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And So It Goes

It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on what makes grownups act like children, but with the US presidential campaigns kicking into high gear, this seems like a good time. Our conventional idea of an “adult” is a person who is rational and reasonable, reflective and responsible, who is emotionally centered, well-adjusted, and gets along with others.

We have a general expectation that children will grow into adults and act less like children as they enter maturity.

And our expectation is disappointed, again and again, not just by other people but even ourselves. Something happens that is hard to explain; and when it’s over we prefer not to spend time reflecting on what the hell just went down. Once the dust has settled, we’d rather move on and try to forget about it.

But then it happens again … and again, and again.

These strange behavioral episodes are what I call Neurotic Styles. Think of them as coping strategies we learned when we were children, ways of working around the dysfunction and deficiencies in our family system. From infancy and onward through the early years of childhood we needed to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – what I have named our “feeling-needs” or “subjective needs.”

The taller powers responsible for our health and wellbeing were either first-time parents who didn’t know better, distracted parents who didn’t notice, absent parents who weren’t around, or abusive parents who violated our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Even the most attentive and caring parents slip up once in a while.

But it wasn’t all on them. We had our own selfish impulses and impossible demands that every conscientious parent has to somehow manage and train into socially acceptable behavior. We might have been particularly ungovernable, which would have taxed their patience and parenting skills, provoking responses that added new layers to the mess.

After all, domesticating an animal nature into a well-behaved socialite was no simple process – and never has been.

Our subjective needs were not negotiable. We couldn’t just skip over our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Because they are about our need to feel a certain way in our nervous system and emotions (together generating our mood), it is possible that our external circumstances were fully adequate but still not enough because we had become so discontent, distressed, or depressed.

If there was in fact a sufficient supply of loving care provided to us, we might have had the additional demand that our parent (or whomever) make us feel safe because of some deeper insecurities we were carrying. This value-add of our anxiety motivated us to reach out and grab on to the other person in neurotic attachment, which are not conditions where love can take root and grow.

So our insistence that the other person make us feel safe actually interfered with our need to feel loved. See how that works – or doesn’t?

That behavior strategy of replacing love with attachment so we can feel safe is one common example of how we used our power to manipulate others. We may also have used our power to flatter and impress others in a misguided pursuit of feeling loved. Or we discovered that we could use our power to intimidate or seduce them and get what we wanted.

These are various “power plays” which, when successful enough and repeated on subsequent occasions, eventually got coded into our behavioral repertoire. They became our Neurotic Styles. Other Styles have less to do with manipulating other people than engaging in behaviors that helped us manage our anxiety, stay vigilant to potential threats, or retreat into ourselves for safety.

The important thing to understand is that, at least to some extent, these strategies worked in satisfying our feeling-needs, even if our family system wasn’t all that provident.

We were children back then: small, dependent, vulnerable, and weak in comparison with our taller powers. In order to get our needs met we found our way around. Our individual set of Neurotic Styles were incorporated into our developing personality, and we used them whenever we felt the situation warranted – although they were not really consciously selected so much as “triggered” by events around us.

But here’s the problem. Our personality as children was a complex of playful imagination, magical thinking, emotional reasoning, and these Neurotic Styles. Today this same complex lives on beneath higher processes of instrumental reason, logical thinking, and adult self-control – that is, until our “button” is pushed.

When that happens, our Inner Child breaks out and deploys a tactic of childish behavior, which may have worked when we were children but now only manages to turn heads, roll eyes, and convince others that we aren’t safe to be around.

For the past four years, Donald Trump’s Inner Child has manipulated the Grand Ole Party, a good swath of the American population, and undermined the establishment of democracy itself. In one interview after another, he shirks responsibility and passes blame, ignores or outright dismisses empirical science and objective data, loses his temper and calls people names. He seduces others into his inner circle and then excommunicates them with dishonor if they should dare contradict or challenge his opinion.

As the campaigns ramp up to November, the stress of it all – our tipping toward fascism, the ravaging waves of COVID-19 and continuing collapse of our economy, the rise of bigotry, prejudice, and violence on our streets, along with the now unmistakable (and undeniable) signs of unraveling ecosystems across our planet – all of it is making us feel threatened and helpless.

