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.
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.
Navigating the hurricane
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:
Open, honest communication
Private spaces where people can be by themselves and have their privacy respected (typically bedrooms and bathrooms)
Common spaces where dialogue and fair negotiation on group expectations can occur (i.e. dinner table, family room, etc.)
Presence of safe, age-appropriate boundaries segregating these different spaces
Freedom to come and go within a set of safe, age-appropriate boundaries
Absence of drug abuse, nicotine use, or intoxication within the premises
Absence of aggressive behaviors, including physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse or harassment
Absence of judgment, shaming, blaming, comparing, interrogating, punishing, defensiveness, self-loathing, or accusing behaviors
Absence of manipulative behaviors, including accusations, ultimatums, chasing, pleasing, lecturing, and passive-aggressive behaviors
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:
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.
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.
When a familiar tense situation arises, take note.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Give yourself credit for doing this hard work, whether you were able to stop yourself or not. None of this is easy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Experimentation. Try out new ways of dealing with problems.
Loving discipline. small daily promises.
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.
Typically leads to co-dependency or negative cycling
Typically leads to positive cycling
Effective only in rare, specific cases
Effective more broadly
Incurs hidden costs
Costs are usually out in the open
Requires more time, energy, and thoughtfulness to achieve desired results
Incurs a moral debt that must be paid one day
Avoids moral debt
Often leads to a type of theft that may be moral, emotional, spiritual, or material
Avoids causing a theft
A type of traumatic abuse of the Self that is destructive of self-esteem
Builds self-esteem over time
Motivation contains a hidden cynical component
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 feelings
distraction (numbing of pain)
taking on too many responsibilities
comparing oneself to others
finding joy at another person’s expense
attunement to others’ feelings
hold others accountable for their commitments
splitting people into allies and adversaries
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.
Create safe spaces by attacking others and forcing their withdrawal
verbal insults, threatened or actualized physical aggression
Pause a confrontation, create safe spaces; enforce healthy boundaries
“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
Pause 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
Pause to think so you can find a more genuine way of engaging with the situation
Deflect blame, alleviate suffering, avoid pain
“She doesn’t like me”
Enforce healthy boundaries, find constructive ways of alleviating suffering
Deflect blame and guilt
Saying “she doesn’t like me,” when in fact I’m the one who doesn’t like her.
Avoid discomfort, protect self and others
Repress anger to avoid hurting others
Self-awareness, see purpose behind feelings, find constructive ways of managing feelings
keep one’s self esteem small, avoid risk
inner critic constantly says, “You are not good enough”
Relieve inner critic of their burdens from past traumatic injury
“I know I screwed up but here are the seven reasons why I actually did the right thing…”
take accountability of one’s actions
neutralize disturbing feelings
Making an objective case for a political candidate while ignoring the underlying emotional connection
Self-awareness, make a genuine case in your arguments that doesn’t ignore the emotional drivers for decision-making
neutralize disturbing feelings
any obsession or habitual behavior
self-awareness, address problems and uncomfortable feelings
neutralize 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 expense
Need 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) mentality
alleviate 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.
self-preservation; protect others
Rather than talk face-to-face, fire off an angry email.
Work on listening and being assertive when having difficult conversations.
Pressuring / manipulation
Satisfying 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) hierarchy
Maintain 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.
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.
Satisfy 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.
“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.
Satisfy urgent needs
“He is not a good person.”
Active Listening, self-awareness. Separate individuals from their behavior. Find patience.
Create 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.
Superficial listening while remaining on autopilot
Active listening. Being fully present and genuine during a conversation
Going through motions while remaining on autopilot
Be genuine. Self-awareness of one’s own feelings.
Doing too much
Build 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.
Satisfy 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.
Build 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.
Satisfy 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.
Desire 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.
Maintain 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.
Need 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.
Need 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 people
Satisfying 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.
Satisfying one’s needs
“He is quick to level insults and accusations whenever he’s angry.”
Recognize and respect the boundaries of others
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.
