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This is a famous piece from the Gestalt tradition, which I think is very important.
The Paradoxical Theory of Change
For nearly a half century, the major part of his professional life, Frederick Perls was in conflict with the psychiatric and psychological establishments. He worked uncompromisingly in his own direction, which often involved fights with representatives of more conventional views. In the past few years, however, Perls and his Gestalt therapy have come to find harmony with an increasingly large segment of mental health theory and professional practice. The change that has taken place is not because Perls has modified his position, although his work has undergone some transformation, but because the trends and concepts of the field have moved closer to him and his work.
Perls’s own conflict with the existing order contains the seeds of his change theory. He did not explicitly delineate this change theory, but it underlies much of his work and is implied in the practice of Gestalt techniques. I will call it the paradoxical theory of change, for reasons that shall become obvious. Briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.
The Gestalt therapist rejects the role of “changer,” for his strategy is to encourage, even insist, that the patient be where and what he is. He believes change does not take place by “trying,” coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the patient abandons, at least for the moment, what he would like to become and attempts to be what he is. The premise is that one must stand in one place in order to have firm footing to move and that it is difficult or impossible to move without that footing.
The person seeking change by coming to therapy is in conflict with at least two warring intrapsychic factions. He is constantly moving between what he “should be” and what he thinks he “is,” never fully identifying with either. The Gestalt therapist asks the person to invest himself fully in his roles, one at a time. Whichever role he begins with, the patient soon shifts to another. The Gestalt therapist asks simply that he be what he is at the moment.
The patient comes to the therapist because he wishes to be changed. Many therapies accept this as a legitimate objective and set out through various means to try to change him, establishing what Perls calls the “topdog/under-dog” dichotomy. A therapist who seeks to help a patient has left the egalitarian position and become the knowing expert, with the patient playing the helpless person, yet his goal is that he and the patient should become equals. The Gestalt therapist believes that the topdog/under-dog dichotomy already exists within the patient, with one part trying to change the other, and that the therapist must avoid becoming locked into one of these roles. He tries to avoid this trap by encouraging the patient to accept both of them, one at a time, as his own.
The analytic therapist, by contrast, uses devices such as dreams, free associations, transference, and interpretation to achieve insight that, in turn, may lead to change. The behaviorist therapist rewards or punishes behavior in order to modify it. The Gestalt therapist believes in encouraging the patient to enter and become whatever he is experiencing at the moment. He believes with Proust, “To heal a suffering one must experience it to the full.”
The Gestalt therapist further believes that the natural state of man is as a single, whole being — not fragmented into two or more opposing parts. In the natural state, there is constant change based on the dynamic transaction between the self and the environment.
Kardiner has observed that in developing his structural theory of defense mechanisms, Freud changed processes into structures (for example, denying into denial). The Gestalt therapist views change as a possibility when the reverse occurs, that is, when structures are transformed into processes. When this occurs, one is open to participant interchange with his environment.
If alienated, fragmentary selves in an individual take on separate, compartmentalized roles, the Gestalt therapist encourages communication between the roles; he may actually ask them to talk to one another. If the patient objects to this or indicates a block, the therapist asks him simply to invest himself fully in the objection or the block. Experience has shown that when the patient identifies with the alienated fragments, integration does occur. Thus, by being what one is–fully–one can become something else.
The therapist, himself, is one who does not seek change, but seeks only to be who he is. The patient’s efforts to fit the therapist into one of his own stereotypes of people, such as a helper or a top-dog, create conflict between them. The end point is reached when each can be himself while still maintaining intimate contact with the other. The therapist, too, is moved to change as he seeks to be himself with another person. This kind of mutual interaction leads to the possibility that a therapist may be most effective when he changes most, for when he is open to change, he will likely have his greatest impact on his patient.
What has happened in the past fifty years to make this change theory, implicit in Perls’s work, acceptable, current, and valuable? Perls’s assumptions have not changed, but society has. For the first time in the history of mankind, man finds himself in a position where, rather than needing to adapt himself to an existing order, he must be able to adapt himself to a series of changing orders. For the first time in the history of mankind, the length of the individual life span is greater than the length of time necessary for major social and cultural change to take place. Moreover, the rapidity with which this change occurs is accelerating.
