Boundaries and Bridges


Start Your Healing Journey Pre-work: Creating Safe Spaces

This article is the prework for the 12-step program Start Your Healing Journey. Start Your Healing Journey is a free introductory program designed to help people improve personal wellbeing. This program will also help participants improve in their relationships. It provides participants with 12 basic tools for healing. This self-help program can be done alone or under the guidance of a counselor and/or healing group.

In Start Your Healing Journey, I will provide you with 12 basic tools for self-empowerment. These are the 12 foundational tools from the Identity-Values-Reflection (IVR) toolkit for mental wellbeing. They are designed to help a person who is stuck in a pattern of being mentally or emotionally unwell. They move us from a helplessness mindset to an empowerment mindset.

In this prework, we will begin to separate out what is controllable in our lives from what is outside our control. Only by clearly understanding what is in our control can we then move towards empowerment. We must accept what we cannot change. Just like we cannot change the weather, so too can we not change certain things in our lives. But there is a lot we can change with the right tools.

We must also recognize that we have far more influence on our lives than we might be aware of. With the right tools, we can change how we feel. We can change how others feel and act towards us. This type of change happens slowly over time. There are no shortcuts. It requires loving discipline and continuous self-care.

In this prework article, we will learn our first healing tool: how to create safe spaces. Creating safe spaces is a foundational tool for healing and wellbeing. To achieve personal wellbeing, we need to create for ourselves a healthy living environment. We need a safe place for growth and exploration. This safe space must be free of judgement, blame and shame. We must be able to observe ourselves with clarity. Without this safe space, healing and wellbeing are impossible.

If you’re ready, let’s begin!

This Article Contains:

Introduction: Stuck in a hurricane
Experiencing the hurricane
Feeling the hurricane
Navigating the hurricane
Seeing a path forward
Creating safe spaces
Common mistakes when trying to set up safe boundaries
Seeking refuge in a storm
Homework: a ten-step process to establishing a safe home environment

Introduction: Stuck in a hurricane

As a family doctor, I have encountered so many patients who come to me stuck. Sometimes they come alone. Other times they come together with loved ones. Let me tell you the story of John. John is a fictional character based upon several patients of mine. John is not real, but the things he says in this story are words that I hear often.

John is a 16-year-old who is brought in by his parents after he’s been found skipping school to smoke cigarettes and weed. His parents want him drug tested as they fear he’s also “doing other things.” From the moment I walk in the door, something is off here. Everyone is quiet and on edge. I feel it, also. Just walking to my seat, I feel like I’m tiptoeing over invisible landmines.

As I sit down, I try my usual icebreakers of asking how everyone is doing. John and his parents remain stiff. John’s head is buried in his phone, and he never once looks up to make eye contact. His mother forces a smile and spits out short answers to my questions. His father is so tense, the man looks like someone on trial for murder. He can barely contain the boiling fury that’s bubbling just below the surface.

After several failed attempts to get John’s attention, I do manage to get him to answer some easy yes-no questions about what grade he’s in and if he has siblings. His single-word answers are barely audible, almost like animal grunts. He delivers them without pausing his texting. Feeling a little frustrated myself, I come out with the big question, “So, John, why are you here?” After a long, awkward silence, I make it clear to John that the question was directed to him, not his parents. Irritated by my persistence, he fires back with a “Dunno. They made me come!” It’s the first sign of life since I walked in the room, the first time he’s stopped texting, the first time he’s strung a few words together. Progress!

After making sure it’s ok with John, I ask the parents to leave the room. On their way out, his mom whispers to me that John has been skipping school several days a week. They don’t know where he’s gone but suspect he’s doing drugs with friends. He comes home at his usual time in the afternoon, and they only found out about his missed days after the school contact them. He is no longer interested in sports and is now failing most of his classes.

Alone with John, he still doesn’t want to talk with me. It’s clear he doesn’t want to be here. He still doesn’t make eye contact, but he does put down his phone and just stare into his lap. I try getting him to open up with some more easy questions, but his replies are still one-word answers. I’m pulling teeth here. However, when I ask him about his parents or about school, there is a clear change. His breathing heightens and his cheeks go red. He’s holding back a lot, just like his father was. He tries again with the one word answers. It doesn’t take much prodding to let that steam to finally come out. “I hate school.” “I don’t like my parents. And they don’t like me.”

We pause there. I reassure him that it’s ok to be honest with me and that I can keep his answers confidential. I tell him this is a safe space where he can be himself. I try and validate his anger. I ask him if he finds it difficult to talk to his parents. He says there are a lot of arguments. There is yelling, intimidation, interrogations, threats, and punishments. His parents will chase him into his room when he tries to get away.

It takes some time, but John owns up to leaving school in the middle of the day and going to the woods. He hangs out alone. He admits to smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and drugs, although mostly marijuana. He also begins to open up about his frequent unwanted thoughts and feelings. He has intrusive thoughts, his own inner critic, that tells him he’s not good enough. He’s not worthy of this life. His parents don’t want him. School doesn’t want him. No one likes him. He should just get it over with. He’s contemplated doing this many times. I ask him if he likes himself. He admits that he does not.

Experiencing the hurricane

At some point in our lives, most of us will find ourselves stuck in a situation like what John has found himself in. We feel trapped and alone. We are helpless to escape. Our feelings are overwhelming. We may have dark, intrusive thoughts.

The particulars will be different for each of us. We may be like John, young and dependent upon caregivers who are simultaneously contributing to our entrapment. We may be older, struggling in school or a job that doesn’t suit us. There is the mysterious fatigue that is so common in new parents with multiple small children. There is the doom of being in a loveless marriage. There is the helplessness of caring for someone with chronic illness who is unable to overcome their hurdles. There is the alienation of being caught by a chronic medical illness that befuddles our doctors who are supposed to have all the answers. There is the snarl of alcoholism or drug addiction that eats away at one’s spirit. There is the despair of being an older adult whose independence is slowly, insidiously slipping away. There is the powerlessness of watching a parent fade into dementia.

Each of these situations is different. The specific feelings may be different. There may be anger and fury. There may be paralysis. There may be despair gathering ominously like storm clouds overhead. There may be the sense of victimization as the world pits itself against us. There is the helplessness as we realize, shockingly, that we lack the ability to confront our current situation. We find ourselves abandoned to our fate. There may be the betrayal that comes when outer forces abuse us. There is inner betrayal also as we discover parts of our inner selves have turned against our Whole. These inner rebels are aggressive and unrelenting. Their sting is more acute and vicious than anything on the outside. The cuts are deep and internal. They rip us apart.

Even as each situation is different, there are incredible similarities also. In each story, the world’s color changes to something else. Perhaps a gray or purple or red. Our environment lacks the vibrancy it once had. There is cloudiness and confusion. Our perspective shrinks and warps.

The nature of the storm is different for each person. For some people, the sky is an unrelenting gray–an endless winter spanning the horizons. Or there may be a dense fog of stale routines that keep us trapped. For others, the storm is a gathering of dark clouds, groaning and churning, a looming convalescence, menacing overhead. The clouds may take the shape of an oppressive black wall that steadily marches towards us, gobbling up all light. Or they may already be overhead, a looming convalescence, circling and choking. Still for others, the hurricane is in full force. The elements assault us with pelting sheets and bitter cold. The winds knock us around, and the sky spits out daggers of light. We battle to keep from being swept away. We search, in vain, for shelter, a place to regain our footing.

There are outside forces at work. These are easy to point to. Outside judgments assault us from every direction. We keep our heads low and brace ourselves against the forces arrayed against us.

If that was all we faced, we might have the courage to keep on. But deep inside, there is more. We know there’s more. For nothing matches the inner cycle of helplessness and secrecy and shame. The daily reminders. The indictment. The voice that calls us weak. A strong person wouldn’t feel this way.

Our own body is under assault from within. It is an invisible cancer that grows and spreads. It tightens and squeezes. It strikes in those dark places. Dark feelings and thoughts flood our minds. They attack with knifelike cruelty, like a scorned lover intent on destroying us. No one can help us because no one can see our assailant. But we hear it, and we feel it. It craves and it attacks. It calls us imposter. It whispers, “You are not worthy. You shouldn’t be here.”

Feeling the hurricane

This is a different type of hurricane. It is a hurricane of our mind, our spirit, and our body. Like the weather, this hurricane is out of our control. We cannot wish it away. We can yell and scream. We can try to command it. If we do manage to quiet it down, we know that it is only a temporary reprieve. The storm will return with a vengeance. If we run and hide, we know it still stalks our steps. It haunts us. It still calls out. Soon enough, it will find us.

We cannot command the hurricane. Neither can we hide from it. So, what do we do?

To escape the hurricane, we must understand it. The hurricane is power. It is energy. It is purpose.

To understand it, must feel the hurricane. We must feel its rhythms and its intent. It wants to help us. We need only realize that its energy is there for our use.

To calm the storm, we must help it realize its purpose.

The hurricane is not there to harm us. That’s not why it’s come. The storm inside us, whether looming or raging, is there for our benefit. It wants to help us. It doesn’t quite know how. We are disconnected from it. That’s why it attacks. It’s angry. It’s lost. And it wants to find us again.

We have to reconnect. Connection is healing. Connection is cure. But we’re not ready yet.

Connection is the end goal. Connection is the clarity at the mountaintop. We’re at the very beginning, the very bottom. We have a long way to go.

We can start our journey by recognizing that all feelings, even the difficult ones, have purpose. All feelings are important pieces of us. All thoughts are ideas to be cherished. Those inner parts that whisper them are the inner characters of our being. Each part carries a burden and pushes forward with an important task. Even if they are harming us, these inner parts deserve to be honored for their efforts.

To understand the hurricane, we must feel it. We must listen to its call. We must experience its power. We must soak up its cold wetness. Hear the words in the raging wind. Understand what it’s trying to say.

This is no easy task when we’re holding on for dear life. It may be downright terrifying.

And yet, this is the way forward. The storm is part of us, and we are part of it. We cannot fight it, and we cannot run. Instead, we must face it with confidence and courage.

We must be like Bruce Wayne who returns to the cave for the first time as a young man and feels the swirl of a thousand bats around him. He stands there, calm and sober. There is fear, but there is curiosity also. He outstretches his arms to the flow and rhythm of the creatures spiraling around him.

We must be the intrepid beekeeper who picks up his hive. Without protection, the bees swarm around him. They land on his cheeks and crawl on his nostrils. But they do not sting. If he has fear, he doesn’t show it. He is supposed to be there. He is part of them. They are part of him.

The hurricane is all those elements outside our direct control. It is outside forces, big and small. It is those friends and loved ones who assail us with blame and judgment. It is the communities and groups we belong to that are no longer meeting our needs. It is the undercurrents of brutal, painful history. It is the social forces battling to secure the future. It is the relationships and habits that no longer serve us. It is also the many inner parts we do not control. It is our autopilot, the machinelike being that drives us from one moment to the next. It is our inner children, marooned on islands, and the impossible burdens they carry. It is our inner critics that remind us we’re not good enough. It is the stagnant pools of our own cruel past, the lessons painfully learnt, the memories stuffed deep down, yet to be integrated into the Whole.

All of that together constitutes a mighty ocean of uncontrollables. So many aspects of our lives that we can’t dictate.

Then there is the small sailboat of our conscious being. The sailboat is our awareness. It is our power of choice. With its small sails and oars, we are given agency to navigate the undulating waters. That little boat is what we have to work with. It must carry us.

We would all love a beautiful blue sky, a calm ocean, and a steady breeze in the right direction. How often does that happen?

Sometimes in life, we find ourselves trapped in something far different. We are navigating a dense fog, an endless gray sky, a menacing stormfront, or a raging storm. It is daunting. The world becomes a scary place.

And yet, with the right tools, we can still get to where we would like to go. We can navigate forward.

There is a formula for change: Event + Reaction = Outcome. We cannot control the events around us. And so, our reaction will determine the outcome. If our reaction correctly complements the events, we can still go where we would like. This realization, that we are not powerless, is the critical first step.

If we attune ourselves to the weather, we can utilize its energy for our advantage. We can make the difficult weather work for us. It doesn’t matter if we’re dealing with a quiet, steady breeze or a raging storm. The principles are the same. Positive change occurs in a few basic steps:

  • Become aware of the storm
  • Accept that we cannot change the storm. We can only navigate through it.
  • Harness the power of choice. We can choose our purpose–our end goal. We can choose our path of how to get there. We can choose to reflect after each step. We reflect to check on our progress to see if we are still on the right track.
  • Practice loving discipline to keep going and build healthy habits
  • Give ourselves grace when we need to change direction because things aren’t working.

The bottom line is that we are our own best healers. We cannot rely on others. They are not in our boat with us. They cannot change the sails or man the oars for us. Only we can do that. Other people may be able to sail alongside us. They can model what to do. But only we can do the work.

Seeing a path forward

Let’s return to the story of John. John is stuck in a hurricane of negative feelings. There are the internal negative feelings: the self-doubt, poor self-esteem, self-loathing, lack of confidence in personal abilities, helplessness, and disconnection. There is also the bombardment of external pressures: verbal aggression, intimidation, interrogations, threats, punishments, lectures, shaming, judgments, and entrapment at home.

Once we see the full picture of what’s happening here, John’s response to his situation becomes entirely logical and predictable. He is leaving school and going to a private place in the woods to do drugs. Home and school have become unsafe places for him. He is going to the woods, a place where he feels safe. Once there, he is numbing his intense negative feeling with marijuana.

What can we do if we’re trying to travel towards a destination, but the hurricane winds are blowing fiercely in the opposite direction?

Most people make the mistake of trying to fight the winds. They paddle as hard as they can toward their destination. Eventually, the winds exhaust them, and they give up.

So, what is the answer? Most people in this situation see two options: continue fighting the winds or give up. It takes patience and imagination to see past the binary choice. We have far more options available. Any good sailor will tell you that you can’t sail directly into a headwind. But you can still use a headwind to power your boat. You must zigzag through the wind. Choose a proper angle of attack, and with the right technique the wind will propel you in a net forward direction. You will need to switch directions periodically to reach your destination.

At this point, it should be obvious what John needs. We needn’t ask him. His behavior does the talking for us. John wants to be happy. That is the destination he is trying to reach. Except all the forces in his life are pushing him away from that destination. These forces are outside his control. And so, he is searching for a place where he can feel safe. He is also experimenting with numbing activities that provide relief from his negative feelings.

We cannot wave a magic wand and make John happy. However, we can support him in meeting his needs. He needs to feel safe and also have relief from the storm. We can help John feel safe by learning how to create safe spaces. We can also provide him healthy relief from his negative feelings through active listening and/or empathy.

Creating safe spaces

Creating safe spaces is a foundational tool for human wellbeing. It is the first step for all healing. Healing, understanding, and happiness do not occur without it. To heal, we must first feel like we are in a safe place.

If we did not grow up in a safe environment, then it may not be natural for us to create one for ourselves or our loved ones. We may think that we’re providing a safe environment when in fact that is not the case. It is not enough to provide a home free from physical abuse. There is a lot more that goes into a safe, nurturing environment. A safe home environment is one in which all members feel free to be themselves and express themselves in a respectful manner. A safe environment promotes the mutual growth of individuals and of the relationships they are involved in. This type of personal growth should span multiple domains including emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical growth.

How do we tell if we’re providing a safe environment for ourselves and our loved ones? The easiest way is to observe our collective behavior. If people are acting aggressively or disrespectfully, then this is not a safe environment. If people are sneaking away, hiding in their rooms, or otherwise acting dishonestly, then this is not a safe environment.

A safe environment has the following characteristics:

  1. Open, honest communication
  2. Private spaces where people can be by themselves and have their privacy respected (typically bedrooms and bathrooms)
  3. Common spaces where dialogue and fair negotiation on group expectations can occur (i.e. dinner table, family room, etc.)
  4. Presence of safe, age-appropriate boundaries segregating these different spaces
  5. Freedom to come and go within a set of safe, age-appropriate boundaries
  6. Absence of drug abuse, nicotine use, or intoxication within the premises
  7. Absence of aggressive behaviors, including physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse or harassment
  8. Absence of judgment, shaming, blaming, comparing, interrogating, punishing, defensiveness, self-loathing, or accusing behaviors
  9. Absence of manipulative behaviors, including accusations, ultimatums, chasing, pleasing, lecturing, and passive-aggressive behaviors
  10. Radical acceptance of people as they are without the expectation that they will change into somebody else

If our home lacks one of these characteristics, chances are we are not living in a safe environment. I arranged all of these ideas in order. Start at the top and work your way down. How many of these unhealthy behaviors exist in your home? Which ones do you exhibit?

Common mistakes when trying to set up safe boundaries

This is a difficult list to commit to. It requires a daily commitment. I’ve outlined a few of the most common mistakes that I see people make. As a parent, I’ve violated the majority of these rules at some point. We need to give ourselves grace to be imperfect, but also hold ourselves accountable to keep working on these things.

  • Lack of respect for private spaces. Commonly, I’ll see parents invade the bedrooms of children during an argument. If a child goes to their bedroom voluntarily, do not chase or follow them. This is actually a healthy natural way for children to seek safety and emotionally regulate. Let them come out of their bedrooms when they feel comfortable. Children are given ownership of their bedrooms and can invite or disinvite other family members at will.
  • Using bedrooms as punishments. A bedroom is a safe space for family members and should never be treated as a jail, punishment, or banishment. Children should only be asked to go to their bedroom if they are acting aggressively towards other family members. Aggressive children can be given the option of going to their bedrooms or another place in the house, so long as they are able to remain safe in the place of their choosing. Make it clear that they are being asked to separate from the group for the purpose of mutual safety. Once they are able to emotionally regulate, they are welcome to return to the common rooms. And so, they retain freedom of movement throughout the house.
  • Drug abuse, nicotine use, or intoxication within the home. Other family members should not have to suffer the consequences of adult drug or alcohol abuse. While moderate drinking may be ok, adults who wish to become intoxicated should do so outside the home. Other substances should be kept outside.
  • Aggressive behaviors are tolerated in common spaces. This is especially the case for verbal abuse. Verbal abuse, like name-calling and accusations, should not be tolerated. Abusive individuals should be asked to go to a safe space until they are able to emotionally regulate and stop their abusive behaviors. Practice safe communication without aggression.
  • Not tolerating certain beliefs. There should be space for people to hold differing, contradictory beliefs. All respectful beliefs should be tolerated within the home. This is especially true for differing religious and/or political beliefs.
  • Not tolerating certain identities and/or identity exploration. A home that doesn’t allow individuals to be who they are is not a safe home. If children are fearful of disclosing aspects of their identity, then they are not living in a safe environment. It is the job of adults, not children, to create a safe living environment.
  • Presence of manipulative and/or dishonest behaviors such as judgment, shaming, blaming, comparing, interrogating, punishing, ultimatums, pleasing, lecturing, defensiveness and passive-aggressive behaviors. These common, immature behaviors require a lot of work to eliminate from our use.

The last point on manipulative and dishonest behaviors is the one that trips people up the most. That’s especially true for me personally. I’m a judger. I’m also a manipulator, a lecturer, a pleaser at times, a verbal abuser, and I like to get defensive. These are all things that I’ve had to work on. As I’ve seen improvement in these behaviors, I’ve seen my children respond dramatically in a positive manner. My children, ages 7 and 9, used to exhibit a lot of aggressive behavior after the divorce. As I’ve seen my own parenting mature, I’ve watched them model my behavior. They will now voluntarily go to their rooms, without being asked, when they become emotionally dysregulated. They then return back to the family room once they feel better, usually after 5-15 minutes. They also feel comfortable talking about things that bother them, including things that might upset me. I’m very proud of the environment of open dialogue that we’ve built in our home.

Seeking refuge in a storm

Let’s return to John’s story to figure out our next step. John wants to be happy, but all the emotional winds are blowing him in the direction of further unhappiness. We cannot just plow through the storm. Instead, we have to navigate it efficiently. In fact, we should use those winds to a positive end.

John is going into the woods where he feels safe and is doing illicit drugs to numb his overwhelming emotions. This behavior provides him with temporary refuge from the storm, but it does so at a long-term cost. He never figures out how to maturely navigate his difficult situation. Furthermore, he will establish a co-dependency relationship with illicit drugs that will arrest social growth.

The easiest thing to do in this situation is to create for John a safe home environment for him to return to. Within this environment, John will have his own bedroom where parents will not enter without invitation. Then there will be common spaces for everyone to coexist together. These common spaces need to be free from pressuring/manipulative types of behavior. They should be free from lectures, judgments, shaming, interrogations, punishments, and accusations. John must feel free to come and go througout the home.

Now this doesn’t mean that John gets to do whatever he wants within the home. The family can work collaboratively to come up with a basic set of fair rules, of which John should have a say in crafting. Respecting everyone’s boundaries is an important part of those rules. John cannot get intoxicated or use drugs within the home. But this doesn’t mean that his belongings will be searched or that he’ll get dragged to the doctor’s office for a drug test. However, if John acts inappropriately, he will need to bear some natural consequences for his behavior. He may be asked to leave the common spaces if he is emotionally dysregulated. He may be later asked to repair any damage that he’s caused by his behavior.

John should be free to decide his future. This includes deciding if he will stay in school or not. However, if he decides to drop out of school, he should be expected to enter into the workforce. After all, everyone must contribute fairly to household chores and expenses.

While taking these steps will not solve all of the family’s problems, setting up a safe home environment is the critical first step to navigating John’s storm. John should not expect the hurricane to disappear with this first step. However, he should notice that he is getting a little closer to his destination. The intensity of his negative emotions should soften. The next step is to use empathy and active listening. When presented with a safe environment, active listening/empathy should allow John to open up and begin talking honestly with his parents about what is going on in his life.

What if, from John’s perspective, his parents refuse to create a safe home environment? Maybe they refuse to stop their manipulative behaviors or possibly they refuse to stop their intake of harmful substances. This creates a very sticky situation. From John’s perspective, he is forced now to “grow up” quicker than he should have to. He must act as both the child and the adult in this situation. This is hard for anyone to do, but especially hard for children and adolescents. There will be long-term cost for an adolescent being forced to grow up too fast, but at this stage it may be our only option.

John must create his own safe space. He is already trying to do that by going into the woods. Unfortunately, this will provide temporary safety at a long term expense to his wellbeing.

John can create his own safe spaces in a few ways. It’s best if he does this with others involved, at least at first. He should identify five individuals in his life as positive role models. These role models can be teachers, peers, siblings, extended family, or medical professionals like a counselor. He should make a plan to meet with these individuals and ask if they have the energy and bandwidth to be part of his support network. A support network is a group of individuals who coalesce around someone to aid in healing. A fully functioning support network can replace a dysfunctional home in extreme circumstances.

In a support network, there should be a mix of individuals with diverse backgrounds and ages, including at least one professional and one family member. John should not pick five peers from the same friend group. At most, one or two friends out of the same group is enough. He needs to involve other individuals outside his close friends.

If they are willing, he should then plan to meet with each person minimally once every two weeks, although more frequent meetings are ideal. These meetings should occur in a safe setting. They should not involve illicit drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy behaviors. They can involve other healthy social activities, such as sports or playing games. However, there should be time set aside for 1:1 check-in’s. It’s during this time that John should be free to explore how he is feeling.

Notice here that these safe spaces may no longer be a physical space, like a home. It can be an emotional space for two people to connect freely with open dialogue. It can be a church, a park, a coffee shop. It can be talking on the phone. Talking online through texting or chat groups doesn’t count. A safe space for healing is not an online chat room any more than it is a friend group. Friend groups and chat rooms may be helpful for healing, but they do not constitute a person’s support network. They cannot substitute for a dysfunctional home the way that a fully functioning support network can.

Homework: a ten-step process to establishing a safe home environment

Here is where we begin the work with some homework. We cannot just read an article. We have to practice these ideas. We have to work at it on a daily basis until they become habit. But we also cannot overwhelm ourselves by biting off more than we can chew.

I will utilize Dr. Nicole LePera’s concept of the small daily promise. In this exercise, a person commits each day to doing one healthy act each day. Follow these instructions:

  1. Pick one unhealthy behavior related to creating safe spaces from the list above. Common unhealthy behaviors include comparing, judging, blaming, self-loathing, accusations, ultimatums, chasing, pleasing, lecturing, intoxication, yelling, punishing, and/or passive-aggressive behavior. Pick only one of these.
  2. Each morning, make a promise to yourself that you will put in effort to stop yourself from committing this one single behavior today. Notice that you are not promising to not do the behavior. You are only going to put in effort to find an alternative behavior to do instead.
  3. When a familiar tense situation arises, take note.
  4. When you start to feel a craving to do this behavior, take note of the craving. Where did it come from? How did it arise? Feel the urge. Don’t try to suppress it. Just examine it.
  5. If you can, pause whatever you are doing. Excuse yourself and go to a different place where you can reflect. Put some more thought into what you were about to do. Give yourself five minutes before rejoining your previous situation.
  6. If it’s too late and you’ve already done the thing that you were trying to avoid doing, that is ok. As soon as you recognize this, pause to reflect. Go into that separate private space and replay what happened. Ask yourself what else you could have done or said in that situation.
  7. At some point, you should apologize for the behavior, “I’m sorry for being so critical,” “I’m sorry for yelling,” “I’m sorry for chasing you into your room. That is your private space.”
  8. If you were able to stop yourself before doing the behavior, feel free to talk about what happened with the other people involved. Tell them, “I’m sorry for being so… in the past. I’m really working on not being that way going forward. I would appreciate it if you would help by being patient with me.”
  9. Give yourself credit for doing this hard work, whether you were able to stop yourself or not. None of this is easy.
  10. Keep up with the same behavior, day after day, until you do find away to replace that unhealthy behavior with something else that works better.


How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Your Self 
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Reparenting refers to when an adult or older child learns how to become their own wise parent. Personal growth is about looking inward to correct behaviors and habits that are no longer serving us. With reparenting, we will harness personal insights and self-awareness, reflect on feedback from others, build loving discipline, and take extreme ownership of our behaviors. In this way, reparenting becomes a necessary life process that helps us achieve our goals and nurture our relationships to their fullest.

We all have bad habits and behaviors. In childhood and early adulthood, we observed others model certain ways of doing things. We experimented with these behaviors to meet our needs of emotional support, affection, security, attachment, and structure. Our autopilot selected what it thought were the best behaviors at the time. These behaviors became our habits for a variety of reasons including personal values, our own capabilities, necessity, and convenience. Over time, we developed a toolkit to get us through life. It seemed to work well.

Most of these behaviors are probably healthy and adequate for our basic needs. They may encourage us to work hard and cope in times of stress. But, if you’re anything like me, chances are there are some immature habits in there. Immature habits and behaviors yield short-term benefits at the expense of long-term happiness and health. We may not realize our behaviors are immature for years or decades, when our debts finally are called due. This can lead to a type of painful reckoning, where a person finally faces the consequences of past behavior. Finally, we feel “awakened” but only at great personal cost. Now we face the long and difficult task of picking up the pieces.

Whether your reckoning has already occurred or has yet to occur, there is no better time to learn how to be your own wise parent. For some, this will involve identifying where we went wrong. How did our own actions lead us to painful circumstances? For others, there may be time to take corrective action before the painful psychosocial debts are called due.

Reparenting is not about blaming one’s own parents or past. Instead, it is about making an honest, nonjudgmental assessment of one’s value toolkit. Through curiosity and self-care, we identify the value tools that we use everyday. Which tools need to be sharpened? Which tools are being used inappropriately? What is missing in our toolkit?

In this article, we will separate out immature and mature tools. We will see how immature tools are a type of shortcut that provide immediate gains but incur hidden costs. Mature tools are the sharpened versions that effectively balance costs and benefits. We will explore some simple steps for sharpening our tools and acquiring new ones. Ultimately, we want to retrain our autopilot so that these mature tools become automatic. As using them becomes second nature, we can apply our energies fully towards our goals and relationships.

Reparenting is a core aspect of Identity-Values-Reflection self-therapy. In reparenting, we focus on our value toolkit.

I can credit many sources for the tips found in this article, but particular credit goes to Dr. Nicole LePera’s How to Do the Work.

This Article Contains:

Remaining nonjudgmental when confronting our habits and choices
How to act in dual roles as parent and child
Values are tools
6 Steps of Reparenting
Immature tools vs mature tools
Separating out mature vs immature values
Cynicism: the common thread of immature values
List of common immature values
In-between values
Mature values naturally lead to positive cycling when balanced and kept in moderation
Mature values
Overusing any value leads to cynicism

Remaining nonjudgmental when confronting our habits and choices

Reparenting is about identifying and correcting habits that are no longer serving us. Whenever we are acting out a familiar habit, this is our subconscious autopilot at work. Because 95% of the time, we are following daily routines, our autopilot controls the majority of our behavior. It uses the methods it has learned to meet our needs of emotional support, affection, security, attachment, and structure. Most of the time, these methods serve us. Sometimes they do not. Sometimes we find ourselves caught in unhealthy habits that make us feel stuck and helpless. Luckily for us, we are capable of retraining our autopilot.

All habits, even the unhealthy ones, are powered by choice. At one point in time, we chose those habits. Even though our autopilot is now running these routines on our behalf, our consciousness still bears responsibility. Our consciousness still monitors them from afar like the captain of a ship monitoring a crew hard at work. Recognizing this responsibility is a key part of taking back control. Our consciousness has leverage over our autopilot just as the captain has the ability to instruct the crew. The captain may not be able to micromanage every crewmate all the time, but the captain can support crewmates who are struggling. Identifying this point of leverage is an important step in moving from a helplessness mindset to empowerment.

The captain, our consciousness, has the unique power of choice. Every choice we make is powered by a moral value. Moral values are the instruments we use to try to meet our needs. For instance, we may feel hungry and then, using self-care, we order a pizza. Self-care is a simple moral value.

Psychologists commonly make the mistake of saying that we should put aside moral principles when it comes to healing and mental health. Except that the tools we use in healing–listening, self-care, empathy, goal setting, getting in touch with our bodies, etc.–these are all moral tools (aka moral values). We are making moral choices when exercising these tools. Instead, what psychologists probably mean when they say that healing isn’t about morality is that we should strive to be nonjudgmental. This I can agree with because judging someone usually gets in the way of understanding and helping them.

Judgment, as it is known in today’s culture, typically means blaming, shaming, and self-flagellation. I agree that these instruments of judgment are almost always inappropriately used in today’s culture. They all at the cost of eroding someone’s self-worth. Because of this, they are rarely helpful in everyday conversations let as tools of healing. They should be set aside.

Even as we strive to be nonjudgmental, we still need to recognize the moral component of behavior and habits. Every choice is a moral choice. To correct unhealthy habits, we need a safe way of examining our choices and our habits. We need to identify those habits and choices that are no longer serving us. We need to do so in a way that does not erode our self-worth. We need to be a neutral, non-judgmental observer of ourselves.

How to act in dual roles as parent and child

Reparenting requires that we act out dual roles. We must be both teacher and learner at the same time. We all have experience being children, and some of us have experience as parents. Now we get to act in both roles at the same time.

Human beings learn through experience. The most effective teaching is not lecturing, ordering around, blaming and punishing for mistakes. Instead, teaching is about empowering children to learn and grow. Teachers empower students by creating a loving environment for children to explore and grow. Children do not absorb lessons with their eyes and ears. They must be free to be children, to do and to act. Even when absorbing a lecture, a child is recreating the lesson in their minds as if they were doing. The imagination is hard at work here modeling the lesson. Even then, it is only an abstract model. To incorporate the lesson, it must be integrated into the child’s subconscious through lived experience. Otherwise, it is likely to be discarded in favor of lessons resulting from other experiences.

Likewise, being an effective parent involves setting safe, healthy boundaries. Inside those boundaries, effective parents allow their children the freedom to make choices and learn from those choices. Children learn best, not by following strict rules, but instead by making choices and experiencing the consequences of those choices. Effective parents never attempt to shield their children from these consequences, no matter how painful.

In reparenting, we must become effective teachers and parents of ourselves. We learn to empower our inner child with fair choices. We should give ourselves permission and grace to make mistakes so that we can learn from them. We should experience the consequences of our choices instead of trying to shield ourselves from those consequences. This is what is meant by taking extreme responsibility for our actions and the world we create around us.

We must also accept where we are right now. We all have different skills and capabilities. We each have a different moral toolkit to work with. As teachers, we are not teaching ideal children in some perfect world. We are teaching the children in front of us. These children come with abilities, past experiences, learned habits, and struggles. We must lovingly meet our children where they are. This is what is meant by radical acceptance.

In reparenting, we strive to act as both teacher and learner, parent and child. We must be both observer and person being observed. This is what is meant by duality. Duality is a challenging concept. It is paradoxical. Here we need to be two things at once. As children, we need to experience the consequences of our choices. As loving adults, we need to separate from those consequences so that we can observe them. We retain our empathic connection to our inner children. But we no longer feel the force of their experience. Only through separation can we act as a neutral, nonjudgmental observer. Only from that observation tower is it possible to turn inward and shine a spotlight on our choices. So, we must feel and simultaneously not feel.

How does duality work from a practical standpoint? Luckily, we have the benefit of time. When we experience a consequence of our choices, it is natural to immediately feel the impact of that consequence. Assuming it is safe to do so, we should avoid shielding ourselves from our feelings. We can remain sincere in the moment. Later on, our job is to reflect on the experience. This is when we occupy our observation tower. We switch over to the parenting role. We look back. If we experienced success, are we really as terrific as we assumed we were, or is there still room to grow? How much of our success was due to luck, and how much was the result of effective choices? If we experienced failure, are we really as awful as we thought we were? Why were our choices ineffective? Would they have been more effective in different circumstances? This type of curious questioning is what is meant by mature observation.

Values are tools

As loving parents and teachers of ourselves, we need to recognize the tools that our children have to work with. When it comes to making choices, these tools are moral values. And yet, moral values are simply a type of personal tool. They are skills that we learned through lived experiences. Seeing moral choices as tools is one way of putting aside guilt, shame, and judgment. We can finally see ourselves as life learners, students in the laboratory of life. Adopting this vantage, we can be nonjudgmental towards the learners using those moral tools.

Tools are simply that. They are instruments designed for a particular purpose. Tools are neither good nor bad. We never judge them in that way. We never judge the tool itself. The tool has an essence that is tied to its purpose. We honor all our tools, even the ones that aren’t working for us anymore, the ones that need to be put aside.

Our tools come with a purpose. They are designed to help us in specific situations. Understanding that purpose can be key to knowing if we are using them correctly or not. Certain tools can be effective or ineffective for certain situations. Even a tool like lying may be appropriate at Christmas time. Or a tool like killing might be appropriate when a soldier defends their country in time of war. When used in a situation that lies outside of their purpose, these tools suddenly become both dangerous and self-destructive.

Here we realize that tools can be used inappropriately. This is a different type of judgement than blaming or shaming. We are not blaming the tool. Neither are we blaming the person using the tool. We are scrutinizing the way the tool is being used. We are looking at the behavior. We examine impact that includes benefits and costs. We don’t try to sweep some costs under a rug. We ask, is this the most effective tool for this situation? Would other tools serve us better?

With this type of scrutiny, we realize that our children learners are not their tools. Much of the problems of this world could be solved simply by realizing this small point that our children learners are not their tools. We are all children learners. Society doesn’t gift each of us a hammer at age 7 and a power drill at age 11. We acquire our tools at different times in life. Sometimes we get attached to one tool because it was the only one we had. It becomes a security blanket. Later in life, we struggle to let that one go when other, better tools become available.

In reparenting, we thoughtfully scrutinize our behaviors. We separate out the effective from the ineffective. Allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them. However, when ineffective behaviors become habit, we see our habits for what they are. They are moral choices that we have willingly adopted into our being. Now we face the music and take responsibility for those choices.

6 Steps of Reparenting

There are six steps to reparenting. Credit for this framework goes to Dr. Nicole LePera in How to do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from your Past, + Create your Self.

First, we clearly state that our goal is to achieve better understanding of ourselves. We are reparenting ourselves. This is a project of self-care and personal growth. We let go of our conditioned judgement and commit to our own betterment. We are doing this for ourselves.

Second, we must commit to conscious self-awareness. To see our behaviors clearly, we will need to unpack the different layers of our inner selves. We must examine our feelings, behaviors, habits, suffering, and our past. This is difficult work that is beyond the scope of this article. See How to build self-awareness.

Third, we recognize immature behaviors and habits. Instead of blaming, we use curiosity to ask how we got here. When did we start using that behavior? What was its original purpose? When did we start over-using the behavior? What other tools do we have available?

The fourth step is experimentation. We now get to try out new ways of dealing with our problems. It will feel clunky at first. Failure is expected. We can’t get it right immediately. We let go of the fear of what others might think. We give ourselves grace. We reconnect with our childlike wonder, imagination, curiosity, joy and playfulness. This project of self-discovery can be fun. If others are dragging us down, we may need to separate from them for a while. We can seek out new role models who can show us how to use different tools.

The fifth step is loving discipline. Once we’ve found something new that works, we continue to show ourselves this this can work. We need to build internal. Dr. Nicole LePera suggest that we make small daily promises to ourselves. Over time, these small daily promises become our new routine. The key aspect here is to make these promises small. Keep them doable. With time, our autopilot adopts them into a routine. They become easier. We no longer have to think about them.

The sixth, final step is reflection. We will begin to switch out certain value tools for others. We may still need to go back to those old tools in certain situations. They still have a purpose. But for other situations, we developed newer tools to use. We expanded our toolkit. Over time, we will need to reflect back on how things are working. This is where self-awareness and active listening become critical. We listen to ourselves and listen to others to see how things are working.

  1. Our goal: Understanding and self-care.
  2. Conscious awareness – see feelings, behavior, impact, cycle, needs, suffering, abuse
  3. Recognize immature behavior and its purpose.
  4. Experimentation. Try out new ways of dealing with problems.
  5. Loving discipline. small daily promises.
  6. Reflection

Immature tools vs mature tools

For reparenting to occur, we must be able to differentiate effective from ineffective behaviors. Life is complex. We don’t want to have to experiment with everything to figure that out. We want to avoid a lifetime of pain and misery if we can. Life throws enough at us for us to be bumbling around making endless mistakes. We need to be able to predict which behaviors are likely to effective.

