‘socializing’.

Finally, as with neighbourhoods, occupants move in and move out. Residents may remain but will evolve, develop different relationships within the community. This is a dynamic process and one that benefits principally from openness, attention, and acceptance.

Seeing Is Not Believing

We don’t see the world as it is. . . we see it as we are.

Attributed to a variety of sources from novelist (Anaïs Nin) to Talmudic teacher, to business guru (Steven Covey). We could add philosopher (Kant) and psychoanalyst (Freud). From whomever’s pen the quote emerged, the meaning is essentially the same: presented with facts, truths (if you will), our efforts are directed not toward analysis, comprehension, understanding, acceptance. . . but toward fitting what we observe into our existing narrative. How we impose (superimpose?) what we want / need to be true onto what is.

To paraphrase Kant, ‘reality’ is not a passive reflection of the input our senses receive; but a reshaping, evaluating, classifying and very active process thrust upon it by the mind. All of those elements, in turn, have been long formed by a collaboration, a conspiracy in some cases, of events that are wholly psychological, social, familial, vocational, political . . . not physical or sensory.

Nothing particularly new in the above. Humans simply prefer a good story over data. When the two sources don’t mesh, the hands down winner is the story. Any number of factors come into play. A compelling fable is typically ‘cleaner’ — no challenging, hard to grasp nuances, shades of meaning. These ‘tall tales’ are typically framed in black and white, with a nice teaching point, a preloaded agenda that is easily understood, and even more easily repeated. Essentially the ‘headline’, without all the trouble of those words to wade through.

When facts oppose beliefs, the instinct is to avoid, not analyze; to rationalize, not reconcile; to demur, not dig. Cognitive dissonance is not a stable, sustainable, or even vaguely desirable state. The quick exit into a like-minded enclave, self-selecting a narrative free of those nasty, inconveniently contradictory elements restores one’s sense of personal ‘order’. The truly disturbing piece in this predisposition is the ease with which we slide into it. Good stories are quite simply found to be more credible and easily accepted. Critical thinking, the old maxim of ‘serious doubt’ as the core of true belief run distant seconds. Science and sense are ill-equipped to wind things back — once they gets rolling.

Not that the world has ever been insulated from this dynamic. What has changed — and only destructively so — is the ‘immediacy’ and pervasiveness of the propensity. A ‘cause’, at once, is reduced to its (often, wildly over-simplified) bits; masticated and spat back, at a pre-selected audience as polemic. Then swallowed whole and digested as ‘truth’ — to become the narrative that defines. . . and then divides. Dialogue, empathy, compassion, collaboration . . . all victims.

Examples are legion. Most appalling is Putin’s ‘special military operation’. The globe watches the hourly compounding horrors suffered by the Ukraine, dumbstruck by the narrative that has been spun around these atrocities. ‘What is’ is apparent to ‘any of us who have eyes’ (in the words of one MSNBC commentator) — but evidently not to all. A carefully crafted story continues to hold sway in Russia, fostered by media isolationism, seeded by months, even years of ‘historical’ fictions, and trading on decades old anxieties that harken back to WWII.

Less gut-wrenching, less inhumane perhaps, but no less catastrophic in their ends are the other narratives that easily fit (like an OJ glove!) the story-telling fictions that grow ever the more pervasive. The political invective, the ‘newsworthy’ diatribes that purport to inform, to ‘balance our perspectives’, the sources of pseudo-science that populate the digital world with little or no chance — or even inclination — of being questioned and fact-checked. Consumed then propagated like the next tasty bit of gossip. Worrisome in the ‘water cooler days’; disastrous in the internet age.

So. . . What’s your story?

Speak your truth . . . or as much of it as you want to share

The invocation from my mentor and long-time friend as he would convene the opening evening of personal growth group gatherings. Usually multi-day ‘intensives’ that would see a dozen or so of us collect in various venues over the years, attending as our time and needs would allow and dictate. Some vets, some ‘newbies’. All with our stories in search of a forum to share and process. Less looking for answers — which we trusted and knew would emerge — more, the opportunity to say aloud and clarify an evolving narrative.

Truth has become something of an obsession in recent times. All the more so as its antitheses have gained more and more traction. Call them what you will — lies, ‘alternate facts’, fake news, fictions, conspiracy ‘theories’ — there has been a relentless erosion of, an assault on. . . truth. Regan’s imperative, trust but verify, continues to be figural. The challenge increasingly is how and where?

I suppose, naively, I’ve tended to think of truth as an absolute. Something is either true. . . or it isn’t. Right . . . or wrong. A little reflection, of course, puts pay to that fantasy in short order. What I have more difficulty acknowledging is that this certainty may not exist — anywhere. If we could just drill down, discard the BS, there it would be. Constant, unchanging. . . absolute. Some magical place where two plus two will always equal four. The point of reference that allows one to measure just how far one has ventured off course; offering the option of a correction, a moral reset button.

My disabuse has been a gradual process. The past half decade, needless to say, has provided a turbo boost. Prevarication has first become ‘main stream’, then legitimized; now, increasingly embraced as, well, truth. Lying is no longer the purview of spies, psychopaths, internet trolls, and politicians.

As a psychologist, I’ve occupied a space that fundamentally is built on ‘evidence’ — the practice of testing an approach, ultimately a theory that is predicated on the reliable, the replicable until it wears the mantle of ‘fact’ — truth, as it were. Re-run the same, controlled experiment a sufficient number of times, obtain the same result and, presto, we have truth. Or at least as close as a 95% confidence interval will statistically support.

Where things have begun to wobble is that ‘evidence-based’ has increasingly become a tag line, a ‘good housekeeping seal’ that gets stamped on all manner of opinion and perspective; effectively short-cutting, short circuiting the hard fought for rigour of my sacred scientific method. One now believes what one wants to believe, seeks out ‘support’ for a position, and then propagates . . . and propagates all the way to a belief.

Back to John and Ron (that would be said mentor and Number 40). Is it possible that we are needing to establish a different point of reference. Perhaps it’s time to abandon the absolute and reaffirm the relative. We may just have passed a point of no return, crossed a threshold where no amount of fact, theory testing, indeed science will return us to the sacred sum of 4. Just possibly this ‘post-truth’ Rosetta Stone is our personal narrative.

As straight forward, self-evident. and singular as one’s own story may seem to be, I’ve come to understand that, like our shape-shifting truth, there are versions — even within the individual. Equally, another statement of the obvious is that these stories change, morph, evolve.

Screen Shot 2022-02-01 at 1.12.22 PMIn his teachings and writings, John drew on many sources. He was fond of the image of a ‘community of selves’, acknowledging that we are all ‘multiples’, housing sometimes competing, at times conflicting agendas. We behave, to our peril, by failing to give voice, consideration to these ‘opinions’, preferences. A decision then becomes a matter of conversation, dialogue. One’s ‘personal truth’ is more about discussion, alternate perspective taking; less about convincing, arbitrariness, controlling, dominating, rationalizing. All within the ‘community self’, within the individual.

Such conversations almost always require space, room to air things out; clarity and courage, to hear what the ‘other selves’ have to say; and finally, non-judgmental witnessing. A long time devotee of Taoist wisdom, John’s view was that, with these conditions in play, ‘the way’ (Tao) will emerge.

Perhaps the work then is more about asking different questions. Not ‘is this the truth?’ More ‘is this my truth?’ ‘Who am I now?’ As outside observers, our role then becomes one of honouring this process, welcoming the appearance of a ‘new truth’ — be it ours . . . or no. The individual bears the responsibility of ensuring that this ‘new narrative’ is authentic, genuine. without malice or agenda.