Those therapies that direct themselves to the past and to individual history do so under the assumption that if an individual once resolves the issues around a traumatic personal event (usually in infancy or childhood), he will be prepared for all time to deal with the world; for the world is considered a stable order. Today, however, the problem becomes one of discerning where one stands in relationship to a shifting society. Confronted with a pluralistic, multifaceted, changing system, the individual is left to his own devices to find stability. He must do this through an approach that allows him to move dynamically and flexibly with the times while still maintaining some central gyroscope to guide him. He can no longer do this with ideologies, which become obsolete, but must do it with a change theory, whether explicit or implicit. The goal of therapy becomes not so much to develop a good, fixed character but to be able to move with the times while retaining some individual stability.
In addition to social change, which has brought contemporary needs into line with his change theory, Perls’s own stubbornness and unwillingness to be what he was not allowed him to be ready for society when it was ready for him. Perls had to be what he was despite, or perhaps even because of, opposition from society. However, in his own lifetime he has become integrated with many of the professional forces in his field in the same way that the individual may become integrated with alienated parts of himself through effective therapy.
The field of concern in psychiatry has now expanded beyond the individual as it has become apparent that the most crucial issue before us is the development of a society that supports the individual in his individuality. I believe that the same change theory outlined here is also applicable to social systems, that orderly change within social systems is in the direction of integration and holism; further, that the social-change agent has as his major function to ‘work with and in an organization so that it can change consistently with the changing dynamic equilibrium both within and outside the organization. This requires that the system become conscious of alienated fragments within and without so it can bring them into the main functional activities by processes similar to identification in the individual. First, there is an awareness within the system that an alienated fragment exists; next that fragment is accepted as a legitimate outgrowth of a functional need that is then explicitly and deliberately mobilized and given power to operate as an explicit force. This, in turn. leads to communication with other subsystems and facilitates an integrated, harmonious development of the whole system.
With change accelerating at an exponential pace, it is crucial for the survival of mankind that an orderly method of social change be found. The change theory proposed here has its roots in psychotherapy. It was developed as a result of dyadic therapeutic relationships. But it is proposed that the same principles are relevant to social change, that the individual change process is but a microcosm of the social change process. Disparate, unintegrated, warring elements present a major threat to society, just as they do to the individual. The compartmentalization of old people, young people, rich people, poor people, black people, white people, academic people, service people, etc., each separated from the others by generational, geographical, or social gaps, is a threat to the survival of mankind. We must find ways of relating these compartmentalized fragments to one another as levels of a participating, integrated system of systems.
The paradoxical social change theory proposed here is based on the strategies developed by Perls in his Gestalt therapy. They are applicable, in the judgment of this author, to community organization, community development and other change processes consistent with the democratic political framework.
When I first attended a Buddhist weekend retreat I was asked to bring with me something which was significant or held meaning for me. It took me a long time to think of anything that fitted this description, but after some reflection I remembered the ‘Litany against Fear’ from Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’, a book that had been very important to me in my teenage years:
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will allow it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
The night before I left for the dry Spanish valley where I was to spend four months on my ordination retreat I felt compelled to watch David Lynch’s (notoriously poor) movie of the book (this was before the Sci-Fi Channel’s diligent, but uninspiring mini-series). Then, a few years later, I led a weekend retreat exploring the novel, as a way of looking at the myths and symbols of science fiction and the extent to which they might be useful in terms of spiritual practice.
I have come to deeply value the role of myth and the imagination within my own spiritual practice, but had noticed that a number of my friends found the whole area completely mystifying. It seemed more than a coincidence that many of these people seemed to be fans of science fiction. My aim for the weekend was to help people to make the connection between the myths that they were responding to in sci-fi, and the mythical aspects of life and spiritual practice. It seems that for many people living in a world marked by scientific reductionism and utilitarian literalism, the world of the imagination can appear to be in the future, or ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.’