Our Inner Child is peaking out from under the covers, hoping that some taller power will arrive with a reassuring promise to protect us from the monster.

This is precisely when we need to get our own Higher Self into the game. There is real work to be done, including the repair of some serious damage to our race relations, community welfare, ethical integrity, and self-confidence. In November we must elect a fully functioning adult to presidential leadership, one who is self-possessed and genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of our families, neighborhoods, cities, states, nation and international commons, including the fragile yet still resilient web of life on our planet.

For this to happen, we need to be adults and do our part.

 

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Family and the Human Future

Both Jesus of Nazareth and Sigmund Freud were Jews who employed the analogy of family systems in their critique of religion. Obviously they didn’t agree in the way they used the analogy, but each regarded it as perhaps our best model for appreciating the strategic role of theism in human experience.

In Freud’s theory, the infant and young child develops complicated relationships with its father and mother, which he formulated into the Oedipus and Electra complexes. Psycho-sexual obsessions and frustrations ultimately compel the (male) child to harbor resentment towards the father, who blocks erotic access to the mother. Freud proposed that the origins of religion are here, as a mutinous band of vengeful siblings succeeded in killing the father, dismembering and cannibalizing him, and then instituting a ritual of remembrance where his memory could be honored and their guilt alleviated.

That’s all very bizarre, and no scholar of religion gives Freud’s theory any serious respect. But his focus on the family as the formative system of early relationships that deeply shape a child’s self concept, attitude toward others, and general view of reality was right on. Mother and father do indeed operate as archetypes (first forms or prime models) in a youngster’s developing personality and orientation to life. The family system probably isn’t as sexually charged as Freud assumed, with its juvenile jealousy, sibling rivalry, and the secret conspiracy to overthrow father’s authority in order to take possession of mother. But it is a powerful incubator where much about our personal destiny – as well as the destiny of our species – is assisted to flourish or comes to ruin.Family SystemI have promoted the idea that the family system is our first experience of theism. Our higher powers – literally our taller powers – protected and provided for our needs during those critical years of dependency. In addition to serving as archetypes in our emerging sense of reality as provident (maybe threatening or indifferent, as the case may be), our parents legislated a morality of rules and expectations, enforced by a disciplinary system designed to conform our behavior to the way of life in our family.

If our higher powers were sufficiently conscious and deliberate, the rules of morality were also demonstrated in their conduct and demeanor. The “spirit” of law was thus embodied and modeled for us to imitate. Most importantly, the behavioral directives (i.e., the set of rules we were expected to obey) of our family’s moral code were translated into living values that we could see and feel. In this way, our moral development steadily shifted from obedience to aspiration, less about following rules and more about becoming a certain kind of person.

“Don’t take what isn’t yours” (a behavioral directive) merged into the aspirational ideal of respecting others and being kind (as living values). Our higher powers personified such living values, setting the example and encouraging us to do the same. Obviously no family is perfect, and no parent is perfectly consistent in practicing what is preached. But hopefully the match between moral command and personal example was close and consistent enough that we got the message.

A healthy family system will progressively release control to the developing child. We were allowed to feed ourselves and dress ourselves; we were expected to carry our own weight and not rely so passively on our higher powers. By slowly forcing us into our own resourcefulness and self-control, our parents were preparing us for life as responsible adults. We should all agree that successfully reaching the point where we no longer depend on the provident supervision of our parents is a strong sign of maturity and creative authority.

As morality is concerned, the process of internalizing rules in the formation of conscience enabled us to make moral decisions without constant supervision. And as the living values embodied by our parents were gradually awakened in us and strengthened into enduring character traits, our need for their objective example diminished accordingly. Just as we were able to take responsible control of ourselves and thereby advance in our development to greater autonomy and freedom on the other side of the parent-child relationship, so too did our aspirational journey take us beyond a reliance on our higher powers in living a virtuous life.

