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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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Who Do You Think You Are?

The modern paradigm of medical and mental health has a built-in bias for diagnosis, due in large part to its historical interest in isolating and treating pathology of various kinds in the body and mind. A consequence of this bias is that while we can zero in on what’s wrong or not working properly, our understanding of what constitutes psychic (mind) and somatic (body) wholeness is less developed.

Individual sufferers go to professionals for help, many of them privately hoping that their psychosomatic health and quality of life will be elevated as a result. Instead they find themselves subjected to ‘treatment plans’ designed to suppress symptoms of dis-ease rather than actualize genuine wellbeing.

When I was in graduate school for a master’s in counseling I was surprised – and increasingly more aggravated – by the requirement put on students to choose our guiding theory from among current orthodox protocols of diagnostic psychotherapy. As professional therapists we would need to work closely with insurance companies, with doctors who could prescribe drugs, and (of course) with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is continually inventing more categories to pigeonhole the symptoms of suffering among the general population.

Even then it was obvious to me that a concept of ‘disorder’ must presume some deeper grasp on what ‘order’ (aka health, wholeness, or wellbeing) is, but this was barely discernible in the literature and never explained in the classroom. I began to suspect that some larger conspiracy might be directing our training as students and future professionals in the field. As counselors (and not drug prescribers) we could offer short-term talk therapy for clients, but the real money lay in tying client symptoms to more serious disorders with a basis in neurobiology that could justify pharmaceutical interventions.

Now, I’m not denying that some cases can benefit from a combination of talk and drug therapy – although the trend these days is to get patients through counseling and on open-ended prescription medication plans if their symptoms persist, which in 70% of cases they do. Strong research suggests that this rather abysmal success rate of therapy (of either type or in combination) can be attributed not to the particular protocol used, but to the fact that individual sufferers don’t readily take responsibility in the salvation they seek.

And this, in my opinion, swings back around to a diagnostic paradigm that effectively ignores the person and reduces suffering to symptoms seemingly outside the individual’s choice or control.

If we are to take responsibility in our suffering as well as creative authority in our pursuit of wellbeing, we need psychotherapeutic models that envision us as actively engaged in the construction of both suffering and wellbeing. In a sense, that’s what I am working toward in this blog. So it’s in that spirit that I offer another installment on the question of identity and our human journey.

My diagram contains a lot of terminology relative to the construction of identity, but we’ll step through it in a way that simplifies things considerably. Let’s begin at the middle, where the executive center of identity known as our ego is represented. Ego is how we identify ourselves, as the starring actor in a story we’re continually telling ourselves and others – our personal myth. Every myth has a supporting cast of other actors whose importance in the narrative is a function of their proximal influence on matters concerning our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

Each of these four feeling-needs (referring not to the fact of our being safe, loved, capable, or worthy, but our need to feel we are such) presents itself at a critical period of our development, in this precise sequence, rising upon earlier ones and setting the stage for those coming later. (As is often the case with my diagrams, information should be read organically from the bottom and flowing or growing upward.)

The four feeling-needs further organize into two broader concerns connecting to ego’s need to belong (or fit in) and be recognized (or stand out) – the two polar drives in our construction of identity. Belonging answers our need to feel safe and loved; recognition satisfies our need to feel capable and worthy.

You can appreciate their polarity in the way they pull against each other: the effort to gain approval (a type of social recognition) often involves a willingness to give up some anonymity (a type of social belonging). Conversely, if our first priority is to hold a position of acceptance (another type of belonging), we will try not to draw undo attention to ourselves (another type of recognition).

In dynamical systems, something called an ‘attractor’ is a recurrent code that draws a system into persistent patterns of organization. In our consideration of the pattern known as personal identity (or the construct of who you are), two polar attractors drive development: at one end is the secure base (an attractor for safety, love, acceptance and belonging), while at the other end is the proving circle (an attractor for personal power, worth, approval and recognition).

Archetypally these correspond to our mother (or mother figure) and father (or father figure), respectively. A number of Freud’s most enduring insights can be liberated from his theory of sexuality and better understood archetypally in these terms instead.

The unique admixture of temperamental predispositions, environmental conditions, and personal life events tends to ‘lean’ our personality more toward one attractor than the other. Even within the range of so-called normal psychology this is the case. A normal well-adjusted personality can value belonging over recognition, or vice versa. The important point is that both attractors and their associated values are critical to our identity and mental health.

What this suggests is that our individual personality can be understood (not diagnosed!) as either security-seeking or esteem-seeking. Identifying more with one doesn’t mean that we have no interest in the other; healthy identity is somewhere in the balance of both. If you happen to value safety and love over power and worth, it may simply reveal that close relationships are more important to you than personal achievements, not that accomplishing things and making progress don’t matter.


You were probably waiting for me to mention this: It can happen that the balance snaps and we get stuck at one pole or the other. Security becomes everything and we end up giving all our energy to pleasing and placating the people we feel we can’t live without. (This is common among children of addicts and victims of abuse.) Or else if we’re caught at the other end, we stay busy trying to flatter and impress others so they’ll esteem us as somebody important and worthy of praise. (This is frequent among celebrities and performers of various kinds.)