Traditionally science fiction has not been a particularly refined genre – in the sci-fi books I read in my teens and twenties, the qualities of writing and of character development were often poor, and violence and cruelty were common themes. It has also been a particularly obvious outlet for wish fulfilment, or for the articulation of contemporary views – the Cold War led to a huge number of ‘alien threat’ novels and movies during the fifties and sixties, and more recently political correctness has brought us the elected Queen Amidala of Star Wars: Episode 1.
At its best, however, the freedom to define new social and political systems, and even change the laws of physics (Captain!), can allow science fiction writers to introduce archetypal figures and explore the nature of the human condition in a way which is not possible in more socially realistic fiction. In this way I believe it is possible for sci-fi to provide a launching pad into the imaginal realm. Thankfully, contemporary writers have begun to marry high standards of writing with this complexity of concepts – although I don’t read much fiction these days I’d particularly recommend Neal Stephenson‘s genre-busting books.
Those who are chronically averse to science fiction are unlikely to become converts, but if you have nurtured a secret affection for sci-fi then perhaps you can begin to have the courage to come out of the galactic closet. Ultimately it may be that science fiction can even be useful in helping us to see how those that we perceive as ‘alien’ are in fact no different from ourselves.
Frank Herbert, 1965 (published by New English Library)
Set in a feudal society of the far distant future the novel charts its protagonist’s maturation and fourfold initiation: firstly to Duke, then to manhood and leadership, to prescient super-being and ultimately to Emperor. Herbert interweaves his twin interests in psychology and ecology through the symbolic aspects of the story, such as the desert planet Arrakis (the ‘Dune’ of the title) and its giant sandworms, as well as through the themes and characters. These themes include the integration of masculine and feminine, and the principles of prescience and memory. The hero’s teachers are classic Jungian archetypes, and the desert planet is peopled by the wild and fierce Fremen, who live in rock warrens, and hoard water which will one day allow them to catalyse an ecological transformation of the planet. There is also the secretive Bene Gesserit sisterhood who manipulate religions and genetic lines through the use of their greatly heightened powers of awareness.
As a teenager it was this combination of the psychological and ecological which appealed to me, and I was particularly struck by the incredible acuity of perception of the Bene Gesserit – a faculty I now know as mindfulness. In ‘Dune’ Herbert achieved a level of symbolic truth which surpasses anything else he ever wrote, and it is this symbolic content more than the subtlety of his concepts which makes it a great novel.
I was doing some house-keeping on my computer this morning and came across this piece, which I wrote for the Buddhist Arts magazine Urthona about a decade ago – I’ve tweaked it slightly to bring it up to date a bit. I’d love to hear your recommendations for good sci-fi – ancient or modern.
There are many hundreds of meditation practices found in religious traditions and personal development systems throughout the world, and although it might look like people are all doing the same thing when they sit with their eyes closed, they might well be doing any of this huge range of different things. One way to get an overview of all these different approaches, is to see them as fitting into one of four broad categories – or maybe a combination of two or more of them.
In this types of practice you focus your attention on one aspect of your experience, and train yourself in regulating your attention by patiently and consistently bringing your mind back to this focus of attention whenever it drifts off. Meditating in this way calms and focuses your mind, and brings together all your scattered energies and thoughts. Body awareness meditations and mindfulness of the breath are both practices of this type, and are this approach is the best way to learn to meditate for most people.
In these meditation practices, you bring into being, or further develop, a positive quality or state of consciousness, using your imagination, memory and will. The classic example of this type of meditation is the family of meditations known as the Brahma Viharas, which are also called The Four Imeasurable in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The root of these is the cultivation of loving kindness (metta bhavana or maitri bhavana), the fundamental state of positive regard and well wishing which underlies all others. When you experience metta and you encounter suffering, then your natural response is one of compassion (karuna), and when you encounter growth, development and happiness your response is one of sympathetic joy (mudita). The fourth practice is the cultivation of equanimity – the capacity to respond creatively and from your values without being either overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world, or intoxicated with pleasure.