There are many different types of value tools. Her we will break up our tools into two different types: mature and immature tools. I don’t want you to just take my word for it on which tools belong in which category. Let’s take some time understanding why certain tools can be predicted to be mature vs immature.

There is one major difference between mature and immature tools. When used properly, mature tools lead to healthy habits. This is not true in every case. It is still possible to misuse a mature tool and create unhealthy habits. However, it is much harder to do so. We would have to really overuse a mature tool to create a problem.

We use the term positive cycling to describe a group of healthy habits that group together to become a healthy relationship. See my Guide to Positive Cycling to learn more. Just like crafting a chair takes several tools used correctly, a healthy relationship requires several mature tools to be used correctly. It only takes a small number of mature tools to create a healthy relationship. For instance, we can create a healthy relationship out of honesty, shared interests, and hard work.

The same cannot be said about immature tools. Immature tools, in general, lead to unhealthy habits. Again, this is not true in every case. It’s possible, in rare and select circumstances, that an immature tool is the correct tool for the job. However, for the most part, it’s best to stay away from these instruments.

Immature tools cause problems in relationships. They are blunt instruments designed to do damage. Often the damage is irreparable. It’s like trying to build a chair using a wooden club. We could beat at our nails all day with the club and never get one to hold right. We need something more precise, something designed for construction.

Immature tools lead to co-dependency, which is the stagnation of a relationship’s growth. One immature behavior creates a problem, and many more coping behaviors are required to keep the relationship afloat. With so much energy poured into preventing the relationship from sinking, there isn’t enough energy left for growth.

Immature tools can also cause negative cycling, which is the fast-paced deterioration of a relationship, like a house caught on fire. Here one individual has chosen an immature tool. The second person, rather than coping and trying to put out the fire, chooses another immature tool in retaliation. Next thing you know, the house is on fire and everyone’s holding a gasoline can.

No tool by itself can be effective in all circumstances. Mature tools, when combined with other mature tools in a balanced way, lead to healthy habits. Immature tools, when combined with other immature tools, always lead to unhealthy relationships (co-dependency or negative cycling). For instance, a relationship can be built upon mutual listening, mutual respect, or mutual honesty (all mature tools). However, a relationship can’t be built with mutual aggression, mutual dishonesty, or mutual defensiveness (all immature tools).

There are reasons why immature tools don’t work. These tools share features in common that destroy relationships. Immature tools are a quick-fix. They lack the thoughtfulness and grace that comes with using a mature tool. Immature tools are a type of short-cut to a solution. The bottom line here is when we take a short-cut, we are cheating. Seizing a short-cut is a type of theft. Imagine a race where someone cheats to win. Imagine the hurt feelings of the person who should have won. What about all the other contestants, who would not have won, but still feel betrayed because they followed the rules.

Unbeknownst to the person who cheated, but they, too, feel betrayed. They have cheated themselves just as they cheated everyone else. Part of them is left believing, “I am not capable.” “I could not win without cheating.” “I will need to cheat again.” “This is who I am.” “I am a cheater.” “Everyone else is better than me. They can follow the rules and have a good time. I need to cheat just to keep up.” The perpetrator is left feeling disconnected from the rest. Not only do they feel like an imposter, but their behavior actualized those feelings. This is the paradoxical nature of cheating. It hurts the perpetrator as much as it hurts everyone else.

There is a hidden cost to taking a short-cut. Even if no one discovers the cheating, all parties involved bear the pain of the hidden cost. In fact, if the perpetrator gets away with their cheating, this is far worse than getting caught. They never face the consequences, at least not right away. The hidden costs of cheating remain hidden. The perpetrator is allowed to remain insincere. They must fight every day to keep those hidden costs hidden. That is how the hidden costs become a type of debt that accumulates interest. Every day that passes, the perpetrator watches helplessly as this moral debt adds up. Every time they are reminded of their cheating, they are flooded with negative feelings like guilt, helplessness, or victimization. These reminders are not unlike PTSD. Over time, immature habits become a type of traumatic abuse of the Self. The subconscious reminds us of the hidden costs of these habits and the mounting debt that is yet to be paid. The subconscious knows, even if the perpetrator isn’t consciously aware, that one day the debt will come due in a type of reckoning.

Immature toolsMature tools
Typically leads to co-dependency or negative cyclingTypically leads to positive cycling
Effective only in rare, specific casesEffective more broadly
Incurs hidden costsCosts are usually out in the open
Often insincereGenuine
Quick-fixRequires more time, energy, and thoughtfulness to achieve desired results
Contains short-cutsAvoids short-cuts
Incurs a moral debt that must be paid one dayAvoids moral debt
Often leads to a type of theft that may be moral, emotional, spiritual, or materialAvoids causing a theft
A type of traumatic abuse of the Self that is destructive of self-esteemBuilds self-esteem over time
Motivation contains a hidden cynical componentAvoids cynicism

Separating out mature vs immature values

Why are immature tools a type of short-cut?

We could do an exercise where we list out dozens of common behaviors. Then we might ask a group of people to sort these behaviors into categories of mature and immature. We might be surprised to find a considerable amount of consistency in peoples’ answers. We all know, intuitively, which tools belong to which categories. Sure, our lists wouldn’t be exactly the same. But they would be far closer than they are apart. We have all had experiences using these tools or seeing others use them. We’ve seen the outcomes.

Feel free to try the exercise. Take the following tools and sort them. Later we’ll see if you and I agree.

Repression of feelingsequitytraditionblaming
listeningdistraction (numbing of pain)redirectingtaking on too many responsibilities
comparing oneself to othersassertivenessfinding joy at another person’s expensepleasing
attunement to others’ feelingsRigidityhold others accountable for their commitmentsself-criticism
insinceritybeing genuinesplitting people into allies and adversariesintegrity
adventurehumorcompartmenting feelingsavoidance
modelingpatienceseeking aweacceptance

There might be some disagreement. We might argue over some common ones like admiration, equity, lecturing, loyalty, redirecting, splitting, pressuring. Even when we agree, we still use immature tools in our daily lives. We then go on to make excuses for using them. We justify their appropriateness.

The goal here isn’t to memorize the lists. The goal is to understand why some tools are mature and some are immature. Why do some lead to unhealthy habits and unhealthy relationships?

It turns out that mature and immature tools really aren’t that different from each other. An immature tool is really just a more extreme version of a mature tool. Compared with an immature tool, a mature tool has balance and moderation. It is polished and fits the situation it’s being used in. For example, we might choose to pause a difficult conversation when things start to become overwhelming; we can promise to resume the conversation at a later date. Pausing the conversation is a healthy way of enforcing healthy boundaries. If our natural reaction to pause becomes more extreme to where we are now avoiding all discomfort altogether, this avoidance is quite unhealthy. The same ca be said for assertiveness. We should learn how to assert our position. However, if we become forceful in our assertions, this can become threatening.

When does one mature value then cross the line and become too extreme?

This is a difficult question. There is some subjectivity in the placement of a line that should not be crossed. Remember that the line will be situational. A value may be mature in one situation and immature in another. Humor may be appropriate way of dealing with stress, but it becomes highly inappropriate during a discussion about someone’s cancer treatment. Maturity also will depend on the skill of the user. Without skill, we can very easily hurt someone with a mature value just like a person could get hurt using a hammer unskillfully.

If this is starting to sound difficult, hang in there. There is another way to differentiate mature vs immature values.

Cynicism: the common thread of immature values

There is a common thread that links together immature values. There is a reason why they have hidden costs. Immature values also contain a hidden motivation. This hidden motivation is what leads to the shortcutting, the hidden costs, the insincerity, the traumatic abuse of Self, and the accumulation of moral debt. This underlying factor drives relationship deterioration.

Remember that our primary goal in reparenting is to build understanding. Understanding is what gives us the skills and abilities we need. As long as we keep understanding in mind, it doesn’t matter how skilled (or unskilled) we are. If we’re not good at a particular task, but we continue to work at it and we keep understanding as our primary goal, we will get there eventually. The only difference between having skill or lacking it is the amount of time required to reach our goal.

For immature tools, there is an underlying motivation that undermines understanding. That motivation is cynicism. Cynicism is the belief that other people (or other parts of our inner selves) mean to do us harm. Others cannot be trusted.

Cynicism is a short-cut that bypasses understanding. It eliminates our ability to understand others. Without understanding, genuine connection isn’t possible. And so, cynicism introduces an element of insincerity. At the same time that we bypass understanding, we convince ourselves that we already know. We stop curiously searching for answers, because we believe we’ve already got them.

Consider a time when my boss denied a vacation request. My immediate, knee-jerk reaction was to assume that my boss doesn’t care about me, that I’m not important. This is cynicism at work. I could go with that thought and adopt it into my core Self as if it were true, as if I know why my boss denied my request. This would be insincere because truthfully, I don’t know my boss’ motivations. There would be a hidden cost of a deterioration in my relationship going forward with my boss. To adopt the belief, I may be using any number of immature tools such as: conflict avoidance, repression of personal feelings, splitting my boss into a type of enemy, and/or judging my boss as someone who is less than good. There is also a theft here. I rob my boss the opportunity to explain why they denied my request. The theft goes both ways. I also rob myself the opportunity to explain to my boss how important the request was to me. And so, there is a traumatic abuse of the Self. I convince myself that I’m not capable of asserting myself in a fair manner to my boss, and I am also not capable of achieving a place of genuine understanding through meaningful dialogue.

Instead of cynicism, I could use a mature tool. I could exercise curiosity and ask my boss why they denied my vacation request. Curiosity removes cynicism from the equation. I might be surprised to find out how short-handed they are during that week, but that the following week works out just fine for me to take off. This removal of cynicism preserves and possibly even strengthens the relationship. Going forward, I now know how early I need to get my requests in so that they can get approved.

List of common immature values

Immature values are generally short-sighted at the expense of greater long-term costs. Here is a list of common immature values. Each one has a purpose that is important to recognize. Often the person using the immature value isn’t even aware of why. They may be on autopilot and just doing the thing that feels most natural.

By getting to the underlying purpose of the value, we can start to be more thoughtful. We can exercise some imagination to find more constructive ways of achieving our purpose. I have included some mature values that the immature value could mature into.

If many of these immature values will seem quite similar, that’s because they are. Often, we are using several of them at the same time. The goal here isn’t to memorize the list. Our goal is to identify those immature behaviors that we use and take thoughtful steps towards finding more mature solutions.

AggressionCreate safe spaces by attacking others and forcing their withdrawalverbal insults, threatened or actualized physical aggressionPause a confrontation, create safe spaces; enforce healthy boundaries
DefensivenessSelf-preservation“I didn’t do that. That’s not me.”
“He was lying to me also.”
Active listening (reframing), hearing what the other person is “really” saying, accountability, humor, pausing a confrontation
StonewallingPause communication / interaction to avoid additional deterioration“I’m never going to talk about that.”Pause a difficult conversation to take time to find a safe place for calm and thoughtfulness before reengaging
InsincerityDeflect blamepassive-aggressivePause to think so you can find a more genuine way of engaging with the situation
CynicismDeflect blame, alleviate suffering, avoid pain“She doesn’t like me”Enforce healthy boundaries, find constructive ways of alleviating suffering
ProjectionDeflect blame and guiltSaying “she doesn’t like me,” when in fact I’m the one who doesn’t like her.Self-awareness
RepressionAvoid discomfort, protect self and othersRepress anger to avoid hurting othersSelf-awareness, see purpose behind feelings, find constructive ways of managing feelings
Self-flagellationkeep one’s self esteem small, avoid riskinner critic constantly says, “You are not good enough”Relieve inner critic of their burdens from past traumatic injury
Rationalizationself-preservation“I know I screwed up but here are the seven reasons why I actually did the right thing…”take accountability of one’s actions
Intellectualizationneutralize disturbing feelingsMaking an objective case for a political candidate while ignoring the underlying emotional connectionSelf-awareness, make a genuine case in your arguments that doesn’t ignore the emotional drivers for decision-making
Distraction (numbing)neutralize disturbing feelingsany obsession or habitual behaviorself-awareness, address problems and uncomfortable feelings
Passive restneutralize disturbing feelings“I’m tired. I’m going to take break.”be intentional about resting parts of the body that require it.
Find joy at another person’s expenseNeed for connection and meaning“Look at that guy making a fool of himself!”Seek out genuine meaning, beauty and awe in life.
Zero-sum game (finite) mentalityalleviate suffering by filling one’s needs“My way or the highway.”Self-awareness. Be more imaginative and thoughtful about filling our needs. Adopt an infinite game mentality.
Conflict avoidanceself-preservation; protect othersRather than talk face-to-face, fire off an angry email. Work on listening and being assertive when having difficult conversations.
Pressuring / manipulationSatisfying urgent needs “We need to get this done right now!” “You’re not listening to me!”Recognize urgency. Learn to be more patient and less reactive.
Fixed (casted) hierarchyMaintain order, protect boundaries“This is the way things need to be.”Learn to enforce healthy boundaries in a fair, thoughtful manner. Recognize the need to lift others up who are at the bottom.
RigiditySatisfy urgent needs
Self-preservation (protect our habits)
“This is the only way it can be done.”Recognize when we are stuck in habits on autopilot. Recognize there are always more than one way to get something done. See our behavior as an experiment. Be willing to try different ways and then make fair assessments of effectiveness.
LecturingSatisfy urgent needs to fix someone else’s problem“Let me give you a piece of advice…”Active listening. Only give advice when solicited. Otherwise, modeling is preferred. Empower others to solve their own problems.
BlamingDeflects responsibility“Look at all the things you did wrong.”Active listening, self-awareness. Take accountability for one’s own contributions. Be assertive when others violate boundaries or don’t live up to their commitments.
JudgingSatisfy urgent needs“He is not a good person.”Active Listening, self-awareness. Separate individuals from their behavior. Find patience.
ComparingCreate fair expectations“You’re not doing this as well as he is.” “I don’t have as much as my neighbor.”Radical acceptance. Fairly discuss expectations with others.
Hearing Self-preservation Superficial listening while remaining on autopilotActive listening. Being fully present and genuine during a conversation
PleasingSelf-preservationGoing through motions while remaining on autopilotBe genuine. Self-awareness of one’s own feelings.
Doing too muchBuild connection with others“Sure, I can help you with that (again).”Pruning of priorities. Build genuine connection with others that doesn’t require self-sacrifice.
VictimizationSatisfy need for compassion“Look at all the bad things that he did to me during our divorce.”Self-awareness of one’s own feelings. Be aware of one’s contributions to a pattern of group behavior.
SplittingBuild connection while simultaneously enforcing boundaries.“He’s just not one of us.”Build genuine connection. Enforce healthy boundaries in a way that doesn’t coopt the service of others.
FixingSatisfy urgent needs to fix someone else’s problem“Here’s what you need to do…”Empowering others to solve their own problems. Act as a consultant rather than a fixer.
InterrogationDesire to deflect blame onto others“Was that your cigarette that I found? Yes or no?”Acting listening, patience, calm, take accountability for one’s own actions.
Capitulation (being used by others)Maintain connection at the expense of one’s own boundaries“Sure, I can come in and work on the weekend again.” “I felt like such a doormat in that relationship.”Enforce healthy boundaries.
Self-sacrificeMaintain connection while habitually putting other’s needs ahead of one’s own“My whole summer is packed with kids activities.”Balance personal needs together with the needs of others.
OversharingNeed to be heard and understood“He dumped his whole medical history on me. It was our first date.”Tell your story only after being invited to do so. Monitor the listener for signs of overwhelm.
Self-righteousnessNeed to be heard and understood“I have a problem of believing that I’m always correct.”Work on flexibility and empowering others through listening.
Using other peopleSatisfying one’s needs“Looking back, I can see that I got into that relationship way too soon after my divorce long before I was truly ready.”Fair negotiation around commitments. Find genuine healthy ways of satisfying one’s needs that doesn’t come at the expense of others.
AbuseSatisfying one’s needs“He is quick to level insults and accusations whenever he’s angry.”Recognize and respect the boundaries of others

In-between values

A few of our immature values have important, often critical uses. Whether they are immature or mature depends upon how they are used and in what context. To be used in a mature fashion, they must be exercised in a thoughtful, intentional manner. They must be used at the correct time and in the correct way. Self-awareness and social awareness are critical. Make sure to not be on autopilot while using these values. Otherwise, if we are using them while on autopilot, chances are we will get tripped up. We will invite cynicism into our behavior.

ValuePurposeExampleMature if…
CompartmentalizationSelf-preservationPut aside certain feelings while accomplishing a taskdone in a thoughtful, intentional manner
LecturingGive advice, fix problem“You should go do…”the listener asks for your advice directly
DissociationSelf-preservation, self-observation (a more powerful version of compartmentalization)Stepping outside of one’s own Self. used in a thoughtful manner for reflection and self-observation
Admiration / appreciationBuild connection“You are the best.”we appreciate and accept the person for who they are, not just appreciating what they can do for us.

Mature values naturally lead to positive cycling when balanced and kept in moderation

Mature values naturally lead us towards good habits. Using them allows us to engage in healthier relationships. They should become our go-to’s when engaging with others. In reparenting, we train our autopilot to use these mature behaviors. We practice this enough until they become instinctual. We reparent our autopilot to substitute immature values for mature ones.

In comparison with the ease and convenience of immature values, mature values take far more practice and skill. They are harder to use. Some of them are extremely difficult. It may take a lifetime to master them. There are three ways to misuse a mature value:

  • Use the mature value at the wrong time (in the wrong context)
  • Become over-reliant upon one mature value
  • Use the mature value unskillfully

As we engage in mature values, we need to remain cognizant that these will become our habits. However, we should still exercise caution. Mature values can be used incorrectly. For instance, we can use humor at the wrong time and our joke will fall flat or will be downright offensive. Recognizing the correct context for each value is essential.

We can become over-reliant upon a few values while neglecting other important ones. Any value, no matter how mature, if used too much, will lead to cynicism. For instance, we could trust someone too much. We could give them too many chances, too much benefit-of-the-doubt to the point where they make a habit out of violating our boundaries. Instead, we should balance trust with accountability. All values must be kept in moderation.

Finally, we could use our mature value unskillfully. For instance, consider two partners who are arguing over a scheduled date-night. One partner may assert that every Tuesday night is their scheduled date night, while the other partner may argue that she never agreed to commit every Tuesday night to their relationship. The first partner may assert his claim on Tuesdays as though he were only protecting the boundaries of their relationship. The second partner then correctly argues that what they do on Tuesday nights is a commitment that they negotiate together. Changing up the Tuesday routine is not a violation of anyone’s boundaries.

Even as we establish new, healthier habits, we can never fully turn off our consciousness. We must remain self-aware. We must constantly be scanning our outer environment and our inner feelings for signs that we’re not using these mature values correctly. Recognize there is always room to grow. But also give people grace to try out these values and not always get it correct.

Mature values

These are the values that are useful in healthy relationships. They should be our go-to’s in any sticky situation.

*Self-awarenessBecome aware of one’s feelings, values, behaviors, habits, motivations, beliefs, identities, etc.“I’ve been quite reactive and angry while driving to work lately.”
*Social awarenessbecome aware of the mood in the local social environment“The group was not feeling down for humor today.”
*Active ListeningA set of conversational techniques designed to help the listener feel and understand another person’s perspective“I put all my energy and presence in trying to understand why my son was so upset after coming home from school.”
Pause to thinkPausing during moments of discomfort or confusion to reflect“This conversation is making me uncomfortable. Can we table these issues for now and bring them up again tomorrow?”
*EmpathySee and feel things through another person’s perspective. Validate their perspective.“That must’ve been really hard for you.”
*Self-careMake time to care of one’s own needsSchedule time for workouts
*Be genuineAcknowledge discomfort, mixed feelings, value differences, suffering, violated boundaries, distrust and disconnection with the goal of achieving understanding“I’m getting a little uncomfortable. I don’t know why, but something here doesn’t feel right.”
*Attunement (to others)Seek to match the rhythms of others, especially the rhythms of their needsRecognizing a “hangry” child and feeding them
*Create safe spacesA physical and/or psychological place where people can coexist together“Let’s create a time and place where the family can talk that is free of shame, blame and judgement.” “I created a reading nook where my willful three-year-old can go when she becomes upset.”
ReframeA technique of taking someone’s genuine words and presenting them from an alternative perspective (or context) so as to gain new understanding.Seeing a problem as a challenge that presents new opportunities and possibilities.
GraceAllow other people to make mistakes and experiment in their behaviors. I know my children struggle with bad behavior at school, and I also know they are doing their best.
Benefit-of-the-doubtTrusting that people have good intentions“What you did had a negative impact on me, and I also recognize that you were only doing what you thought was best for the family.”
*Radical acceptanceAllow people to be who they are without trying to change their core Self. Honoring all of one’s unique parts. “I will accept that my daughter’s marriage isn’t the best and I won’t try to change it.”
*Radical responsibilityRecognize one’s own contributions to unhealthy cycles“We’ve got a lot of struggles. I’m going to focus my energy on making sure I am showing up as my best self in this marriage.”
Assert with powerMake one’s own needs, feelings, values, and boundaries plainly known to others without pressuring others to conform. “These are my needs and my boundaries.”
Hold accountableHold other people accountable for the commitments that they have made.“I expect you to honor the date we set.”
ModelingDemonstrate appropriate behavior through one’s own actionsRather than lecture my children about not texting while driving, I’ll make sure that they see me put my phone away while I’m driving.
*HumilityAccept that there may be more than one path forward“I think this is the way to get it done, but I’m open to other suggestions.”
(Equity) Promote social mobilityEmpower those at the bottom to climb up the social ladder over time. People at the top will need to relinquish power in favor of a consulting role. “We need to set term limits on our leaders and get some new voices in here.”
Empower those belowTo the extent possible, give decision-making authority to people lower down on the social ladder rather than allowing power to concentrate at the top. We should empower our children with fair choices rather than leaving them to feel powerless.
*Paradoxical (imaginative) thinkingAllow for multiple perspectives to coexist. “I am feeling happy in my new relationship, and I am also feeling some confusion.”
*Seek beauty and aweSeek out humor, spontaneity, joy, inspiration, and awe in all of life’s small spaces and difficult moments.“I find a lot of joy in just taking a walk through the park.”
*CuriosityAsk open-ended questions in a desire to achieve understanding“Can you tell me more about why you become so upset?”
Patience and calmActing from a place of thoughtfulness and intention, rather than a place of urgency“After taking a break from my screaming child, I was able to go back and assess which of her needs weren’t being met.”
ReconnectionReconnect to one’s environment, body, and spirit.“I need to take a walk in the woods.” “Whenever I’m upset, I feel the weight of my body in my feet to ground myself.”
*IntegrityHonoring one’s commitments and having a fair discussion when we are no longer able to keep honoring them“I would love to go to the concert, but I already committed to attend my sister’s birthday.”
NegotiationNegotiate fair expectations that all parties agree to absent coercionAfter a discussion with my children, we agreed to a fair bedtime based upon how much sleep their bodies seem to need
Active restIntentionally resting one part of our bodies or minds“After workouts I will stretch and roll out my sore muscles to keep them loose while replenishing them with protein and electrolyte rehydration.”
Attunement to selfConnecting to the rhythms of one’s own needs that will come and go in a cyclical fashion“My body craves regular aerobic exercise with one long run, two medium runs, two short runs, and two days of rest.”
Infinite game mentalityHaving a mindset that balances risks and rewards over time, allowing for continued success over the long run. “Our company was willing to take a short-term loss to help rebuild customer loyalty over the long term.”
*Seek understandingA mindset of setting mutual understanding as the primary goal ahead of other agendas“I went into that discussion not trying to prove my point but rather attempting to understand my partner’s point of view.”
Discipline (small daily promises)Setting small daily promises of working towards a goal and changing habits. Keep those promises small enough that they can be accomplished without creating resentment.“It took me years to gain this weight. Rather than try to shed it in 3 months, I made a commitment to change one easy habit. I will cut out soda and replace it with cucumber water.”
Hard workConstantly watching for areas of complacency“I recognized that as our careers ramped up, we lost touch in our marriage. We started weekly counseling as a way of reconnecting.”
PruningWhen feeling overwhelmed, pruning involves cutting down on unnecessary commitments that we have put on ourselves. “After my divorce, I cut my hours at work to refocus on self-care.”
Reflection / observation (mature dissociation)Using intention to step outside of one’s feelings and look back upon oneself as a means of gaining better self-awarenessI am able to recognize now when I’m becoming “manic” and out-of-control.
HumorA technique of building connection and emotional flexibility through joy“Whenever I’m stressed at work I get together with my girlfriends and just have a good laugh.”
RespectRecognizing and actively avoiding violating the boundaries of others“I made sure my children know that their bedrooms are their personal spaces. They can
Building toleranceAccepting discomfort as a means of expanding one’s “window of tolerance”“I was always uncomfortable with public speaking, so I took a class on this to practice getting better.”
Enforcing healthy boundariesCreating and enforcing physical, emotional, spiritual boundaries“I told my boss that I would not be answering emails while on vacation.”
Engage / disengageBeing intentional and honest in relationships about one’s level of commitment. Allowing for commitments to naturally change over time as identities change. “I told him this relationship was no longer working for me and that we would need to part ways.”
*These are core mature values that are almost never wrong to use.

Overusing any value leads to cynicism

All values can be misused. Even the best values, like listening and empathy, can be turned into weapons. Weaponized values are a regression of our values into an immature form.

We want our best values to become our habits. But we also need to periodically check on how we are using them. We must reflect. Our feelings are key. Negative feelings like guilt, resentment, shame, and disconnection will let us know if we’re using our values incorrectly.

When we ignore our negative feelings and persist with our behaviors, we give rise to cynicism. We observe other people around us having negative reactions. We begin to distrust them and their motives. Internally, we also start to distrust ourselves. We know there’s a problem. The negative emotion is telling us that is the case. But we start feeling helpless to solve it. We don’t know the next step. So, we dig in our heels. We bury that negative emotion deep inside. Or, alternatively, we project the negative emotion onto someone else. The distrust grows.

I attached an asterisk to a few of the mature values that are essential for reflection. These go-to values can help us find a way out once we’ve become stuck:

  • self-awareness
  • social awareness
  • active listening
  • empathy
  • self-care
  • be genuine
  • attunement (to others)
  • create safe spaces
  • radical acceptance
  • radical responsibility
  • humility
  • paradoxical (imaginative) thinking
  • seek beauty and awe
  • curiosity
  • integrity
  • seek understanding

Using these reflective values, we can start to determine where the problem is.

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Healing, Inner Self, Uncategorized

How to build self-awareness


Building conscious awareness is foundational to healing. We cannot heal if we do not know what is going on inside our minds and inside our bodies. When we become stuck, we must lift up the hood to our inner selves. We must shine a spotlight on what is going on there.

Becoming stuck in unhealthy thoughts and behavioral patterns is common. We become stuck when there are parts inside us that just don’t work well together. We feel this in our negative emotions like shame, guilt, anger, resentment, etc. We also feel stuck in our bodies with sensations like headaches, fatigue, chest tightness, trouble breathing, muscle soreness, chronic pain, etc. To heal, we must rejoin the disconnected parts inside of us. To do that, we must first become aware of what is going on.

In this article, we will learn how to become more self-aware. We will explore the different components of our conscious and subconscious selves. We will begin to separate out concepts like witnessing, feeling, thinking, values, behavioral patterns, needs and suffering, discomfort vs. pain, emotional reactivity, boundaries vs. expectations, stories, and history. We will explore blind spots that become barriers to raising self-awareness. We will learn how to process these concepts in different parts of our mind and in our bodies.

Improving self-awareness goes by many names such as conscious practice, building consciousness, mindfulness, self-reflection, being present, being genuine, self-listening, witnessing, and emotional intelligence. While many of these terms are similar, there are some differences.

Here we will focus on listening to one’s inner self. We are shining a spotlight inward. Shining a spotlight inward is the first step to moving from a helplessness mindset to empowerment. Listening to oneself is the complementary practice to listening to others. Both are critical to healing. To explore listening to others, see my article Active Listening.

This Article Contains:

The first step to healing any relationship: Bearing witness
Observing our autopilot
Step 1: Recognize thoughts and feelings
Step 2: Recognize feelings in our bodies
Step 3. Setting boundaries, distinguishing pain and discomfort, finding a window of tolerance
Step 4. Recognize needs and suffering
Step 5. Differentiating expectations from boundaries
Step 6. Awareness of our behavior and the impact on others
Step 7. Awareness of our behavior and the impact on ourselves
Step 8. Values as tools to maintain boundaries and satisfy our needs
Step 9. Recognize relationship patterns
Step 10. Recognize 6 levels emotional reactivity
Step 11. See our identity roles
Step 12. See the stories we tell ourselves
Step 13. Unfold your history
Step 14. See the traumas in our stories
Step 15. Blind spots
Step 16. The blind spot of perspective
Conclusion and Next Steps
8 Home exercises for building self-awareness

Bearing witness: the first step to healing any relationship

The first step we must take to healing any relationship is to observe what is happening. We must bear witness to what is going on for us. We are not worried about what may happen or what has happened. Put aside what the other person is thinking, feeling, or saying. We first want to know what is happening to us right now.

Most people find this practice of conscious awareness challenging. It takes concentration and effort. It can be uncomfortable or even downright painful. We risk the possibility of unearthing difficult, traumatic, or explosive emotions. We have to prepare ourselves for this possibility.

In the past, we may have thought that we were fully aware of what was going on for us. I know that I’ve fooled myself before into believing that I was already “self-aware” when, in fact, I was only seeing the surface. My survival instincts kept me from looking under the hood. They kept me from seeing the many layers of my inner self. And yet, when we become stuck in the same old patterns, we know that we’re missing something. Confusion presents an opportunity for learning and growth. Identifying that we are stuck is simply the realization that we’re still at the surface. We have to dive deeper.

Bearing witness is a skill that requires practice. The first step is to be intentional. We are going to shine a spotlight inward. We are not going to worry about someone else right now. All our other stressors and worries must be set aside. We are going to focus on ourselves. The spotlight is on us. It is time to care about us right now.

This practice of intentional self-care is foundational. We cannot help someone else if we do not have a solid foundation to stand on. When flying an airplane in crisis, the first thing we do is to put our own oxygen masks on. The same is true when pulling someone out of quicksand. We need something solid to stand on. Bearing witness to ourselves, in the present moment, is that foundation. We need to know where we are at right now before we can begin to help others. With practice, it may only take a moment to do, but it does take practice.

After deciding to care about ourselves, the next step is to separate from ourselves. This is a type of intentional dissociation. We must step outside of ourselves. We do this to create calm. We cannot properly observe something while being emotionally reactive. We need to become the calm, curious scientist who is determined to study ourselves. We need to be a neutral, nonjudgmental observer.

Intentional dissociation is different from the unintentional dissociation that people experience in trauma. In unintentional dissociation, people subconsciously become paralyzed to conserve energy and spare themselves from intense pain. This is not something that people do voluntarily. They do this automatically as a survival mechanism. Here they are separating away from the pain. They do this to lower the pain intensity, which has become overwhelming.

In intentional dissociation, we are being intentional. We are purposefully separating to create calm. We can voluntarily reconnect at any time. There may be parts of us that are highly emotional or overwhelming. We are separating from those parts and actively looking back upon them. We are not doing this out of fear. We are not paralyzed. We are not running away from pain. Instead, we are trying to understand what’s going on. We cannot understand something that we cannot see. We must learn how to listen to our injured parts. We must see our wounds and observe our suffering.

Being self-aware is an ongoing, daily practice. This will take time. We cannot master this in a day. There are many different techniques designed to master this practice including mindfulness meditation, yoga, counseling, and Internal Family Systems therapy. We will explore some simple home exercises at the end of this article.

The importance of intentional witnessing cannot be understated. I once was able to calm and resolve suicidal thoughts within a few minutes simply by bearing conscious witness to them. I could have treated them as intrusive, unwanted thoughts and let them spiral out of control into fear. Instead, I witnessed the thoughts. I approached them with curiosity and compassion. I heard what they wanted to tell me. I understood there was purpose in those thoughts, despite how intense that may have been. There is purpose in all of our feelings and thoughts. By understanding this, they eventually settled down. As I worked towards calm, I was able to take action. I used the energy of those thoughts towards a productive purpose.

This was not easy for me to do at the time. I don’t offer this story to be dismissive of other people’s intrusive thoughts. Some people live with intrusive thoughts every day. The causes of intrusive thoughts can be incredibly complex and difficult to unwind. The longer they’ve been going on and the greater the intensity, the harder it is to settle them down. And yet, understanding those thoughts is possible. Bearing witness is always the first step.

Observing our autopilot

Once we begin this process of conscious witnessing, the first thing we will notice is that we spend 95% of our existence in autopilot. In autopilot, our subconscious mind is doing the work for us. It is like we are flying in a spaceship. Our conscious Self–the captain of the ship–isn’t doing much. Most of the time, the captain is dozing or daydreaming. The ship is flying itself.

Anytime we are acting out familiar routines, we are in autopilot. We might be driving, listening to music, or performing a job that doesn’t require much conscious thought. If it is a habitual behavior, this is our autopilot.

The more habitual the task, the less conscious we are. For instance, often times when I am driving, I might suddenly “wake up” and realize that the past 20 minutes just disappeared. I can’t remember any of it. My conscious self was completely asleep.

Even when we are doing something that requires a lot of thought, our autopilot is still doing the majority of the work. We might be playing a sport. How much of that effort is instinctual as opposed to being thought out step-by-step? Or we might be trying to solve a complex puzzle. Our autopilot is constantly suggesting ideas and solutions. It draws these ideas and solutions from learned experience having previously solved similar puzzles. Our consciousness, if activated, is then choosing from among the suggestions given.

When we argue with others, most of what is said is spoken by our autopilot. The more emotional we are, the more our autopilot is in control. Think back to the last argument you had. How much of what was spoken was a deliberate choice? How much was thoughtful? Then ask yourself how much just rolled off the tongue, like word vomit or like a volcano exploding? Our consciousness may have been watching the words come out, but it was more like watching a movie of other people arguing rather than exercising conscious choice.

When we get stuck in negative patterns of thought, our autopilot has become stuck. Our autopilot has become like a glitchy computer that is now stuck on a continuous loop. To get unstuck, the first thing we have to do is bear witness. As we begin to bear witness, we have to recognize we are on autopilot. How much of what we are doing feels familiar? How much of it is an old routine? Which of our behaviors have we done before? This is our autopilot in action.

The next step is to wake up” our consciousness. This isn’t much different from when I woke up while driving. This is an intentional practice of stepping outside our habits and routines. This is not easy. Learning how to effectively interact with our autopilot is the subject of another article: How to influence your autopilot.

Our autopilot is part of us, but it is not something we have control over. It is our subconscious self. In the moment, it is like the weather. It does what it wants to do. It is free to act as it desires, despite whatever our conscious self would want it to do. It believes it is acting in our best interest, even if it is doing something we don’t want it to do. Over time, we can influence our autopilot. We can learn new habits and routines, which will become our autopilot. This takes time and practice.

Our autopilot is critical to functioning as a human. Managing our bodies and our minds is incredibly difficult. The ship requires a crew. But it also needs a captain–our conscious selves. Most of the time, the ship moves along just fine. But problems inevitably occur. To manage those problems, ultimately, the captain needs to learn the jobs of the rest of the crew. The captain can never do all of their jobs and certainly can’t do them all at once. But to figure out what’s getting us stuck, the captain needs to know those jobs. This means that our consciousness needs to become aware of the many different tasks done by our autopilot. The more tasks we learn, the more we move from a state of helplessness to empowerment. When a crewmate is struggling, the captain can offer support. When we become stuck, our awareness will know precisely where to look to find the source of the issue.

We will spend the rest of the article shining a spotlight on the different moving parts of our autopilot. We will examine our Identity, thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, behaviors, stories, histories, traumas, and blind spots. We will demonstrate that there are aspects of each of these components that can be manually controlled by our captain–our consciousness. There are also aspects that are outside of our immediate, direct control and are the sole prevue of the autopilot, our subconscious. We will learn how to distinguish what is in our direct control and what isn’t. This distinction can move us from helplessness to empowerment.

Through the process of observation (bearing witness), we are stepping outside ourselves. We are creating a space of separation from other aspects of our minds and bodies. We then come to exist in this separate space. We strive for emotional neutrality within this space. We want to be objective observers. To reduce bias, we must have calm. We must avoid seeing only what we want to see, and thereby cherry-picking those aspects of ourselves that are most palatable. Our goal is to see as much as we can objectively. We want to avoid being pulled into our narrative. Instead, we stand outside the narrative. We are no longer a character in our stories. We are no longer the narrator. We are the reader.

Step 1. Recognize thoughts and feelings

Thoughts and feelings are the basic messages of our subconscious. The first part of becoming self-aware is to hear our thoughts and feelings clearly. We must recognize them. From there, we can break them down and understand them.

Thoughts and feelings carry an important purpose. We may not understand that purpose until we’ve gotten to the deeper layers of self-awareness. Here are a few basic tips to hearing them:

  1. Separate your Self from your thoughts and feelings. Remember always, “You are not your thoughts and feelings.”
  2. Label your feelings. If needed, write them down to see them clearly. Try to untangle them into distinct feelings. Often there are many jumbled together.
  3. Lay out all of your thoughts. If needed, write them down to see them clearly.
  4. Honor your thoughts and feelings no matter what they are.
  5. Learn not to be overwhelmed by your thoughts and feelings. Work on maintaining separation of the rest of your Self from difficult thoughts and feelings. Pause to rest, if needed.
  6. Pay special attention to intrusive thoughts and feelings like shame, guilt, resentment, suicidality, cynicism, etc. These thoughts and feelings are complex. They require considerable unpacking before they can be understood. They are often rooted in deeper layers of the subconscious that will require exploration.
  7. Some thoughts and feelings contain hidden messages, especially those mentioned in step 7. These hidden messages can be challenging to discover. It may take a lot of reframing and self-discovery to decipher them.
  8. Remember that thoughts are ideas and conclusions suggested by your subconscious. Keep in mind that thoughts are hypotheses to be tested. Thoughts are not automatic conclusions needing to be adopted by your whole Self.
  9. Persistent negative thought patterns like addictive cravings, self-criticism, self-loathing, desires to hurt others, and cynical thoughts come from deeper layers of the subconscious. You can discover the roots of these difficult thought patterns through Internal Family Systems work. See We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind.