That other Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, seems to have had a strong concept of god as father – not only for himself or even just his kinsmen, but of all human beings. For Jesus this metaphor, clearly anchored in the analogy of a family system, provided a way of honoring our human connection, one to another. If we are all children of the same parent, then the spirit that binds us together must be deeper than the differences that frequently push us apart. As we might hope for any family system, our conflicts and betrayals of trust can be resolved if we can just remember that we are essentially manifestations (or progeny) of one reality.

If reality is provident – and there’s no arguing the fact that the universe has conspired, intentionally or accidentally, to make the emergence of life, the ignition of consciousness, and this very observation possible – then we, as manifestations of this reality, have the potential (and once awakened, the responsibility) of extending this providence into our relationships and the greater community of life. “Be merciful as your father in heaven is merciful” is thus shown to be deeply equivalent to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

But Jesus went further still. If god’s love is infinite, then it must generously flow out to all beings without limit, without end, and completely independent of all conditions by which human beings segregate themselves. This love is so radical, in fact, that even forgiveness – extinguishing anger, releasing guilt, refusing vengeance, and working for reconciliation – is not a response to an enemy’s heartfelt repentance, but rather the creative initiative of loving-kindness that inspires it. Even if repentance never comes, love persists. If we are faithfully rooted in a provident reality, then love will flow through us unselfconsciously.

For Jesus, the application of this radical notion of unconditional forgiveness to the orthodox concept of god urged a revolution in religion. He demonstrated for others what such a love looks and feels like, and in so doing he “outperformed” the god of orthodoxy, who apparently was incapable of forgiving an unrepentant sinner. (We might have said “unwilling,” but the theology was clear that god is constrained by a reluctant obligation to condemn sinners.) In striving to live by the principle of boundless love and calling others to do the same, Jesus effectively stepped beyond god.

It’s not accurate to say that a child who has shifted more into an aspiration-morality is superior to, or better than, a child who is still oriented on obedience. On the other hand, an individual whose moral development ought to be opening in aspiration but who remains fixated in fear, shame, or guilt, obsessing over right and wrong, is very likely a prisoner of pathological theism – regardless of whether he or she ascribes to a formal religion.

And where, you ask, does this notion of “ought” come from? Who’s to say where human beings are evolving? My answer ultimately remains something of a profession of faith, not of belief but of my trusting intuition regarding what is deepest in us. We are social beings. We need relationships. We become conscious in the crucible of family systems. Hopefully we develop our own center of self-responsible authority and take our place in the world alongside others. Our evolutionary aim is to become creators of genuine community, provident higher powers on behalf of the young, the helpless, and those in need.

A worldwide community of liberty, justice, peace, and goodwill – on the other side of god.


My reader will no doubt have noticed an important discrepancy between the higher powers in family systems and the higher powers of theistic religion. The former are flesh-and-blood personalities, whereas the latter are literary figures of myth, art, and theology. Just because god isn’t an actual being in this sense doesn’t detract from his or her principal role in orienting devotees in reality and serving as the focal exemplar of virtue in their moral development. Whether literal or literary, however, these higher powers are ultimately something we need to progress beyond. Again, not atheism but post-theism. Just because you have taken up life after god doesn’t mean that god is no longer a valid and useful construct for others.

 

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2015 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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Your Personality Code

Gut_TriangleThe triangle symbolizes security and power. Its broad base gives it stability, while the ascending peak anchors its energy to a central axis that keeps it from tipping or being easily moved. This might be a favored shape in your own personality code – referring to the preferred way you orient yourself in reality and engage the world around you. If it does represent your modus operandi in life, this doesn’t have to imply that you are a power monger or tend to push others around, but you probably do enjoy having influence in what’s going on.

Heart_CircleThe circle symbolizes attachment and love. Its round enclosure suggests wholeness and inclusion, while the endlessness of its curve speaks of rhythm and eternal recurrence. If this is the favored shape in your personality code, then you probably place high value on connection, inclusiveness, and intimacy. It doesn’t have to mean that you are sappy or an emotional pushover – although you could be. You might guess correctly that Triangle people and Circle people sometimes don’t get along well, or else they get stuck together in co-dependent relationships.