This approach can be seen as complementary to the concentrating practices, because instead of focusing the attention on one specific aspect of your experience, when practising in this way you seek to remain open to all of your experience even-handedly. This type of meditation is often done with your eyes slightly open, so that you pay equal attention to images, sounds, physical sensations, etc. and allow them all to come and go without getting caught up with any one of them. Japanese Zazen and the Tibetan practices of Dzog Chen and Mahamudra can be seen as practices of this type.
Once your mind is settled, then you can turn your focused attention onto your experience so that you can see it more clearly. This might mean observing the way in which your thoughts, feelings and sensations come and go, or exploring your experience to try to identify the self that we all presume to be there. Sometimes, as in koan practice, this might include the use of words, but often it is more an attitude of inquiry, as your mind may be too refined for discursive thought.
Mixing and Balancing
Any particular meditation practice might include any one, or several of these four modes or dimensions of practice, with many complex meditations in the Tibetan traditions including phases of each.
It is worth remembering that these definitions are just a guideline, as the practices do not have distinct boundaries, and whenever you are meditating you need to maintain a balance between consciously guiding your attention (concentrating) and being receptive to whatever experience is arising (receiving). If you focus too much on concentrating your meditation will become tight and dry, but if there isn’t enough focus then you are likely just to drift away from meditation into daydreams.
I have been meditating for nearly 20 years, and the more I meditate the more important awareness of the body seems to be. This isn’t the way I was originally taught to meditate, however this approach to teaching meditation is now the one that is followed by most of the meditation teachers that I know.
We live in a busy world. Most of us live in urban areas and receive huge amounts of stimulus from adverts, people, music, noise, television, ipods, phones – I could fill the rest of the page with this list, so let’s leave it there. When we look at the lifestyles of humans through most of their evolution, we can see that they had much simpler and less stimulating lives. It seems likely that we have not evolved to deal with the high levels of stimulation that we currently receive – no wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed so much of the time.
There has also been a huge change in what we do with our time, with a continual move away from activities that involved our whole bodies towards work that involves only our heads and our hands. Although this process has accelerated during the last century, we’ve been losing touch with our bodies for quite some time.
So what? Well the big problem is that if we lose touch with our bodies, we lose touch with our emotions. They still underlie (and so effectively control) our thinking, but if we can’t feel our feelings we can’t take them into account, make allowances for them, or compensate for them. You only have to observe how venomous and irrational many academic disputes are to see the way that denied emotionality complicates things enormously.
During the period when the founders of the great religions taught there was no need to teach about emotional intelligence – everybody was in touch with their emotions – they just had to teach about which emotions to support and cultivate and which emotions were unhelpful and should have energy withdrawn from them. For many of us, there is a lot of work to do in connecting more honestly with our emotions and feelings, as only then can we begin to transform them. If we don’t, then we run the risk of deluding ourselves, and will struggle to connect effectively with others.
The simplest way to do this is to learn to notice the subtle sensations in our bodies, particularly in the front of the body: the heart, the belly, and the crossroad of nerves between them called the solar plexus. Although we’re all familiar with carrying emotional tension in our shoulders and other muscles, it is in this tender front of our bodies that we can most fully connect with our feelings and emotions.
There’s no need for me to go into the philosophy of this stuff here, but everybody is familiar with Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”. I believe it would be much more helpful for us to be able to say “I think and feel, therefore I am”.
This is another in the series of pieces on emotions that I ghosted a few years ago for a book on The Inner Work of Leadership, which I don’t think was ever published. Rereading this piece I’m reminded how much of the material was simply stuff we all need to address in the process of personal and spiritual development, just with a few phrases inserted to highlight its pertinence for leaders in organisations. I guess that’s why I feel it’s worth publishing here.
Loneliness and Aloneness
We all feel lonely from time-to-time. Humans are social creatures, and we need to have a sense of connection to other people in order to be fully human.
Ironically, the experiences of disconnection and isolation that loneliness engenders have a tendency to distance us from others, so that we send out signals that drive people away at the very time when we most need connection. You will need to develop the ability to reach out to others, both when you are being rebuffed by someone in distress, as well as when you feel lonely yourself.