For a more detailed look at finding the purpose of feelings and thoughts, please read Feelings have Purpose.

Our thoughts and feelings will guide us through the rest of self-awareness. Some may be easy to understand and trace to their origins. Others will be far more challenging. We will take our time along this journey. Avoid getting sidetracked and stuck by these difficult thoughts and feelings. Many of them are not what they seem. This includes addictive cravings, self-criticism, self-loathing, desires to hurt others, and cynical thoughts. We can reframe these later to discover their hidden messages.

Step 2. Recognize feelings in our bodies

We cannot heal unless we reconnect the mind, body and soul. Reconnecting to our bodies is the next step. Despite being critical, this is an often-overlooked step when it comes to self-awareness. Our feelings are tethered to a place in our bodies. Feelings come from some of the more primitive areas of our brain and brainstem. These areas of our brain and brainstem are also tied to places within our bodies. Our bodies can act as a bridge between those feelings and the rest of our Self.

These bridges are different for each person. Some people feel joy as a tingling in the toes or in the spine. I personally feel my anxiety and stress as a tightness in my chest. I’ve had patients experience their own feelings in many different ways. I’ve seen them show up as pain, warmth, burning, squeezing, bladder fullness, intestinal irritability, nausea, heartburn, difficulty breathing, muscle twitching or cramping, joint pain, a rash (hives), dizziness, headache, visual phenomena, and numbness. I’ve even had patients experience their emotions as rhythmic body movements that mimic a seizure. Or I’ve seen patient’s where large parts of their bodies will go weak and numb, mimicking a stroke.

Start by recognizing feelings in your body. Where are your feelings located? When you feel anxious or stressed, where do you feel this in your body? How does this show up?

There is a powerful connection between our minds and our bodies. Western culture has the bad habit of seeing the mind and the body as separate entities. Western medicine often treats illness as being the domain of either the body or the mind, not both. We segregate treatments into one domain or the other. Even western hospitals are divided into separate medical and psychiatric wards, a practice that is detrimental to healing. This practice probably comes from a type of fear and ignorance of how the mind works to interact with our bodies.

Thankfully, we are starting to break this misconception and see that most medical issues of significance cross over into both domains. We realize that traumas to our bodies become amplified by our minds. When we fail to heal the mind, the physical trauma and disability persists. We are held back. The body cannot heal itself.

To heal, we must reconnect the body to the mind. The mind-body connection helps explain why rhythmic physical movement and breathing exercises can bring calm in a time of emotional reactivity. It also explains why we can interrupt difficult emotions with touch, massage, a warm bath, or a cold shower.

Step 3. Setting boundaries, distinguishing pain and discomfort, finding a window of tolerance

The next step is to identify and separate two different types of uncomfortable feelings: pain and discomfort. Separating these two feelings is critical to establish a window of tolerance. Healing occurs inside that window. We cannot heal if we stay in a place of comfort. Neither can we heal if we are continuously inflicting new traumas, which compounds our injury.

Pain is the feeling we have when someone violates a personal boundary. Pain can be nontraumatic, such as when someone accidentally hurts us. For instance, a person could accidentally bump into us. Or we could get into a car accident and experience an injury. Alternatively, pain can be traumatic. When an injury is traumatic, there is an emotional component to the injury that doesn’t heal automatically via our autopilot. If someone hurts us by intentionally violating a personal boundary, this injury is traumatic. We will have an emotional reaction.

Pain is an indication of harm. To understand pain, we must become aware of the boundary that is being violated. We must see the boundary for what it is. Boundaries are invisible barriers that keep us from harm. Boundaries prevent injury. We can have physical boundaries, like our skin and the personal space around us. We can have psychological boundaries, like the right to be free of threat or insult. When someone violates a psychological boundary, this can hurt just as much as if someone injures us physically.

When we experience pain, we need to locate the boundary. Boundaries are different for each person. They change over time. They can be flexible or rigid. For instance, a person can have a boundary that they do not work after 4:30PM. This boundary exists to maintain proper work-life balance. As the person’s values change, that boundary may change.

Boundaries define our personal space. For instance, I might say that I will not allow others to hit me or curse at me. Boundaries prevent others from doing something to us. Boundaries deter actions that would otherwise be harmful. We may choose to invite other people inside our boundaries, but we maintain the right to show them the door should we change our minds.

When it comes to boundaries, it is important to distinguish discomfort from pain. Pain is a violation of a boundary. Discomfort is the stretching of that boundary that doesn’t result in any direct violation. Healthy boundaries balance strength and flexibility. We do not want a boundary to be rigid. A rigid boundary is more like to break than a flexible one. Of course, a boundary can become too flexible so that it loses strength and also breaks.

Attunement is the practice of discovering our window of tolerance. How far can we push our boundaries before we cause pain? How much discomfort can we bear? We develop attunement by stretching our boundaries. How much can they stretch before they start to tear? Attunement also involves working our bodies and minds. How much work can we perform before we cause injury?

When we are injured, we instinctively tighten up. This is done to protect ourselves from repeated injury. In the short term, it is advantageous as it makes the boundary stronger. In the long term, this instinctive tightening is detrimental. Instinctively, we work our boundaries less. As a result, our boundaries atrophy. They become weak and brittle.

Healing requires that we stretch an otherwise brittle boundary. Consider an injured muscle that tightens up. We have to strengthen and stretch the muscle to restore it back to health. We have to convince it that it is now safe to relax again. The same is true for psychological trauma. To heal, a person needs to go back and reexperience enough of their traumatic memories until they fully understand and reintegrate with the trauma experience. This process is accomplished slowly. There may be intense psychological discomfort in resurfacing old memories. Go too fast and we might tear a brittle boundary and cause additional harm and injury.

It doesn’t matter if we’re healing a physical, psychological, or spiritual injury. To heal, we must be able to tell the difference between discomfort and pain. We must accept discomfort while also working to avoid pain. Developing attunement helps us know the difference. Time and hard work are needed. Through this rhythmic practice of stretching our boundaries and strengthening them, we become more attuned to what our bodies can tolerate.

Step 4. Recognize needs and suffering

Humans have many different needs. We have the need to feel safe. We have needs for belonging. We need connection to the environment. We have physiological needs for nourishment and shelter.

Many of our needs cannot be met by remaining inside our boundaries. To meet them, we need to go out into the world. We must go into common spaces. Unlike personal spaces, common spaces are shared with others. No one person owns them.

When we experience a negative emotion, this can be the result of harm being done to us by the violation of a boundary. Or negative emotions can come from suffering. Suffering occurs as the result of a chronic, unmet need.

We cannot possibly meet all of our needs at all times. So, there is a rhythmic process of meeting a few needs at one time, then changing our attention to focus on other needs. We fill each bucket of need. When we turn our attention elsewhere, that bucket gradually empties before it is refilled again.

When a need goes unmet for a long time, the natural craving we have transforms into suffering. Different people experience suffering in different ways. Suffering can manifest in a person’s mood as irritability, emotional lability, or as a type of depression. Suffering can manifest somatically, meaning that it shows up in our bodies as a physical symptom like fatigue or headaches. Often people will distract themselves from suffering as a coping mechanism. The person may experience cravings for other substitutes. For instance, they might replace their true needs with a craving for alcohol. With enough time, these alcohol cravings may turn into addiction. To stop drinking, this person cannot just focus on quitting alcohol. Nonholistic alcohol treatment is likely to fail. Instead, the person must find their unmet needs. They must see where they are suffering. They must find a healthier way to meet their needs and alleviate suffering. Only after doing this does escaping an alcohol addiction become possible.

Step 5. Differentiating expectations from boundaries

To get our needs met, we set up expectations for ourselves and others. Expectations are often confused with boundaries. Boundaries are barriers that we create for ourselves to protect our personal spaces. We own our boundaries and personal spaces. Others cannot decline to respect them. We alone carry the burden of enforcing these boundaries.

Expectations are burdens placed on others in shared spaces. We expect others to do something for us. Unlike boundaries, expectations are negotiable. Other people have every right to decline an expectation that we might place upon them.

All relationships require participants to separate out shared and personal spaces. Within shared spaces, people in relationships commit to working together to help meet each other’s needs. These shared commitments need to be fairly communicated and negotiated. People need to all agree. Then they hold each other accountable for living up to their commitments.

Once we understand the difference between boundaries and expectations, we can start to see the difference between pain (harm) and suffering (unmet needs). We reduce pain when we work on setting and enforcing healthy boundaries. We reduce suffering when we develop healthy bridges to people and places that can help get our needs met.

When we are stuck in a contentious relationship, one strategy for getting unstuck is to lower expectations and focus on enforcing healthy boundaries. We can avoid placing expectations on people that they would not otherwise accept lovingly from us. Keep the expectations low enough such that the other person feels free to love us. As everyone involved begins to feel free again, then we can work to renegotiate our commitments.

Step 6. Develop awareness of our behavior and the impact on others

Another key aspect of self-awareness and emotional intelligence is to be aware of the impact of our behaviors on the people around us. Even as we are learning about ourselves, we must develop social awareness of those around us. This is a complex topic that goes beyond the scope of this article. Here are a few key points when assessing behavioral impact on other people:

  1. Learn to pick up on the mood in the room of those around us.
  2. Learn how to hear what the other person is “really” saying. Practice Active Listening.
  3. Continuously assess how our behavior impacts others. This requires intentional observation of others and how they respond to our behaviors. Be flexible enough to change mid-course if something isn’t working.
  4. Monitor for behavioral patterns (or cycles) that connect us to others.
  5. Assess the impact of behavioral patterns on us and others. See my Guide to Positive Cycling.

In building self-awareness, we keep the focus inward on ourselves. But as we are now realizing, we cannot completely remove other people from the equation. We will inevitably impact others with our behaviors. In turn, they will impact us through their behaviors. Those impacts will generate new feelings and beliefs inside us. When the behaviors repeat themselves, they generate cyclical patterns. See my Guide to Positive Cycling for a more in-depth explanation of how this can occur and the impact of these patterns.

Step 7. Develop awareness of our behavior and the impact on ourselves

Returning our focus inward, there is still a lot of work to do in examining our behaviors. Here are some key points when assessing behavioral impact on ourselves:

  1. Practice witnessing our own behaviors. This requires stepping outside ourselves and becoming an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental observer. We should become an observer who has no stake in the game. We are only being curious about what is happening. Practice this type of curiosity.
  2. Separate out our intentions from our behaviors.
  3. Clearly outline what our goals and intentions are.
  4. What personal needs are we attempting to satisfy through our behaviors?
  5. Observe our behaviors for what they are, not for what we want them to be. Learn to bottom-line our own actions. What are we actually doing?
  6. Where do we put in the most effort? Look at effort as involving four personal resources: time, emotional energy, cognitive energy (non-autopilot thinking), and physical exertion. For example, running four miles while listening to music involves physical exertion and time while it conserves emotional energy and cognitive energy. Having a political debate with a friend conserves physical energy while expending time, cognitive energy, and emotional energy. Working on a complex math problem would only involve time and cognitive energy.
  7. How much of our behavior is being done by our autopilot? Anything that follows a repetitive pattern, derived from learned experience, is done by the autopilot.
  8. How much of our behavior is not being done by our autopilot? How much is intentional, thoughtful and new? This is our conscious behavior.
  9. What is the impact of our behaviors on us? Are we satisfying the personal needs we intended to satisfy? Which buckets of personal need is becoming less filled over time? Is this simply due to the passing of time or a direct result of our behavior? Did we (unintentionally) poke a hole in one of our buckets, causing it to drain faster?
  10. If we failed to satisfy certain needs, have we become stuck? Is this something that has happened before?

Now that we’ve seen where our efforts are going, we next need to ask where they are not going? What aspects of our lives are we not putting in a lot of effort towards? What needs are we not satisfying due to lack of effort? Have we ignored those needs or suppressed them? Have we become complacent? Have we become dependent on others to satisfy them for us? If so, how does the other person feel about that? Is our relationship with that person still growing, or has it stagnated as a result of co-dependency? See my Guide to Positive Cycling for a deep dive on this topic.

These are the key steps to assessing the impact of our behavior on ourselves through the eyes of an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental observer. This takes a lot of practice.

There are other lenses by which we might view our behaviors. Each lens can offer important insight. For instance, we might view our behaviors from the perspective of our “future selves.” What would an older, more mature version of us say about what we are doing? Or we might view our behaviors from a perspective in our past, such as our inner children, our inner critics, or our inner rebels. For a more detailed explanation on how to do this, see my article We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind. Each of these perspectives brings important experiences and biases to the table and can therefore generate valuable insight.

For the remainder of this article, we will focus on our present selves. We will continue use our neutral, nonjudgmental observer. We will go a layer deeper by looking at the tools being used in our actions. These tools constitute our moral values.

Step 8. Values as tools to maintain boundaries and satisfy our needs

The next step in building conscious awareness is to become aware of the values we are using in our everyday behavior. We all have needs. Our behaviors are the actions we do in the world to try to satisfy those needs. Values are the tools we use in our behavior.

Values are moral tools that help us make choices. They are moral tools because they tell us what we ought to do. They are simple judgements. For instance, “We ought to eat a salad to satisfy our hunger.” These judgements help advance us in the direction that we will go.

When most people think of values, they jump to complex issues like marriage, abortion, politics, etc. Values can certainly be used to answer these complex questions. But what we should realize is that we use our values everyday, countless times a day, to solve far more routine, mundane issues. Values help us through our routines at work and at home. They help us decide what to eat, when to eat, when to be intimate, when to be alone, how to interact with our children, etc. Most of the time, we are not thinking about these decisions. We are simply doing. Our consciousness is unaware of the values being used. Instead, our autopilot is automatically exercising our values for us.

In building consciousness, our goal here is to observe the values being used by our autopilot. We are not trying to change them at this point. We only want to step outside ourselves and observe.

We have many different values. Our autopilot is choosing, on our behalf, which value should be used for which situation. It is using past experience to guide it. For instance, let’s consider an argument with a spouse. Let’s say that at the beginning of the argument, our autopilot decides that we should be exercising listening and compassion. It tries to be flexible. It knows, from experience, that we get more sugar from honey. However, let’s say the argument doesn’t go as expected. Our spouse doesn’t react as expected, and our autopilot is feeling increasingly negative. It is afraid of where the argument could go if it is allowed to continue. Our autopilot then decides it has lost patience and becomes reactive. It flips a switch over to a self-preservation mode. In becoming reactive, we might now exhibit anger or defensiveness. Alternatively, we might withdraw from the argument or begin to stonewall our partner. Then the autopilot convinces us that it was the other person’s fault that we had to make this switch. All of these actions are simple judgments the autopilot is making. Exhibiting anger, defensiveness, stonewalling, self-preservation, withdrawing, and self-deception are all tools that we use. These tools are all values just like listening, compassion, and patience.

At this point, we’re not prepared to determine if our autopilot is doing the right thing or not. We only observe. We try to connect the dots between our needs, feelings, and values. We begin to see how one drives the other. In the previous example, we felt fear and anger. We can now see how this drove our change in posture. We changed from using bridging values like listening, patience, and compassion. With increased reactivity, we switched to using self-protective (boundary) values like defensiveness, withdrawal, and stonewalling.

Understanding which values should be used when is a complex topic that I will explore in later articles. At this stage, we are only observing. Which values are we using? How effective are they at helping us reach our goals?

There are two types of values that are equally important. Boundaries help protect our personal spaces. A personal space might be a physical space, like your home or your body. Or a personal space might be invisible, like a personal right. For instance, we might say that we have the right not to be insulted or treated aggressively in the workplace. We might set a boundary on our time or the amount of physical effort we would use at work. An injured worker might be given a 25 lb. lifting restriction.

Boundaries are meant to preserve our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. They keep us safe. We use many different tools to enforce our boundaries. We may use aggression. We may withdraw behind additional layers of protection. We may create physical space by leaving a common room that no longer feels safe. We may create temporal space by contacting a person less often. We may withdraw inwardly into self-protective places within our minds. We pause or sever connections with someone who threatens us, thus becoming less open and emotionally available to them.

The second broad category of values are our bridging values. Bridges help define how we will function within share spaces. Shared spaces are common places for connection. A shared space is defined by the group’s relationship. There is an agreement amongst the group on what is shared and what is personal. Members of the group may join together in their shared spaces at any time. Each member has equal right to the shared space. Outsiders, nonmembers of the group, do not have rights to the shared space, but they may be invited guests. Members, however, cannot violate another member’s personal space.

For instance, a family might share their home. A home will have different rooms. Some rooms are common spaces, while some are personal (private) spaces. Guests may be invited over. Respect for these different spaces is critical to relationships. This helps a parent understand that they should never chase a child, during an argument, into the child’s room. The child’s room is their own personal space that should never be violated. The child must feel safe going there. It also helps the parent understand why sending the child to their room as a form of punishment will backfire. The child’s room is a place of safety and should never be treated as a jail, which transforms it into an unsafe place. The child feels trapped there. Instead, a parent should instruct an aggressive child to find a place of calm. Give the child the option of going to their room or a different shared space in the home. So long as they are able to work towards calming their aggression, the child has every right to make the choice. If the child makes the choice of staying in a shared space and remaining aggressive, the parent can then say, “It looks like you’ve chosen to go to your room. Feel free to rejoin us in the family room after you are calm.” The parent may then be forced, by the child, to send the child to their room. But the child understands, intuitively, that their room remains a place of safety, not one of punishment.

There are many different types of bridging tools. These include all the rules and behaviors that are used within our shared spaces. A few of the common ones include: empathy, patience, curiosity, active listening, asserting oneself, acceptance, honesty, tolerance, benefit-of-the-doubt, courage, play, and imagination.

To learn how to have difficult conversations within a shared space, see my articles Active Listening and Telling Your Story.

Every behavior we engage in has an underlying value. As we start this exercise of becoming more self-aware, practice finding that value. Give it a name. Is it a bridging value or a boundary?

People often disagree over values. During this exercise of becoming self-aware, practice being our neutral, nonjudgmental observer. Are we using our values too much despite lack of efficacy? Are we using certain values with too much or too little intensity? Is the chosen value appropriate? Could we have chosen a different value than the one we used?

Keep in mind the importance of being nonjudgmental. We do not judge ourselves for the value we chose. Think of our values as tools. Each of our values has a purpose. Each one has a role. Even the less mature ones like aggression, defensiveness and stonewalling have a potential purpose. Think of ourselves as carpenters with a toolshed. We wouldn’t fault a hammer or screwdriver. A hammer can be misused. It can be used in the wrong situation. A person can decide that all problems should be solved with a hammer. A hammer can be used unskillfully, resulting in accidental injury or negligence. A hammer can even be used as a weapon to deliberately hurt someone.

Our values are no different. Becoming self-aware is about seeing the values we are using. We can learn to use these values more effectively. We can also dust off values that we haven’t used in a long time. It’s like finding that lost screwdriver that fell onto the floor rather than continuing to beat the screw with our trusty hammer.

Start to observe how effective our values are each situation. There are probably situations where certain values are highly effective. Then we may find other situations where those same values just don’t work. They don’t achieve the desired result. Pay attention to how people react. Their reactions, together with our own feelings, will tell us how things are working.

Step 9. Recognize relationship patterns

We know that 95% of our day is spent in autopilot. This means that for the vast majority of our existence, we are engaged in familiar patterns. We are doing something similar to how we’ve done it before. It turns out, as we are in autopilot for much of our lives, so is everyone else. And so, this means that 95% of relationships involve one person’s autopilot interacting with another person’s autopilot. The relationship becomes, to a large extent, a familiar pattern.

This isn’t a bad thing. We all have our routines. Families have routines. We have routines at work. We establish routines with friend groups. These routines allow us to feel safe and connected. The good news here is that the vast majority of those routines serve their purpose of providing us with safety and connection. They fill our needs.

When a group joins together to complete a familiar pattern, we call this cycling. One person feels the needs of the group, and they act to fill those needs. Others within the group respond. Further responses are provoked down the line.

Attunement occurs when the rhythms of a relationship line up into harmony. Our individual patterns (or cycles) harmonize together. Group needs and individual needs are all being filled in a balanced way.

Certain relationship patterns stand out because they do not work. There is a lack of harmony. These patterns create negative emotions for individual members. We do not hear the hundreds of parts of our car that are quietly humming along doing their jobs effectively. But we can hear that one part that is clunking every time we turn the wheel.

Becoming self-aware is about identifying those relationship patterns (cycles) that are no longer serving us. We can then use IVR self-therapy as a method of correcting those patterns to better serve our needs.

The first step is identifying that when you are in a relationship, you are engaged in a cycle. Try to put together the pieces of that cycle. Look at how needs, emotions, and behaviors align. When do needs become drained, and how do they refill again?

Next, look for attunement within members of the group. Attunement involves harmony, rather than conformity. Each individual is making their own music. However, when combined, the rhythms of their music create pleasing chords and progressions. What aspects of the relationship are attuned? What aspects aren’t? Where is there disharmony? Try to be fair and honest when making the assessment.

Negative emotions will instruct us that something isn’t quite working. They tell us we are stuck somewhere. It’s our job to identify the issue. Be sure to remain an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental observer. Remember that bearing witness is always the first step.

A relationship should grow over time. Growth involves adapting to meet new challenges from the outside world and also adapting to change within individual group members. Growth involves working towards achieving a high level of attunement.

Positive cycling is the term used to define a relationship that is engaged in positive growth. Attunement increases over time. The group adapts successfully to meet new challenges. Needs are generally being met.

Negative cycling is the term that describes a relationship that is rapidly deteriorating. This is the divorce where two people are trying to ruin each other. The house is on fire, and everyone involved is holding a gasoline can. Negative cycling is more common than we think. Unfortunately, we see it all the time on the news and in American politics. We only see a piece of it at a time, so it can be challenging to but together the full cycle. Many of my patients become engaged in negative cycling after they are injured on the job. They get caught in cycles of blaming, guilt, resentment and shaming.

Codependency describes a stagnant relationship. The relationship has ceased to grow and adapt. Members are out of tune. Unfortunately, just like anything in life, without maintenance and growth, a stagnant relationship will fall into decay. The entropy of life slowly deteriorates the relationship. This process is similar to negative cycling except that it is slowed way down. Negative cycling will destroy a relationship in hours, days or weeks. Codependency will destroy it slowly over months, years, or decades. In codependency, the house isn’t on fire. From the outside, everything appears normal and healthy. But you really don’t want to go in there. You don’t want to peel back the layers of the rotting relationship.

For a more detailed look at positive cycling, negative cycling, and dependency, see my Guide to Positive Cycling.

Our emotions will instruct us in which cycle we are involved in. Codependency can be difficult to spot if we don’t know what to look for. Codependents spend lot of time learning how to suppress negative emotions and mask their situation. Chances are we have all been involved in multiple codependent relationships in our lives. To try locate those. Find those subtle, hidden negative emotions. Look for behaviors that just don’t make sense. Make an honest assessment of attunement. There may have been attunement on basic needs like safety, food, and shelter. But what about deeper needs like emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, and spiritual intimacy. Life is too short to deny these needs.

Step 10. Recognize 6 levels emotional reactivity

When becoming self-aware, it’s important to become aware of what emotions we’re feeling. We want to label those emotions. The next thing we should do is evaluate their intensity. In fact, the intensity of our emotions may be even more important than the label itself.

Emotional reactivity is the intensity of our negative emotions, especially negative emotions related to safety. This is an important to concept for building self-awareness (emotional intelligence). Positive emotions are a binding force that connect people together. Think happiness and laughter. These emotions consolidate an existing connection to make it stronger. In contrast, negative emotions are a destructive type of energy that bring about change. This may sound bad, except that negative emotions are just as important as positive ones. Negative emotions are simply used for a different purpose. Negative emotions bind through destructive change. They change the very nature of a connection into something else.

Negative emotions are akin to heat. Reactivity is the temperature in an oven. You need the right amount of destructive energy to cook your dinner. The right amount produces a chemical reaction that changes our food into something tasty and edible. But too much heat becomes dangerous.

With reactivity, we are concerned with stress emotions that aid in safety. Stress emotions are regulated by the amygdala. These include anxiety (fear) and anger. Stress emotions activate the fight-or-flight response. They produce adrenaline that help us fend off an intruder.

When talking about reactivity, we are not concerned with other negative emotions like sadness, shame, and guilt. These emotions are signs of disconnection. Although necessary for survival, these emotions aren’t involved in minute-by-minute threat detection. A person who has chronically high levels of disconnecting emotions may indeed be highly reactive. This is because we need connection to buffer reactivity. Think of a time when you were angry and then let out some steam getting together with friends. People who lack healthy connections will often be highly reactive.

Reactivity is important. Stress and anxiety, in the right proportions, allow us to learn and grow. We wouldn’t get off the couch without these impulses. However, in American culture, our problem generally isn’t having too little stress. Most of the time, we have far too much. Our reactivity is too high and we get burnt. Very often, we don’t know how to manage our reactivity. We don’t use it in the right away. We are like children playing with fire.

Even the best relationships can deteriorate quickly if members don’t learn how to manage their reactivity. Just like an oven needs a thermometer, we need to recognize how reactive we are. We need to understand what we can accomplish based on the level of heat present. What can we cook at a given temperature?

Here is a chart that divides reactivity into levels 0-5. At level 1, we are calm and generally in our best position to be helpful and nonjudgmental. When we give advice, such advice comes out of a place of compassion, active listening, curiosity, and imagination. There is no hidden motive to our advice. Level 1 is desirable in most workplace conditions as it allows people to exercise their cognitive abilities to the highest degree. Level 1 maximizes collaboration and inventiveness. In level 1, we are in our best position to turn off our autopilot and exercise our awareness. We can be mindful and intentional about things we do and say.

At level 2, we start to feel some increased stress and irritability. We allow instinct (our autopilot) to take increased control. Our consciousness is no longer in the driver seat, but our consciousness still monitors things from a short distance away. Level 2 may be desirable for athletes and professions that rely on instinct and where over-thinking can be problematic. Think police officers and firemen. These professions may involve higher levels of competition, stress and even some degree of danger. For most general workplace environments, where there’s minimal physical danger, level 1 is superior. When we find ourselves in level 2, try returning to level 1 by lowering reactivity. We can do this by actively increasing our conscious awareness. Shine a spotlight on how we are feeling and find a way to let out some steam. We can also use humor to deescalate tensions that might arise.

As we progress through the levels, we trade thoughtfulness for survival instinct. We also trade out consciousness and control, deferring more and more to the autopilot. Eventually, the amygdala takes over complete control of our behavior and actions. Survival becomes paramount. The amygdala will not trust other parts of our brain (including our consciousness) to interfere with our fight for survival.

Reactivity levelFeelingsThoughtsBehavior
0Flat, unemotional, disconnectedPure logical thinkingNot attuned
Robotic behavior
1CalmHow can I help?Patience,
Active listening
Nonjudgmental support
Builds connection
Minor urgency
Minor stress
Optimistic with reservations
A small ulterior agenda
Urgent listening
Applies (subtle) pressure
Minor irritability
3Uncomfortable (stressed),
Annoyance, frustration
Anxious, apprehension
Unsure which way the conversation is going to goReciprocal listening and assertiveness
Will not tolerate a lecture but happy to give one
4Overwhelming stress
Intense anxiety (fear)
On the edge of the precipice
Fears rapid deterioration of the relationship
Only tolerates being listened to
Highly irritable
Panic attacks
(volcano erupting)
Complete loss of control
Relationship is rapidly deteriorating
Needs space

In level 3, our stress turns up even higher. Level 3 is the last position at which we can still have a productive conversation with someone. We are annoyed and frustrated, and these emotions are difficult to hide. We do not know if things will improve or turn ugly. Here we become more transactional. We are only willing to listen to the other person to the degree that they are willing to listen to us. We will only extend other people the degree of respect that they extend us. Our instinct is to lecture, but we should avoid doing this. Lecturing is likely to increase the other person’s reactivity to match ours. And we are not in a position to receive a lecture back. Instead, our goal in level 3 should be to avoid allowing the encounter to slip further towards level 4-5. We do this by creating healthy boundaries that pause or end the encounter the moment it starts to deteriorate. We can say, in a nonjudgmental fashion, “I’m uncomfortable with the way things are going. I would like to pause for now.” Establishing effective guardrails should be done first before trying to work out a solution. Once we have effective guardrails in place, reciprocal listening and assertiveness can be attempted.

If things slip further, we enter perilous level 4. In level 4, we are facing overwhelming stress, fear, and/or anger. We are on the edge of hostility but have not yet crossed over. The most important thing to do here is to recognize that are in level 4. We also need to realize that in level 4, we are in no position to solve our problems. We lack thoughtfulness. We are simply too reactive. Our oven is way too hot. Avoid making the mistake of grasping for a solution. Such attempts will backfire. Instead, our goal should be to reduce the heat. We need to get back to level 3. We can do this by raising our consciousness. Simply becoming aware that we are in level 4 is a critical step to escaping it. We can also look for a way to withdraw from a triggering environment. Find a place of calm. If we can’t physically withdraw (we are stuck in a crowded airport, for instance), we can imagine ourselves in a calming place, like on a beach. Once in a calm environment, we can burn steam through exercise, yoga, meditation, music, distraction, journaling, repeating calming phrases, etc. Only when we’ve returned to level 3 can we resume problem-solving.

Level 5 is an escalation of level 4 into a place of complete loss of control. Here, the amygdala, the survival model of our autopilot, believes we are in grave danger. It has assumed full control and wrestled that away from our conscious self. Our consciousness is helpless to watch the next set of events unfold like a movie. Here we will do things that we will regret later.

There is no predicting what a person might do or say in level 5. We should learn to recognize the signs in ourselves and others. We will see hostility if we get close to someone in level 5. Or we might see a person in level 5 simply say things that don’t make any sense. They may be accusing someone of something. The last thing we should want to do is argue with such a person. Logic will be ineffective. Remember that their conscious self, the part of their mind that can interpret logic, is completely disconnected from the amygdala, the part of them that has assumed full control. They will realize what they’re saying isn’t right later, after the rest of their brain has “woken up” and reconnected. Instead, we should give this person space. Allow them to take out their hostility on an inanimate object of minimal value, such as squeezing a pillow.

If we’re the one in level 5, the best thing we can do is to recognize this. Simply recognizing a loss of control gets us halfway back to level 4. Look for a flood of aggressive and/or violent thoughts and impulses. We may have the desire to hurt ourselves or others. We may want to be destructive. As we become aware of these impulses, we need to find space to let out some aggression. Intense physical exercise can work. Or we can find an inanimate object of minimal value and take out some aggression on it (squeezing a pillow). Avoid doing this in front of others who might find us threatening. With practice, a person can learn how to meditate out of level 5. Simply learning how to feel the anger in our bodies is a way of releasing it slowly and safely. We can also feel parts of our bodies that aren’t angry, such as our hands or the weight of our bodies in our feet. Or we can focus on breathing. Avoid anyone who is also emotionally reactive. We don’t need any more heat. Seeing someone else sad, angry, anxious or happy will only trigger our reactivity. The only person who can help us is someone who is perfectly calm (someone at level 1). Usually, it takes a professional to bring someone out of level 5. Lay people find it difficult to not become reactive themselves when confronting someone at level 5.

At some point in our lives, everyone will find themselves in level 5. This is a scary place. After it’s over, reflect back on what was happening. Level 5 should be a rare occurrence. Consider seeking professional help if you find yourself in level 5 on more than the rare occasion. Also consider professional help if you found it difficult to get out of level 5. For instance, if you took out your aggression in a destructive way (punched a hole in wall). Or if you acted out your aggression in full view of others, causing them to feel threatened. Or if you destroyed something of real value or actually hurt another person. All of these would be reasons to engage a professional.

As we begin to develop awareness of reactivity, we should examine our baseline state. A person with secure, healthy attachments will live at levels 1-2. But there are a lot of people out there who live in levels 3-4. This means that they are hypervigilant and prone to anger / aggression. Someone with a high degree of baseline anxiety might find their baseline to be a level 3. When they get panic attacks, they experience a sudden escalation into level 4.

Finally, there is a reactivity level 0. This is a person who is emotionally flat. The person may try to be helpful, but they lack the ability because they are not attuned to the environment in the room. They cannot feel others and therefore lack the empathy needed. They appear robotic. Such a person will also struggle to help themselves through emotionally charged situations. In these situations, such a person will likely jump from reactivity level 0 straight to levels 3-5. They will skip over calmer levels 1-2. Why does this occur? Think of how hard it is to start a fire from scratch with cold materials. It is much easier to control an existing fire that is already burning calmly. We can easily add or subtract heat when needed. When starting a fire from scratch, we instinctively pour too much fuel. When it gets going, it explodes. When facing a reactive environment, a person starting at reactivity level 0 will typically become highly anxious. Their anxiety goes from 0 to debilitating levels very quickly. They never achieve that sweet spot of having just enough stress to be helpful.

How do we get out of level 0? Again, the answer requires first that we recognize it. Once we see ourselves as acting robotic or not being attuned to others, we can work on this. This is a lot like trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. It takes patience, practice and skill. Start by focusing on feelings coming from our bodies, whatever they may be. Put our spotlight there and allow our feelings to gently swell. Once we’ve kindled this, next look for signs of feelings in others. Ask other people how they feel and see if what we thought they were feeling matches what they say. Next, try to match our feelings to theirs by remembering a time when we felt that way in your past. Practice this enough and we will easily be able to kindle our own reactivity, when needed, to escape times when we are feeling flat. We will go from level 0 to helpful level 1 and avoid the unhelpful anxiety of levels 3-5.

Step 11. See our identity roles

When developing self-awareness (emotional intelligence), the next step is to be cognizant of our Identity. We all have a capital-I Identity that is the sum of many smaller intersecting pieces. For instance, a person may be a runner, a spouse, a parent, a son, an electrician, a friend, etc. We can be all of these things at once. But generally, at any one moment, we are only acting the role of one of these (lower case i) identities.

Each one of these identities has its own purpose, beliefs, outside connections, needs, values, hopes and dreams. That is because each identity has its own story complete with past history and learned experiences. Each one is like its own version of us. These different versions are all connected, but they are in many ways separate.

Here is where it is helpful, especially in difficult moments, to recognize which identity we have assumed. See that identity for what it is. See how its past experiences shape our present feelings and behaviors.

Each identity is like putting on a pair of colored glasses that changes how we see the world. Building awareness involves seeing which pair we are wearing in different situations. Why do we do that? What if we changed to a different set of glasses? How would we look at the world differently? What if we extended a coworker the same compassion that we would give to a family member? What if we cared as much about ourselves as we did our own children?

We are all multiple because of our diversity of different internal identities. By understanding this, we can start to see how a person might appear disjointed or hypocritical. As their identities change, their values and behaviors change also. To an outsider, they appear confused. They may be labeled as “bipolar.” And yet, this is something that we all do.

We can see how a person might easily become stuck if their identity roles are not attuned to one another. Consider a person who’s work life puts considerable strain on their family responsibilities. These types of identity conflicts are incredibly common.

To take a look at the elements of Identity, see What is my Identity?

For a deep dive on common inner identity roles, see We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind.

Step 12. See the stories we tell ourselves

Each of our identities has a rich story. Each of these stories has its own world, characters, mood, starting point, history, momentum, and trajectory. The protagonist, one of our identities, is but one character of many. Things happen to our protagonist. Our protagonist responds to events. Mistakes are inevitably made. We have opportunities to learn from our mistakes and grow.

We humans are creatures of narrative. We want our stories to be simple and neat. We want to align people into neat categories of allies and enemies, good and bad. We want our stories to have an arc towards some type of positive resolution. That resolution should involves meaning, growth, and happiness. We want to be the hero bending events in that direction.

As we begin to gain self-awareness, we need to stitch together the stories we tell ourselves. We need to pull them out into the open and dissect them. How is our autopilot weaving the story for us? How does our conscious self then participate by translating that story into language? How are our stories shaped by the way they are told?

The next big question is to figure out who is the narrator in our story? We know the narrator is part of our inner self. Is the narrator the same as the protagonist? Often, they are different. The protagonist may be an inner child (us at the age of 6), while the narrator may be an inner critic (us at the age of 16). Sometimes I will speak my story aloud and surprise myself when I hear my mother’s words spoken in my voice.

How might our stories be different if someone else were the narrator? This can be a different identity inside us or another person outside us.

This practice of hearing our story is especially important when we become stuck. When our story seems to be spinning in circles but going nowhere, then now is the time to open it up and question it.

Questioning involves recognizing the characters in our stories and the roles they play. Look externally at how we view others in our lives. How do we cast them into certain roles? Remember that we (or more accurately, our narrator) are the ones doing the casting. We are the ones putting expectations on people. Inside our stories, we determine if they fail or succeed. We determine if they are good or bad. Are their efforts valued or not valued? We decide how they will be connected to us. Will they be one of us or will they remain outsider? We interpret their behavior through the lens of our narrator. We stop questioning their actions when they behave as expected. We stop exploring their motives once they fit the roles we assigned.

We also need to look inward at the cast of characters living inside us. Inside the deeper contours of our story are a whole host of behind-the-scenes characters. Here we will find our internal judgers, critics, cheerleaders, firefighters, rebels, and more. We can shine the spotlight on our inner children that have been traumatized and exiled. We can pull them out into the open. Find out what they have to say.

Finally, we also need to see how our stories may be limiting us. The stories we tell create a framework for our lives. We then go about living inside that framework. This framework comes with beliefs and values. Values are the tools we can use to reach our goals. These values may be useful, but they can also be limiting. Beliefs are a set of invisible walls meant to keep us safe. While they do keep us safe, they can also box us in.

Sometimes we have goals that lie beyond. Sometimes our goals don’t fit within the framework of our stories. This is what happens when we become stuck. We feel like we’re trapped inside an invisible box and we just can’t reach anything on the outside. Our minds do a great job of convincing us that someone else is to blame for our entrapment. When in fact, often, we are trapping ourselves.

Consider how often we tell ourselves that we can’t do something. Or we may resign ourselves to being a certain type of person. We incorporate these details into our identity and our stories. They become us. This may happen consciously. Most of the time, these invisible walls are established by our autopilot. Sometimes they are given to us by medical providers. We are labeled as being a person with chronic pain or chronic mental illness. Instead of simply accepting our current circumstances, these disorders become core pieces of our identity from which we cannot escape. Healing is put aside, and the focus is put on managing our problems. Often, we expect others to do the work of managing for us. We become disempowered and helpless.