Put aside certain feelings while accomplishing a task
done in a thoughtful, intentional manner
Give advice, fix problem
“You should go do…”
the listener asks for your advice directly
Self-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 / appreciation
“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.
These are the values that are useful in healthy relationships. They should be our go-to’s in any sticky situation.
Become aware of one’s feelings, values, behaviors, habits, motivations, beliefs, identities, etc.
“I’ve been quite reactive and angry while driving to work lately.”
become aware of the mood in the local social environment
“The group was not feeling down for humor today.”
A 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 think
Pausing 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?”
See and feel things through another person’s perspective. Validate their perspective.
“That must’ve been really hard for you.”
Make time to care of one’s own needs
Schedule time for workouts
Acknowledge 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 needs
Recognizing a “hangry” child and feeding them
*Create safe spaces
A 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.”
A 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.
Allow 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.
Trusting 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.”
Allow 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.”
Recognize 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 power
Make 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 other people accountable for the commitments that they have made.
“I expect you to honor the date we set.”
Demonstrate appropriate behavior through one’s own actions
Rather 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.
Accept 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 mobility
Empower 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 below
To 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) thinking
Allow for multiple perspectives to coexist.
“I am feeling happy in my new relationship, and I am also feeling some confusion.”
*Seek beauty and awe
Seek 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.”
Ask open-ended questions in a desire to achieve understanding
“Can you tell me more about why you become so upset?”
Patience and calm
Acting 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.”
Reconnect 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.”
Honoring 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.”
Negotiate fair expectations that all parties agree to absent coercion
After a discussion with my children, we agreed to a fair bedtime based upon how much sleep their bodies seem to need
Intentionally 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 self
Connecting 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 mentality
Having 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.”
A 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.”
Constantly 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.”
When 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-awareness
I am able to recognize now when I’m becoming “manic” and out-of-control.
A 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.”
Recognizing and actively avoiding violating the boundaries of others
“I made sure my children know that their bedrooms are their personal spaces. They can
Accepting 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 boundaries
Creating and enforcing physical, emotional, spiritual boundaries
“I told my boss that I would not be answering emails while on vacation.”
Engage / disengage
Being 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:
attunement (to others)
create safe spaces
paradoxical (imaginative) thinking
seek beauty and awe
Using these reflective values, we can start to determine where the problem is.
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.
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 ofintentional 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:
Separate your Self from your thoughts and feelings. Remember always, “You are not your thoughts and feelings.”
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.
Lay out all of your thoughts. If needed, write them down to see them clearly.
Honor your thoughts and feelings no matter what they are.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Learn to pick up on the mood in the room of those around us.
Learn how to hear what the other person is “really” saying. Practice Active Listening.
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.
Monitor for behavioral patterns (or cycles) that connect us to others.
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:
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.
Separate out our intentions from our behaviors.
Clearly outline what our goals and intentions are.
What personal needs are we attempting to satisfy through our behaviors?
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?
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.
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.
How much of our behavior is not being done by our autopilot? How much is intentional, thoughtful and new? This is our conscious behavior.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Flat, unemotional, disconnected
Pure logical thinking
Not attuned Robotic behavior
How can I help?
Patience, Active listening Curiosity Nonjudgmental support Builds connection
Calm, Minor urgency Minor stress
Optimistic with reservations A small ulterior agenda
Urgent listening Applies (subtle) pressure Minor irritability
Reciprocal listening and assertiveness Will not tolerate a lecture but happy to give one
Overwhelming stress Intense anxiety (fear) Anger
On the edge of the precipice Fears rapid deterioration of the relationship
Only tolerates being listened to Highly irritable Panic attacks Stonewalling
Aggression (volcano erupting) Complete loss of control
Relationship is rapidly deteriorating Needs space
Hostility Withdrawal Dissociation
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
What values are most important to you today? Who modeled those values for you in childhood?
What are the patterns of your relationships? Who modeled those patterns for you in your past?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Slowfor 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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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 feelheard 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.
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.