It is important to be able to distinguish between loneliness and the existential experience of aloneness, because this experience of aloneness is often accentuated for leaders. In your work there will be many problems, challenges and successes that you are not able to share with anyone else in a meaningful way: confidential and business sensitive matters, and things that others will not fully understand.
To lead effectively, you need to be able to step away from those seeking to influence you, as well as to be aware of your extrinsic motivations – your tendencies to look to others for approval and guidance, and to seek recognition and reward. It is unlikely that all of your motivations will be intrinsic to you, and so it is essential that you are aware of these extrinsic motivations so that you can take them into account and take advantage of them, make allowances or compensate for them as appropriate. If you are not able to stand alone in this way your decision-making processes will always be compromised.
It’s true that it can be lonely at the top, and you need to be able to balance your human need for connection with the resourcefulness to make best use of your aloneness.
This is another in the series on emotional competence from a book on the Inner Work of Leadership that I worked on a few years ago, but (as far as I know) was never published. There are links to the other emotions that I’ve posted at the bottom.
Jealousy and envy are another pair of related feelings, both of which can be seen as evolving from competition, and rooted in the competition for love and care in our early family environment. The distinction between them is unclear so that they are often confused, with the terms used interchangeably; indeed most definitions of one word include the other! As mentioned previously, as long as you are not trying to discuss them with someone else (in which case you will need to ‘rectify terms’ as Confucius put it), what you call your emotions is less important than your capacity to distinguish between them. This being the case, the descriptions presented here are offered as practical aids rather than authoritative definitions.
Jealousy can be seen as having two aspects, one anxious and one acquisitive. The anxious aspect is the fear that another will take from you something that you value or cherish, so that we speak of someone ‘jealously guarding’ a secret, a treasure, or a sexual partner. The acquisitive aspect describes the desire one has for something that another has, perhaps the same treasure that they are jealously guarding.
Envy has been described as ‘a peculiar combination of both desire and resentment fused in bitterness’. One way that envy can be distinguished from jealousy is in desired outcome: you seek to acquire an object of jealousy, but the goal of envy is simply to deprive the other party. It could also be argued that one feels acquisitive jealousy about something that someone else has, but that one feels envy towards someone who has something that you do not. The distinction being that jealousy is felt towards the object first and the person second, whereas this order is reversed in envy.
Envy can be seen as having four key aspects that make it up.
- The first and most significant is a sense of deprivation: that in some way you are being deprived of the pleasure or fulfilment that an item, relationship, talent or reputation would give you.
- Secondly, you must perceive someone else as having and benefiting from whatever it is that you believe yourself denied. The relationship between these two items is significant, in that we seldom desire something until we see that someone else has it. The underlying experience of lack that so many people carry can thus be triggered simply by the knowledge that someone has something that you do not, even if it is something that you have not previously conceived of as being of any benefit to you. Such is the basis of many thousands of marketing campaigns!
- The third aspect of envy is a feeling of impotence in the face of the perceived inequality, and it is this feeling that introduces the resentful aspect of envy.
- The final aspect is the unfounded and illogical, but deeply felt belief that it is because the other party has what we desire that we do not have it. It is this introduction of an entirely spurious causal relationship that characterises envy: a belief that life is a zero-sum game, and that if you have love, happiness, wealth, prestige, or success then I can not have it.
Such a belief is a deeply damaging one for a leader, as it can easily divert you into false competitions that are wasteful and destructive. It has been observed since at least the 15th century that comparisons are odious, and the tendency to compare oneself with others is usually not just a waste of time and energy, but positively unhelpful. The obvious exception being those occasions when you are directly competing for a role or position. When you allow your tendency to compare to slide into a desire to compete you have lost your initiative, and your energies will be directed away from your long-term goals.
Both of these emotions are painful, and if you have not felt the torture of sexual jealousy then you are a lucky person. However, jealously can trigger ambition and thus be a stimulus to action, whereas envy is an intensely painful and ultimately humiliating experience, a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating form of masochism.