To escape being stuck, we have to see how our own beliefs are holding us in place. We also have to realize that we are equipped with far more tools than the ones we’re currently using. Ultimately, we have to transform our stories.

Step 13. Unfold your history

Each of our stories began somewhere. Quite often, that beginning is buried deep within the layers of our subconscious. The place where we think our story began is not the actual beginning. Only our autopilot knows where things really began. Discovering that true history is critical to understanding our stories. Our stories just don’t make sense otherwise.

It’s common for people to not be fully aware of this important background. Our autopilot may be protecting us by keeping difficult memories hidden. Or our autopilot may simply not think that it’s important for us to know how we got to where we are. Our autopilot wants to keep us grounded in the present instead of overloading us with information from our past. In most cases, the autopilot is probably correct. However, when we become stuck, we have no choice but to unwind the past.

Here is another opportunity for exploring ourselves. Here is where we take the story we think we know and begin working backwards. Here is where we look at all those pieces of ourselves. We ask where did they come from? We are primarily concerned with the critical people who shaped our childhood and young adulthood. These are the people who taught us the tools we now use in life.

Here are a few questions to help us get started. Remember, we are using curiosity and compassion as our tools for unwinding our past. We remain a neutral, nonjudgmental observer. When we start to feel judgmental towards ourselves and others, that is simply a sign that we’re going too deep too quickly. Slow down or pause until we can regain our place of calm compassion.

  1. For emotional reactivity, what important individuals in your life modeled the different states of reactivity for you? How do you use those models in your own life?
  2. Consider how you treat your feelings. How do you communicate them to others? Which feelings do you feel safe communicating? What individuals in your life treated their feelings in a similar manner? What events in your past taught you which feelings were safe (or unsafe) to communicate?
  3. In terms of body awareness, what important individuals in your life modeled this for you? Were there important people in your life who seemed to be out-of-tune with their bodies? Were there people whose bodies seemed to control them, rather than the other way around? For instance, were there people with poor health, chronic pain, headaches, seizures, mental illness, or other disabilities that played an important, often unpredictable role for people in your life? If so, how might you have carried some of what you saw forward in your own story?
  4. How did people in your life react to unmet needs and suffering? Did they put unfair expectations on others? Did some people sacrifice their own needs to keep the peace? How have you emulated these strategies in your own story?
  5. How did people model boundaries for you in your childhood? Did your family maintain safe and healthy boundaries? Were some people’s boundaries routinely violated? How has this shaped your life going forward?
  6. For the important people in your life, how did they listen to you when you had something to say? What listening techniques were most effective? Which techniques didn’t work? Which techniques do you use most often today?
  7. What values are most important to you today? Who modeled those values for you in childhood?
  8. What are the patterns of your relationships? Who modeled those patterns for you in your past?
  9. What identity roles are most important to you? Who modeled those roles for you in your past?

Step 14. See the traumas in our stories

In building self-awareness, we will need to identify several types of traumas. Once identified, we can start to see the lasting impacts of trauma on our lives. Consider taking the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) quiz. This quiz can be a starting point for identifying and treating childhood trauma.

We will look at four different types of trauma: abuse, chronic suffering, neglect, and abandonment. Each of these involves a degree of helplessness. The person suffering from trauma feels helpless in their situation. This leads to a chronic, maladaptive change. Their autopilot adapts to reduce helplessness. These adaptations provided relief in the short term but become detrimental over time.

Abuse occurs when someone violates our boundaries. Boundaries exist to protect our personal spaces. Someone who violates our personal spaces is abusing us. Personal spaces include our bodies, our homes, our property, our time, our Identity, emotional energy and availability, our self-esteem, psychological safety, perception of reality, religious preferences, and more. Personal spaces are those physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual domains which we enjoy complete sovereignty. No one else, including bosses, parents or partners, have a say over our personal spaces. While it is ok to invite someone into our personal space, they must depart when requested. We can also agree to loan out parts of our personal space to others, such as our time. However, this is a type of invitation which can be rescinded. Anyone who intrudes upon our personal spaces is committing abuse towards us. Abuse includes insulting someone or degrading someone’s self-esteem. Certain types of abuse are particularly impactful. Physical abuse will often make a person feel perpetually unsafe; they can find it difficult to achieve calm. Sexual abuse can make it very difficult to feel safe while being intimate with partners going forward. Gaslighting can cause a person to be unable to trust their own instincts and perception of reality.

Chronic suffering occurs when we have particular needs that go unmet for long periods of time. This becomes traumatic when we adapt to those chronically unmet needs. For instance, a child who is often hungry will learn to steal food; later in life they may develop obesity or an eating disorder. Or if we have our emotional needs go unmet, we may suppress them and become robotic.

When chronic suffering occurs to a child or dependent, then we call this neglect. Their needs are being neglected by their caregivers. The child is helpless because they are entirely dependent upon their caregivers, the individuals causing the trauma. The child is trapped in an impossible situation. This type of trauma is highly impactful as it will dramatically alter the course of a child’s life. They will adapt to a difficult situation to survive. These adaptations provide temporary survival benefit. However, they become maladaptive later in life. They are difficult to overcome as the person matures into adulthood.

Abandonment occurs when adults make commitments to each other and later rescind those commitments in an unfair or dishonest manner. In every relationship, there are commitments to support and help fulfill the group’s needs. Commitments are negotiated. All relationships inevitably change over time. Many relationships are destined to end. Abandonment occurs when one partner doesn’t fulfill their obligations in the relationship. Instead of holding an honest conversation to renegotiate commitments, they act in a dishonest manner. They may lie or pretend to be still living up to their obligations, when in fact they are not. Abandonment and neglect are similar, except that neglect occurs to dependents. Dependents don’t have the power to change or end the relationship. In abandonment, the people involved are not dependents. All individuals have a fair say in negotiating commitments and ending the relationship. Infidelity is a common type of abandonment. So is not supporting a spouse through a mental or physical infirmity.

Step 15. Blind spots

As we fill in the details of our stories and progress towards self-awareness, we need to be cognizant of our blind spots. Blind spots are inevitable. We all have them. They can never be completely eliminated. But we can improve our awareness of them. We can mitigate the detrimental effects of blind spots through active listening.

There are two main types of blind spots. The first blind spot involves the type of lenses that we wear that alter our vision. Imagine that we are all wearing our own unique colored glasses. These glasses change the way we see the world and ourselves. Without these glasses, we couldn’t see. Yet with them, the world is inevitably changed. We cannot help it. Anything we see will be changed.

There is an important principle in physics known as the Observer Effect. The Observer Effect says that we cannot observe something without simultaneously changing that thing. This means that whichever instrument we use for observation will inevitably create some change. It doesn’t matter what we use–a microscope, a telescope, etc. We will produce change in the object being observed.

Some people view this Observer Effect in a negative light as a bias or a distortion. In that light, it can be seen as a bad thing. I prefer to look at it as a cost of observation. We can never see things “exactly” as they are. We will always change what we see. This change will create blind spots.

As we weave together our stories, our narrator becomes the primary agent of this type of change. Our narrator brings his or her own experiences and judgements into the telling of our stories. We give our narrator incredible power in this way. We have no choice but to look at things through the lens of our narrator. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking at events, at people, or at ourselves. We can only see people and events through this lens.

And yet, we can change narrators. Each of our identities is a different lens. Each one can serve as a new narrator. We can change these lenses and therefore see things in different ways. We can look at things through the perspective of a father, a child, a hobbyist, a worker, etc. We draw upon different sets of past experiences to change up which or lens we will use.

Becoming cognizant of the many ways that our lenses alter the way we perceive the world is the subject of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Step 16. The blind spot of perspective

There is a second type of blind spot to be aware of. For this blind spot, it doesn’t matter what type of glasses we wear. Our Identity and past experiences have no bearing. This blind spot is entirely determined by our vantage point (or perspective).

Any time we perceive something, we look at it from a particular direction. That vantage point will affect what we see. For instance, if we are standing on the Earth, it will appear flat. Or if we are located on a spaceship out in space, the Earth will appear spherical. This change has nothing to do with the type of glasses we are wearing. It is dependent upon perspective. The Earth is, in fact, both round and flat. Both perspectives are valid. We could even move to a place well outside our solar system, and the Earth may appear as a dot. The Earth becomes a single-dimensional object from that vantage. Or we could speed up time and the Earth will appear as a ring due to its orbit around the sun. Depending on how we configure time, the Earth may create a smear on our screen. As a smeared image, it appears to take on wavelike properties of movement and of being in several places at once. Alternatively, we could look at the Earth from the perspective of a worm underground. Suddenly the Earth becomes the shape of the universe!

Each of these perspectives teaches us something about the Earth. Each one has its own blind spots. If we only look at one perspective, we might make assumptions about the Earth that turn out to be false. We gain a better understanding of the Earth by observing it from many different perspectives. But we can never know it from all perspectives. We will never be able to fully “know” the Earth. Believing that we can come close is arrogance. After all, we still have yet to discover the vantage point that will allow us to understand the Earth’s gravity.

In physics, there is a concept known as the Uncertainty Principle. There is always uncertainty when we attempt to look at things. This uncertainty depends upon our vantage point. Uncertainty was originally discovered when Werner Heisenberg realized that you cannot both measure a particle’s position and momentum at the same time. Simply by measuring one aspect, you lose the ability to measure the other. Uncertainty is not eliminated by improving the quality of our measuring instrument (reducing bias). Uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of the thing being studied.

In psychology, we see uncertainty everywhere. All people have inherent uncertainty. This uncertainty exists as a type of blind spot for the observer. For instance, when we are acting out the role of a parent, we are not acting out the role of a coworker. If we are locked in survival mode, we are not exercising compassion and curiosity. Uncertainty can be resolved, momentarily, by choosing a particular vantage point. But in the resolution, we create a blind spot. We fail to see what else could have been.

All of nature shares in this uncertainty. Nature can be one thing at one moment, then it can turn around and be something completely different the next. When held together, the two things appear to be mutually exclusive. How can the Earth be flat and round at the same time? It feels absurd. It’s only absurd because of the way we simplify our concept of the Earth inside our minds. Even now, most human beings simplify their model of the Earth and think of it as “only round.” We fail to appreciate that it is also flat, all-encompassing, ringlike, wavelike, single-dimensional, and more. Believing that our vantage point is the “correct one” and that the Earth can only be round is hubris.

Uncertainty is fundamental to matter. It is an inherent property of all things. People are no exception. To understand being, we must appreciate our uncertainty. There are aspects of human nature that we can never know. It’s not that we lack the knowledge. There will always be things that are unknowable. There are always more perspectives we’ve failed to appreciate. This type of uncertainty can be daunting if we carry with us the expectation that we can know everything. Once we drop that expectation, we can gaze upon the awe and wonder of being. Paradoxical uncertainty is an attribute of being that is freeing. Just like the Earth is never just the Earth, a mother is never just a mother. A murderer is never just a murderer. An addict is never just an addict. We are all more than what we seem. The addict doesn’t have to shake their addiction. They are already more than their label. We are all multiple. We are all more than the self-created models that box us in. We are all more than the roles we give ourselves. We are all more than the self-told stories that trap us.

We all have incredible freedom in our lives. Actualizing that freedom is self-empowerment. The cost of freedom is profound uncertainty. This uncertainty constitutes a type of blind spot that can never be fully known. We can never see inside these blind spots. We can never unfold our paradoxical nature, look inside, and determine that we’ve figured it all out. There are always more perspectives with which to see things. There are always questions what could have been? and what can be?

Whenever we look at someone, the person being seen is not the actual person. We only see a simplified version that we’ve created for them. The person always has inherent uncertainty. This effect is independent of any glasses we may be using. Rather, perspective is key. The perspective we use will determine which aspects of the person we will see. We might see a mother, a nurse, a runner, etc. We must remember, however, that this person is always more than what we see.

Our paradoxical nature goes far beyond genetics, upbringing, and personal idiosyncrasies. There is paradoxical uncertainty in human connection, moral values, our identities, our feelings, our beliefs, our behaviors, our intentions, our histories, and the way we interact with our environment. Each of these paradoxes gives us freedom at the cost of uncertainty. Added together, the degree of freedom is extensive. We can do a lot with the immense volume of choices that we have. But also, we must recognize that what we don’t know far exceeds what we do know. The uncertainty heavily outweighs what we actually know about people. This holds especially true when trying to understand ourselves.

We all like to overestimate our ability to “know” others and ourselves. Our minds are great at hiding our blind spots. These blind spots cannot be eliminated simply by changing the lenses through which we see things. Neither can we simply alter our vantage. The minute we attempt to close one blind spot, we inevitably create another. For instance, we can dive into understanding what it’s like to walk in the shoes of another person’s motherhood. As soon as we do, we lose perspective on what it may be like for that person to be a sister or a professional. We lose the ability to see that they may have been abused as a child. We forget that this mother still carries, inside her, her own inner child.

We can get to know other people, but we can never close all our blind spots. Our ignorance will always exceed our knowing. Because of this, curiosity and compassion should always be our most-used tools on the journey toward understanding.

A big part of becoming self-aware is developing an understanding of our own blind spots. Even if we may not be able to fully see past them, we can still learn an incredible deal. We can locate them. We can feel their shape and size. We can develop methods of working with them, rather than avoiding them. We can recognize the incredible harm that occurs when we pretend they don’t exist.

Even if we cannot “know” everything about ourselves, there is still incredible benefit in striving to know. We can work to fill knowledge gaps through consciousness building and listening. We can work towards understanding. But there will always be uncertainty. The project of understanding will never be “completed.” Yet, we can accomplish much in our efforts.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Building consciousness is the foundational practice for healing. Becoming self-aware is really just a fancy way of saying that we are listening to ourselves. The complementary practice to this is listening to others (active listening). These two practices together make up the Reflection piece of Identity-Values-Reflection self-therapy.

This article is merely a starting point to building self-awareness. There are many layers to our inner selves. Just when we feel like we’ve become fully aware of one layer do we discover a tunnel down to another. Healing is a daily commitment. The project of growth is never completed. We can never stop striving towards understanding.

The goal of healing is not to change other people in our lives. We do not heal by bending the world to our own designs. Instead, we must change ourselves. We must accept the world as it is. Then we can change how we show up in the world. To do that, we need to first better know ourselves.

Now that we’ve learned the difference between our autopilot and our consciousness, we can start to explore how these two interact. How can we utilize our consciousness, with all the choices available, to affect the autopilot over time? See How to influence your autopilot.

Next, I will provide a few basic exercises to help build self-awareness.

8 Home exercises for building self-awareness

We don’t become self-aware overnight. We must practice it. There are many possible exercises that can help build self-awareness. Each of these exercises can be done alone or with a therapist, coach, or friend. But if we involve others, we must remember that we are doing 90% of the work.

  1. Timed Daily Check-in. Borrowed from Dr. Nicole LePera, this is an excellent exercise to get started. Set your watch alarm to go off at a certain time in the middle of your workday. When it goes off, stop what you’re doing and take 1-2 minutes to assess how you are doing. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What identity role are you acting out? Are you suffering right now (what needs aren’t being filled?) What reactivity state are you in? Just prior to starting the exercise, were you being present in the activity you were doing, or were you distracted by something?
  2. Daily check-in with another person. Similar to above, this time you ask another person close to you to assess what they observe about you. What would they say you are feeling or thinking? How reactive do you seem? In what ways are you being flexible? In what ways are you being rigid?
  3. Conversation recheck. Immediately after finishing a conversation with someone, replay the conversation in your mind. How present were you in the conversation? Were you doing something else? Were you thinking about something else? Feel free to ask the person directly how present they thought you were to see how well your impressions match.
  4. Recognize reactivity. Similar to the Conversation recheck, this time assess yourself after an argument or difficult conversation. Focus on assessing your reactivity. What reactivity level were you feeling? What reactivity level were you at based upon your behavior? How much listening were you doing compared to speaking? Did you go into lecturing, judging, comparing, or fixing? How did you get to your reactivity level? How might you have shown up differently in the conversation had you been at a different reactivity level? What level did you start at? Did you allow yourself to be pulled into a state of greater reactivity? Feel free to check in with the other person directly on what they think about these questions. Otherwise, you can gauge their body language. Were they backing away from the conversation or were they leaning in? Did their reactivity level go up or down as things progressed?
  5. Where am I suffering? Whenever you are having negative feelings, practice exploring them further. Ask “Where am I suffering? What needs do I have that aren’t being met?”
  6. Is this pain or discomfort? Whenever you feel pain, explore that feeling further. Are you feeling pain or discomfort? Discomfort occurs whenever we feel something uncomfortable, yet we remain inside our window of tolerance. Pain occurs when we are pushed outside our window of tolerance. Pain is what we feel when our boundaries are being violated.
  7. Speak your story out loud. Practice telling your story in front of a mirror. Say it out loud. “This is what I used to believe. This is what I believe now…” Telling your story out loud is a way of allowing your whole Self to hear the story, dissect it, organize it, and integrate it. See if it stands up to personal scrutiny. Then do the same thing with another person.
  8. Future self journal This worksheet by Dr. Nicole LePera is incredibly helpful.

There are many other ways to build consciousness. Journaling or creating a collage of magazine pictures can help us discover things about ourselves and answer difficult questions. Consider mindfulness meditation practices. Also consider yoga as a way to build up body awareness.


How to do the Work
No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model
Permission to Fee: The Power of Emotional Intelligence to Achieve Well-being and Success
Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience
Thinking, Fast and Slow
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma

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Inner Self

We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind


Healing from trauma requires building self-awareness of how the mind works. We need to look under the hood. We need to find out how the different parts of our minds integrate and work together. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a model of seeing our inner parts as unique subpersonalities. These subpersonalities interact much in the same way that family members might interact. Sometimes there is harmony. Other times we see drama and conflict.

This article will explore the complex characters that make up our inner worlds. These can include our inner critics, judges, coaches, firefighters, cheerleaders, parents, children, and rebels. When these characters play nice, we become happy, high-functioning beings. When they fight, this can lead to problems. Here we will explore methods of resolving inner conflict amongst our different parts.

Trauma disrupts the relationships between our inner characters in a dramatic and lasting way. We can understand trauma by exploring these inner characters. We can learn about their motivations, feelings, values, and desires. We can begin to repair the broken relationships inside of us and reintegrate them into a whole, healed Self.

This Article Contains:

Our inner worlds are complex
The elephant and the rider
Herd of elephants
What are some signs of multiplicity?
What are some signs of disharmony among our parts?
What is the purpose of multiplicity in System 2?
How do we get stuck?
What are the roles of our inner parts?
4 common roles to understand
Why our unhealthy parts are no longer acting genuine?
What are the burdens that we carry?
Can parts have their own parts?
What are rebel parts?
What is the harm of treating people without understanding multiplicity?
How do we learn to parent ourselves?
What is the Self?
How do we begin to parent a harmful inner part?
How can we be more genuine?
An example of being genuine: questioning the traditional mom role

Our inner worlds are complex

Much of the self-healing advice out there considers the human mind as a single entity, a mono-mind. Advice givers offer solutions aimed at reshaping that singular entity or changing its direction. Unfortunately, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the mind works. Treating the brain like a mono-mind is like trying to fix a car from the outside. We can change the car’s direction all we want. We can beat on its exterior with a hammer to our heart’s content. We’ll never get it to stop that clunking noise. Instead, to really get what’s wrong with the car, we need to look under the hood.

In the mono-mind, there is a belief that the human mind is a single, unified machine with a single purpose, identity, value set, and emotional state. To treat a person as a mono-mind is to objectify them in a particular way as good or bad, as hard-working or lazy, liberal or conservative, young or old, wise or unwise, smart or dumb, happy or sad. A mono-mind paradigm minimizes and diminishes a person’s individuality. It is this type of thinking that leads to labeling people as narcissist, racist, psychopathic, a liar, a cheater, etc. This thinking is cynical and destructive. This thinking harms the person being labeled and the person doing the labeling.

Instead, we propose the idea that that human mind is far more complex. Our Identity contains complex identities within it (runner, father, manager, reader, son, etc.). Each of these identities may come with its own value sets, emotions, language, beliefs and purpose. And yet, we’re only getting started exploring our inner complexity.

Our journey starts with Identity. What are some ways to identify you? Try to come up with as many identities as you can.

Most people can probably come up with 10-30 identities based upon friend groups, associations, hobbies, interests, and relationships. These would only comprise the first few outermost layers of a whole Identity. Next, imagine a different identity for every year of your life. Stack these all on top of each other. Then add in identities for all of the significant moments in your life, good or bad. Each strong memory, with its intense emotions, can be an identity that will help to organize your life afterwards. Each identity forms a distinct lens from which you see the world.

Human beings are incredibly complex. Intuition tells us this is the case. We can feel this complexity in ourselves. And yet, we typically ignore this complexity in others. We often fall prey to the bad habit of treating others as mono-minds. For instance, we might say, “That person is a narcissist, a racist, a bad person, lazy, a liar, a thief, an addict, disloyal, etc.” We don’t treat ourselves this way, but far too often this is how we approach others. There is a survival reason we do this. We encounter so many people in our lives, we have to be able to form snap judgments about them all. Friend or foe? Trustworthy or suspicious?

And yet, when it comes to important relationships, we do ourselves a disservice by treating others in this way. We fail to appreciate the complexity of others. This makes it impossible to see them as whole beings. Check out the article of Daryl Davis, a Black man, who was able to befriend and ultimate get a Ku Klux Klan leader to abandon his views. This story is powerful evidence that inside every “racist” is a person wanting to reconnect and be healed. Daryl Davis discovered the inner anti-racist within the KKK leader.

Not only have we greatly underestimated the complexity of the human mind when it comes to viewing others, we also routinely underestimate it in ourselves. Here we will examine the paradigm shift occurring in psychology today. We are shifting away from the pathology-based labeling of individuals with mental illness (depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorder, addictive disorder, etc.) We are moving towards a deeper understanding of people’s complex inner worlds. Within that deeper understanding comes nuance, beauty, danger, and opportunities for genuine understanding.

Complexity can be freeing as we escape the constraints of traditional labels. Complexity can also be daunting as it may seem that hours upon hours of work are needed to understand a single individual. Luckily, there are common patterns that make understanding people far easier. We will explore some of those internal patterns.

Much of this article is a summary review of Richard Schartz, Ph.D.’s groundbreaking work: No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model. This concise work is well worth the read for anyone struggling with mental illness or trauma. This book is especially helpful for someone with a trauma background.

People are not mono-mind beings. When we strive to understand people, we see them as complex and multifaceted. Then we are finally able to realize their being. It is here that we can see people come alive in our minds. We vanquish our nihilistic doubts and behold their divine essence.

The elephant and the rider

A person’s inner world is a complex ecosystem full of imagination, beauty, wonder, and danger. It is easy to get lost in there.

If you have not seen Disney Pixar’s movie Inside Out, it is worth the watch. This is a charming film where the five main characters are the five primary emotions inside an 11-year-old girl’s head. Inside Riley’s mind lives Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. They are all hard at work running Riley’s day-to-day routines. Together, these subpersonalities make up her total Self.

This heartwarming film gives a fairly useful depiction of how the human mind works. At any point in the movie, one of the five characters must take control of Riley. We see how this plays out when the wrong emotion takes control at the wrong time. She tries playing hockey while Anger is in control, and she falls on her face. Riley grows through the film as her own emotions learn to work together in a more mature way.

Disney Pixar’s Inside Out

There is another useful metaphor to describe the inner workings of the mind: the elephant and the rider. We will briefly describe that analogy here. For more detail on this metaphor, see the article How to influence your autopilot. You can also visit Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis where he goes into a high level of detail on how he came up with the metaphor.

Briefly, the elephant represents our subconscious mind. It is everything that our subconscious mind does. The elephant is our animal brain. It doesn’t do math or logic. Instead, it represents everything that we feel. It also includes everything the subconscious mind suggests that we do. These suggestions come in the form of impulses, cravings, and simple thoughts. The elephant forms impulses such as hunger or pain. It generates simple thoughts to go along with those impulses. Some of these thoughts are commands. Go eat. Find shelter. Some of these thoughts are judgments about the outside world. She’s pretty. That restaurant is awful. You don’t like him. Each of these suggestions is a message sent to our conscious selves. When we’re running on autopilot, we generally just do whatever the elephant suggests.

To see more about how the elephant works and what types of cognitive errors and biases it is prone to, see Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Sitting on top of the elephant is a rider. The rider represents our consciousness. It is our thinking Self. It can do math and logic. It can make choices. It can act on suggestions. It has veto power over the elephant’s suggestions, but generally doesn’t like to upset the elephant. Because the elephant’s feet touch the ground, the elephant generally decides where the two will be headed. The rider has a little influence and can steer the elephant to a small degree. But the elephant is in charge.

Herd of elephants

Disney Pixar’s Inside Out makes the remarkable insight that people are multiple. Inside our minds, we have different modes of operation. This is similar to a computer with different programs installed. When confronting a problem, if the right app is chosen, the result is usually as expected. However, when we’re running the wrong app at the wrong time, the results can be bizarre.

What are these programs? In Inside Out, there are five programs representing Riley’s five core emotions. Anger, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, and Joy. However, for people, things can be far more complex than that.

Let’s reconsider the elephant and rider metaphor. The elephant represents our subconscious mind. The rider, sitting atop the elephant, represents our conscious minds. In general, the elephant, our subconscious, has most of the decision-making power as its feet touch the ground. Our rider, our conscious self, exists to explain why the elephant is doing what it’s doing.

Next, instead of imagining our subconscious as a single elephant, let’s expand it to be an entire herd of elephants. The exact number doesn’t matter. Imagine something north of thirty, perhaps even closer to a hundred. The number is really only limited by a person’s imagination. How many personal identities can you name? This is how many identities you have, not including the many that you aren’t aware of.

Imagine a person’s brain software as a large herd of elephants. From a distance, the animals all look similar. They are doing similar things and generally traveling in the same direction. Outsiders see them as a single entity, a mono-mind. However, up close, there is a lot going on. These elephants are doing different things. Some of them are angry, some are sad, some are happy. They have different goals and ambitions, different memories and experiences, different value systems and skills, different openness and capacity for connection. They have different ages. They may even speak different languages and dialects, or operate with different word choice (baby talk, childishness, humor, seriousness, cursing, sophistication, etc.)

Not all the elephants are, in fact, on the same page. Often there is disagreement. Sometimes there is conflict. The drama can get intense. There may even be abuse and trauma. Some elephants may act like bullies or be cruel towards others. There may be exiles standing far from the herd. When we talk about healing trauma and mental health, we are really talking about healing conflict between these inner beings. We recognize their individuality, but we also work towards reconnecting them and restoring harmony.

Signs of Multiplicity

We can see evidence of human brain multiplicity everywhere. The first place to look is in your conversations. Notice how you can make subtle changes in the way you ask the same question and get completely different answers. For years, researchers were quick to jump on these differences as being flaws in human reasoning. They would call these differences biases and cognitive errors. They would demonstrate how small changes in the parameters of a question would cause dramatic changes in the answer.

What if we considered a human mind to be like a classroom of students (or a classroom of elephants)? Instead of asking a single student the same question, we are now asking a whole class of students. Depending on how the question is asked, different students will raise their hand to respond. Some students are quick to answer, beating the others. Being that they are all different students, we should expect their responses to differ. This is especially true when a question has some complexity to it. Like offering opinions on politics or estimating the answer to complex math questions.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman demonstrates the many ways you can influence how someone feels about something just by changing the way the information is presented. For instance, we feel better about the statement, “You have a 85% chance of surviving one month after surgery” than we do the statement, “The 1-month mortality rate after surgery is 15%.” Or a jacket that is 50% off a $300 sticker price looks more attractive than the same jacket that is $100. Or if we ask someone the difficult question, “Who is the best candidate?” people tend to respond by answering the easier, substitute question, “Who is the most likeable?” We automatically substitute this easier question in our minds. Then our autopilot generates answers to that easier question. Check out this comprehensive list of the many different types of cognitive biases.

Rather than look at all of these biases as cognitive errors, we can see them as evidence of human multiplicity. Like a classroom of students, different modules in our brains take turns offering answers to the same complex question. How the question is posed determines which module is likely to answer first.

Consider that when people are forced to do quick, knee-jerk thinking, we are highly prone to error. We overestimate or underestimate to incredible degrees. Kahneman calls this quick, knee-jerk thinking System 1 thinking. Knee-jerk thinking tends to more illogical, more emotional, inconsistent and imprecise. It is prone to error and manipulation. We can trick our subconscious into answering a question in a specific way through prompting and not allowing ourselves much time to think.

However, humans are also capable of slower, more thoughtful thinking, which Kahneman calls System 2 thinking. This thoughtful thinking is slow, logical, consistent, and more precise. It is less prone to cognitive errors, manipulations, and biases.

So, what is happening in System 1 vs System 2?

The easiest way to understand the difference is to imagine our herd of elephants. In System 1 (knee-jerk) thinking, out of the herd of many, we force one elephant to make a quick response. This quick thinking may be due to lack of time or it may be the result of not putting much thought into an issue. Knee-jerk thinking is adaptive and useful in so many ways. It can be useful when a person goes on autopilot and wishes to turn down their awareness. Or when we need to focus on something else. Let our background modules take care of folding the laundry, while the rest of us is engaged in a conversation with a friend.

System 1, knee-jerk thinking can be useful in threat detection. We can use System 1 to quickly scan a large, complex environment for dangers. The many eyes of many elephants are better than a single pair of eyes. Each variable is only seen by a single pair of eyes and is quickly judged as friend or foe. Efficiency is key. If danger is detected, it can be further scrutinized later.

System 1 thinking can be useful when developing excellence towards a repetitive task, such as playing the piano. A few selected elephants can become specialized experts in that task. This allows the person to not have to think about each keystroke. Instead, the person’s central focus remains on the song as a whole. One part of their brain focuses on hitting memorized keys. It is automatic. The rest of their brain is free to manage the overall mood and structure of the song.

By contrast, in System 2 (slow) thinking, the entire herd of elephants get together to tackle a single problem. They each voice their concerns and opinions. Together they come to a decision. System 2 thinking is slow but accurate. It is consistent. It is deliberative. The same person, presented with a similar moral dilemma, will give a consistent response one day to the next when utilizing System 2. Consider that people generally don’t change their core opinions on religion, abortion, politics, etc. This type of change happens slowly over time.

The next time you have a conversation about something important, like politics or religion, withhold your own opinions. Instead, be an active, observant listener. Ask the same question in different ways. See how the other person’s answer changes. With some skill and curiosity, you should be able to elicit contradictory responses. These contradictions are not signs of internal defects, internal disharmony or hypocrisy. They are multiplicity. Your partner is not a mono-mind. Make sure to let the person know why you’re asking them so many similar questions. You are trying to establish the range of different feelings and values that they have on the subject. Obtain permission to do this, otherwise they may feel toyed with.

Signs of disharmony

When dealing with mental health issues, our multiplicity often becomes more apparent. This is especially obvious when mental health issues become advanced or chronic. Here are some signs of disharmony in the herd of elephants:

  • Difficult, unwanted, or intrusive (negative) thoughts such as self-hate, shame, guilt, resentment, self-harm, etc.
  • Cravings for unhealthy habits that afterwards trigger a guilt or shame cycle
  • Rapid changes in feelings (“mood swings”) that seem unexplained
  • Suspicion of the motives of others (cynicism)
  • Feeling disjointed
  • Impulsivity
  • Inconsistent, mysterious, or exaggerated behavior in response to consistent situations (getting emotionally triggered)
  • Flat emotions in response to difficult situations (suppression of feelings)
  • High anxiety
  • Exhaustion (depression)
  • Mixed or ambivalent feelings about certain people or situations that are difficult to resolve

Purpose of multiplicity in System 2 (slow) thinking

Thus far, we looked at the costs and benefits of System 1, knee-jerk thinking. Fast thinking is important in helping to run our autopilot, which has so much to do throughout our day. Due to the sheer volume of tasks, there is a need for speed and efficiency. This comes at the cost of being more inconsistent and prone to errors and biases.

Now let’s look at System 2. It would be incorrect to see System 1 and System 2 as separate, distinct ways of thinking. They are the same group of elephants. In System 1, each elephant is doing its own task on its own. There is maximum speed and efficiency because more elephants can work on more tasks in parallel. In System 2, most of the elephants are focused on a single task. As a result, speed and efficiency have slow way down. But we improve the likelihood of getting a quality, consistent result.

System 2 slow thinking is best suited for tackling difficult, important questions. We don’t want a single elephant working alone on a big problem any more than we want a single monarch running a large country. Better to have the whole congress of elephants deliberating together.

Multiplicity provides us with the ability to be more thoughtful in System 2, slow thinking. When tackling difficult problems, we have multiple internal perspectives to draw on. The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, so to speak.

Each part, each separate elephant, brings with it distinct memories and experiences, feelings and values. Our herd presents us with a range of tools to choose from. We can exhibit compassion or defensiveness. We can be self-serving or selfless. Each part will model the potential consequences for these actions. Behaviors, values, and feelings then become mini experiments that we can test out to see if the model holds up. We test those experiments in our minds before acting out in the world. We pick the best possible course of action, then go with that to see if our model holds up in the real world.

Getting stuck

Sometimes people get stuck in an unhealthy habit. They cycle through the same behaviors over and over. They may not realize the impact,. They may be unable to see the whole cycle. Or they may be helpless to escape.

What’s happening to get a person stuck?

As humans, we live in routine. We mostly do the same thing every day. Inside those routines, our elephants specialize in handling certain jobs. They carve out their own niches of responsibility. This produces efficiency at the expense of flexibility.

What if, in the course of doing a routine job, the results change? Our results go from being good to not so good. The new results contain both good and bad. What happened? Maybe the external situation changed? Maybe something about us changed? Whatever the reason, the result is not as expected.

Because we are encountering the same situation, the same elephant continues being put in charge. That same elephant behaves consistently to its nature. And we get our result.

But the result is now mixed. The consequences are both positive and negative. Things are not as expected.

We have a lot of questions now. What went wrong? Who is to blame?

Some elephants begin to question if we’re still doing the right thing. Do we have the right elephant for the job? The elephant who was in charge deflects blame, “Not me! I did everything right. I did everything just like I always have. It’s not my fault things have changed.” But there is no clear answer. The questioning goes unresolved.

Then the cycle repeats itself. Everyone hopes the previous result was an aberration.

But it wasn’t. The results continue to be mixed. Both positive and negative. It wasn’t an aberration. Consequently, we again question what’s happening. Because there is no clear answer, our negative feelings about the situation compound. The negative impact adds up over time. More and more elephants are starting to be impacted. They are now questioning if we’re doing things right. At this point, disagreement requires some type of resolution. However, what if healthy resolution still can’t be reached? The elephants continue to find themselves at an impasse. They cannot live with internal disagreement (cognitive dissonance) forever. Disagreement is uncomfortable, painful even. It must be resolved. Yet, our in-charge elephant continues to insist he’s doing everything right. Here the group may search for a scapegoat. The scapegoat can be someone external to the person. If they take that course, our herd can finally agree on something! They could agree that we are not to blame. It’s someone else’s fault entirely. Or the scapegoat could be one of our elephants. That one would get singled out and exiled from the herd. Maybe it is the in-charge elephant, or maybe it’s someone else. Either way, we would suppress an important piece of ourselves. We would marginalize one of our own voices inside of us who we have declared the guilty party.

Very often we do both. We simultaneously find an external scapegoat and an internal one. We marginalize both. It starts when we locate and blame an external scapegoat. However, very often, there is a part of us that knows that we’re being dishonest. It is not entirely the external scapegoat’s fault. We bear some responsibility. When that questioning elephant brings up their concern, they are marginalized by the herd. The herd has already made its decision, and it won’t tolerate further disagreement. So, we suppress a piece of ourselves. This will later come back to haunt us in the form of anxiety, guilt, exhaustion, or another mysterious negative feeling. But for now, we are satisfied in our choice.

Getting stuck can feel awful. Inside us, certain values and feelings come to dominate. We become entrenched inside those feelings and values. At the same time, other important values and feelings have become suppressed and marginalized. They are pushed aside. This leads to internal conflict—disharmony. This internal conflict is one of the main reasons why people experience chronic mental illness. They carry around the weight of this disharmony on their backs. It drags them down and exhausts them.

Unfortunately, disharmony is incredibly common. Understanding how it occurs can help to demystify mental illness and trauma. We can start to clarify the reasons why people don’t feel well. How did they get there? What is this weight holding them back? How can we lighten the load?

Elephant roles

A person stuck in mental illness (internal conflict) is basically in a place where their inner elephants aren’t playing nicely together. The first step to unraveling this phenomenon is to see the different roles the elephants are playing. Each elephant has his own reason for behaving the way he/she is behaving. Once we’ve understood their roles, we can start to help them live harmoniously. After all, these elephants are supposed to be a tight-knit family. The same principles that might apply to heal a rift in a family would apply here.

Let’s look at some of the common inner roles. Here are some of the most common ones. Then we will dive into a few.

  • Protector (activates our fight or flight response)
  • Child (wanting to be playful and free)
  • Inner critic (manager)
  • Inner judge of right and wrong (manager)
  • Jailors (manager)
  • Caution (anxiety, a type of manager)
  • Firefighter (distracts us while we are in pain)
  • Guilt and shame (manager)
  • Exiles
  • Pleasing role (manager)
  • Rebel (cynic)

Four common roles to understand:

Let’s focus on a few of the more important roles to understand and see how they lead to conflict. We will look at exiles, firefighters, managers, and rebels.

Exiles are those parts that had to endure injury or trauma. Exiles are, most often, our inner children. They were playful, happy and innocent once. They were delightful, creative, and trusting. Then something came along and interrupted their innocence. Someone broke their trust. Someone violated their boundaries.

After enduring trauma, these inner children became something else. Fear and pain transformed them. Now they carry the memories of the (unhealed) traumatic experience as a type of burden. They became exiled because our other parts no longer want anything to do with them. We banish our exiles away, along with their burdens, to the deeper recesses of our subconscious. This way, exiles can no longer cause damage.

Exiles respond to pain the same way a child would. They are sensitive to hurt, betrayal, fear and shaming. After enduring trauma, exiles shift to becoming the chronically wounded. They become victims. They are frozen in the past at the age of the injury. They have the ability to pull us back. They can overwhelm us with emotion.