Head_Square

The square symbolizes meaning and truth. Its boxy shape suggests containment and conclusion, where things are packaged up and put away. The four sides also connote wholeness – not by inclusion (as the circle) but through bringing together different aspects, dimensions, or viewpoints (as in the four cardinal directions and the “four corners of the world”). If your personality code favors the square, then you are a person who engages the world rationally, who wants things to fit together and make logical sense.

I started our review of personality-code shapes with the triangle and ended with the square because that particular order reflects the actual sequence of stages in human development. Our need for security dominates early infancy, when we are forming our deepest impression concerning the provident nature of reality. This impression is registered in our nervous system as a set-point to which our mood, mindset, outlook on life, and emerging worldview will be tethered as we develop.

Depending on whether we feel secure in the care of our higher powers, attachment proceeds either in a healthy direction (infant-mother bonding) or else we attempt to pacify our anxiety by desperately clinging to mother and insisting on being comforted. If our mother (and the family system overall) is anxious and insecure, our insistence on keeping her close will regulate somewhat her anxiety, thereby pulling us both (or all of us) into a co-dependent web of mutual support.

If our family system was characterized by a general insecurity and these co-dependent attachment strategies, our personal construction of meaning was probably closely monitored and prescribed by the higher powers in charge. It was necessary that our mental picture of reality (or worldview) conform to their “orthodoxy.” The stories we told about others and ourselves, our beliefs concerning good and evil, right and wrong – along with the metaphysical backdrop of supernatural forces and principalities – all of them had to match up and justify our shared outlook on things. To belong was to be a confessing member of this orthodoxy, “one of us.”

3 ChakrasWhat I’m calling your personality code, then, might be thought of as the way your individual history (especially your early history) programmed your engagement with reality along an axis of three coordinates situated at points corresponding to your gut (security/power), your heart (attachment/love), and your head (meaning/truth). If the triangle, circle, or square represents your preferred way of engaging reality, then the values associated with that shape (as briefly described above) are what typically orient and motivate your choices in life. Thus we might speak of “triangle types” (or T-types), “circle types” (or C-types), and “square types” (or S-types) in naming how individual personalities operate in the world.

The physical location of these centers in the body is easily verified in ordinary experience. When we feel that our support is being threatened or taken away, when we don’t feel prepared or confident in our ability to meet a challenge, when we are required to stand in front of a group and give a speech – in such times, don’t we typically experience upset in our gut? And when a loved one betrays our trust, abandons us in our need, or is taken from us by death, don’t we commonly speak of this as heartbreak? Finally, when we are unable to make sense of something, when life throws us a curve and our working theory of how it all holds together no longer works, don’t we often experience the disorientation as tension around our eyes and a dull throbbing headache?

Instead of reading the “/” (forward slash) in the word-pair as “and,” as in security and power, the terms actually comprise an opposition of sorts. In fact, a real appreciation of the difference between security and power, attachment and love, meaning and truth might dawn for most of us only later in life, at that critical time when our spiritual awakening is pushing against the boundaries of who we think we are. Our identity up to that point is a summation of numerous identity contracts we hold with ourselves and negotiate with others around us, going way back into our infancy when we formed that deep impression regarding the provident nature of reality.

If we can allow the realization to rise within us, we will come to understand the extent in which our authentic power has been relinquished for the sake of a false sense of security. We will understand how our attachment to possessions, other people, and tribal identities has closed down our capacity for empathy and genuine love. It will become clear to us how our commitment to meaning actually removes us from direct contact with reality, with the truth of things. When we are locked up as convicts inside our convictions, the true nature of existence and its ineffable mystery is inaccessible to us.

The point here is that, while security, attachment, and meaning are necessary to our healthy development, these very developmental achievements can interfere with the full activation of our spiritual intelligence (SQ). This interference can be particularly strong if our personality code is complicated by early trauma, chronic adversity, and tribal mind control.

But the good news is that our innate drive toward self-actualization – what propels every organism into maturity (Aristotle’s entelechy) – continues to seek fulfillment. The day hopefully comes when we discover our power, embrace all things in love, and allow our veils of meaning to fall away before the present mystery of reality.

 

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