The other emotions that I’ve posted on so far are:
On my Buddhist Coach Facebook page I just posted a link to this piece on mindfulness of the body, observing just how much emphasis has been placed on mindfulness as a primarily mental (i.e. thinking/ cognitive) activity. However, as the author elegantly puts it, “what we translate as “mindfulness” cannot properly be understood as a purely mental activity.”
I’ve been very struck by the huge cognitive bias in the way in which mindfulness is being promulgated, and I suggest that a key reason for this is that the people who research stuff are very heady, and that’s how they make sense of the world. I’ve been delighted to see the results of all the research that has been undertaken into meditation and mindfulness in the last few years, and at the same time there’s a little bit of me that complains “we’ve known this works for nearly 3,000 years, why do we need a a CAT scanner before anyone believes us?”
However, this isn’t just a modern phenomenon, the same process is evident in the Pali canon, where emotion-based practices such as the cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity (the Brahma Viharas) were downgraded as practices by the monks who transcribed the Buddhist oral tradition. That’s because the kind of people who want to write down and tabulate an oral tradition are the kind of people who make sense of the word primarily through the medium of ideas, and so don’t really understand or value body-based emotional experience.
The biographies of Tibetan teachers often show them as being expert scholars, who then have a spiritual crisis of some sort that forces them to recognise that they have to go beyond the intellect – Naropa being a classic example. The important thing for us to remember is to avoid the temptation to swing to the pole of rejecting rational thought altogether – as happens sometimes, especially in New Age circles) – we need to be mindful of both the mind and the body.
This stuff is important to me because it has been, and continues to be, my working ground. I came to Buddhism with very little awareness of my body or my emotions, and the longer I practice, the more important I understand the body to be. I have a lot more to say on this issue, but I’ll leave it there for now.
Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
Within the Birthless, all things take their birth,
Yet in that birth, nothing is borne.
Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
Within the Ceaseless, all things cease to be
Yet in that ceasing, nothing ceases.
Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
Within the Non-abiding, all abides,
Yet thus abiding, there abideth naught.
Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
In Non-perception, everything is perceived,
Yet this perceiving is quite perceptionless.
Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
In the Unmoving, all things come and go,
Yet in that movement, nothing ever moves.
Anger and fear are primal survival emotions, with roots deep in our evolutionary past. Guilt and shame are also key emotions supporting survival for humans as social animals. However there are other, more subtle feelings that indicate to us that all is not well, and these feelings can be difficult to pin down and define. Although we all have a clear sense of what someone means when they tell us they are upset or hurt, we may well find it hard to be more specific about what this means, and if we do get down to details we may find that our definition disagrees with theirs.
The names we use for many of these feelings make direct connections between our psychological and physiological experience, so that we describe ourselves as being bruised, hurt, wounded, etc. without anyone being confused that the place of the injury is somewhere in the flesh. Alternatively we use metaphors for disorganisation or disturbance, such as shaken up, mixed up, rattled, etc. suggesting a destabilisation or loss of equilibrium.
The descriptions below do not seek to be definitive, and you may find that you would give a different name to the experiences that are described. This is not important; the way you choose to describe your emotions will depend mostly on your beliefs about yourself. What is important is that you are able to recognise and identify your individual feeling patterns, and that you are able to respond to them in a way that keeps you free to make creative choices.
Hurt and Upset
These two words can be catchall phrases to describe an experience of emotional difficulty, and as such can mean everything or nothing! They can also be dismissed as irrelevant all-too-easily by a busy leader, or denied as being unworthy or signs of weakness. This is a mistake. Such feelings are a sign that something you value is under threat or has been lost or damaged, or that your resources are diminished. Such information is valuable and to deny or ignore it is foolhardy. This is because they provide powerful indicators of what is important to you, and if you deny them then you will be unable to learn from them.
The desire to negate such feelings may be rooted in a desire to avoid seeming weak or vulnerable to yourself or to others. However we all have vulnerabilities, and accepting your vulnerabilities so that you can make allowances for them is the best way of adapting to reality. To deny feelings of hurt and upset is a declaration that you do not care sufficiently about yourself, and if you do not care about yourself it is unlikely that you will be able to genuinely care about anyone or anything else.