Exiles became our raw spots. They can become triggered. Even in exile, they exert a powerful effect. They can cause mysterious overreactions. They can be hostile towards the Self and others. Acting from a place of pain and fear, they can cause us to exhibit behavior resembling that of a hurt, small child. When a child hits, yells, screams, insults, steals things, throws fits, bites, or does other childish things, they are simply being a child. They are being little tyrants. When an adult does these things, we call it abuse or criminality. Exiles can push us into exhibiting this type of behavior.

Firefighters provide us with numbing activities to numb the pain of stress, anxiety, suffering, abuse and/or trauma. They shift our attention away by providing us with useful distractions. This can include healthy behaviors like exercising, reading, yoga, leisurely activities, religion, etc. This can also include less than healthy endeavors like drinking alcohol, all-consuming jobs, media entertainment / social media, illegal drugs, over-eating, etc. Firefighters push us towards addiction or obsession. Firefighters essentially act as babysitters for other parts, namely our exiles. Firefighters are like parents who give their chronically misbehaving children electronics to keep them busy.

Managers help to manage our other parts. Managers include our inner critics, our guilt, shame, and our pleasers. Managers are tired and stressed out. They are pushed past their limits. They are essentially parentified older children. They often form when children are expected to fulfill adult tasks. We are forced to grow up too quickly in response to trauma. As children, we adapt by creating an inner adult, a manager, that aids in survival. The manager dissociates the rest of us from the injury by banishing the exile away. However, once the injury has resolved, the manager doesn’t stop. It continues jailing the exile out of fear and self-preservation. The manager continues reminding the Self of the past role it had to play.

To understand managers, we first must understand that they want to keep us safe and protected. They protected us at one time by banishing our exile away along with its burden. The manager continues protecting us by hiding the exile away and keeping it contained. They preempt triggering of our exiles by controlling them for us. Through guilt, shame and/or pleasing behavior, managers protect us from future harm. They keep us from taking risks and getting hurt again. They also keep our self-esteem low through self-flagellation. We stay small and below the radar. This keeps our hearts closed off and our confidence low. We don’t trust others and ourselves.

Managers never learned how to set healthy boundaries. The task they were asked to perform was too big for them at the time. They were forced to fight for our survival. As a result, managers that stick around remained rooted in fight-or-flight mode. They keep us hypervigilant. We never grow into the person we were supposed to be.

Rebels help us escape from desperate situations. They are a special type of protector that use cynicism—extreme doubt and distrust—as their primary source of energy. Rebels plot our escape from desperate situations. Rebels can also be exiles, managers, or firefighters. Or they can be special advisors to those other parts. As advisors, they often hide in the background. They don’t want the world to know that cynicism is their primary driving force.

Unhealthy parts are no longer acting genuine

There is one thing that managers, firefighters, and exiles have in common. None of them are being genuine. None of them are being true to their purpose. They are all acting out dishonest roles. They are all stuck in their past.

For all three, none of them are fulfilling the role they feel they were meant to be. Exiles were meant to be playful children. Instead, they are now carrying terrible burdens of past trauma. They are the safeguards of these memories. They protect us by keeping traumatic memories hidden away from the rest of the Self. This is what they are still trying to do.

Firefighters and managers are two parts that also developed during a time of trauma. They exist to control our exiles’ behavior. Firefighters distract the Self from the rift that separates us from our exiles. They keep us from noticing our chronic, unhealed wounds. Managers keep the rift intact and orderly. Managers keep us small and under the radar. They keep us from taking risks and exposing the wounds created by trauma. Managers try to control exiles and keep them contained. Even as they protect the exiles, managers turn exiles into convenient scapegoats for our problems. From a manager’s view, exiles cannot be trusted. Like children, they are prone to impulsiveness, anger, and wildness. Managers are there to keep away the painful burdens the exiles are carrying and check the tyranny of the exiles.

At the time they developed, managers, firefighters and exiles each served a vital role. They were homeostatic mechanisms designed to keep us safe and solve an impossible problem. We simply weren’t ready for the overwhelming stress and/or abuse we were faced with.

All three parts were doing their best when they were first called to act. They were children tasked with doing an adult job. They had limited tools at their disposal. They felt helpless and did what they could to survive. They did their best.

Here we see the power of time. As time passed, we grew up. We became an older child, then an adult, then an older, more mature adult. We acquired new tools and skills. Years later, we encountered similar problems to what we had encountered in the past. Our managers and firefighters were again called to the task. And yet, rather than exercising our newfound skills, we continued using the skills that we had used before as children.

Firefighters distract us via means such as all-consume jobs, spiritual bypasses, media entertainment, illicit or prescription medications, and alcohol. We see how some of these things, like prescription medications, spirituality, yoga, and working can provide a necessary, therapeutic rest. We need rest to heal. In the right context, at the right proportion, these things aid in healing. Yoga and spirituality offer meaningful reconnection. Prescription medications and distraction tamp down the intensity of overwhelming emotions. Meditation offers self-reflection that brings awareness. However, when left to do all the work of healing, these instruments paradoxically prevent healing from occurring. If we rely solely on prescription medications to treat anxiety, we can never improve our condition. We become like a drowning person who is given a life preserver but never learns to swim.

Furthermore, while some tools may be helpful in one context, they may be harmful in another. Even wonderful tools like compassion, listening, education, humor, and meditation can be harmful if used in the wrong context. All tools, even healthy ones, can be misused. A tool that is misused becomes a weaponized instrument for attack. We end up attacking one of our elephants or somebody else. This leads to marginalization and feeling stuck. Firefighters misuse distraction. Managers misuse control, pleasing, and disconnection to keep exiles and the Self apart.

What are these tools, when used correctly? Distraction is a misuse of rest. Control is a misuse of support. Pleasing is an insincere form of love and caring. Disconnection is a misguided attempt to create safe spaces. Rest, support, caring, and creating safe spaces are all essential parts of healthy relationships. When used correctly, these tools make up the blueprint of healing. We cannot reconnect without them.

Cynicism, our last tool, is just as essential. But it must be used correctly. Cynicism was meant to be a protective tool. In its less extreme form, cynicism is doubt. Doubt provides the space we need to create and enforce healthy boundaries.

Exiles, firefighters, and managers are all doing their best. And yet, they are caught in their past. Their behavior hasn’t matured like it should have, and we know it. In carrying these parts, we are caught in a cycle of co-dependency (stagnation). These parts prevent us from learning new, healthier ways of dealing with conflict and stress. They keep us stuck inside a child’s mindset for dealing with our problems. These parts are being asked to perform a service they were never meant to perform. And so, tragically, they are harming us.

Here we see the root causes of chronic trauma and co-dependency. We can also imagine how this cycle of co-dependency can lead us, later in life, to committing acts of abuse towards others. These characters, stuck in their past, still trying to do their best, continue acting out the roles they originally performed. And yet, by doing so, they cause irreparable harm to the very people they are trying to protect—us. They never learned what healthy boundaries are. How could they after having had their own violated? They suggest to us that it is ok to violate the boundaries of others just as theirs were once violated. They make these suggestions out of the mistaken belief that such behavior is necessary to protect us or to maintain life-saving connection. And so, the cycle of abuse is passed along to others.

Our exiles, children still carrying terrible burdens, remains forever alienated from the rest of our Self. In isolation, our exiles can never learn how to control their emotions. Managers, by keeping the exiles locked away, prevent those exiles from ever healing. Firefighters distract us from the problem. Here we see the root cause of insincere, ingenuine behavior. It is paradoxical. From the perspective of all three, they are doing what is right. From the outside, we see that they are locked in a destructive cycle.


The mono-mind paradigm can easily lead us to fear or hate ourselves because we believe we have only one mind (full of primitive or sinful aspects) that we can’t control. We get tied up in knots as we desperately try to, and we generate brutal inner critics who attack us for our failings.

Richard Schwartz, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model

Traumatic experiences are things we carry with us. What separates a traumatic experience from a nontraumatic injury is that trauma brings with it emotional pain that doesn’t automatically heal. Traumatic experiences bring extreme beliefs, intense emotions, and painful memories. They become emotional scars.

These emotional scars are carried on our bodies. More specifically, they are carried on the “bodies” of our parts that originally experienced them. They are chronic wounds that don’t heal.

For those parts, we can imagine these scars as being physical things carried around. They weigh that injured part down. This is why we call them burdens.

According to Richard Schwartz, burdens are the product of direct experience. They are the sense of worthlessness a child gets when a parent abuses them. They are the terror that attaches after an accident. They are a feeling of distrust after being betrayed, abandoned or neglected. As young children, we lack the tools to discern and process these experiences. We only remember the helplessness. The experiences become lodged on the “bodies” of our younger parts and become powerful “organizers” of our lives thereafter. They organize a part’s experience and activity “almost in the same way that a virus organizes a computer.”

Through the use of exiles, firefighters, and managers, our parts organize themselves in a defensive formation to protect our larger Self. This defensive strategy is designed to disconnect from the traumatic history and the pain it brings. It is also designed to employ learned skills such as distrust, disassociation, pleasing, self-criticism, and distraction. These skills are used to keep us safe going forward in the future. In essence, the parts expect the trauma to return at any moment. Those parts prepare us for that eventuality.

We call these emotional scars burdens because they are more than just ordinary scars. Ordinary scars are signs of previous injury that we have moved on from. We learn and grow stronger after injury. If permanent damage has been done, we adapt and accept the change. Instead, burdens continue to be carried as nonhealing wounds. Instead of growth, we bring emotional pain into the future. We relive the pain again and again for our own benefit. We do it to protect ourselves. There is a part of us that believes the injury will recur. That part doesn’t trust us when we say the painful event is over. It wants to keep us prepared for the trauma to return.

There are several key points to make when understanding parts and their burdens. Parts and burdens are inside us. But just like we are not defined by our parts, so too are our parts not defined by the burdens they carry.

This last point is critical to emphasize. Our parts are not their burdens. They are not defined by their traumatic experiences. As Richard Schwartz points out, many of the world’s problems are related to a cognitive error of mistaking parts for their burdens. For instance, we believe a person who gets high all the time is an addict with an irresistible urge to use drugs. We miss the fact that their parts are simply acting out important roles of self-defense. They are acting out a protective role meant to keep the person from harm by disconnecting them from severe emotional pain or even suicide. Once we realize their self-defense role, we see the behavior now as entirely rational and appropriate. By seeing that, we can get to know the inner firefighter. We can empathize and listen to it. We can honor it for its attempts to keep the person going. We feel the awe of it’s resourcefulness and ability to help us survive. We can finally negotiate permission to heal.

These traumatized parts of us never asked to carry their burdens. The burdens were forced upon them through the traumatic experience. The parts now carry their burdens reluctantly. They do it on behalf of the larger Self. They hold onto the burdens for the rest of us. Sometimes memories leak out in terms of unexpected emotions, flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, fatigue, or other mysterious behavior. We can now see these experiences as a gentle reminder by our burdened parts that they still exist, that they’re still present, that they’re still carrying this emotional pain on our behalf. They do it so we don’t have to.

Ultimately, we can no more easily tell our traumatized parts to go away than we can cut out a piece of our skull. Instead, healing requires that we relieve our burdened parts of their awful responsibility. We need to unburden them. According to Richard Schwartz, this process may feel spiritual. As soon as we unburden the part, it immediately transforms back into its original, valuable state. It’s like a “curse” is being lifted. Exiles go back to being light, easy, creative, playful, trusting children. Firefighters and managers become something else, something like advisors or coaches. Critics become inner cheerleaders.

No matter how demonic or awful a part is, it has a story. It has a secret, painful history to share about how it was forced into its role and came to carry terrible burdens. It was forced to become something it never wanted to be. It wants to change and grow. It just doesn’t know how. It is disconnected.

Parts aren’t obstacles. They aren’t pests or annoyances. They are injured and need to be healed.

All of your parts are in there waiting for you. They deserve your love and attention.

Richard Schwartz, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model

Parts of parts

As we begin to visualize parts for the first time, it is useful to imagine them as organic, living things. How we visualize them is up to each individual person. In large groups, I like to see them as a herd of elephants. There is a lot of herd behavior going on.

Taken individually, it can be useful to imagine our parts as living, breathing people. Our parts may take the shape and appearance of our larger Self. Some of these parts may take on the age and size of ourselves at the time when a traumatic experience occurred. Often exiles will come first as the youngest individuals. Firefighters, appearing as our older selves, come along to distract the exiles. Finally older, more mature managers develop to control exiles and firefighters.

Each individual part is like a whole person. Parts have memories. They also have their own spectra of values, emotions, thoughts and beliefs. They have wants and needs. Parts have “bodies” where they carry their burdens in the form of scars.

As we start to see parts in this way, we learn that parts can have their own parts. There is a Russian doll effect here. Parts that are finally given the chance to speak will behave much like people. They have things to say.

Here we can start to see human beings as existing in layers. We have communities, groups, and family layers. Each layer is new and different. But it operates with the same rules and values that other layers do. There is symmetry as we move up and down the layers. Each layer has its own unique ecosystem. But across layers, there are needs, behavioral patterns, values, and emotions that share remarkable symmetry. Each layer needs boundaries and connection.

Lessons that we learn at one layer can be safely applied to the next. Tools for effective listening and conflict resolution remain the same. Lessons for healing rifts in the workplace can be applied when healing rifts within the inner self. Learn how to reconnect partners involved in a distressed relationship, and you also learn how to reconnect warring parts inside an individual.

What about rebels?

So far, we have focused mainly on exiles, firefighters, and managers. But there’s another part that bears distinguishing. Those pesky rebels.

Rebels can be just like any other part of us. They can take on the role of exiles, firefighters, or managers. They can be critics or something else. Often, they play the role of secret advisor to another part, like the devil on your shoulder. Even if they seem like little devils, it’s important not to demonize them. They perform a critical protective role for us that deserves to be honored.

It is important to distinguish rebels from other traditional parts. Other parts use traditional feelings like sadness, anger, anxiety, joy, fear, etc. Whether negative or positive, this emotional energy can be useful in the project of healing. Even negative energies like fear and anger can bring people together when employed correctly.

Rebels use a different type of emotional energy: cynicism. Cynicism is a special type of energy. Cynicism is the belief that other people (or other parts of our inner selves) seek to do us harm. Cynicism is destructive to our goal of understanding. How can we understand a person if we believe they are seeking to do us imminent harm? Cynicism suggests that we shouldn’t try understanding them. Instead, we must fight or flee. We don’t just fear that they are capable of doing us harm. They want to do us harm. Harm is their goal. Cynicism is all about motive. It is the desire to do harm that separates an accident from a deliberate abuse.

Unlike fear and anger, cynicism is directly counter to understanding. Cynicism undermines our ability to understand ourselves, our inner parts, and other people. Cynicism is toxic to relationships. Cynicism is especially difficult to confront because there is no easy, direct path to combating it. Becoming complacent in the face of cynicism leads to enabling behavior and co-dependency. Giving in to cynicism leads to negative cycling. Confronting cynicism directly leads to exhaustion (burnout). Once we’re exhausted, we inevitably give in. And so, it may seem there is no way to escape cynicism. Cynicism appears like a self-reinforcing trap.

Through IVR therapy, we will learn how to navigate past cynicism. There is no direct path to escaping cynicism. Some flexible maneuvering is required, which is why there is a rhythm to healing. However, even cynicism is energy. Rather than fight it, we can use this energy to get to where we want to go. We simply need to figure out how to zig-zag effectively.

Rebels use cynicism. And yet, rebels still perform a vital, perhaps life-saving service for us at critical times. Like other protectors, they activate our fight-or-flight response. They don’t understand why we’re in danger, they only know the danger is imminent. We could, at that point, spend hours, days, or months trying to figure out the danger. We could paralyze ourselves with analysis. We could waste endless hours trying to understand our abuser’s motive. We could try and talk our abuser out of abusing us. Instead, rebels offer us a useful shortcut. Rather than talk it out, they provide us the simple belief that others mean to do us harm. Armed with that belief, we have everything we need to protect ourselves. Now we can take action and escape.

Working together with our other parts, rebels plot our escape in a few ways. They may urge us to preempt the harm we’re about to receive by inflicting harm ourselves. They may urge us towards extreme separation—total separation—from another person, from other groups of people, or from life itself.

Traditional exiles and managers help us out primarily through dissociation. They allow us to internalize the trauma and then suppress it deep inside. Firefighters distract us. Rebels protect us by keeping us from overthinking in a critical moment. They give us a simple conclusion. Someone means us harm.

Armed with that conclusion, rebels help us do things that we would not ordinarily be able to do. Rebels are the voices that urge us to do awful things like steal, acquire and use weapons, maintain or enable addictions, join racist groups, rape or murder, trap and control others, commit abuse, commit suicide, etc. Rebels encourage us to violate the boundaries of other people. Namely, rebels tell us its ok to commit abuse. If the other person intends us harm, then it’s ok for us to intend them harm in response. This is only fair. They deserve it.

A rebel can be an exile, a manager, or a firefighter. Or a rebel could be acting as a companion or advisor to another part. The rebel could be whispering to that other part, providing it with destructive ideas. Or a rebel can allow other parts to feel safe committing the abuses they are already engaged in. Rebels suppress our guilt.

Rebels carry cynical thoughts and feelings as their baggage. Cynicism is a short-cut that bypasses understanding. It is meant as a momentary shortcut to help in cases of imminent danger. It is a survival asset in those cases. Cynicism is a weapon designed for self-defense. Unfortunately, when used outside that context, it is highly problematic. It becomes an offensive weapon. Cynicism becomes a toxic cancer that attaches itself to other emotions and feeds those emotions. Cynicism is the deep underlayer of our most intense emotions when those emotions are being misused. It is the hidden part. It is the ghost that haunts us.

Doubt and trust are the two most important ingredients to a healthy relationship. They form a balance. We are supposed to trust others. We are also supposed to doubt them enough to hold them accountable and keep them from violating our boundaries.

Extreme doubt, doubt that has become unbalanced, is cynicism. Extreme doubt transforms into a misguided belief that others mean us harm.

Extreme trust is also toxic. Extreme trust is delusional. Placing too much faith in a person or group destroys relationships. Delusional trust eventually leads to being taken advantage of and being abused. Abuse, and the harm felt, then activates cynicism as a defensive mechanism. This pairing of delusional trust with cynicism forms the toxic blueprint for negative cycling.

Let’s consider a quick hypothetical to see how our parts work. Imagine a child who believes their home is a safe place only to wake up one day and learn that it is not. Through painful abuse and betrayal, the child’s inner self splits in two. There is an exile, the formerly trusting part, that carries away the pain. There is a rebel, the inner part now tasked with escape. Both are made extreme through disconnection. The exile represents the extreme trust that has been violated. The rebel becomes the doubt that is now unchecked. Paradoxically, though they are disconnected, the two work in tandem for however long it takes until the abuse stops. They help each other survive. The rebel helps keep the exile hidden and protected.

Once the abuse is over, the parts remain severed. The trusting part and the doubting part never reconnect. Healing doesn’t occur. As a result, they remain unbalanced. Sensing this imbalance, the rest of the developing parts remain on high alert. Managers and firefighters develop to distract and maintain control despite the unstable ground everyone is living on. These other parts help us coexist in the world.

Rebels carry the baggage of cynicism for us. Rebels disconnect us from the outside world in a special way. Their original job was to restore balance between trust and doubt during a desperate situation. Trust was too high, and as a result other people were violating our boundaries. Rebels are supposed to recalibrate trust and doubt, give us space to reestablish safe, enforceable boundaries. Unfortunately, this never occurs and so healing remains incomplete. Rebels are never given a safe opportunity to put away their weapon of cynicism. A person who remains unhealed is a person whose rebel continues fighting long after the harm has abated.

The mature rebel needs to one day reconnect with the Self. To do that, we must realize the special importance of doubt. We must see what mature doubt looks like. If we do not create and enforce healthy boundaries, others will take advantage of us. This is human nature. It doesn’t mean that the other person seeks to do us harm. That other person has their own desperate needs. They are suffereing too. They are searching for their own escape.

If we enter into a relationship with someone who doesn’t know how to set and enforce their own healthy boundaries, it is inevitable that we will take advantage of them. Recognizing this is critical. Instead, we can help encourage others to reinforce their boundaries. This is an important task of parenting children, who enter the world without any boundaries or means of enforcement. We must teach them to know where their boundaries are and how to maintain them. We must recognize that healthy boundaries change over time.

The harm of the mono-mind strategies

Richard Schwarz points out that many self-help strategies subscribe to the mono-mind paradigm. These strategies might lead us towards an erroneous assumption that we can “correct irrational beliefs or meditate them away.” Our faulty thoughts are seen as “obstacles,” objects of ignorance, or defects to be fixed. Such strategies may teach us to ignore or transcend our thoughts, or else we might attempt to accept or forgive them.

And yet, advice given in the absence of understanding can be incredibly harmful. We never strive to understand our parts, their purpose and their motives. Mono-mind advice has the harmful impact of minimizing, demoralizing, and demonizing our parts. Because these are parts of our larger Selves, ultimately this will minimize, demoralize and demonize us. Our self-esteem is degraded. Then we disconnect further from ourselves and the larger world.

Wise advice is simply good advice given at the right time. The same words, spoken in the wrong moment, can be equally harmful.

And so, we see that absent understanding, mono-mind devices like forgiveness and acceptance aren’t much better than criticism or contempt. Whether we criticize or accept ourselves, we still feel defective. We are still putting the “defective” part and its larger Self on the defensive. What’s more remarkable is that the harm being done often goes unnoticed by our greater Self. Yet, when we examine our herd more closely, we see that the rift has deepened. The exiled elephants have only been pushed further away. We’ve erected stronger barriers to keep them better contained. Damaged parts become even more disconnected. Exiles are further marginalized. Rebels, instead of being invited out into the open where they can safely voice their doubts, will continue to whisper their toxic words from the shadows.

With all of these mono-mind strategies, we are judging the irrational beliefs and the behaviors. We never actually understand the underlying motives, purpose and behaviors. We never get to their root cause. We never treat those wounded parts of us as equals. We never realize that they deserve respect. They deserve to be heard, honored, and understood.

Learn to parent yourself

Ultimately, we must learn to parent our own inner parts—our own wounded selves. To heal, we must apply principles of effective parenting to ourselves.

We must disabuse ourselves of ineffective strategies such as criticizing, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, suppression, and distraction. We cannot just sweep these strategies away through sheer will when there is a part inside us that still feels and believes these strategies are effective. We must first understand the part that carries these beliefs. Where did the belief come from? What does it represent? Under what circumstances would we call on those tools again?

Here we see the paradox of effective parenting. One must both love a child and set appropriate boundaries so the child feels safe. We set up healthy boundaries for our children. Inside those age-appropriate boundaries, we give our children freedom to maneuver.

To heal, we must learn to parent ourselves. We employ self-compassion to our wounded parts. We listen, with intent to understand, their suffering and the intentions behind their behavior that has been so mysterious for so long. Through negotiation, we lovingly relieve our inner children of the burdens they carry. Then we reconnect those injured parts to their true purpose and the rest of the herd.

The Self

Here it must be stated who the “we” is. Who is doing all of this parenting? The “we,” in this context, represents the rest of the herd. It is the great Many. When talking about inner parts, I will also use the term “Self” to represent the rest of the herd. Sometimes, it will be necessary to excuse a few parts from the discussion. If there are two parts that are warring with each other, such as an inner critic and an inner exile, we can kindly ask one or both to stand aside. Then, the rest of our Self can speak with one at a time.

When we talk about identity, I will separate different types of identities. Lower-case identity represents one specific identity that a person has. For instance, runner, writer, mother, friend, and sister are all lower-case identities. Capital-I Identity represents the sum of all of our smaller identities when considered together as a whole.

When talking about perspective, I will refer to the “third story” to represent the blending of two stories into a full picture. The “third story” grows organically as two people begin to listen and understand each other’s personal stories.

And so, depending upon the context, Self, Identity, and “third story” all represent the whole of something with smaller parts. These greater entities are the spiritual blending of our smaller, more discrete elements. Our greater entities evolve organically out of the doings of our parts.

How do we begin to parent a harmful inner role?

Traumatized inner systems are delicate ecologies.

Richard Schwartz, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model

Here we will learn to approach our harmful parts. First, we will recognize those parts have become frozen in time. They are carrying burdens that are too big for them. They are exercising duties they were never meant to do. Our goal is to listen and help them.

We can use all the principles of difficult conversations. Review Active Listening and Telling Your Story for a refresher on how to bring two people together through effective communication. We will adapt those principles here to approach and hold on a conversation with our inner parts.

For examples of this being done in practice, together with exercises, please see No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model.

Here are a few basic steps to get started with:

  1. Goal: understanding. Your goal is to understand your wounded parts. This is your primary objective. Do not carry with you any hidden agendas. Your goal is not to make intrusive thoughts or unwanted feelings go away. Find a way to be genuine in this regard. Your wounded parts will not reconnect with you until they have been fully heard and understood. Any attempt to sweep them away will be seen as a threat. Such attempts will be seen as your Self attempting to steal from your parts. They will view this as the Self stealing away that part’s dignity and honor as a living, breathing, conscious being.
  2. Avoid judgment and blame. Put aside any harm these parts may have caused to the rest of you. Your first job will be to listen and demonstrate compassion. If you find yourself creeping back towards judgement or blame, this is probably because you’ve inadvertently abandoned your primary goal of understanding. Return to step 1 and find a genuine place of compassion. If that is difficult, then you’ve probably run out of energy and need to pause for a while.
  3. Give your parts an identity. Here you will treat your inner parts as living, breathing, conscious beings deserving of honor and dignity. Imagine them in that way. Give them names. Give them identities. See them as they are. When they come to you, you will see an image of them in your mind. They will have an age. They are likely frozen in time at the moment they came into being or at the moment they were traumatized. They will probably look like you but be different. Or they might look like someone else important in your life, like a parent. Imagining your parts as people shouldn’t be difficult. This doesn’t really involve the imagination. If you invite your parts genuinely, they will come to you with a name and image already. It’s not the Self creating these beings. They are already in existence.
  4. Communicate with your inner parts. Here is where you start to hold a conversation. Your inner parts will have voices that may match their ages. Speak to them with dignity.
  5. Have your parts speak one at a time. Your parts have a long, established history with one another. Some of them may not like each other. Your Self must act as negotiator between these warring factions. To do that, only one can speak at a time and must be able to speak open and honestly. If one part is struggling because it is afraid, ask kindly for other parts to separate off. This is a type of healthy dissociation. These parts can stand aside. Tell them it won’t be for long. You will bring them back in shortly.
  6. Ask your parts not to overwhelm. Some of your parts are used to screaming and/or causing physical symptoms just to be heard. Tell them you are listening now. The parts are welcome to get emotional but ask them kindly not to overwhelm you. They do not need to shout or scream. They are welcome to show you where their scars are located on their bodies, and this may cause you to feel discomfort at that area. Tell them you are willing to feel the discomfort. But ask them not to overwhelm you with it.
  7. Listen genuinely. Here is where you will use all of your best listening skills: asking permission, patience, curiosity, persistence, presence, playfulness, paraphrasing, summarizing, reframing, etc. Review Active Listening for a refresher on these.
  8. Let all parts involved speak. Your different parts will need to take turns sharing their intentions, values, and feelings. When one part is done, allow the next to go. Typically, you would start with an exile and then move on to firefighters, managers, and rebels. Go back-and-forth until you’ve peeled back all the layers. Often rebels are the most difficult.
  9. Realize self-abandonment. You will know when you are done listening to your parts only after the Self realizes that it, long ago, abandoned its wounded parts. This was a type of betrayal. This abandonment froze those wounded parts in time. Self-abandonment is the source of their trauma. This may be a hard pill to swallow for someone who has experienced trauma. Obviously, when a person is traumatized, the Self was responding to an impossible situation. The Self never asked to be traumatized and certainly didn’t deserve the abuse. The Self fights for survival, and sometimes this requires selecting a small part of us for sacrifice. Often, that part willingly and lovingly sacrifices itself for the betterment of the rest. However, the part doesn’t die. It is still alive. It is trapped and frozen. Trauma occurs when the Self, later on, after the danger has passed, fails to go back and rescue the exiles. We fail to recollect, restore, and heal the wounded parts back into the whole. They are left abandoned. When the wounded parts are done being heard, they are likely to willingly forgive the Self for this past abandonment. Those parts still love their brethren. They want to be reunited in love. If this doesn’t happen, keep working on listening until it does.
  10. Reveal the “third story.” Only after all your parts are done do you then allow the rest of the Self to speak. The herd has been wounded by this internal rift. Let them share the impact of the rift. Reserve judgment and blame. But do speak about impact on the Self.
  11. Understand each part’s true purpose. Through each individual story, the part should reveal its true purpose. This is the purpose it always aspired to. This is the purpose that became derailed by the traumatic injury. The part may want to be a cheerleader, an advisor, or something else. The part may want to be creative, free, or spread joy. The rebel simply wants to be a voice of caution, a balance against trusting someone too much.
  12. Relieve parts of their burdens. Here is where the Self must become uncomfortable. For this to happen, the Self must grow and mature. The Self cannot tell or force the wounded parts to give up their burdens. The Self must willingly accept those burdens with grace and love. The Self must demonstrate, beyond doubt, that it is capable of carrying the burdens for now on. It is no longer afraid of them. It wants to carry them. The Self must accept and realize that it was not capable of carrying those burdens before, which is why the wounded part got stuck with them in the first place. This is a complicated process that is situation-specific. The Self must thank its wounded parts for performing this service. Then the Self will show how it has grown. It has developed mature values—new boundaries and bridges—to keep it safe and maintain connect. These mature values will better equip the Self, including all its parts, to carry those burdens going forward. Growth of the Self is the key ingredient to transformation. The Self recognizes how it abandoned its wounded parts in the past. The Self earns their forgiveness and reunites with them.
  13. Transformation. If all of these things are done correctly, the wounded parts will gladly lay down their burdens. There will be an almost mystical transformation. It will feel spiritual, magical, like an epiphany. But you will know how it all makes sense. The wounded parts will be recollected into the herd and finally get to become what they were always mean to be. Even though there are scars, the herd will be healed and whole again. Exiles learn to trust and play again. Protectors, especially rebels, now feel themselves safe and protected. Rebels can stop questioning everyone’s motives and resume their mature role of protecting newly solidified boundaries. Rebels can finally relax. They can be a healthy counterweight to trusting too much.

Being genuine

Being genuine involves seeing and understanding your herd of elephants. Are they a fairly cohesive pack? Or are they disjointed? Are there parts of you that have been exiled to the fringes? Are there parts you are ashamed of?

Being genuine is about being mindful that conflict and disagreements will arise. We should be willing to understand and resolve these inner conflicts. This requires effort in battling complacency. It requires committing to the task of conflict resolution—positive cycling. This conflict resolution occurs primarily within one’s inner parts. We work through issues among our inner characters.

Let’s take a look at how the interactions between our inner characters create conflict and give us opportunities to act sincerely or insincerely.

What if you are asked to do something you really would rather not do? This could be at the workplace, at home, or in the bedroom. Should you do the thing and be fake or not do it and disappoint, upset, or hurt someone?

It turns out, this is a false choice. There is always a “third way.” We can be genuine and avoid creating unnecessary conflict and hurt. We can use our inner herd of elephants to understand what that third way is.

An example of being genuine: questioning the traditional mom role

Let’s look at the example of Kayla. Kayla is a married mother of three. Today Kayla is being tasked with making dinner for the family. However, Kayla came home after a long day’s work to a messy house and three rowdy kids. Everyone is demanding something different for dinner. No one is offering to help. Aside from that, Kayla is exhausted and doesn’t feel like cooking for everyone. Her husband is already watching football on the couch and hasn’t offered to help. Kayla has been in this situation before countless times. Usually she just “sucks it up” and assumes a pleasing role to maintain the family harmony. She now recognizes the insincerity of being the pleaser, and how this has contributed to other issues in her life. She might become overly irritable or lose her desire for intimacy. However, today it’s really gotten to her, and she just feels like cooking for herself and letting the rest of the pack fend for themselves. What should she do?

First, she should recognize that being a pleaser is insincere. The price of being insincere is high. We should generally avoid it. As we can see, the habit that Kayla has established through the pleaser role is one that involves strained relationships with her kids and husband. These strained relationships are evidence of co-dependency. Parts of her are now rejecting that habit. They are right to do so. She needs to listen to those feelings.

At this point, Kayla has a lot of choices. Certainly, repeating what she’s done in the past would not be considered genuine. That is to say, if Kayla were to occupy the pleasing role again by silently cooking dinner and not expressing her feelings, that would not be genuine. She and her family would pay a price down the line.

There is more than one way to remain genuine in this situation. In fact, Kayla’s options are only limited by her imagination. Kayla could get upset and pull the plug on the TV. She could be authoritative and instruct her husband that it’s his turn to cook. She could cook for herself and invite others to join her in cooking for themselves if they are hungry. She could have a team meeting where everyone discusses their feelings and votes on the next step. She could be transactional by agreeing to cook only for family members who do something in return for her like other chores or homework. She could cook for herself and ignore the rest.

These are options that showcase the wide range of genuine choices that Kayla has. There are more diplomatic options, of course. For instance, she could tell her family, “I’ve decided that we’re going to cook this meal together as a family. Please let me know when you all are ready to get started. Until then, I’m going to do what I want to do, which is read this magazine.”

Or she could get emotional in front of her family. Sadness or anger both work. She could let out some frustration in front of them. Hopefully this causes them to pause what they’re doing and respond to her need.

All of these choices disrupt the normal family routine. They all create conflict in this moment. What if Kayla doesn’t want to create conflict now? Clearly, there is a conflict here that has long been ignored. Ignoring the conflict, in perpetuity, would not be genuine. The conflict must be addressed eventually. But it doesn’t necessarily have to occur right now. And yet, Kayla shouldn’t be forced to be a pleaser, which is a role that is not genuine.

Let’s assume Kayla wants to have a conflict-free dinner and defer this issue until later. To remain genuine, Kayla must find a part of her inner self that wants to cook for the family. She must look inside herself. There is likely an inner Kayla who genuinely wants to cook. If the issue in question is one that has created deep resentment, this part of Kayla may be difficult to find. It may be well hidden away behind layers of protectiveness. If she’s having trouble finding it, she can use her past as a guide. She can find a time in her past when she enjoyed cooking for the family. She can locate this part in her memory. Tied to a memory is the part of Kayla that was genuine in the act of cooking. There she is likely to find a genuine cook.

Once she’s found her genuine cook, she will need to see if that part of her is willing to cook again. She can ask her cook kindly if it will. Chances are that it does want to, but it’s being held back. It may be hiding. It may be afraid to be itself. There are other parts of Kayla’s inner self—inner protectors—that don’t want to let the cook come out. These inner protectors may be carrying resentment or other strong feelings and burdens. They may not like the cook anymore. They’re hellbent on not allowing the cook the freedom to be itself.

Kayla may ask, patiently, if those inner protectors will stand aside. They may not be willing to do so, at least not at first. She can tell them that now isn’t the best time. She can make them a promise that their concerns will be addressed in the near future if they step aside. If they agree, she can then proceed in allowing her cook to come out. If they disagree, that means that they probably don’t trust the promise she’s making. A part of Kayla doesn’t think she’ll follow through with the promise. They may have heard that same promise before. She may have told them the very same thing in the past. Whether it was spoken consciously or subconsciously, that doesn’t matter. There is a lack of internal trust here.

In this case, I would highly recommend that Kayla not force things. I don’t recommend that she resume the pleaser role and act insincere. Instead, she could start to rebuild internal trust by doing one of the genuine options previously listed. She needs to begin addressing her conflict now. It can’t wait. It doesn’t have to be fully resolved in this moment. Beginning the resolution process may be enough to rebuild that trust and allow her inner protectors to step aside.

Resolution will not be easy. Kayla’s feelings on this issue may be incredibly complex. She may have been treated poorly at work. Her boss may have recently passed her over for promotion in favor of a male candidate. She may now be questioning her work environment as being sexist, and therefore she’s rejecting traditional female roles at home. Or there may be other family and/or marital issues at play. We don’t know the underlying problem causing these feelings. She may not know what it is, at first. Her protectors know. But the rest of Kayla may very well be ignorant. Whatever the issue is, it’s clearly been a neglected for far too long. It begs some attention.

If Kayla’s protectors stand aside to allow her to make dinner, she will need to return to them as promised. They need to be heard and understood. She will need to work within herself to avoid the pleasing role going forward. She will also need to work with her family. She may not want to be the primary cook anymore. She may want to trade that responsibility for a different role that her husband has. Whatever it is, this requires dialogue. Likely there will be some uncomfortable things said. It requires all three components of IVR: a reexamination of identity, a look at values, and improved communication.


No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model
Thinking, Fast and Slow
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
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IVR Pre-work: Getting started with IVR Self-therapy

Identity-Values-Reflection is a self-help therapeutic process that can guide a person towards healing. This article is a general starting point for individuals struggling with complex injury. Complex injuries include:

  • Mental illness
  • Healing after personal loss, grief, breakups, etc.
  • Healing from longstanding physical illness that have an emotional, spiritual, or psychological component
  • Workplace injury that never fully heals
  • Trauma

For a general introduction in IVR, please see What is Identity-Values-Reflection therapy.

IVR self-therapy doesn’t substitute for working with licensed professionals, including counselors, physicians, physical therapists, chiropractors, coaches, etc. IVR self-therapy can complement working with these individuals. IVR self-therapy is another tool that can be used.

This article is a starter for helping people deal with personal injury. It is not intended for interpersonal issues (parenting, workplace communication, relationship problems, etc.).

This Article Contains:

General Steps of IVR self-therapy
(Pre-work) Goals of healing: What does healing look like?
(Pre-work) Understand Cycling
(Pre-work) Understand the three core domains: Identity, Values, Reflection
(Pre-work) Commit to healing
(Step 1) Identity / Purpose
(Step 2) Values and Feelings
(Step 3) Reflection and Listening

General Steps of IVR self-therapy

Here are the six steps to IVR self-therapy. There are three steps to complete before beginning. This is your pre-work. These steps will help you get started:

  1. Goals of healing: What does healing look like?
  2. Understand cycling
  3. Breaking down three core domains

After this pre-work is done, then there are three steps of IVR self-therapy. These three steps are repeated throughout the healing process until healing is completed:

  1. Identity/Purpose
  2. Values and Feelings
  3. Reflection and Listening

(Pre-work) Goals of healing: What does healing look like?