The goal of development is to hold the balance and use our stable center of personal identity to leap (or drop) into a larger (or deeper) experience of wholeness and wellbeing. More about that next time …

 

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The Filters of Illusion

Constructivism is a philosophy that regards the mind as not merely active in our experience of reality (as opposed to some early modern theories which regarded it as a ‘blank slate’ written upon by experience), but creatively active in the way it constructs the mental models we take as our reality. In the course of ordinary experience we don’t typically discriminate between our constructs and the reality they are meant to represent. Constructivism makes such discrimination foundational to its method.

One important implication of this is that because meaning is constructed by the mind, and because our constructs are mental models and not reality itself, what we normally take as real is really being mistaken as such. In other words, our constructs are illusions that shape and filter our perceptions of reality. Truth, then, becomes a question of how reality-oriented (or realistic) a particular illusion is.

Reality-itself remains a mystery, and every time we construct a model (e.g., a concept, belief, or even a theory like constructivism) to make sense of it, we are spinning a veil of meaning – an illusion that removes us to some degree from what is really real.

The application of these insights as therapy, which is to say, as a method for not only understanding the nature of illusion but living as much as possible in communion with the present mystery of reality, is yet another persistent fantasy of mine. I don’t presume that our goal should be to break entirely and permanently free from illusion, but rather that we should self-consciously step into our creative authority as meaning-makers, storytellers, theory-builders, and make-believers.

Instead of mistaking our mental models for reality, we can acknowledge their character as illusions and proceed to look through them, as veils parting (literally revelations) before our minds. Once we see it, we can then do something about it.

It can happen, however, that an illusion is particularly persistent, in which case the veil doesn’t part but instead traps our mind inside its own delusion. Here there is no difference between a construction of meaning and the reality it represents – there cannot be, simply because what is believed must be the way things really are. We have too much invested in our illusion, too much of our security and identity tied up in the web of meaning we have constructed. We are not free, nor do we wish to be. For without meaning reality would be … well, meaningless, and who could bear that?

Actually, the mystical discovery that reality is perfectly meaningless is wonderfully liberating.

In this post we will analyze three filters of illusion that characterize normal psychology, but which of course can conspire in distressed, demented, or radicalized minds to put individuals so out of touch with reality that great harm can come to them, and through them to others. My interest is with normal and not abnormal psychology, since this is where most of us live. If we can understand how normal people lose touch with reality, we might also gain some insight into what happens when someone falls pathologically into delusion.

My diagram depicts an eye looking out on reality – not the so-called reality represented in our mind, but the present mystery of reality independent of our mental models. It is ineffable: indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless. The first and most massive filter of illusion is our personal worldview, which is not only the internal picture we have of what’s outside us, but a projection of what’s going on inside us as well.

The philosophy of constructivism received strong confirmation as commerce, conquest, and migration revealed a diversity of cultural worldviews on our planet. This challenged us to consider the possibility that such local distinctions at the societal level might continue down into even more granular detail for individuals – which, of course, it does. Each of us maintains a filter of illusion that represents our place in the scheme of things.

Throughout life our worldview will be updated and evolve in response to greater depth and scope in the range of our experiences.

It is possible for our worldview to lock up and resist this normal process of reality-checking what we think we know. To understand the cause behind such resistance we need to go one step deeper into the filters of illusion. What we find there are ego ambitions that drive and define our personal life – craving those things we feel we can’t be happy without, and fearing the prospect of not getting them or losing them once we do.

This dual drive of desire and fear is the mechanism that defines ambition (ambi = both or two). Our ambitions can be so powerful as to make us insist that reality must be set up in such a way as to support our fantasies of happiness; hence our worldview as a projection of deeper forces within us. Our mental models are less about reality in some objective sense, and more about the restless ambitions that subjectively preoccupy us.

According to the anonymous maxim, we don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

But we’re not yet at the deepest filter in our construction of meaning. One last step carries us into those earliest and most urgent points of interrogation by which our sense of self and reality is forged – what I name our feeling-needs. Whereas our conventional notion of need refers to a correlation between an internal requirement and an external resource, such as the need for nutrition and the provision of food, a feeling-need refers to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

A key to understanding feeling-needs is recognizing that they are not necessarily correlated to external reality. We may be safe in actual fact and completely sheltered from danger, but if we don’t feel safe, that’s what really matters. I’ve written about feeling-needs in other posts, so we won’t go much farther into them here, except to point out the way they are developmentally implicated in each other.

A lack of feeling safe compels us to satisfy this need at the level of love, which turns relationships into attachments. Because real love only grows in freedom, our need to feel loved cannot be satisfied here. So we employ our capabilities in an effort to earn, flatter, please, impress, or coerce others to love us. As a consequence, our sense of worthiness gets tied to acceptance and approval by others, whether we are useful in their feeling-need satisfaction strategies.

In this way individuals become mechanisms in a codependent dysfunctional system, neither one getting what they really need but each too anxious to let go.

Following this sequence in reverse, we now have a better understanding of the filters of illusion. Our unique profile of frustrated feeling-needs fuels our ego ambitions, which in turn predispose us to imagine and construct a personal worldview where our hopes can be fulfilled.

And all of this as we live, right now, in the present mystery of reality.

 

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