To accept one’s vulnerabilities also means to be open, and it takes great emotional maturity to be able to do this without quickly moving back into defensiveness. This kind of maturity requires you to have a profound knowledge of yourself, knowing your strengths and weaknesses without believing that either mark you out as particularly special, and having a deep trust in your own resourcefulness.
Clearly there will be circumstances when it is appropriate to protect yourself, as certain individuals or circumstances will call for you to exercise appropriate self-defence. However such protection needs to be a conscious choice in response to particular circumstances, as protection takes up energy. The habitual denial of your weaknesses and vulnerabilities to yourself and others will be a waste of energy, meaning that it is not available to you for other more constructive purposes.
The denial of vulnerability is a manifestation of self-delusion, an attempt to see oneself as perfect. This process is much more subtle than it sounds when written down in black and white. Coming to know oneself fully is a lifetime’s work, and you need to be constantly seeking to learn more about yourself. One particularly useful way to do this is by noticing the little hurts and upsets that one experiences on a day-to-day basis. The things that ‘press our buttons’ or irritate us about our colleagues and competitors are, almost without exception, aspects of our own personality or behaviour that we deny or fail to recognise. This presents a fantastic opportunity to learn more about yourself, and so to integrate the denied and projected aspects of your personality. There is a certain irony in the fact that one of the qualities most commonly projected in this way in the workplace is vulnerability, as evidenced by the feeding frenzy that can be stimulated when an individual is overwhelmed by stress or manifests incompetence in some way.
Of course not all hurt is the result of projection. One other significant cause is the experience of not getting what you expected, especially in terms of care and support from those closest to you. Once again it is easy to see this feeling as being too trivial to take seriously, but once again it is the source of useful information, in this case about the kinds of support, acknowledgement and appreciation that you need. While it is essential to be able to look to yourself to validate your work and achievements, we all need some external validation as well. While it may not always be possible to get such validation, to deny the need for it will result in emotional ossification, and so you will need to ensure that you have appropriate support systems by way of mentors or confidants to meet such needs, at least to some degree. Acknowledging such feelings may also present the opportunity to learn more about their roots. It may be that there are issues of self-worth underlying them that can be addressed directly and so reduce the need for external supports.
An associated feeling is that of feeling slighted. This arises when you are not shown the expected level of respect, esteem or appreciation by others to whom you are not particularly close. This will inevitably be the case from time-to-time, as few others are able to fully witness the real achievements of a leader, and so you must bear the hurt and move on. In can be the case that as a leader you may be in receipt of a great deal of positive projection, with some people seeing only the best of themselves in you. You will inevitably fall off this pedestal in time, and so it is best not to allow yourself to be seduced by excessive appreciation, and definitely to avoid becoming dependent upon it. Leaders often receive unreasonable amounts of appreciation for their good qualities, and unreasonable amounts of criticism for their failings. Allowing yourself to develop a sense of entitlement to support or appreciation will inevitably result in you experiencing much hurt and disappointment.
Feeling upset can also arise as a secondary response to the more primal emotions. In this context it may well denote that an emotional experience has left us with fewer resources to address the issues of our lives and work. An example might be that you have been angry with a colleague about something they have done, and this upsets your equilibrium so that you are more easily raised to anger by issues that would not normally bother you. It is common to describe this kind of upset as irritability, which in its technical sense means having a high sensitivity to stimulus. This also demonstrates the way that feelings of upset can act as a gateway or catalyst to the primary emotions in addition to manifesting as a consequence of them, reminding us of the feedback loops that operate in our emotional systems.
The destabilising emotion may be guilt, which can result in defensiveness, or fear leading to a nervous or edgy feeling. Each of these suggests that an issue is not fully resolved or assimilated. This may be because there has been a strong experience that has had a substantial effect on the psyche, or conversely that the original stimulus was insufficient for it to have made an impression on us at a conscious level. If you find either of these experiences happened to you on a regular basis then some further investigation is likely to be necessary. To feel upset is to receive a warning that one’s emotional thresholds are lowered, and it is wise to heed such a warning.