Before we begin, we need to establish some core goals to focus on. Here are a list of core goals that can be modified to a person’s particular situation.

  • Make understanding one’s injury/illness the primary goal. Read Apex Values: All Roads Lead to Understanding to understand why understanding leads to healing. Remember that healing is, at least in part, a feeling that cannot be forced. We cannot make ourselves feel like we’ve healed. By contrast, understanding our injury/illness is entirely within our power to accomplish.
  • Work towards understanding the full story of the injury/illness, which includes understanding predisposing factors, different individuals’ contributions to the injury, and post-injury reactions. What factors put a person at risk for becoming injured/ill in the first place? How did individuals involved contribute? How did post-injury reactions negatively affect and delay healing?
  • The work of understanding the injury/illness is a nonjudgmental process. Avoid assigning blame. Instead, focus on intentions, contribution, and impact.
  • Work to understand the purpose behind one’s feelings. Unresolved negative emotions surrounding an injury/illness tell us that healing is incomplete. As we make progress, those negative emotions should improve over time. See Feelings Have Purpose.
  • Work to understand how values play a role in healing. How do values affect the choices that are made?
  • Work to understand the social, psychological, spiritual, scientific, and moral domains of healing. Healing a complex injury is never just about one of these domains.
  • Using a reflective process, put together the “third story” of the injury/illness. This involves seeing how individuals’ habits have contributed to positive cycling, negative cycling and/or co-dependency.
  • Work towards establishing a genuine fit between individuals involved. This means eliminating fit distortions. See Do We Fit Together?
  • Let connection be the cure. Reconnect with individuals involved, including support individuals, one’s inner self, and people directly involved in the injury/illness. This may involve reconnecting with people with whom you may have harmed or been harmed by. When you cannot reconnect directly with important individuals, proxies can be used.

This is the basic work of healing a difficult injury/illness. In following these steps, a person should see progress over time. That progress is seen in one’s own feelings along with reactions from others as relationships become healthier.

Healing is a rhythmic process, rather than a linear one. Set expectations accordingly that there will be good days and bad days. See the 3-Step Rhythm of Healing.

From the outset, we do not know exactly what healing will look like. Acceptance is an important final stage of healing. Acceptance follows understanding.

(Pre-work) Understand Cycling

If a person is already making measurable progress towards healing, then they are involved in positive cycling. Chances are, such a person has a fairly positive attitude towards their situation that is absent of blaming, splitting, attacking, judging, and cynicism. They feel well-connected with loved ones, their inner selves, and the world at large. They have a lot of healthy habits and support people. They work towards healing by putting in a moderate amount of effort each day. While recognizing that nobody is perfect, they still believe in the good intentions of people. They can see measurable progress over time towards their goals. Read Guild to Positive Cycling to understand why things are working for these individuals.

So often though, people become stuck. Their healing is delayed, slowed way down, or it can even go backwards. Remarkably, some people’s injuries can worsen over time, even though the inciting event is over. This can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating as there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer why.

Negative emotions can tell us when healing is delayed or when we are regressing. In the past, the medical field has falsely believed that negative emotions, like anxiety, anger and fear, were the problem. The medical field often treated such emotions as pathological, as something needing to be suppressed or eliminated with treatment.

In IVR therapy, we will use our emotions. Our emotions will give us clues and guide us towards healing. That does not mean that we act on every knee-jerk emotion. We do not give in to every bout of anger, for instance. Instead, we listen carefully for the hidden meaning beneath our emotions. It is that hidden message that will guide us.

In IVR, we will examine a person’s habits to see how they may be affecting healing. There may be unhealthy habits that are impeding the healing process. Most often, these unhealthy habits were learned behaviors that once served the person well. However, the habits have become detrimental to the current situation. We don’t look at any particular behavior as being bad or wrong. Instead, we see the behavior as being problematic for the particular situation.

We will use an inquisitive, nonjudgmental approach to separate out unhealthy habits from healthy ones. We will conduct small behavior experiments to see which types of behaviors work best for our situation. We will reserve judgment until the outcome of those experiments is known. We can then use that evidence to determine which habits work best for healing a particular situation. Then, we can redirect the person’s energy towards those healthier endeavors.

So often people get stuck in difficult habits that impair healing. These difficult habits create a type of cycle. We do something, with all good intentions, and this has an impact on ourselves and the world at large. Then, in response, someone or something outside our direct control, reacts to what we have done. This reaction has an impact on us. Then the process will repeat itself to create a habit. If, over time, the sum total of behaviors and impact is positive for our healing, we call this positive cycling. However, when the sum total has a negative impact, this is negative cycling. If there is minimal change in healing over time, this is co-dependency.

Recognizing negative cycling and co-dependency is critical. A person needs to be able to differentiate these unhealthy phenomena from positive cycling, which leads to healing. Here are some general tips to identify co-dependency and negative cycling in yourself or a loved one. Keep in mind, co-dependency and negative cycling are closely related. Differentiating between the two isn’t as important as recognizing their existence.

Co-dependency: Healing is stagnant and incomplete. There is not a clear answer for why this has occurred, but a person generally doesn’t feel good about it. On the surface level, they may have accepted where they are. But when diving beneath the surface, there are often many simmering negative emotions.

We can start to suspect co-dependency in a relationship by a few common traits: lack of spontaneous positive feelings, lack of understanding or awareness, defensiveness, criticizing behavior, inflexibility, and/or stonewalling.

In co-dependency, there is typically a denial that a problem exists. The person has created an effective veneer over the problem, shielding it from outside scrutiny. They may use positive emotions defensively as a way to deflect attention.

Despite its profound impact, co-dependency may be very subtle and difficult to detect. Suspect co-dependency in these situations:

  • You have strong feelings that you don’t understand or don’t make sense.
  • You or a loved one exhibits behaviors that don’t make sense.
  • You or a loved one doesn’t appear to be acting genuinely. For instance, there is a mismatch between behaviors and words. Or behaviors are inconsistent over time.
  • You feel a sense of disconnection inside yourself or with a loved one.
  • There is unresolved conflict.
  • You don’t feel heard or understood.
  • You find it difficult to communicate with an important individual or loved one.
  • There are power struggles over important issues.
  • There is attacking behavior, withdrawing behavior, frequent criticizing behavior, identity attacks, and/or inflexibility on important issues.

Negative cycling: A person involved in negative cycling is regressing. They are getting worse over time. This is a common, challenging phenomenon.

Many of the problems present in co-dependency can be seen in negative cycling: lack of spontaneous positive feelings, lack of understanding or awareness, defensiveness, criticizing behavior, inflexibility, and/or stonewalling. However, these problems are often taken to a higher level. Criticizing behavior transforms into contempt, disgust, blaming and identity attacks.

In negative cycling, there is no effective layer of defense or denial that can hide the issue. Instead, when the issue is brought up, the person is instantly charged up and emotional about their problem. They agree it is a big issue and will readily grab onto it to make their opinions known. Their emotions run away with them. They find it difficult to speak rationally about the issue or listen to people whose perspectives and opinions may differ.

Often there is splitting behavior. The person will split groups of people into allies and adversaries along fault lines of the issue. Allies will be assigned overly positive emotions, especially trust, respect, and benefit-of-the-doubt. Adversaries will be assigned overly negative emotions including distrust, contempt, disgust, lack of benefit-of-the-doubt regarding their intentions, and disrespect.

A person engaged in negative cycling will often use logic and reason to justify their arguments rather than emotional impact and values. They may minimize the impact of emotions on their own decisions and behavior, when in fact it is certain emotions that have gotten them carried away.

Positive cycling: A person engaged in positive cycling will display certain qualities. There is genuine openness to listening to people of differing views. Rather than splitting into allies and adversaries, there is desire towards genuine reconnection of these individuals through mutual understanding. They do not work to manipulate or convince one side to abandon its views. Feelings and behavior reflect this: flexibility, lack of intense negative views towards those of opposing views, lack of personal insults, lack of contempt and disgust, and extension of benefit-of-the-doubt. Discussion includes exploration of values and feelings alongside logical arguments. They share some insight into their own emotions and the emotions driving others involved.

Read the Guild to Positive Cycling to learn how to differentiate between these three phenomena.

Three core domains to breaking down your problem: Identity, Values, Reflection

All complex injuries and illnesses will follow one of three paths: healing, stagnation, or regression towards worsening illness. Each of these three paths is a type of habit. A person learns the habit of healing, the habit of stagnation, or the habit of regression.

Luckily, each of these three habits has common features. These common features will define which habit the person has learned. We can break down the habit into its common features for the purpose of eventually breaking the habit and replacing it with newer, healthier habits of healing.

When regression and stagnation occur to impede healing, there are three common features that we can readily identify. There is identity disconnection. There is some type of identity crisis. A person questions their purpose and their relationships with others involved. There are misplaced values. This means that the person will favor the use of certain values over other important values. Finally, there is impaired thinking as a person attempts to cover up their guilt and shame.

When healing occurs, we naturally find three important pieces involved. First, there is a focus on identity, which typically involves repairing relationships and understanding purpose. Second, there is a reconnection along shared values. Finally, there is a listening process where each individual works to understand feelings, intentions, contributions, and impact.

The beauty of this three-step process, called IVR, is that you don’t have to do everything well. At least not at first. Doing one of the three steps well is enough to kickstart the process towards healing. Each step feeds in on the next. Each step creates a natural progression of building trust and connection. Doing one step well will increase the likelihood of success at the next step.

Another way of looking at this is to understand that both co-dependency and negative cycling require you to be doing all three steps poorly. These problems are a habit that requires all three of identity disconnection, impaired values, and impaired thinking. To break a bad cycle, you need only interrupt it at one step. An interruption at one stage is enough to disrupt the path of the cycle.

(Pre-work) Commit to healing

At this point, a person is nearly ready to begin. They should make a final commitment to healing. Ask an honest question? How much is healing worth to you? How much time is it worth? How much discomfort is it worth? How much energy?

To be effective, IVR self-therapy requires time, discomfort, and hard work. There are no shortcuts. Make a commitment in terms of time, discomfort, and hard work.

If this is an important issue to you, I recommend committing at least 20-30 minutes a day, at least five days per week, to active healing. On this website, I have provided sample exercises. Each exercise should be relatively uncomfortable. The person may need to set aside additional time for rest and recovery.

I don’t recommend doing these exercises right before bed, as it may keep you up thinking about them. Do them earlier in the day and give yourself that time to recover before going to sleep. However, if you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your problem, feel free to do one of the exercises for 10-15 minutes to help get difficult emotions off your chest. Then do something relaxing for an additional 10 minutes so that you can hopefully resume sleeping, if more sleep is needed.

These exercises may only be the beginning of the healing process for you. Healing may require additional help and resources. You may benefit from personal counseling, couples counseling, group therapy, physical therapy, meditation, etc. Any of these modalities would count as active healing modalities so long as you are the one doing the majority of the work. However, seeing a chiropractor, massage therapist or acupuncturist is not active healing if they are doing most of the work to you. Seeing a chiropractor, massage therapist or acupuncturist might be effective resting modalities to supplement the active work that you are doing. See a physician if you feel like you would benefit from additional help and support, such as medications or support devices, to aid in healing. Avoid self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana.

To maximize your likelihood of success, don’t neglect other aspects of your health. Make sure to get regular physical exercise, budget appropriate time for sleep, schedule time for connection with family and friends, eat a healthy diet, and avoid starting new bad habits (smoking, alcohol, frequent marijuana use, etc.). Do additional reading on subjects related to healing (see my bookshelf for ideas).

Through IVR therapy, a person can expect to better understand their problem. With understanding comes connection and healing. A person can start at any of the three steps. Each step can offer varying degrees of complexity, depending on your situation. Anyone new to this process should begin by picking out exercises from each of the three steps. Go through all three steps, then repeat the process.

(Step 1) Identity / Purpose

In the Identity Step, we work on a few core concepts related to identity. We look at how connection and disconnection affect healing. We identify 5 core individuals who can be effective supports for us during a period of intense healing. We work on inner cohesiveness and being genuine through our lives. We evaluate our purpose in life as it relates to an injury or illness. We look at how our identity changes over time and how this can lead to crisis. Finally, we piece together the narrative of our own personal story.

(Step 2) Values and Feelings

In the Values Step, we dive into our feelings to uncover hidden messages behind them and reveal our purpose. Next, we will use core values to begin to channel those feelings into healing. We will uncover personal blind spots–values that have either been over-utilized or under-utilized. We will create safe spaces for healing to occur. We will evaluate and reinforce appropriate personal boundaries. We will build bridges to people we may have become disconnected to.

(Step 3) Reflection and Listening

In the Reflection Step, we will revisit judgment, blame, and cynicism. We will look at how impaired thinking may have led us away from understanding in the past. We will turn our focus to understanding contribution, intention, and impact. We will reveal sore spots that may be triggering of strong emotional reactions. We will uncover habits that we hadn’t yet realized were problematic.

Listening is the primary tool of this step. We will listen to the stories of others. We will weave those stories into our own personal story to create a “third story” that encompasses the entirety of what is happening with us. This “third story” is the story of understanding. As we tell it, it begins to shift towards the positive direction of healing.

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IVR exercise: Positive cycling defeats negative cycling – the story of Daryl Davis

If you can cultivate the right attitude, your enemies are your best spiritual teachers because their presence provides you with the opportunity to enhance and develop tolerance, patience and understanding.

Dalai Lama XIV

“Why I, as a black man, attend KKK rallies | Daryl Davis”

This video is a beautiful example of the influence that one individual can have on another, who is caught in an awful pattern of negative cycling. We can take many important lessons away from Daryl Davis, a Black man, who used positive cycling to influence and ultimately defeat the negative cycling of Roger Kelly, former Imperial Wizard of the KKK.

I would encourage you to make an exercise of watching this video. Keep in mind that America is caught in a state of co-dependency when it comes to the issue of race. By using that term, I mean that progress towards healing the racial wounds in this country seems (at least to me) to be more-or-less stagnant. Or else, progress is happening far slower than it ought to be. We know there is stagnation (co-dependency) due to the strong negative emotions so many people have about the issue and the divisiveness it creates. Now, remember that co-dependency is only a milder, more complacent version of negative cycling. Co-dependency is not healing.

Test your understanding

After watching the video, try to answer the questions below to see how well you understand the difference between negative and positive cycling. Do not make any assumptions about the men. Stick to using evidence from the video to answer these questions.

  • What is Daryl Davis’ primary goal in engaging with Roger Kelly?
  • What lessons can we take away from Daryl Davis’ approach to speaking with and eventually befriending Roger Kelly?
  • What feelings of cynicism do the people in the video experience? How do they respond to those feelings and eventually overcome them?
  • How do we know that Daryl Davis is using positive cycling as opposed to negative cycling?
  • How do we know that Roger Kelly is caught in a pattern of negative cycling?
  • Does being a member of the KKK automatically mean that a person is caught in negative cycling?
  • How does Daryl Davis’ engagement with Roger Kelly change Mr. Kelly’s views over time?
  • How do the two men connect in terms of shared values?
  • What work is each man doing through the process of their meetings?
  • How does the relationship between the two men change over time? How do their feelings change?
  • What can we take away from the video to help us heal a racial divide over time? What lessons can we use to heal other divisive issues unrelated to race?

My take

I will focus on a few key takeaways that can be applied when attempting to alter patterns of negative cycling. Before I get started, I must share the personal note that Daryl Davis has a superhuman level of courage, patience and other admirable qualities. As a white man, I could not have done the incredible feat that he accomplished here. And so, the expectation should not be that people need to be superhumans like Mr. Davis or martyrs for a cause. Luckily, most of the everyday examples of negative cycling that people experience are not as challenging as what Mr. Davis has contended with. And when we do contend with extreme examples, we aren’t solely responsible for undoing the wrong that’s occurring. We’re only responsible for doing our part. Let’s learn from Mr. Davis’ brilliant example and apply what he teaches us in our own lives when battling negative cycling.

Let’s break down what Mr. Davis does into a few manageable steps that we can emulate.

  1. From the start, Mr. Davis focuses on improving his own personal understanding rather than some alternative agenda.
  2. Mr. Davis doesn’t try to fix the issue of race in his discussions. He doesn’t try to convince Mr. Kelly that he is wrong in his beliefs. Instead, the focus on mutual understanding creates an atmosphere of psychological safety by which the men can talk respectably to each other. Mr. Davis allows Roger Kelly to come to his own changed realization about race over time. Mr. Davis’ only job was to focus on his own understanding.
  3. Through his actions, Mr. Davis inadvertently pulls Mr. Kelly out of his comfort zone–out of his old but familiar ways of thinking. Mr. Davis’ shift towards positive cycling is a byproduct of Mr. Davis’ positive cycling. Mr. Kelly adopts Mr. Davis’ healthy behaviors over time. Mr. Davis doesn’t push or manipulate Mr. Kelly in any particular direction. It is the gravity of Mr. Kelly’s healthy behaviors that inspires and attracts Mr. Kelly to reciprocate.
  4. While negative cycling is easy, positive cycling is (morally) attractive. Even the most irredeemable individual is open to change if given the opportunity. Mr. Davis never gives in to cynicism and succumbs to the belief that Mr. Kelly is irredeemable. Instead, we can assume that Mr. Davis recognizes Mr. Kelly’s openness to change as is evident in the fact that he was willing to speak with Mr. Davis on the difficult subject of race.
    • Unfortunately, it falls upon the responsibility of the person (Mr. Davis) engaged in positive cycling to do the majority of the work, at least at first. Over time, as the person stuck in negative cycling (Mr. Kelly) begins to understand the (moral) attractiveness of positive change, they will start to share in the load.
  5. Mr. Davis uses Identity-Values-Reflection (IVR) principles to engage in positive cycling with Mr. Kelly. Whether this was done as some type of deliberate (conscious) strategy or if it was all done instinctually is beside the point. We can see these principles at work in the video.
    • Mr. Davis engages on the subject of Identity by asking the important question: “Why do you hate me when you don’t even know me?” This question is simple, yet powerful. In this question, Mr. Davis recognizes the extreme identity disconnection that occurs in racism. He exposes the absurdity of the feelings that Mr. Kelly has towards him.
    • Mr. Davis engages Mr. Kelly in shared values of patience, curiosity, mutual respect and willingness to listen to each other. These shared values form the basis of their relationship, which grows with time. The values take on a life of their own and eventually supplant Mr. Kelly’s previous, disastrous ways of thinking.
    • Listening is the core mechanism that bridges the divide between the two men. Rather than judge Mr. Kelly for the feelings that he has, Mr. Davis expresses genuine curiosity and desire to learn.
  6. The outcome of the many meetings is that the two men eventually bridge a previously impossible chasm. They connect together as human beings. Both men realize they are not so different after all.

Healing cycle

Mr. Davis engages Mr. Kelly in a healing cycle. This cycle is an excellent example of how to heal incredible disconnection between two people. The cycle involves three core values: understanding, respect, and listening.

Understanding is the purpose of their conversation. The two men decide, from the outset, that they will have a relationship based upon understanding each other.

Respect is the first value utilized. The two men shake hands. Respect is a boundary value that becomes the foundation upon which their relationship can sit. Mutual respect provides the two men with psychological safety. They can safely speak their minds without fear of judgment or ridicule.

Listening is the bridging value that brings the two men together over time. Listening allows for understanding. Listening is the glue that binds their shared humanity.

Understanding, respect and listening. These three core values are the lifegiving ingredients–the sunlight, oxygen, and minerals in the soil–that permits their relationship to grow.

More thoughts…

Negative cycling is all too easy for any man to fall prey to. Unfortunately, the devastating impact of negative cycling is felt disproportionately by certain groups in America, especially Blacks. It is terrible, and there is a lot of work to be done to undo this. The burden for healing these wounds should not fall on Blacks alone but on everyone to do their part.

Racism is only one example of negative cycling. Negative cycling is a trap of habit just like alcoholism. It is counterproductive to judge people caught in the trap. Instead, it is the duty of knowing individuals (of all races, religions, political affiliations, etc.) like Mr. Davis to exercise critical values in difficult moments. Mr. Davis does not wield his values like a hammer or machine gun, blasting Mr. Kelly with them. Instead, Mr. Davis uses his values surgically and thoughtfully. As a result, we can see their demonstrated effectiveness. Mr. Davis is a hero for what he’s accomplished. The rest of us don’t have to be that heroic, but we are obligated to help.

This probably seems unfair that Mr. Davis has to take the initiative and do the majority of the work. Let’s try to understand the story another way. Imagine that Mr. Davis recognized, somewhere through the course of that first meeting, that he had a friend in Mr. Kelly. That friend was buried deep inside Mr. Kelly’s subconscious. The friend had been silenced a long time. He was drowning in a turbulent storm of hatred and negative cycling. Remember that when a person is drowning, they will grab onto anything to save themselves; a person will even drag their own children down with them in desperation. And so, this friend was terribly desperate.

Being the person involved in positive cycling, Mr. Davis not only knew how to swim already, but he had a life preserver. It was through their many meetings that Mr. Davis was able to offer the life preserver and rescue his friend who was otherwise buried deep inside Mr. Kelly. Eventually the friend felt safe enough to come out. And so, we see here that it was not a transformation from hatred to friendship that occurred. The friend inside Mr. Kelly had been there from the start. He was hard to see and hard to find. But I would imagine that Mr. Davis’ inner elephant–his subconscious mind–recognized the friend early on. This is probably why he saw value in continuing to meet with Mr. Kelly and why he summoned up the courage to go to Klan rallies. Mr. Davis may have been doing it for himself, but he was also driven by the compassionate need to help a friend. This need is probably what sustained him over the years to continue engaging with Mr. Kelly and to maintain his patience. Without that friendship connection, if he only wanted to learn about the KKK, he could have easily gone and interviewed dozens of different Klan members. But that’s not what he did. He stuck with Mr. Kelly through the difficulty of it all. He allowed patience, kindness and listening to defeat cynicism. He found a friend on day one. And though it took years, he rescued that friend from hatred and fear.

It is truly a beautiful story.

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Difficult Conversations

Sympathy vs Empathy

Sympathy has become a sort of bad word these days. Empathy has become the end-all-be-all form of caring. The differences between the two concepts can be quite confusing. Worse still, there is no common accepted definition for the two words. Depending on the source, the definition for sympathy can be the same as that for empathy. Sometimes the definitions will flip-flop depending on the source.

We make the distinction between the two terms for an important reason. Empathy, according to modern convention, is a more genuine form of caring. In empathy, the person demonstrates caring by feeling what the other person feels.

This Article Contains:

What is empathy? Brene Brown Short
What is the process of caring?
What are hidden messages in communication?
What is the hidden message of empathy?
What are the hidden messages of sympathy?
How to be more clear in your messaging.
Managing conflicting emotions
The limits of empathy

What is empathy?

See the short video below:

The process of caring

I like to keep things as simple as possible. But we have to break it down.

When someone expresses hurt, the other person will feel something. Compassion (or simply caring) is the common emotion. Compassion is the feeling we get when we internalize the other person’s pain. We bring their sadness or suffering inside us. We sample it inside our minds. We don’t have control over this process of compassion. We either feel compassion for the other person or we don’t. We don’t control the degree. We don’t control other feelings also competing for our attention. None of these things are within our control, at least not at first. They all operate within the processes of our subconscious. Over time, we can influence how we feel, but we still don’t control it.

Our instinctive response to feeling compassion, the sampling of someone else’s pain, is to send a return message back to the other person. “I hear you and I care about you.” When they receive this message, they will feel something in response. If they receive the message clearly, they will feel heard and cared for.

So, what’s going on with sympathy and empathy?

Empathy and sympathy are behaviors of communication. They are different ways of communicating back the message: “I hear you and I care about you.” Empathy and sympathy are both bridging behaviors. They are intended to communicate connection to the other person.

But they do more than that. Even though they are also intended to communicate, “I care about you,” they end up communicating something more. There is a hidden message.

Hidden messages in communication

Communication is never as simple as the words we express. Nonverbal communication includes all kinds of hidden messages from our subconscious.

Part of being genuine is eliminating hidden messages. Or at least making sure that hidden messages and intended messages are congruent with one another. Being genuine is all about being upfront about what you truly intend to communicate. Empathy is genuine. Sympathy is not. Sympathy contains mixed, conflicting messages. Worse, the person expressing sympathy lacks awareness of these hidden messages. Let’s take a look.

The hidden message of empathy

Here is the intended message of empathy: “I hear you and I care about you.”

Here is the hidden message of empathy: “I am open to receiving your feelings and feeling what you feel.”

This hidden message is straightforward and implied. It is congruent with intended message, which is why empathy is considered genuine.

The hidden messages of sympathy

Now let’s look at sympathy. There are many possible hidden messages that people inadvertently attach when communicating using sympathy. These messages ride alongside the intended message. They are carried by a person’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. Wording also matters, as we saw in the video above.

The intended message of sympathy is the same: “I hear you and I care about you.”

Here are some possible hidden messages that ride alongside the intended message. Let’s first look at communicating lack of availability:

  • “I don’t have enough time to meet your needs right now.”
  • “I can only give you part of my attention right now.”
  • “I only have so much of myself to can give you right now.”
  • “I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling right now.” or “I’m glad I’m not the one feeling that way.”

Next, let’s look at communicating dismissal:

  • “I would like to dismiss your problem with a quick-fix.” or “I would like to dismiss your problem with a few token words.”
  • “Your problem really isn’t that important.” or “You’re overreacting.”
  • “You’re bothering me with this right now. I don’t like it. Please stop.”

Next, let’s look at communicating arrogance:

  • “I know exactly how to solve your problem. You should do this. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t already think of that.”

Finally, let’s look at communicating that one lacks the ability to make the other person feel heard and cared for. In other words, a hidden message of incompetency.

  • I am not a good listener.
  • “I lack the personal abilities to meet your needs right now.” or “I do not know how to adequately express my feelings of caring through my behavior.” or “I don’t know how to make you feel cared for.”
  • “I lack the ability to make you feel better.”
  • “I don’t know how to solve your problem.” Paradoxically, the very act of trying to solve the person’s problem directly through fixing is actually communicating the hidden message, “I don’t know how to solve your problem.”
  • “I don’t understand your issue.”

Instead of sympathy, try being more clear in your messaging

Here we see that sympathy can communicate one of these things: lack of availability, dismissal, arrogance, or personal incompetency. To be genuine, I would recommend practicing the following.

  • If you lack availability to help at that moment, simply communicate that directly and clearly. For example, “I can see that you’re hurting. I’m really stressed out at the moment also. I can’t help you right now, and I’m sorry about that. Can we talk about this later tonight?”
  • If you lack competency, please also communicate that clearly. “I can tell that you’re suffering. I don’t know how I can help. Please tell me what I can do. If you can’t think of anything, then please just tell me more about what happened. Or if you prefer, we can just sit here and be sad together for a bit.” The hidden message here is one of humility, which goes a long way to making someone feel heard and cared for.
  • If you are feeling arrogant or feeling like dismissing the other person’s issue, instead of communicating this, consider looking inward at yourself. Why are you feeling this way? What do you value about the relationship?

Conflicting emotions

It is very common to insert hidden messages in communication. So far, I have only provided common examples, not an exhaustive list of possible hidden messages. The number of different types of hidden messages is only limited by a person’s imagination.

It is human to have different emotions compete to be the one that drives our behavioral response. For instance, a person could be feeling compassion. But they could also, at the same time, be feeling angry, anxious, happy, or something else. When we experience these conflicting emotions, we are forced to make a choice. Our behavior–the message we send back–will reflect the emotions we insert into it. Consider verbalizing these competing emotions to the other person:

“I feel sorry for you getting hurt. I care for you. But I’m also angry.” It is at this point that the speaker has a genuine choice. They can focus on the caring and listening, they can focus on expressing their anger, or they can pause and create space for more self-reflection.

The limits of empathy

All values can become weaponized. Empathy is no exception. There are many ways to weaponize empathy. The most straightforward way is by attacking another person’s identity by saying that they lack it. However, most of the time, empathy is weaponized in a more underhanded type of way.

The most common way to misuse empathy is to wield it, bluntly, as a weapon to attack another competing, legitimate value. For instance, consider the exchange:

“Can’t you see that I need your empathy in this moment?” Partner’s response: “Can’t you see that I’m paralyzed by my own panic attack right now?”

In this exchange, one person is demanding empathy. The other person is experiencing anxiety, which is causing them to go into a self-protective mode, which makes it very difficult to express empathy. Or try this one:

“You don’t care about me.” Response: “Yeah, well you don’t respect me.”

Here both people are attacking each other with their weaponized values: respect and empathy.

A demand for excess, unfettered empathy is highly problematic. Empathy must be balanced by other important values. Because it is a bridging value, it typically needs an effective boundary. People in health care fields who express strong empathic behavior and lack appropriate personal boundaries will inevitably cycle towards burnout. Burnout is a process of negative cycling. In essence, they care too much about others and lack the ability to care for themselves.

Next: expressing empathy through Active Listening.

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How your subconscious mind drives your behavior

Our subconscious mind manages the vast majority of what our brain does. It filters the immense volume of information coming in from our bodies. It acts as an autopilot by running countless routines. Within these routines, it makes countless second-by-second adjustments to maintain homeostasis. This frees up our consciousness to focus on the big picture.

This is all well and good when life is moving along smoothly. Often, however, we get stuck in bad habits. We feel helpless like a rudderless ship caught in a storm. Our feelings can become overwhelming. Our thoughts can become intrusive. And we feel trapped. We may already know that some of our behaviors are unhealthy, but we can’t see a way out.

Understanding how the mind works can be empowering. In this article, we will look at the differences between the subconscious mind and our consciousness. We will use three metaphors to demonstrate how they relate to one another. We will start to understand that our feelings do indeed have purpose even if they are overwhelming us.

It turns out that we have far more influence over how we feel and how our mind works than one might imagine. But that influence isn’t direct. It isn’t easy. Let’s dive in and see how this works.

In a separate article, we discuss how to build conscious self-awareness.

This Article Contains:

What are the basic duties of the conscious and subconscious minds?
Three metaphors for understanding the mind
The elephant and the rider
Understanding agency: the restaurant and the patron
What choices do we have?
How do we wrestle back control? A sailboat in the wind
How to take back control: a sailboat in a storm
Bookshelf: read more on the elephant and the rider

Basic duties of the conscious and subconscious minds

There are many ways to subdivide the mind. One of the most useful ways is to disassemble the mind into two basic components: thinking and feeling.

Feelings come from the subconscious. They are messages from our subconscious self to our consciousness. They are written in their own universal language. Anger, fear, happiness, disgust, resentment, etc. We feel good about something or we feel bad about it. We can’t help the way we feel. These feelings are generated by our subconscious self. They are only messages. They are pieces of information.

Thinking, on the other hand, is the work of our conscious mind. Thinking is everything the conscious mind does. There are many processes here: observation, perception, recalling something from memory, mental arithmetic, selecting data, assigning meaning, judging, making assumptions, and drawing conclusions.

The subconscious mind has the power of suggestion. It provides impulses to the conscious Self. It suggests things to remember. It suggests that we select certain pieces of data and not those others. It suggests meaning and judgements. It suggests assumptions and conclusions. Each of these suggestions is a type of intuition, a “gut feeling.” As we translate them into words, these suggestions become simple thoughts. We hear them as if they’re being spoken to us.

The conscious mind has the unique power of choice. The conscious mind gets to choose which suggestions to keep and which to discard. The conscious mind can also choose to remain passive, to not make any choice at all. In this case, we remain on autopilot. Out of the countless suggestions generated by our subconscious, we act out the ones that come with the greatest intensity. You deserve pizza tonight, not a salad.

The subconscious mind has two unique responsibilities. It sends a feeling message. You feel this way. And then it suggests what a person should do about it. You feel X, and therefore you should do Y. The conscious mind then gets to decide if we will act upon the suggestion. See Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for more detailed information about this process.

Keep in mind, most of the time we are on autopilot. Most of the time, we are simply acting out the suggestions of our subconscious. That is the default. We are just doing. Only when we shine the spotlight of our consciousness on those choices, do we then think before we do.

The subconscious mind does another very kind thing for us. It allows us to forget. It gives us grace by forgetting. We don’t remember every mistake, every misstep or every injury. Over time, we only remember what we learned from those painful experiences, not the experiences themselves. We integrate these learned memories into our greater whole. We remember the experience but forget the painful details.

On a side note, unhealed trauma occurs as a failure to integrate painful memories. Because we can never make sense of them, they remain in their raw form. We can never forget the pain, and so we relive it again and again.

Three metaphors for understanding the mind

Let’s look at three separate metaphors for clarifying the roles of the subconscious mind and the conscious mind. With each metaphor, we will gain greater awareness of how these two interact. There are three lessons here that can allow us to unlock the magic of influencing our autopilot.

  • The elephant and the rider
  • The restaurant and the patron
  • The storm and the sailboat

In each metaphor, there is the subconscious self: the elephant, the restaurant, and the storm. And then there is the conscious self: the rider, the patron, and the sailboat. We will see how the two interact and learn from those interactions. In each case, the subconscious dwarfs our consciousness in size and power. But the smaller being, our consciousness, has room to maneuver. It is through that influence that we move from helplessness to empowerment.

The elephant and the rider

I borrowed our first metaphor from Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, who has borrowed from many other insightful and ancient sources. This is our first analogy to describe how the process of thinking and feeling works.

Haidt asks us to imagine an elephant with a man on top, a rider. In this analogy, the elephant is our subconscious mind. It is our animal brain. It doesn’t do math or logic. Instead, it represents everything we feel. It also includes everything that the subconscious mind suggests that we do. You should find food. You should find shelter. That is disgusting. Go find a mate. She’s pretty. You get the idea.

The rider is our conscious mind. It is our thinking self. It can do math and logic. It can make choices. It can act on suggestions. It has veto power over the elephant’s suggestions.

Then Jonathan Haidt asks an important question:

Who is in charge? The rider or the elephant?

I have gotten into arguments with friends about this very question. Turns out there are two questions here. Who is in charge? And who should be in charge?

Essentially, we are asking what drives behavior? What aspect of our Self determines what we do and who we are? The subconscious mind or the conscious mind? Our feelings/intuition or our reason/logic?

To argue over these questions is to misunderstand the mind. One part of the mind does not dominate the other. One is not submissive.

And yet, there is a lot of power in being the default mode, the autopilot. When the rider is passive, the elephant has all the power.

The human experience is incredibly complex. We feel so much. There is so much to process. We can’t sit there and think about it all. So, the subconscious mind does most of the work for us in the background. This is intentional. The elephant is all of our internal presuppositions, genetic inclinations, subconscious motives, and layers upon layers of uninterrogated, raw experience. It also includes our latent moral intuitions–the foundations of our moral values–the building blocks for morality and judgement.

Only a small fraction of what the subconscious deals with is ever allowed to approach the level of consciousness. Even that small fraction is an incredible amount of information. And so, the conscious mind is constantly being flooded with impulses, feelings and suggestions. There are so many. We cannot possibly sift through them all. Autopilot becomes the norm. With so many choices available every second of every day, the subconscious generally takes over.

Haidt points out another incredible insight here. Because autopilot is the norm, the elephant not only is making thousands of small petty decisions, it also generally makes most if not all the few important decisions. Who to marry. How much to spend, how much to save. What religious affiliation you should belong to. What political messaging resonates with you.

In fact, generally speaking, the conscious Self only realizes he had a choice after the choice is already made. He comes to this realization once he’s felt the impact of the decision. Again, it’s the elephant giving the rider the feelings of the impact. And so, we see that intuition comes first, reasoning second.

Intuition comes first, reasoning second.

Jonathan Haidt

This is a hard pill to swallow for someone new to this concept. We do have agency. But we wrestle with home much agency we truly have. Most of the agency we think we have really has been decided for us by our inner elephants.

There is a lot of data to back this up. I will defer to Haidt’s book for a detailed proof and review of that data, rather than pour it out for you here. It does make sense though, once you start to grapple with the concept. Open your eyes to choices that you make. Peel back the reasoning. Underneath the layers of logic, you will discover a feeling. An emotion. Some type of impulse. Beneath that is a basic human need. Realizing this, you can see that intuition, coming from your elephant, was really the driver of your decision. Not the logic and reason you expected. This holds true for decisions involving religion, politics, the abortion debate, race issues, how many children you want to have, who you fall in love with, how you feel in your marriage, etc. The elephant makes the decision in each case. The decision was intuitive, not logical.

Why have a rider in the first place then? It turns out, the rider exists mainly to justify the decisions of the elephant. Humans are social creatures. Often, the elephant does something that isn’t pretty or tactful. It needs a rider to justify those actions, after the fact.

The rider is still the conscious mind with all its rational functions and agency. And yet, the rider evolved to serve the elephant, to justify it decisions. According to Haidt, the rider became a type of lawyer or public relations consultant for the elephant. It is not a scientist that objectively sees the truth. It provides post hoc justifications and explanations for the moral convictions–the “intuitions”–of the elephant.

The rider evolved to serve the elephant.

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

The rider has evolved this grand vision of itself as a rational actor who makes measured arguments and thinks carefully about political affiliations, moral convictions, religious beliefs, etc. However, Haidt demonstrates in study after study that this type of vision is delusional. Humans are the opposite. Empirical research supports the bottom line that humans are emotional actors who act first, via intuition. Only after acting can we then provide a rational justification for our behavior.

Humans are emotional beings. We act first, justify later.

In this dynamic, the elephant holds the majority of the power. Realizing and accepting this is a critical first step to solving conflict and healing injury. We cannot fix our social problems if we don’t understand them. We need to be aware that our disagreements and conflict didn’t come from differences in logical thinking. They came from differences in needs, emotions, and values. The first two are the exclusive providence of the elephant.

The third–values–is a place of negotiation between the elephant and the rider. Here is where the rider has an opportunity for input. Here is where the rider can step in and alter behavior.

How does this happen?

Let’s look at our next metaphor: the restaurant and the patron.

The restaurant and the patron

The subconscious mind creates our world of feelings and possibilities. Such feelings and possibilities are presented to our consciousness. The conscious mind may then choose from among the available possibilities.