Another section from the Emotional Competence section of the book on the Inner Work of Leadership that I worked on a few years ago. Re-reading these pieces I’m reminded how difficult I found it to write in someone else’s voice, using source material that they had suggested. If I found these pieces somewhere other than on my hard drive I would not know that I had written them – perhaps I’m a better ghost writer than I realised!
On the whole, psychiatry has paid more attention to dis-ease than to wellbeing; perhaps it is easier to be clear about how things have gone wrong than how they have gone right. As a consequence it can be hard to clarify what it means to feel good. We all know that we feel good when we are relieved of anxiety, freed from despair, or recover from being upset, but we also know that to feel good is much more than just the relief of not feeling bad.
The characteristics of feeling good are very broad and can include experiences of lightness, buoyancy, aliveness, optimism, peace, relaxation, hope, connection and involvement. Perhaps the easiest way to summarise the pleasurable aspect of feeling good is to say that when we feel good we experience an expanded and enhanced sense of self.
Feeling good may arise as a direct result of a success or positive experience, and yet we all have experiences of feeling good for no apparent reason. We also know that our expected sources of pleasure can be rather fickle, sometimes failing to provide the pleasure we have expected, usually when we have tried to pursue pleasure as a way of avoiding some unpleasant aspect of our experience. Nevertheless we can identify a number of different ways in which we can come to feel good.
The first and most primordial of these is the gratification of our senses. We can feel good when we touch and are touched, and when we have the opportunity to see, hear, and taste things that are enjoyable to us. Perhaps this is the most obvious area in which the misguided pursuit of feeling good can easily lead to excess.
The second thing that can create a feeling of wellbeing for us is learning and discovery. Here the experiences of the senses are combined with the intellect, as we see in the delight of a child when it discovers something new, or our pleasure can be born simply from intellectual discovery. The fortunate amongst us retain the capacity to find delight in learning new things, however ‘useless’ they may be. It is a sad indictment of our educational system that so many people come to see learning as a boring or even painful experience, rather than one of pleasure and expansion.
The pleasure of learning about is the forerunner to the pleasure of learning how. Here the sense of self is expanded through the development of a new skill, or expertise, or through problem solving, leading to a sense of accomplishment and mastery. There must be some degree of challenge and difficulty in a task for it to provide pleasure in the completion, a task easily achieved offers little gratification. In this respect the cliché that there is no gain without pain is true, showing that pleasure and pain are not simple opposites.
The fourth type of experience that can help us to feel good continues along the same line as the previous two, where the mastery of a skill moves into the expression of creativity. To know that one has brought into being something that did not previously exist, be it a painting or a corporation, can be a tremendous source of delight and satisfaction.
Not only this, but the very act of creation can be one that provides us with a fifth source of pleasure: that of immersion. When all of our energies are fully aligned and engaged in a task so that there is no conflict or distraction, this ‘flow’ of effortless concentration is deeply pleasurable.
A sixth way in which we feel good is when we experience our connection to others. We can experience this collectively through playing sports or music with others, or working together in a team. Singing in a choir provides the metaphor of harmony that encapsulates this experience. We also experience this sense of connection individually in our intimate relationships with loved ones.
In connecting with others we experience an expanded sense of self through including others in our sense of who we are. Perhaps we feel the most good when our sense of self expands to include the whole of existence. This seventh category of pleasurable feeling has been described as ‘peak experience’ or ‘oceanic feeling’ and is characterised by a comprehension of the universal order of things, great joy and delight, awe and wonder, groundedness as well as limitlessness. It is possible for each of us to experience such states, and they tend to have a profound effect on us, sometimes being interpreted as mystical or religious experiences. They can be triggered by intensely positive experiences of nature, art or love, and occasionally by acute trauma, and they can also be actively cultivated through practices such as meditation and deep reflection.
It is regularly observed by people travelling in the developing world that people who have very little often seem happier than their wealthy counterparts in the developed world. While it is also these people who experience the greatest risk from climate change and other natural disasters, it is a salutary lesson for us that we often overlook in our busy and ambitious lives. To fully feel that one is alive is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and one that we are usually too busy to appreciate.
Here are links to the other emotions that I’ve posted so far.