Consider a patron at a restaurant. The subconscious mind is the restaurant. The mood, environment, and feel of the restaurant represents our feelings. How do we feel walking in the door to a new situation? The subconscious mind also arranges the menu choices. These are the suggestions that it offers to the patron sitting down to eat.

The patron represents our conscious mind. He has agency to choose. He doesn’t have to like the restaurant, its environment or its menu, but he’s stuck eating there. He can only choose from among the possibilities on the menu. He can decide if he will eat or not. That is what it has available. He was not offered something that is distasteful to the restaurant–to our subconscious.

Even among the menu choices, the restaurant has preferences. Some items are bolded and made to look appetizing and have a reasonable price tag. Other options are written in small print and are hard to find. And so, by default, the patron usually picks the option that the restaurant prefers him to pick. He acts on the restaurant’s suggestion. It takes work to not follow the suggestion and do something else. Even then, he can’t eat something that the restaurant doesn’t make.

Once again, we see that the restaurant, like our elephant, really is in charge. The patron can only choose from among the possibilities he is presented with.

Becoming aware of this reality is another key step. We already learned that the elephant and the restaurant are in charge. We see that they present us with options, including both preferred and non-preferred options. We’ve accepted that these choices aren’t logically based.

How do take back some influence? How much control do we really have?

Turns out, we have a great deal of control and influence. But we have to dive in deeper.

So, what choices do we have?

If the rider, the conscious Self, aka the patron at the restaurant, has agency, then what exactly does he have agency over? What choices does he have?

The patron must choose from a suggestion provided to it by the restaurant (aka elephant)–the subconscious mind. Understanding how this works is really the key to discerning what is controllable from what isn’t. The magic comes when we realize that we have control over things we never knew we did. When we exercise that control, we can influence things that we don’t have direct control over, like our feelings. We can give the conscious mind better influence over the subconscious, which is otherwise running the show. I use the term influence here, because although we have a great deal of influence over the subconscious, we don’t have direct agency over it. We can influence our feelings, not control them. The same goes for other people. We have a great deal of influence over other people in our lives even if we can’t exert direct control over them. In other words, some of the things available on the restaurant’s menu are written in fine print. We need only look a little harder to find them.

The subconscious Self, the restaurant, provides us with suggestions. It does this by first starting with basic human needs (food, water, shelter, safety, belonging). The subconscious Self feels those needs. It generates feeling messages and impulses that it dispatches up to our consciousness. You are hungry, for instance. With that feeling message comes a suggested action. Go eat Doritos. Most of the time, we are on autopilot, and that’s exactly what we do. But we do have a choice. We can choose not to eat, if we’re paying attention.

What people don’t realize is that hidden within this simple message (You are hungry. Go eat Doritos.) is a value choice. We can translate that message to mean: “You value not being hungry. You value sustenance. You value survival.” And so, the restaurant’s suggestion is really a value message. The restaurant is telling the patron what they (collectively) value.

The same holds true for all of our moral values, all of our convictions. Moral values, as Haidt points out in his research, emanate from the subconscious. Moral values are intuition–“gut instinct.” Moral values are set up and authored by the subconscious. Where do these moral values come from? They come from our desire to fulfill our basic survival needs. It is our basic needs for sustenance, shelter, and belonging that generate our moral values designed to help us be productive, be safe, and build communities. Human values, as Haidt argues, cross cultural and generational barriers. They evolved to help us survive and prosper.

The subconscious mind picks a mood for the restaurant. Then it offers a menu of choices to our conscious Self. Feel free to pick from among what’s available: You can eat. You can be safe. You can build your community.

The subconscious gives the conscious mind freedom to choose. Each choice represents an important value. We can decide not to eat the hamburger. We can decide, instead, to be patient.

These values, as it turns out, are all the same values we teach our children. We know them already. Patience. Hard work. Safety. Compassion. Manners.

And so, we start to now see the interaction of feelings and values. Feelings remain outside our control. They are the sole purview of the restaurant (or the elephant). Values, on the other hand, can be the responsibility of the patron (or the rider), once he takes ownership of them. He must first turn off autopilot and assume some control. But these are all value choices. Not choices of logic and reason. Logic and reason have nothing to do with it. The patron/rider only tricks himself to believe he is a rational actor. When in fact, the choice came from the elephant/restaurant from the world of needs, feelings and values.

It then becomes the interaction of feelings + values which determines how we behave, and the impact our behavior will have.

A sailboat in the wind

It’s ok if this is still somewhat confusing. Let’s look at one final analogy to try to piece it together.

Remember that feelings are energy. They get us up and moving. Values are tools that channel our energy.

The subconscious is constantly bombarding our conscious mind with a flood of feelings, impulses and suggestions. Those messages are like weather. We cannot control the weather. It does what it wants to do.

Imagine a sailboat out on a windy day. Our feelings are the wind. The sailboat is our values. The sailboat, with its sails, is a tool that can move in the wind. We happen to be a person on the boat. We can be a passenger and just ride along, letting the boat and wind take us where they will. We can be passive, riding along on autopilot.

Or we can choose to direct the sails and point the rudder. If we want, we can aim for a direction. It takes work to do this. It takes effort.

We see here that the subconscious Self provides us with the wind (emotional energy) which the conscious mind has no control over. The subconscious Self also provides us with the boat and the sails (our values), which we can use and direct in the direction that we choose.

Love and work are to people what water and sunshine are to plants.

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

Hopefully this analogy seems basic and rudimentary. Too easy and simple.

But what happens when we are in an emotional crisis? What happens when we experience an overwhelming flood of emotions that threaten to drown us? What can we do then? What does this look like?

An example of taking back control: the sailboat in a storm

Let’s look at the example of Tara. Tara is 15. She isn’t very close with either of her parents who are divorced. She bounces between their houses, living at one for a few months before jumping back to the other. Her older brother recently enlisted in the Marines. They were close, and unfortunately she doesn’t expect to see him much anymore.

Tara’s father, William, brings her in to my office. Last night, he found her with a knife in her hand, contemplating cutting her wrists. She has cut herself once before. William is very concerned and doesn’t know what to do.

Through the course of our conversation, Tara describes feeling like she is alone on an island with nothing but empty ocean surrounding her. But when I dive into her feelings more, she describes a flood of negative feelings: I’m not deserving of happiness. I hate myself. I hate my parents. I hate my life. I’m worthless. Those feelings came to her like a storm last night. She had been fighting them for weeks now. She resisted the storm outright, battling the weather head-on, like a ship trying to paddle directly into the wind. Eventually, inevitably, she became exhausted. Her will to fight melted away. She became empty. She looked for a way out. She wanted to cut because she wanted to feel something again.

“What are you looking for?” I ask her.

“Relief,” she answered.

“What does relief look like?”

“I don’t know.”

Any good sailor knows that you cannot sail directly into the wind. It’s impossible. Paddle as hard as you like, eventually the wind will defeat you.

What if your destination is directly ahead? What if the wind is coming straight at you? How can you get there? What if all you want to do is feel better, feel happy again? Meanwhile the wind is saying all these awful things about you. The wind taunts you for trying to be happy. You’ll can’t be happy. You don’t deserve happiness.

You can’t charge straight forward. You will fail. But you can go sideways. You can go at an angle to the wind. You may not move fast. It may take a while to get where you want to go. But the wind, no matter how negative it is, will propel you if channeled correctly.

How do we help Tara get started? We need to give her a direction that she can reach. One where her wind will push her forward. A direction where she doesn’t have to paddle. All she has to do is hold the course.

Holding a firm course is hard work, certainly, but it won’t exhaust her the way trying to paddle against the wind will.

Tara’s dad is an engineer. He’s used to fixing things. He doesn’t know how to be a good listener or how to connect with empathy. Tara’s mom is the opposite. She is warm and loving. When her warmth and love run dry, she becomes hot and volatile. She gives in to her own emotions. A switch flips, and Tara’s mom becomes a different person. She enters survival mode and sees everyone else as a threat she must push away in severe terms. It is emotionally abusive to those around her.

Tara goes to stay with her mom when she craves human connection. Unfortunately, the connection often doesn’t last, as Tara’s mom frequently will run dry on energy. The she says childish, immature things that have the power to rock Tara’s world and send her running back to the cool safety of her father.

This happened recently when Tara and her mom got in a fight. Tara’s mom spouted out a ton of nasty things, including, “You take up too much space… You’re too loud and obnoxious… Make sure to put your makeup on… Why don’t you have more friends? You really should work on that. I don’t like you moping around here all the time. You bring me down. Don’t be so dramatic… Here, have a glass of wine, but don’t tell your father…”

After all of this, Tara found herself in a storm of her own feelings. A monsoon of negative thoughts pummel her in the face. She is looking for some calm, some brief respite. How do we help her?

If she fights the storm directly, it will exhaust and eventually defeat her. Examples of trying to fight the storm would include:

  • Ignoring or attempting to suppress her feelings. Going about her day like nothing has happened.
  • Doing activities that promote short-lived happiness without addressing the underlying issue (TV, video games, social media, drugs, alcohol, marijuana).
  • Trying to force herself to be happy through insincere tasks – hanging out with friends and pretending to be in a good mood.

These tasks are all insincere. They involve her being dishonest with herself and trying to pretend her bad feelings don’t exist. These tasks will drain her energy really fast. Once her will to fight evaporates, she will succumb to negative cycling. The negative feelings will sweep her away. Or worse, she will discover a new habit, a crutch, that provides temporary relief at a great long-term expense. This is what happens when we use alcohol as a crutch for emotional problems.

What’s wrong with just giving in? What if Tara just goes with the winds? If she lets the storm blow her over and drag her further away from her goal, this is negative cycling. Examples of this include:

  • Blaming her mother (or parents) for all her problems
  • Blaming herself for all her problems
  • Giving up and giving in to the feelings

These tasks will backfire. They will destroy her self-esteem. They will destroy what remains of her connection to her parents.

What can she do instead?

She needs to move forward. She has a goal, a purpose. Ideally, she would use her negative energy–the stormy winds–to her advantage. How is this possible?

She has to turn her rudder and reposition her sails. Turns out, she can still move forward. But she has to go at an angle to the wind. She needs a manageable direction. There are many places she can aim for and still use the negative energy to her advantage. Energy is energy. Energy helps us move. But it takes work to point the rudder in the right direction.

Her father (or another role model, teacher, close friend, family member) can learn to be a better listener. He can offer to be the source of connection that she craves. He only needs to abandon his Mr. Fix-it role. Instead of being a temporary refuge, he can become a permanent source of positive connection and modeling. He must put his focus on understanding Tara’s feelings and situation, rather than trying to solve her problems for her. This way, her father can be an effective bridge of connection. He needs to:

  • Focus on understanding her feelings and situation instead of trying to solve her problems for her. Empathy and connection will cure her. “Solving” only degrades her self-esteem by sending the message that she isn’t capable. No advice-giving! No judgment.
  • Avoid feeding the negative energy through blaming.
  • Be a rock of stability. Keep his own emotions (anger, resentment) in check, except for the empathy that he shows towards his daughter. No oversharing (“Let me tell you how much your mother bothers me, too!”)
  • Be an effective, curious listener. Avoid interrogating. Provide her a safe space to say what she wants to say at the pace she is comfortable speaking.
  • Avoid nonsincere tasks. Don’t go pretend to have fun with Tara just to take her mind off things. Understand the difference between activities of rest/reflection and activities of distraction. Small activities of rest and reflection typically provide temporary relief and may include small pleasures not meant to distract or diminish a problem: a walk through a park, a board game, listening to music, a bowl of ice cream, being close to someone you care for who knows about your suffering and won’t violate your values. A person can still be genuine and get emotional (cry, have a panic attack, be angry) during such activities, if needed. Nonsincere, distracting activities are typically larger tasks intended to sweep problems under a rug: a rock concert, a seven-course gourmet meal, a beach vacation, hooking up with someone you don’t care for or someone willing to violate your values.

Tara can also learn how to effectively seek out and find help when she is in need. It is not just her father doing work here. Tara can learn to communicate with individuals like her father, who often rely upon the Mr. Fix-it role. She can learn to gently guide such individuals towards a more empathic stance of active listening.

Alternatively, there is another direction Tara can go to also get closer to her destination. Tara can work on setting appropriate boundaries around her mother. This is not an easy task and will take a lot of work. She could begin to explore the reasons why things her mom said were so hurtful. Tara can start to understand how things she did and said probably helped trigger her mom to be so hurtful. Finally, Tara can practice new strategies of what to say and how to approach her mom when her mom becomes so angry. Her father or another trusted friend can role-play past fights so that Tara can practice more constructive things to say. Tara can learn to own her nonverbal and verbal communication in these situations. This way, Tara will learn how to better protect herself, with person boundaries, from future abuse from any individual. These newfound abilities will serve her the rest of her life.

Tara should:

  • Work on setting up safe, healthy boundaries for important relationships
  • Establish safe spaces where she and her mom can go when they are feeling hurt to avoid fighting and defensiveness. “Mom, when I go to my bedroom, I need you to respect my privacy.” or “Mom, I’m feeling a little defensive right now. I’d like to pause this conversation and pick it up later when I’ve cooled off a bit.”
  • Recognize when her mom is being verbally abusive and call out the behavior in a neutral tone of voice as “not ok.” If it is not terminated, then Tara must withdraw to a safe private space, saying respectfully that she will resume the conversation at a later time. Tara can then surgically employ negative emotions, like anger, in a nonthreatening manner, if and only if her mom proceeds to violate the boundaries of that safe private space. Tara doesn’t throw around her anger like a club. She needs to learn how to use anger, and other negative emotions, to her advantage. Doing so will effectively communicate to her mom that it’s now time to back off.
  • Avoid feeding her mom’s emotional dysregulation with Tara’s own emotional dysregulation.
  • Role play with friends and/or other family members more effective ways of communicating. Replay old conversations with her mom to see which things she said were and weren’t effective.
  • If the abusive behavior doesn’t end and/or boundaries aren’t respected, then Tara must put the relationship on pause. She can live with her father until the issue is resolved.

Getting to Tara’s destination will require some flexibility of zig-zagging back and forth between extending new bridges (with family and friends) and building new personal boundaries to safeguard against her mom. She will need to do both, a little at a time. It may take months or years. She won’t be “happy” overnight. But her negative emotions will settle and be more balanced by growing positive emotions once her inner elephant sees visible signs of progress.

Identity-Values-Reflection is a therapeutic process where we understand these fundamental choices. We separate out what is controllable and what isn’t. IVR breaks down behavior into three possible sets of choices: Identity, Values, and Reflection. At each step, there is an environment and a choice.

As a next step, I recommend How to build self-awareness.


The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
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Guide to Positive Cycling

Positive cycling is a process that builds towards understanding. It involves moving in tandem with your partner(s) towards that goal. Your partner(s) can be your spouse, your family members, your co-workers, your friends, someone who has hurt you in the past, or even other aspects of your inner self.

Positive cycling can be intuitive. Our inner senses and feelings exist to help us with this process. We must actively engage by listening to our feelings and the feelings of our partners. In doing so, we put together two different stories: one representing our own perspective and one representing that of our partner(s). We use our feelings to fully understand each of those stories. We immerse ourselves in the stories as if we are walking in the other person’s shoes.

There is a rhythmic process to the telling of these respective stories. It is like a dance of two people. On the surface, each story is told in bits and pieces in turn. Little by little, they are unveiled. We get the facts and the timeline. Then we switch and allow the other person’s story to go forward. These are the steps of the dance. But far more happens beneath the surface. It is there that complexity unfolds. New possibilities blossom as we start to see how each story intersects. We begin to see how our behavior affects that of the other person. We have more influence on the other person than we originally thought. We learn that communication is more than just words. With each word comes an emotion or mix of emotions. Those emotions carry with them all kinds of things: feelings of hurt, feelings of protectiveness, feelings of caring, aggression and threats, etc. We get a better feel for where boundaries are. Finally, we work to clarify if the fit is correct.

Your goal is to achieve understanding for yourself. A secondary goal is to help your partner(s) also understand. But you can’t force this. You have to inspire them to want to understand your story and the greater picture–the “third story”– the pattern that has developed.

Through this dance, we begin to see old patterns of behavior for what they truly are. We see them not as personal defects, inherent to each individual, beyond change or redemption, targets for condemnation. Instead, we see them rather as habits that have formed. We suspend blame and instead offer grace and compassion for the past. Each person was acting with their best intent at the time the habit originated. They were not aware of the full consequences. Then each person became complacent in their habits over time. Understanding reveals those old habits for what they truly are. Often, they are impediments to true connection.

Positive cycling is all about working towards understanding. To do that, we need to understand understanding. We will use a Why-How-What framework to break down understanding into its component pieces. We will look at the Why, the How, and the What of understanding. Positive cycling is all about working through these three parts, over-and-over again. We experiment at each stage, then we test our experiment in the next stage. We learn the consequences of our actions and make adjustments over time. We are emotional scientists.

Do this enough, and you will start to develop some common sense rules for building understanding (for positive cycling). Like growing a garden, there are things that understanding will need to grow. Here we will begin to develop some core rules for positive cycling. Those rules will hopefully seem intuitive and simple, at first. Learning how to correctly apply them will take practice.

Do this enough and you will see that as positive cycling builds towards understanding, it also brings with it certain advantageous side effects. It also builds self-esteem, sense of empowerment, freedom from fear, sense of connection, realization of purpose, strengthening of values, flexibility and others.

Positive cycling is a repetitive cycle. It is a new type of habit. Just like any habit, we work at it every day. It takes practice, then it becomes easier. We have to watch out for complacency over time.

This Article Contains:

Growing a Relationship
“The Why” of Understanding – build towards 3 core identity concepts of understanding
“The How” of Understanding – 3 core values of understanding
Gaining Motivation
Building Bridges
Establishing Healthy Boundaries – Seven Common Mistakes Made
“The What” of Understanding (Reflection Step)
What are raw spots?
What are the 10 core rules of positive cycling?
How do we co-author a “third story?”
How do we probe for higher levels of fit?
How do we adjust for changes in fit?
What is co-dependency?
What is negative cycling?
22 common cynical traps
An example of positive cycling – a couple’s weekly check-ins

Growing a Relationship

This can also be understood if you consider the relationship between two individuals. Imagine the relationship as a living thing, like a plant. In positive cycling, the plant is growing and will one day reach its full potential. Some plants are small. Others are big and monstrous. But each plant has an ingrained potential, based upon its genetics, that can’t be changed. That ingrained potential is fit. Fit can’t be changed no matter how hard the individuals try. Our goal through positive cycling is to reach that highest potential.

Here we will briefly touch on Negative cycling and co-dependency. Co-dependency is a type of stagnation. Two or more individuals get locked in a habit where personal growth and greater connection no longer becomes possible. The individuals are far away from their potential state of connection, based upon fit. This means that a great deal of growth and connection is possible, yet the partners behavioral habits prevent further growth from occurring.

Consider the plant again. In co-dependency, the plant is stuck. It is parched looks sickly. It has enough nourishment to keep it from dying, but it certainly isn’t growing, and I wouldn’t want to eat the fruit, if there is any. Alcohol addiction is a terrific example. A loveless marriage is another.

If you further remove what little nourishment exists, then stagnation turns into negative cycling. The plant starts to die.

Negative cycling is when two (or more) individuals get locked in a destructive pattern of behavior that undermines mutual understanding. They create a vicious cycle. Mutual understanding decreases over time. This is a remarkable, yet common phenomenon, where people actively unlearn what they have learned. They are not forgetting anything. Instead, they are actually destroying what they know. How does this occur? Understanding is replaced by cynicism–the suspicious belief that the other person is out to do you harm and/or doesn’t have any respect for your values. Sadly, negative cycling is pervasive in everyday society. American politics, the American news media, and social media are consumed by it. Getting wrapped up in those negative forces is all too easy. They become like a drug that we addict ourselves to. But look around. You will see it in people that you know and in their relationships. It isn’t hard to spot. We will teach you how to identify it.

There are no real “secrets” here. All of this, once you get it, should be common sense. You should be able to look back and say that you knew these things all along. You just needed someone to free up what you were holding back. All we’re really doing here is teaching you how to listen to your own feelings.

“The Why” of Understanding (Identity Step)

We have already gone over why understanding is so critical, compared to other values like love and happiness. Here we start to break down the critical “Why” pieces of understanding. When we work towards mutual understanding, what are we actually trying to build? What does it mean to understand ourselves and others? What does understanding look like?

Each social situation will have a different picture of understanding. For mental illness, we may be trying to understand our feelings, ourselves, and our place in the world. For a relationship in distress, we may be trying to understand each other better and the bad habits we’ve both been engaging in (surprise, this is probably not the bad habits you’ve been blaming each other for!). For someone struggling at work, we may be trying to figure out if the value fit is right.

We must first ask “What needs to be understood?”

In each case, there are three common pieces:

  • (Shared) Identity
  • (Shared) Purpose
  • (Expected) Connection

There is a shared identity that should fit between partners. Two people are co-workers, partners, friends, family, etc. We are trying to strengthen that shared identity along with strengthening each person’s individual (separate) identity. See What is My Identity for more work on understanding your individual identity.

From that shared identity, there should be a shared purpose. The partners should agree on what they are working towards. Are we building a romantic relationship, a family, a friendship, a collegial relationship, a business relationship, etc? What values is the relationship based on?

Finally, there is an expectation of connection. What level of commitment do we expect in this relationship? Are we becoming best friends or casual acquaintances? Are you looking for a casual hook-up or a long-term relationship that may build towards marriage? What level of commitment is important to you in marriage? What is the role of family and other pieces that impact the relationship? In essence, what does success look like? Both sides must agree on this from the outset, or else the fit isn’t right.

This is Identity work. Here you agree upon shared identity, shared purpose, and expected connection. There’s no sense going further if you can’t get this part right. But don’t worry. If you make a mistake here, we can correct your mistakes in subsequent stages. After all, we are still experimenting. We may not know if the fit is right until later. Just do your best getting this as close as possible. Make sure you both agree before moving on.

Allow your feelings to guide you. If you don’t know what they mean, working to understand them is another great place to start. They will tell you what fits and what doesn’t, what is important to you and what isn’t. Your feelings come from the impact of your identity with the outside world. Trust them. Where do you feel connection? Where do you feel disconnection?

These three pieces (shared identity, share purpose, expected connection) need to be agreed to at the outset. If you don’t know how to begin working towards positive cycling, this is the place to start. Talk it over with your partner(s). What is your shared identity? What is your purpose? How will you connect over time? What type of connection are you building towards? Burn these questions into your minds. You will come back to them over-and-over again.

Remember to set reasonable expectations. You must fit this partnership in with the other important things in your life. Not everything can be in the “most important” category. Be honest about where this partnership fits. Read here to learn how to create a value hierarchy for your own life. Failing to understand fit is one trap that snares people in negative cycling.

Through positive cycling, our goal is to achieve the state of greatest connection, over time, given the fit. This may be hard to get at first. Keep in mind the growing plant analogy from the previous section.

Now try another analogy. Imagine climbing a mountain. Imagine two people who agree to climb the mountain of understanding. It is a big mountain. We can never get to the very tip-top, because tip-top isn’t stable and will probably send us tumbling down. But we can get close. Remember, you can never fully 100% understand the other person. You are not them. Don’t expect them to get EVERYTHING about you. Give them the grace that they are trying and gaining in understanding over time. Keep your expectations in check.

And so, instead of aiming for the tip-top, instead we will try to get to the highest safe, stable flat landing place. This highest place is the state of greatest connection. It is here that we can safely build a home on solid foundation. It is here that understanding encompasses all those things we strive for: love, connection, respect, admiration, balance, safety, healing, reconciliation, etc. We feel these things as we move up the mountain and after we arrive.

Some couples make it there. Many fall short and “settle.” Building a home down the mountain, far from the peak, is co-dependency. Their connection is stale and inflexible. Here it’s pretty easy to catch the faults in the relationship. How do we know they’re stuck in this place? The couple’s mutual bad feelings towards each other make that plain. Here you will find criticism, contempt, disgust, gossip, stonewalling, bitterness, etc.

This contrasts with another couple who, although at the same place, is still climbing. The couple is filled with positive energy as they see progress over time. The gains in understanding fill them up and keep them going. Even though they high to climb as the stagnant couple, their progress makes them feel good. They might even feel in love. Their connection is growing. This feeling of love is fleeting, however. If they stop climbing, it will evaporate quickly.

This also contrasts with the couple that is tumbling down the mountain, out of control. This couple is caught in a pattern of negative cycling. Bitterness, contempt, disgust, hurt and other negative feelings give way to cynicism. Their relationship is circling the toilet. Their connection is rapidly deteriorating, possibly hanging on by a thread.

The How of Understanding (Values Step)

Here we use our moral values to perform some type of action. We harness our feelings, which are a type of energy, to propel us forward. Our values will channel those feelings towards our purpose.

Imagine that feelings are the wind. Our values become the sails that we use to capture the wind and drive us through the waves. Again, we are experimenting.

We may go the right way or the wrong way. We will have opportunities to correct the course later on.

There are many types of feelings and values. Figuring out how to pair feelings and values together and use them takes some practice. It isn’t always easy to do. But with some practice, it becomes intuitive. It is, after all, what we teach our children to do in elementary school. It is something we already know how to do, we just so often choose not to do it. Seeing the ramifications of those poor choices is important in IVR.

First, we need to recognize three types of values. We have bridging values, boundary values, and motivation.

Key values:

  • Bridging values: compassion, create safe spaces, listening, acceptance, tolerance, play, curiosity, imagination, grace
  • Boundary values: sanctity, respect,
  • Get to work values: motivation, courage, goal-setting

Building Motivation

Motivation is the easiest. Here is where we need to find courage and motivation to get going. This is probably hardest to do if you’re feeling tired and unmotivated. Getting motivated, then, is like trying to plough into the wind. Instead, try going a right angle to these feelings. Harness the feelings via understanding. How?

Feelings of fatigue, tiredness, and poor motivation come from somewhere. Get to the bottom of them! Ask them what they have to say. Are they being driven by some type of fear? If so, what are you afraid of? Or is it pain and hurt? Or disconnection?

Rather than put all your energy into fighting poor motivation, instead you could build new walls or extend new bridges. You could work to bandage up a wound. Learn to protect yourself from past abuses. Work to reconnect with others.

There are so many tools out there to help with motivation. Figure out what works for you. Maybe its finding courage. Maybe you need someone to yell at you, like a coach or drill sergeant. Maybe you need a group of friends to hold you accountable. Maybe you need to trick yourself with small rewards. If you still struggle with motivation, try Gary John Bishop’s UNFU*K YOURSELF.

Bridging values

Bridging values involves extending bridges of connection to others. There are many different types. With each one, we are basically communicating to the other person, “I care about you.” It really is that simple. Here are a few examples:

CompassionCreate compassion by asking for help or extending it.
AcceptanceAccept the person for who they are, not who we want them to be.
Safe spacesCreate a common space, free from judgment, where listening can occur.
Active ListeningListen first, then speak.
Tolerance Tolerate differences in values and beliefs
Play Reconnect through something pleasurable. Be adventurous!
Curiosity and imaginationBe curious about what’s going on for them.
GraceAllow mistakes.

When is it wrong to extend a bridging value? When is it wrong to communicate, “I care about you.”?

Listen to the other person. They will tell you when.

If they are hurting you, being aggressive or violating your boundaries, then this is the wrong thing to do. If they are running away from you, then this is also the wrong thing to do. If they run, don’t chase! If you do, they will hurt you next.

If this isn’t intuitive, imaging working with a cat. If the cat is hissing or has its claws flared, you probably know to leave it alone. If the cat runs and hides in a corner, you should also know not to chase it and corner it. Cornering the cat will make it desperate. Instead of communicating, “I care about you,” you’ve inadvertently communicated, “It’s time to fight.”

Many parents make the classic mistake of cornering their children. If your child runs in anger to his room, don’t chase him. The worst thing you can do is to enter, uninvited, and corner him. This is harassment and abuse. Do this enough and he will be thinking dark, intrusive thoughts about how much he hates you and wants to hurt you. These cynical thoughts are natural and protective. There’s no reason to be afraid of them. Just give him space and they will stop. Remember that people, like animals, respond to the communication of behavior, not of words. Respecting his boundaries is the easiest way to communicate, “you are safe” and nullify his fear.

When someone runs away, instead of chasing, you should refocus on yourself. Build your own boundaries. Leave an open door to a safe space where the two of you can reconnect later. Be patient and accepting.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries – Seven common mistakes

Boundaries are probably our most important value set. The prerequisite to any functioning relationship is that both parties feel safe. Boundaries are critical to safety.

When someone hurts you, that means you need a stronger boundary. Reinforcing that boundary may be as simple as communicating that you’ve been hurt. If they respect your boundary going forward, you’ve done enough.

If they fail to respect the boundary, then you have more work to do. Now you have to create space between yourself and the other person. You are obligated to get away from them. As you do so, continue communicating what you are doing and why. This is as simple as saying, “You are hurting me, and as a result, I’m trying to get some space between us.”

As simple as this all sounds, people make all kinds of mistakes with this. Such mistakes lead to negative cycling very fast. Although we can’t cover them all right now, here are some common mistakes:

  • Not recognizing that you are hurt.
  • Failing to communicate how you are hurt.
  • Failing to create adequate space.
  • Being judgmental, critical, or cynical, rather than assuming good intentions.
  • Attacking the other person’s identity. In other words, displaying contempt and disgust towards the other person.
  • Violating the other person’s boundaries in turn. An “eye for an eye” doesn’t work in everyday social interactions. It only normalizes boundary violations as behavior that becomes acceptable for the relationship.
  • Not recognizing personal raw spots. Not understanding these and communicating them.

These mistakes will trap the relationship in co-dependency or negative cycling. The last one, not recognizing personal raw spots, is probably the most common mistake.

What are raw spots?

We all have raw spots. Raw spots are places of previous injury and trauma. When someone else touches the spot, it hurts. Often, the person doesn’t realize they are touching a raw spot. The pain they are causing is inadvertent. Yet the pain is so great, that we lash out. Our reaction is extreme. The punishment we cause is disproportionate to the crime, so to speak.

Raw spots are places where we still have a lot of work to do. It is our responsibility to care for our own raw spots, not that of our partner. We need to work towards healing, which requires greater personal understanding of the past injury. We can communicate the existence of raw spots, and a caring partner will be sensitive to those. But we must also take care to apologize whenever we lash out, especially if we violate the other person’s boundaries in turn. Hopefully the partner will apologize for touching one inadvertently. Hopefully they will display caring, curiosity, and listening whenever they realize they’ve found one. Again, the goal here is not to assign blame, but to build greater understanding.

“The What” of Understanding (Reflection Step)

This step is all about reflection. What are the results of our actions thus far? How did the other person respond?

Ultimately, we want to know if our efforts built understanding or diminished it. Everything thus far has been experimental. It’s ok if mistakes were made. We will have opportunities to course correct.

Reflection is all about listening. We listen to ourselves and to our partners. We listen to our rational selves and to our emotions. We ask lots of questions.

  • What were the costs of our actions?
  • What benefits were achieved?
  • What did we learn?

We must also recognize that understanding is a moving target. We have three goals:

  • Understand yourself
  • Understand others
  • Be understood

Every time we are successful with one piece, we need to start thinking about the next one. We cannot stick to the previous value. We must be prepared to change up in the next go-around. Even if something worked well, we can’t go back to it just yet. We have to be flexible and try something new. After all, learning is not about doing the same thing over and over again.

Reflection is a great opportunity to correct previous mistakes. If we made an error in the Identity Step, we can fix it here. It is here that we might realize the fit isn’t good, and that two people are better off friends than romantic partners. It is here that we question our values. Did we choose the right one? Do we need to explore new values?

The IVR Cycle

Each of these three steps creates a cycle: Identity-Values-Reflection. Each step builds upon the next. With each revolution, we should learn something. Over time, a pattern will emerge. We will learn if we are gaining in understanding, losing in understanding, or remaining stagnant.

Key to note here is that each step of the IVR cycle is self-correcting. If we are negative cycling or stagnant in co-dependency, that means that we are failing at all three steps. We are failing to understand our identity, our values, and failing in reflection / listening. Efforts put towards any of these three steps can help kick-start us back into positive cycling.

10 Core rules of positive cycling

The goal here is to keep the rules few, simple and intuitive.

Even though there are ten rules below, each of these rules is really an application of a very simple concept. We need to have awareness of our environment, the environment being everything that is not in our direct control. The environment includes other people around us, our past, also our own present subconscious mind (our feelings, memories, our Identity, experiences, abilities, etc.) Next, we become aware of what is in our control (our values). We use our values to maneuver across our environment towards mutual understanding. We are not here to battle or change the environment, but rather to use its energy to our advantage.

Here are the 10 rules:

  1. Keep mutual understanding as the primary objective. There is no other singular objective besides understanding. All other objectives are secondary.
  2. We do not attack, judge, or criticize people for things that are outside of their control. These things include their identity, feelings, and core values. Instead, we work to point out how the choices they make (their behavior) impacts us. Do not battle a person’s feelings. Instead, channel them towards your mutual purpose (mutual understanding). If you channel them effectively, they will naturally work with you.
  3. Judge another person’s behavior as being problematic only when they violate your boundaries. Keep in mind, just because someone causes you discomfort or inconvenience that doesn’t mean they’re violating your boundaries. Judgement should be withheld. Only point out the impact of their actions.
  4. Work towards understanding each person’s personal story and the full pattern of the “third story.” This requires seeing many revolutions of the cycle to the direction determine fit, contributions, and the direction of cycling. From there, you can judge the cycle, on the whole, as positive, as negative, or stagnant (co-dependency).
  5. Listening is your most important tool (value). When you get stuck, try listening to someone you haven’t listened to in a while. Make sure to listen to the persons’ behavior, including emotional state, not just their words.
  6. Give grace. If all parties are working hard towards mutual understanding, remember that everything is an experiment. Expect everyone to make mistakes as part of the process. Grace should be given so long as understanding remains the mutual goal.
  7. Keep thoughts and conclusions that you reflexively make as hypotheses to be tested. Don’t assume you know what the other person is thinking or feeling. Best to ask.
  8. Remain genuine by always keeping your identity, values, and beliefs in concordance with each other. Your feelings will tell you if there is discord between these elements. Work to resolve this discord.
  9. The three most important ingredients for positive cycling are time, listening, and effort. Avoid complacency and channel cynicism towards a productive endeavor.
  10. Take extreme ownership of a negative or stagnant (co-dependent) cycle. Everyone is responsible for arresting a negative cycle or helping to break free from co-dependency. When it becomes clear we are in one of these situations, we judge the cycle as being problematic (not the people caught in it) and work to identify everyone’s contributions to that cycle. It’s best for each person to start with their own contributions.

I purposely kept the number of rules few and simple. This isn’t really about memorizing rules. Instead, the goal is to understand them. Do that, and you should easily and intuitively know the following:

  • the difference between being honest vs being vulnerable vs oversharing
  • how to be genuine
  • positive vs negative cycling,
  • the purpose of feelings and what they mean
  • how to listen
  • how to put together a “third story” even when you don’t have a lot of information
  • how to clarify and separate what is controllable vs not controllable
  • the difference between working with someone and “using” them
  • how to kindly divert someone, who is causing you injury, from further violating your boundaries without attacking them

Co-authoring a “Third story”

As both stories get told, as both parties feel heard and understood, the “third story” reveals itself naturally. It grows organically like garden. It doesn’t belong to one person. It is the story of the relationship.

In the “third story” is contained all the feelings, wants, hurts, values, observations, thoughts, and identities of the participants.

The “third story” is also a story of habit. Chances are the partners engage in a lot of good, productive, healthy habits together. There are lots of things to celebrate and admire.

But like any garden, it needs pruning and care. There are bad habits growing there also. Bad habits are small at first, growing from seed. We never know what they will look like, what they will turn out to be. Over time they take shape and soak in sunlight. We thoughtfully gaze upon them. It’s not that they don’t deserve love and compassion. They, too, are reverent. They, too, demand life. The problem is that they’re choking the garden. And so, they must be carefully trimmed down or moved to a new place. Eventually, we learn, through careful listening, that a weed is not a bad thing, an evil thing deserving of judgement. It is just a plant misplaced.

The garden itself changes over time. Beautiful plants sometimes die. We want new things to eventually grow there. So, we honor the soil by tending it.

We never choose exactly the way the garden should look. It grows the way it wants to grow. We are only there to nurture it. We are caretakers. We are there, always, to admire the beauty, the awe, the wonder.

Probing for higher levels of fit

Understanding is never over. We never “achieve it.” We can never stop. Remaining connected requires battling complacency or else you will inevitably slip down.

What if we think we’ve achieved a decent level of connection but want to go higher? We can certainly probe to see if the fit is right. Make sure, before you do, that your values line up. Your shared values should support a greater fit. Verifying this, feel free to probe for the opportunity.

Consider friends Nick and Nicole who want to explore the possibility of developing a romantic relationship. Nick remembers that listening is probably his greatest probing tool. Adventure, play, curiosity and imagination are additional tools that go hand-in-hand with listening. Nick listens to Nicole person to see if she is open to the possibility of a greater fit. He listens to the point that Nicole feels heard and understood. In turn, Nicole begins to display her own curiosity and asks Nick more intimate details about himself. As they share an emotional vulnerability, their connection grows.

Adjusting for changes in fit

Fit changes over time. This is normal and natural. A great example is when children grow up and leave the home. Their connections to their parents change. Their relationships with their teachers change.

As fit changes, so does independence and dependency. Often people gain greater independence. Sometimes they begin to lose independence due to infirmity. At each case, individuals should be supported in maintaining the greatest agency which they can manage.


In positive cycling, it is important to recognize and actively avoid both co-dependency and negative cycling. Positive cycling is as much about avoiding these two problems, which can easily ensnare a person, as it is about doing the right thing.

Modern psychologists struggle to come up with a comprehensive definition of co-dependency. The definition seems to change depending on the situation. For example:

  • “[Co-dependency is] a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person manifesting low self-esteem and a strong desire for approval has an unhealthy attachment to another often controlling or manipulative person (such as a person with an addiction to alcohol or drugs).” (Mirriam-Webster)
  • Alternatively, “[Co-dependency is] dependence on the needs of or on control by another.” (Mirriam-Webster)
  • “Codependents, busy taking care of others, forget to take care of themselves, resulting in a disturbance of identity development.” (Joaquin Selva)
  • “Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person assumes the role of “the giver,” sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other, “the taker.” (Psychology Today)

There are many issues with these definitions of which we can’t get fully into here. The biggest question is that in a relationship where one person is dependent on another, how do we distinguish between healthy dependency and (unhealthy) co-dependency? Only Joaquin Selva’s definition comes close to addressing the issue as being one of a disturbance of identity development. But none of these definitions get at the root cause of co-dependency. And so, as one might imagine, there is a wide degree of disagreement in the medical literature about co-dependency. Some characterize it is as a personality disorder, while others question whether it is a problem at all.

All relationships involve dependency. If there is no dependency, there the relationship is nonexistent. And so, the problem with co-dependency isn’t dependency. The problem is whether two people grow together and become better people over time, which is the cardinal sign of a healthy relationship.

Consider a healthy child-parent relationship. Such a relationship would meet the 2nd Mirriam Webster definition and the Psychology Today definition of co-dependency. Certainly, there are some unhealthy parenting relationships that probably should be categorized as co-dependent. How do we know the difference? How do we separate out the healthy parenting relationships from the unhealthy ones?

What about relationships where someone has mental or physical illness and becomes dependent on another person; the caregiver sacrifices much to care for their partner. Who are we to say that this represents a “disturbance of identity development?”

I offer an alternative, simple definition for this common phenomenon: Co-dependency occurs in a relationship where individuals are mutually dependent upon each other and there is stagnation of the relationship’s growth, preventing it from reaching its full potential.

The issue with co-dependency is not the existence of mutual dependency. Most healthy relationships involve some degree of dependency. What separates a healthy relationship from an unhealthy one is the stagnation of growth over time. The relationship itself never blossoms into its full potential.

The definition also gives us two root causes for co-dependency: complacency and enabling. Two or more people become complacent and stopping feeding their relationship. Or they only provide it with just enough sustenance to keep it from deteriorating further. In essence, we have relationship laziness. As a result of this complacency, individuals enable each other’s individual faults, rather than encourage personal growth.

Consider a child who doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. It is far quicker for the parent to just tie the shoes. And so, the parent never takes the time, care and patience to teach the child. The child remains unnecessarily dependent on the parent. This creates emotional neediness, poor self-esteem, and resentment. The child may whine to the parent that she can’t do other age-appropriate things for herself even as she watches her peers be successful in these tasks. Both individuals blame each other. If the parent later on encourages the child to tie her own shoes, she responds by saying, “You don’t care about me.” The parent’s own self-esteem struggles as he wonders why other parents taught their children these skills some time ago.

The definition that I offer for co-dependency is broad, simple, and encompasses many different types of stagnant cycles, including substance abuse.

Within the definition, we see that feelings again become all-important. If a relationship is progressing towards its potential, feelings surrounding the relationship will be positive. If the relationship stagnates, there will be negative emotions on all sides. We will see bitterness, resentment, and poor self-esteem. Relationships become fixed into place. There is loss of social mobility: for instance, children who don’t grow up in relation to their parents or parents that stop growing their own independence in relation to their children.

Using this definition, we can distinguish parenting relationships as healthy or co-dependent. Are children growing up as expected? Do parents maintain their own healthy identities outside of the parenting relationship? If so, feelings surrounding the relationship will remain good. If not, expect resentment, blaming and poor self-esteem.

Next imagine a relationship involving an ill individual and a caregiver. This relationship can be co-dependent or healthy. How do we distinguish between the two? Simple. We rely upon the feelings of those involved to tell us. Does the caregiver see their efforts as a sacrifice, or are they being genuine in providing care? This will inform us if the relationship has reached its potential or if it has fallen short. If the ill individual stops progressing in their healing process, this will inevitably cause resentment on part of the caregiver. They will see their efforts not as genuine caring, but as a needless sacrifice.

Let’s use our definition to imagine the common signs of co-dependency:

  • Poor boundaries
  • Self-sacrifice of one’s own identity (as opposed to genuine giving)
  • Lack of listening on part of the partners (loss of imagination, curiosity, possibility)
  • Bitterness, resentment, expression of grievances
  • Contempt and disgust
  • Defensiveness
  • Loss of social mobility
  • Inflexibility
  • Blaming

Different people react to co-dependency differently. Often, one partner goes emotionally flat and robotic. This typically pairs well with another partner who becomes the opposite: highly emotional and erratic. They become like a boiling pot that inevitably and frequently will blow its lid. These are coping strategies. Another coping strategy is to develop high anxiety and walk on eggshells. Here are some coping strategies that suggest co-dependency has taken place:

  • High anxiety. Partners walk on eggshells around each other.
  • Suppression of feelings due to fear that the relationship could further deteriorate. Often one partner goes cold or robotic. They exhibit poor emotional expression.
  • Erratic behavior that doesn’t make sense. There is a mismatch between behavior and words which indicates the person is no longer genuine.
  • Neediness and enabling – one person does things for the other who otherwise should be capable of doing them for themselves.
  • Being overly critical
  • Stonewalling

Each of these coping strategies is a response to fear. People are trying, in unhealthy ways, to prevent further deterioration of the relationship. The relationship is stable. It may not be good. But at least it’s not getting worse.

Unfortunately, without much effort, co-dependency typically leads to deterioration over time. The deterioration happens slowly though. Partners stagnate at one level for a while. When enough resentment and bitterness has built up, they will drop down to another rung on the ladder. And so, co-dependency is a slow slide in the negative direction that occurs over years or decades.

This contrasts with negative cycling, which is a rapid deterioration over weeks or months. In negative cycling, the fear of deterioration is gone. Partners have abandoned their coping strategies, listed above. They are in full fight-or-flight mode. Each person is only looking out for themselves. In co-dependency, the relationship is still important to both. In negative cycling, the relationship is abandoned.

Negative Cycling

Negative cycling is a rapid process of relationship deterioration. Here we unravel previously understood parts of the relationship. Mutual understanding decreases quickly.

An example of negative cycling is when one person betrays another. This creates such intense, hostile feelings that sends both sides spinning out of control.

Consider two people who get in a car accident with similar injuries. One person focuses on positive cycling towards healing. Eventually they do heal without any lingering feelings. The other person gives in to bitterness and negative cycling. For that second person, the accident becomes traumatic. They are let with a chronic injury that crosses the physical, psychological and spiritual domains.

The primary mechanism for negative cycling is giving in to cynicism. A person questions another person’s intentions and values. They inevitably conclude that the other person is a bad person, deserving of punishment. This faulty conclusion destroys the possibility for mutual understanding.

Positive cyclingPutting in effort towards understanding.connection, healing, respect, honesty
Co-dependencyGiving in to complacency, which leads to enabling. stagnation, poor self-esteem, blaming
Negative cyclingGiving in to cynicism.bitterness, resentment, disconnection, contempt, disgust, delusional thinking

In each of these three processes, there are feelings of doubt. A person should, on occasion, question the value of any relationship. They should also, on occasion, question the intent of their partner(s). Doubt is a normal, healthy feeling to have. Without doubt, we become unbalanced and delusional.

Doubt is supposed to be channeled towards effective listening. This requires work. When we fail to do the work, doubt leads to complacent behavior. When triggered by a potentially traumatic event, like injury or betrayal, doubt becomes cynicism. Cynicism is simply an extreme version of doubt. Again, cynicism should prompt a person to reach for listening. Failing to do so, they give in to cynicism. Cynicism becomes bitterness, resentment, disconnection, contempt, disgust, inflexibility blaming and delusional thinking.

Cynicism is the underpinning of negative cycling. Giving in to cynicism is antithetical to understanding. Instead, we need to recognize that cynicism is only an extreme form of doubt.

Much can be said about negative cycling. Like all cycles, it is a type of habit. There are a few key points that I will make here, which can hopefully help the reader understand positive cycling better:

Negative cycling is a type of theft. One group is stealing from another. Usually, the emotional theft exceeds any physical theft. For instance, an armed robbery may only take a small amount of money but leave the person feeling fearful and suspicious for the rest of their lives. Or consider one spouse betraying another. Or consider one group of people robbing the dignity of another. All of these processes typically lead to negative cycling unless a great deal of effort is put in to stop the downward spiral.

22 common cynical traps

Here are some common cynical traps. Any of these could snare a person into negative cycling. Avoiding them is parament to maintaining a path of positive cycling.

Consider these to be the deadly sins of understanding. The first four are perhaps the most common errors people make without realizing they are wrong. Fixing and judging are the sins that I commit the most and have had to work very hard to stop.

Each of these problems is a type of theft that undermines mutual understanding. To truly understand the problems, look closely at what is being stolen. Then look closely at how this is happening. We are using one value to rob from another value. Next look at why. There is a cynical belief underlying that theft. Find the cynical belief.

For instance, in fixing, we are impatiently fixing somebody else’s problem. There is a cynical belief that they are unable to solve things for themselves and also that our “fix” ought to be their “fix.”

ComparingA person minimizes another person’s hurts (or other emotions and experiences) through direct comparison. “My trauma is worse than yours, and so yours isn’t worth exploring.” Can include comparing material goods, relationships, abilities, people, groups, etc. Comparing robs people and experiences of their inherent beauty and dignity.
FixingRather than work together towards common solutions, a person works only towards the solution that satisfies them. Even if the “fix” benefits the other person, because they were robbed of their agency in the process, there is resentment. In other words, while it’s ok to fix things, people are not things. Instead, we must empower people, through patience and love, to help themselves.
Blaming / judgingBlaming / judging is a defense mechanism that leads to disconnection and cynicism. This happens because blaming others erodes their self-esteem and undermines understanding. Blaming robs one person of the ability to tell their story and robs the other the ability to listen. We remove the ability to have healthy disagreements.
Not being genuinePutting on a fake smile or going through the motions. This includes most types of lies, lies by omission, or deception. Certain lies would be excluded that are both harmless and genuinely intended for the other person’s benefit, such as making children believe in Santa Clause. Fibs and white lies, intended to spare someone of harm, are not excluded.
Singular focus (other than understanding)A singular focus on one particular value or objective, other than mutual understanding, will lead to negative cycling when taken to the extreme. Any other value, when left unbalanced and allowed to grow to excess, produces negative cycling. This includes love, compassion, happiness, respect, etc. Consider that the consequence of having a singular value focus is to split the population into people who agree with you and those who disagree. This split undermines the possibility of mutual understanding going forward. Instead of being a good listener, you become a “persuader.” This change in roles puts the other side immediately on the defensive. It quickly becomes all-or-nothing thinking, identity attacks, and other problems listed below.
StonewallingRefusing to engage in meaningful conversation that would lead to understanding even though a safe space for such conversation has been established. Stonewalling is different from simply creating space from someone. It is healthy and normal to break off a relationship with someone, inform them you are doing so (rather than ghosting), and then opt for no further contact. Stonewalling occurs when you maintain a relationship but refuse to talk.
DefensivenessA posture of avoiding challenge or criticism. This occurs when we fail to interpret another person’s intentions correctly (fail to listen) and instead interpret their intentions only from the lens of how they affect us. We can also fail to recognize the complexity of both their intentions and the feelings driving those intentions. This includes failing to recognize that their feelings may be muddled, and their intentions may be mixed.
Identity attacksAttacking someone’s identity erode their self-esteem and activates their defense mechanisms. This will backfire when they reciprocate by attacking your identity in turn.
All-or nothing thinkingThe “my way or the highway” approach.
Zero-sum gameMy gain is your loss.
Ego trap (narcissism / sycophants)Falling into the extreme love of self or putting another person on a pedestal.
Fear of changeHere a person can prevent growth by giving in to fear. This leads to fixed mobility within a social hierarchy. For example: not allowing children to grow into adults, not allowing an amicable divorce to proceed, a university present refusing to eventually step aside, a congressman on his sixth term, etc.
Forcing change too fastForcing change too fast will also precipitate negative cycling. This creates an excess of fear, which undermines listening, patience, generosity, and grace.
Feelings vacuum (no energy, no connection)Focusing only on logic and reason creates a feelings vacuum. We need feelings to truly listen, empathize and understand what others are saying. Without feelings, we become flat stagnant, and disconnected.
Reason vacuum (no moral values / lack of integrity)An excess of feelings that are unbalanced by logic and reason leads to emotional dysregulation. People become erratic. They succumb to their feelings. Remember that feelings are energy. Without reason to guide those feelings, we simply go where the wind blows us.
Temporal focusThis involves being stuck on either the past, the present or the future. A hyperfocus on one leads to a neglect of the others. This will eventually lead to cynicism as understanding deteriorates. Consider someone who is stuck on their trauma of the past who allows present relationships to atrophy. Someone who focuses only on the present moment will build up moral debts that will eventually come due.
Fickle, unstable boundariesOtherwise known as “being a doormat.” Not protecting and reinforcing one’s own personal boundaries. Or allowing those boundaries to be fickle according to convenience (rather than according to true value flexibility).
Extreme trust / skepticismThe person develops extreme trust in one group that is balanced by extreme distrust in another group. With all relationships, there must be healthy amounts of both trust and skepticism. Any relationship going too far in one extreme will inevitably cause cynicism and negative cycling.
IntoleranceAn intolerance for emotional discomfort and inconvenience leads to cynicism. Such a person may (mis)interpret every inconvenience as a type of boundary violation. This produces emotional fragility and inflexibility. Anyone that questions their line-of-thinking is suspected of having ill intent.
VictimhoodAn extreme type of comparing, this focus on one’s own loss erodes understanding. This hyperfocus on one’s own pain creates resentment. Resentment further feeds victimhood, and it becomes its own vicious cycle.
ConformityAn intolerance for identity differences
DisrespectFailing to recognize the importance of another person’s core values.

One could imagine thousands of potential traps that cause cynicism and negative cycling. Any excess or deficiency in a common, important value leads to cynicism. Anything that detracts from mutual understanding as a core purpose will cause a person to go in that direction. Any giving in to an emotion, especially a strong one, is also problematic.

Each of these traps involves three common elements. There is disconnection, weaponization of values, and delusional thinking. Disconnection replaces shared identity. We attack other people’s identity using our own values, which we have transformed and perverted into weaponized form. Finally, delusional thinking replaces genuine listening. We use delusional thinking to cover up the negative impact of our actions.

As we continue to cycle downwards, the problem exacerbates. We see further disconnection and erosion of shared identity. People become increasingly fixed on certain values, which they use in weaponized forms to attack the identity of others. Finally, greater delusional thinking is required as the negative impact of collective actions worsens.

Here we see the contrast between negative and positive cycling. Each cycle creates a spiral as it gathers inertia. Positive cycling spirals towards understanding, while negative cycling spirals towards greater cynicism.

Positive Cycling

Negative Cycling

An example of positive cycling: a couple’s weekly check-ins

Here is one example of positive cycling. A couple, whose relationship has been in distress for some time, decides to practice better listening. After learning about one partner’s infidelity, they went through a year of therapy. They got everything out. Now, both people understand each other better. There is still a lot of healing to be done. But overall, both people feel much better.

To maintain positive cycling, every week the couple has a dedicated date night away from the kids. They dress up and go out. They spend the entire night together without their phones. They spend part of the night talking about serious things that are important to each. They explore feelings. They carefully ask questions about raw spots. They spend other parts of the night being playful and having fun. Sometimes it’s bowling, sometimes skiing, sometimes pickleball, sometimes they’re at an arcade, miniature golf. They avoid static activities like the movies.

Healing occurs slowly over time. Each person understands their role in what happened. They uncover blind spots and misplaced values. They unravel bad habits and relearn how to do things in healthier ways. They truly come to know each other and connect.


Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and into Your Life
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love


  • Mirriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed 2.23.23. online
  • Joaquin Selva, 9/2/23. “Codependency: What Are The Signs & How To Overcome It” Accessed online on 2.21.23 at
  • Psychology Today. “What Is Codependency?” Accessed online 2.21.23.
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Apex values: All Roads Lead to Understanding

Love changes the way we see ourselves and others.  We feel beautiful when we are loved, and to evoke an awareness of beauty in another is to give them a precious gift they will never lose.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Everyone is striving for something. We all have a purpose for being on this Earth. Figuring out that purpose might be the project of our lives.

How do we get there? How do we figure that out?

We need a general direction. Somebody or something needs to point our way. If you are religious, your minister can’t carry you to the promised land. You still have to walk there on your own two feet. The minister is there to point a direction and guide you.

If you aren’t religious, then you need to find something else to believe in. Something to point a direction and guide you. You could be your own minister, but you still need strong outside influences. And you need a way to go.

We all believe in values. For the most part, these values are similar across geography and cultures (Haidt and Joseph, 2008). Often situations arise that pit one set of values against another. How do we choose which is more important? Should there be one all-important value under which all the others exist?

This Article Contains:

Apex values – What is most important?
Three candidates for apex values: Love, happiness, and balance
Understanding – the solution to each conflict
Understanding – Could it be its own virtue?
In resolving conflicts, what determines success?
How does understanding resolve conflict?
How does understand relate to control?
What’s it like to have understanding as our primary end-goal?
How is understanding both a process and a goal?

Apex values – What is most important?

To resolve conflict, we have to have some way of determining what is most important. We need some kind of value hierarchy. For instance, if a person is called in to work extra hours on the evening of their daughter’s orchestra concert, which value drives the decision: loyalty to her job or love of her family?

So, what value sits at the very top?

There must be some kind of value at the top of our moral pyramid. We need something under which all the other values exist.

This apex value would serve as our end-goal. It provides us with a needed direction. With that direction, the value also gives us a set of rules to help us to get there. For instance, one of those rules might be that evening time is reserved as family time and shouldn’t be encroached upon by workplace duties. Ideally the rules we would come up with would be simple and straightforward (no loopholes).

We will call this preeminent value the apex value. It sits at the very top. All other values defer to it.

Even for religious individuals, we still need an apex moral (or apex value) sitting at the top. God becomes the person directing individuals towards that moral. For instance, consider love: God directs us to love God and love each other. Or consider happiness: God wants us to achieve true happiness.

So then, what value (or moral) should sit at the top? What should our direction be? Do we each pick our own direction, or should we all agree on something similar?

Because we are human beings living in groups (rather than living alone in the woods somewhere), let’s say that we agree to work together and focus on one goal. What should it be?

If we could set our sights on one goal–one goal only–what should we aim for in life? In other words, which virtue should take precedence over all others? When push-comes-to-shove, when our values come into conflict, which value wins out?

Happiness? Justice? Truth? Serenity? Peace and calm? Balance? Purpose? Beauty? Goodness? Connection? Respect? Love?

Three candidates for apex values: Love, happiness, and balance

What about love?

Many people would answer love. Love beats all.

But there are problems with that common answer. Love has the duality of being both a feeling and an act. Because it is a feeling, love is out of our direct control. We cannot will ourselves to love someone. We can act in loving ways, but we cannot force ourselves to feel love.

Love has other problems. Most people struggle to define it. Without a clear definition, we can’t understand it. Even when we feel in love, we struggle to understand how we got there. And so, we cannot create a reproducible blueprint or even a set of clear principles for others to follow. What if the relationship ends? Can we do the same thing in the next relationship?

What about all those other important relationships in our lives that exist without a feeling as strong as love? Do those relationships exist solely to serve the relationships where there is love? For example, would you break an important meeting with your boss (who you respect, but don’t love) on a whim because your spouse asked you to go play tennis instead? Should everything really defer to love and depend upon it?

What about if someone is abusing you. Are you expected to love them, or should you first work to protect yourself from the abuse? Maybe you will learn to love and forgive them in the future. But what if you decide never to see them again? You may be loving yourself, but you certainly aren’t loving the other person by cutting them off.

Does self-love always trump loving others? Certainly not. One could easily imagine countless scenarios where we love others at our own personal expense. Consider parenting and the self-sacrifices that come with. Consider spouses who often put the other person first to their own peril.

And so, love has it many contradictions and problems. For each contradiction, we would need a great deal of understanding to come up with a solution. Without understanding love, we might instead come up with a complex set of rules for it. The greater the complexity of those rules, the more disagreement and conflict.

What about happiness?

Some people might say that happiness is the penultimate goal of life.

Yet happiness has all the same problems as love. Happiness is a feeling, and again we don’t have direct control over our feelings. We can’t make ourselves happy. We can certainly do things that are likely to make us happy. But often many of the things that we would do come at some other’s expense. We might make ourselves happy by stealing from other people. We might create happiness at the expense of our future selves: borrow money, forgo working out, drink too much, etc.

Clearly with all of these issues, happiness needs some type of stabilizing force. We need to make sure one person’s happiness doesn’t come at the expense of others. Happiness needs balance. How do we achieve that balance?

What about balance?

So, what about balance? Should we strive for that? Maybe that’s the thing we should aim for in life? Put balance as our apex value?

We could balance the importance of different relationships. We could balance our love life, family life, and work life. We could balance present-self happiness vs future-self happiness. We could balance our happiness versus other virtues like respect and not stealing.

Clearly, balance has a lot of merits.

The problem with balance

What’s the problem with balance?

Everybody has different goals in life. One persons’ balance may not work for another.

What if you could take all the pieces of a good life (happiness, justice, truth, peace, purpose, beauty, goodness, connection, love, etc.) and assemble them together like the ingredients of a cake. Could we mix them together and create the perfect existence? Or at least create an existence that we should all strive for?

There are many problems with this cake-ingredients approach. Not only will people disagree about the proportions of each ingredient, it’s also likely they will disagree about what ingredients belong in the first place. One person’s essential value might be completely unpalatable to another. Religion is only one example. What about yoga, music, high-intensity exercise, reading, higher learning, fishing, golf, following the news, social media, etc. How many of these things would be high up on one person’s list and nonexistent on another’s?

Balance has other problems. Each relationship in our lives will require its own balance. With each one would come a set of rules for achieving balance. Consider rules for family, spouses, friendship, the workplace, parenting, etc. Each of these relationships is radically different. The rules for balance would all need to be different.

What other values could we put at the apex?

Justice? Truth? Serenity? Peace and calm? Purpose? Beauty? Goodness? Connection? Respect?

For these other proposed virtues, one could imagine many common situations where those values don’t work. Is there beauty in warfare? Should we remain calm and serene while being attacked? What about connection? Should we expect to maintain connection with someone who persists in hurting us? Because they often don’t work, they’d be absurd sitting at the top.

Some of these values carry such wide ranges of interpretation, it would be impossible to see it at the top. Justice and truth are two examples. One person’s justice is another person’s abuse. One person’s truth can be another’s mistruth.

How do we resolve the conflict when two people’s perspectives clash? How do we understand the problems with each of these virtues?

Understanding – the solution to each conflict

Each of these contradictions, absurdities, and conflicts calls for resolution. With some imagination, we can wiggle our way out of the traps. In each case, the missing piece, it seems, is understanding.

For the lover who expects you to disrespect your boss on a whim, rather than give in to satisfy her, what if you could make her understand how important your job is to you?

Consider the person you are connected to who is harming you. What if we could help them understand the harm they were causing? Even if they refuse to change their behavior, what if we could understand our own contributions to their behavior, so that we might better protect ourselves and create appropriate space–safe space that protects us from abuse.

What about when two people have perspectives that are at-odds? How do we determine what is truth? Rather than getting locked in a battle of sorting out who is “right”–an exercise that is likely to backfire–what if we get get the two people to understand each other? What if, through the process of mutual understanding, a “third story” were to emerge in their collective imagination. Could this “third story” wrap together each of their individual stories into a greater pattern of behavior, one that doesn’t negate or dismiss any aspects of either individual’s story. Could this “third story,” this greater perspective, be what “truth” actually is?

We may be able to love our enemies, but we cannot only love our enemies.  We have to stand up to them also and be prepared to protect ourselves.  Love is a type of bridge.  To work, love requires an effective boundary supporting it.  Love requires a companion virtue.  Because love is incomplete, it cannot sit at the apex of our value pyramid.  Understanding how to make love work together with an effective boundary appears to be the critical step. 

Love cannot exist in isolation.  Neither can happiness, respect, balance, etc.  None of these fits at the apex of our value pyramid.  Most of these virtues require a second virtue to become balanced.  It takes a process of understanding to fit the virtues together. 

Also consider values taken to the extreme. Love, taken to the extreme, becomes problematic. If you love your enemies too much, love becomes weakness in their eyes, and they will take advantage of you. Most other values work the same way. Taken to the extreme, they become absurd. What about understanding? Can you every understand something too well?

Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul.

John O’Donohue Anam Cara

Understanding – Could it be its own virtue?

With each contradiction and absurdity, understanding appears to be the way out. Mutual understanding allows different values to work in concert.

What if we put understanding at the apex of the value pyramid?  Could understanding be a virtue?

Think about recent conflicts that you have had with family, friends, your spouse, or coworkers.  If you were able to effectively resolve the conflict, how did that resolution happen?  Assuming that all sides were satisfied with the resolution, what worked and what didn’t?

Conflict resolution typically occurs when two sides of an argument are able to talk things out effectively.  Generally, people are not satisfied until they feel heard and understood. 

Resolution does not mean that everyone agrees on every point.  Sometimes resolution involves two sides walking away if the fit is not right.  Sometimes there is an agreement to work together on some points and not engage on others.  However, in each of these cases, when all sides feel heard and understood, everyone can leave satisfied that the best possible outcome was achieved.  There should be no hard feelings or regrets afterwards. 

What happens when two sides fail to resolve their conflict?  In this case, at least one party is left not feeling heard and understood.  When this occurs, there remains a host of bad feelings such as anger, regret, sadness, contempt, disgust, cynicism, etc.  These negative feelings indicate that there is much more work to be done here.  The conflict will go unresolved.  Anyone who is believing otherwise is fooling themselves.

In resolving conflicts, what determines success?

Much of conflict resolution involves setting appropriate expectations for success.  We cannot expect to always be happy after every encounter.  Happiness would be a strong positive emotion.  After all, we can’t expect to befriend or marry a store clerk we’ve just met.  But we can expect to be treated with respect. 

In conflict resolution, while we should not expect to always be made happy, we can expect to have resolution of most, if not all, of our negative emotions.  This can leave us feeling satisfied that nothing was left on the table. 

For instance, if you’re feeling sad, expressing that sadness and having the other person respond with empathy will leave a person feeling heard and understood.  This doesn’t mean that the breakup won’t still occur.  But after feeling heard and understood, we can then trust that the change in our relationship won’t leave us feeling so isolated afterwards.  Some mutual trust persists even as the relationship transitions to something new. The new relationship that emerges will still be one based upon mutual trust. For instance, the other person may still be there for us as a friend and won’t be likely to betray our confidence afterwards.

And so, mutual understanding–feeling heard and understood– is one key indicator of successful resolution.

What if mutual understanding doesn’t appear possible? What if the other person isn’t cooperative? They don’t want to understand our side of things.

At this point, we have a choice.  We can extend another bridge in their direction.  We can try to communicate our desire for mutual understanding in a different way.  We can use other bridging emotions, like appreciation or curiosity, to reach out to them. 

Alternatively, we can reinforce our own personal boundaries.  We can create space between ourselves and the other person.  We can use anger to show that our boundaries have been crossed.  Or we can look inward towards shoring up own blind spots or increasing our own independence.  Reinforcing personal boundaries is especially necessary if we seem to be failing at extending bridges. 

Reinforcing personal boundaries is also a type of communication. We communicate that we need more respect from the other person. If we are effective, they will demonstrate signs of respect, like backing off. This may be another key indicator of success. Eventually, when sufficient respect is built up, the other may extend their own bridges in our direction.

All of these—extending bridges and reinforcing boundaries—are steps that increase understanding.  If we are effective at extending bridges, this creates mutual understanding when both sides begin to listen to each other.  If we are effective at reinforcing personal boundaries, this also leads to understanding.  We understand ourselves better.  The other person understands us also when they hit up against the strong brick wall that is our now-solidified personal character.  They understand it’s now time to back off. They may not be able to see over the wall. Instead, they can see exactly what we want them to see, which may be very little.  We force them to treat us with respect.  In each case, we communicate, and they respond. Our behavior influences theirs.

How does understanding resolve conflict?

Whenever two sides disagree, each side has its own set of feelings, values, and story.  When two feelings are at-odds, it is understanding that helps bring resolution.  We understand that we can disarm anger with compassion, calm, or creating safe spaces. 

When two stories clash, understanding each one leads to the organic blossoming of the “third story,”—the story that encompasses both other stories and more. 

With each contradiction, understanding appears to be the way out.  When one value is brought to absurd excess, we understand which complementary value fits best to balance the situation. For instance, too much love (aka compassion) requires some demand for respect. Too much demand for respect requires some love (aka compassion).

Anytime we have clashing feelings, values, or stories, it is understanding that leads to resolution.  Both sides need to understand each other.  Building towards understanding helps to resolve negative emotions over time.  As we continue building towards understanding, new possibilities may open up. 

We can never have too much understanding. Keep in mind, understanding is not analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis is really just talking things over, too much, absence of feeling. In analysis paralysis, we analyze things logically to the extreme. It becomes robotic. We become a room of accountants and lawyers–too much talk and too little listening. We forget that most of understanding is actually feeling. It is less communication by words and more nonverbal communication. We feel heard and understood.

This is another reason why we say feelings have purpose.  Feelings guide us toward understanding.  For this to work, we must learn to listen to feelings belonging to ourselves and others.  And forget reading people–thinking you know what they’re feeling. You’re better off just asking.

How does understand relate to control?

Another reason why understanding belongs at the apex of our value pyramid is the issue of control vs lack of control.  In life, there are things within our control and things outside our control.  We cannot make someone fall in love with us, but we can extend loving bridges in their direction and also force them to respect our boundaries. 

At its core, understanding is all about separating out the controllables from the un-controllables.  We control which bridges we build and which boundaries we reinforce. 

We learn to understand how our own behavior affects others.  While we cannot control another person’s behavior, we can influence their behavior to a tremendous degree through our own.  Our actions affect their feelings, which ultimately drives their behavior.  We understand through experimentation and listening how this influence occurs. 

Another way of looking at this is to remember that feelings are outside our control. We don’t control what we feel. We control how we respond to those feelings. If we respond appropriately, more than likely the feeling will improve over time. Respond inappropriately, and the feeling will worsen. Anxiety becomes paralysis. Sadness becomes hopelessness. Compassion becomes helplessness.

Putting understanding at the apex gives us clarity of purpose. Understanding allows everything else to settle into place along well-define lines of control. We learn how to respond to our feelings. We channel those feelings into an energy we can use rather than allowing them to overwhelm us.

What’s it like to have understanding as our primary end-goal?

In any social interaction, there is an end-goal.  That goal could be any number of things.  We enter into a relationship with the goal of finding love.  We start a new career with the goal of realizing our purpose.  We work things out with someone with the goal of achieving reconciliation and/or forgiveness.  We parent with the goal of raising independent, happy adults.  We start a family with the goal of creating belonging. 

What if, in each of these cases, we set understanding as the primary goal?  Can we still achieve the same ends?  What does this look like?

  • We enter into a relationship with the goal of understanding the other person and being understood ourselves.  If the fit is good, the relationship may progress to greater connection and/or love.
  • We start a new career with the goal of understanding ourselves, our abilities, and our potential.  If the fit is good, we may progress and ultimately realize our purpose. 
  • We work things out with someone with the goal of understanding them better and being understood.  As mutual understanding progresses, we both feel that we are achieving reconciliation and/or forgiveness. 
  • We parent our children with the goal of understanding how to do so.  With many successes and failures, we grow as people.  Our children grow with us and push us to be mature, capable parents.  We all struggle on the road towards becoming independent, happy adults.  
  • We start a family with the goal of learning and understanding how to do so.  Through our struggles, we grow together to achieve mutual understanding and belonging. 
  • We attend religious services with the goal of understanding our connection to God and to the broader community. We learn to understand God’s purpose for putting us on this Earth.
  • After hurting each other, we work things out by sharing our stories. As we understand each other’s feelings, thoughts, and intentions, we achieve mutual understanding and forgiveness.

Another way of looking at this is that trying to achieve love without understanding is a type of cheating.  It can’t be done.  We may feel like we’ve achieved it, for a time.  But without mutual understanding, reality will come back to bite us one day.  We will learn the hard way that mutual understanding is a prerequisite to love. 

In each of these cases, we grow through understanding.  We learn to understand the why, the how, and the what of each endeavor.  Along the way, we determine the fit and course-correct when necessary.  We can alter our expectations or abandon the endeavor once we understand the fit. 

How is understanding both a process and a goal?

We can set our sights on fully understanding any situation.  This makes understanding a primary outcome—a goal.  By working towards that goal, we open up possibilities of achieving other secondary goals like purpose, love, belonging, or reconciliation.  When we don’t succeed in these secondary goals, our feelings remain unhurt because we understand those goals weren’t possible.  The fit wasn’t right. 

Understanding is also a process.  As a process, understanding brings its own set of rules and guidelines.  These rules include things like listening, caring, curiosity, communicating your story, and reinforcing boundaries.  The nice thing about these rules is that they are not situational.  They don’t need to be changed or reshuffled depending on what type of conflict they are being applied to.  Once you start to see how they work, they become intuitive.

You may need to make minor adaptations to each rule for different situations.  For instance, listening to a baby, a small child, a teenager, an adult, someone who speaks a different language, an adult with dementia, a nonverbal child, etc. all require additional skills and experience to accomplish.  But the core concept of listening is still the same.  

The rules of understanding are simple and elegant. The beauty here is that you already know them.  They are common sense and intuitive.  We don’t need a complex formula or advanced degree.  We don’t need definitions to memorize.  We don’t need to parse out similar sounding words, phrases, or definitions. Everything is simple.  We learned it all in elementary school. 

We all learned how to listen, how to care, how to be kind, and how to be respectful.  We learned how to stand up for ourselves on the playground.  We learned how to do hard work.  All of these are kindergarten values.  You don’t have to be skilled or highly educated to get them.  They’re incredibly basic. 

Each one of these kindergarten values represents a potential pathway towards our end-goal.  In certain situations, some pathways may be more efficient, more effective, or more convenient than others. 

If it really was that simple, why is there so much conflict in the adult world?

There are two primary reasons why adults struggle with understanding and its very basic rules.  The first reason is that most adult conflicts involve two competing values (or two competing rules).  Each side wields their value (or rule) against the other.  Look closely at arguments you’ve witnessed or been involved in.  It doesn’t take much listening or curiosity to realize that each side has its own kindergarten value that it’s using to make their case.  Compassion vs respect. Loyalty vs freedom. Belonging vs responsibility. These are common competing values.

The second reason adults struggle is that working towards understanding is difficult.  It is hard work.  It is often inconvenient. 

When people have a choice between two competing kindergarten values, they often will choose the one that’s most convenient to them.  Convenience is key here. Convenience often wins out. It doesn’t necessarily mean that convenient value, the one they chose, is the correct one.  

Finally, if the issue isn’t a matter of direct convenience, then adults choose the value that they know best. For instance, a person really might identify with loyalty or respect. When it comes to voting, they choose the candidate that embodies those values most directly. Even in this situation, we’re still really talking about convenience. Doing this is pure laziness on the part of the voter. Picking the value you like best does not necessarily mean it is the correct one for the situation, just like picking the candidate who embodies that value doesn’t necessarily make them the right person for the job.

The Identities-Values-Reflection (IVR) Project is a process that can help adults determine the correct course of action over time to solve social issues. IVR is a process for determining the correct values to use at the right time. IVR is not slanted to any particular religion, philosophy, political leaning, etc. Instead, it is most closely aligned with other projects in the fields of spirituality, moral psychology, healing and conflict resolution. Achieving mutual understanding is the goal.

Why understanding leads to love

The process of building towards understanding is a process that leads to all those other things we strive for: Happiness, Justice, Truth, Serenity, Peace, Balance, Purpose, Beauty, Goodness, Connection, Respect, and Love.

Consider that two people feel in love only when they both feel understood by the other person. Now it has to be a deep type of emotional understanding. The fit for this has to be right for love. We can also feel understood by a colleague at work, and then the highest level of connection becomes deep mutual respect (not love). Here we see that understanding produces the highest level of connection for the situation, based upon fit. The highest level of connection will be what it turns out to be: truth, justice, happiness, love, respect, etc. Two people cannot be expected to fall in love if their fit isn’t right (if their values don’t line up). When things don’t work out for love, respect or peace might end up being their highest level of connection.

Understanding can also be a restorative process of healing. Understanding can lead to reconciliation, forgiveness, and reconnection. Consider two people that hurt each other deeply in the past. They may now be willing to forgive each other. It doesn’t matter how much they wish it to be so. You cannot choose forgiveness. Even if they say, “I forgive you,” it is a insincere because they do not yet feel forgiveness. They would, in essence, be lying to themselves. To feel forgiveness, they must understand each other stories and past intentions. They must feel each other’s hurts. They must walk in each other’s shoes. This takes a lot of work and additional pain. Only then, when both feel heard and understood, can they finally rest in genuine forgiveness.

Through understanding, we obtain all of these things. We do this through the process of positive cycling. Positive cycling is a process of working towards understanding. Positive cycling puts together all the pieces of Identity-Values-Reflection (IVR). Instead of being complicated, it is actually intuitive. But it does require hard work and it is often inconvenient. These requirements explain why people so often get tripped up.

Positive cycling directs us towards our highest level of connection, based upon fit. Positive cycling is not a quick, linear process. Instead, it is a cycle. It requires repetition. We do the work day-after-day. Over time, understanding broadens. The formula is simple:

time + hard work + understanding = happiness, love, respect, balance, etc.

Happiness, love, respect, balance, and all those other good things come. First, we need a direction. Understanding is that direction. Understanding is our goal.

Unfortunately, though, understanding is a moving target. We must work to understand ourselves, understand others, and be understood. This helps explain why working towards understanding requires cyclical thinking, rather than simple linear thinking. Cyclical thinking requires a person to be flexible, imaginative and curious.

Next: Guide to Positive Cycling


Johnathan Haidt and Craig Joseph. (2008). ’19 The Moral Mind: How Five Sets of Innate Intuitions Guide the Development of Many Culture-Specific Virtues, and Perhaps Even Modules. In Peter Carruthers, and Stephen Laurence. The Innate Mind, Volume 3: Foundations and the Future (New York, 2008; online edn, Oxford Academic, 1 Jan. 2008. Download article.

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