“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
Writing about this idea was taken from Cheryl Strayed’s List of Writing Prompts. The original prompt was to write about a time when I learned the hard way, but I changed it to what I learned the hard way. While the story surrounding these lessons is wildly interesting and incredible, it’s long, and writing it in a blog post will not do it justice. Plus, I don’t have the writing skills necessary to properly tell that story.
However, the lessons I learned then are potentially some of the most influential I will ever learn in my entire life and I’m going to share some of them here.
This is the post I needed seven years ago. If I knew these lessons, or if I was able to learn them the easy way, then I probably would have saved myself a bunch of suffering.
I’m hoping someone can learn at least one of these lessons the easy way (reading this post) rather than the hard way (through immense suffering). Trust me, its much better to learn things the easy way but I also know that the human-animal can only learn some things the hard way.
Finding words sets us free.
A few years ago I got tangled up with some bad people. During that time I saw myself and others do hideous things. I was manipulated by a sociopath because I wasn’t paying enough attention to see what was right in front of me. I didn’t have a way of conceptualizing what I was doing or what I witnessed because I didn’t have a language for it. On top of that, I was tortured which made everything much harder to articulate.
While that experience was one of the toughest in my life, I never felt more relief than when I was able to find the words, or phrases, to explain what happened to me. I felt like a shattered version of myself and over the following years, everything I explored had the undertones of finding the bits and pieces that could help me process the trauma. Every time I heard, read, or learned something that could help me understand what happened, I felt a little more whole.
Finding the language to capture the experience sets us free from reliving the trauma and starts the healing process. I didn’t know this for years, but I felt it in my body. I never felt more relief than when I was able to find the words, or phrases, to explain what happened to me. I supposed this was one of the ides that I had to learn the hard way.
Turning our experiences to language orders the chaos of our minds, which helps us understand where we are. Our minds occupy territory in space and time, so when we transform the experience to speech we turn a little bit of the unknown into the familiar.
When we experience trauma, the parts of our brain that process speech shut off and we are no longer able to turn our experiences into speech. I’ve written a blog post on The Significance of Speech, which talks about how speech is so powerful from a mythological perspective. But the loss of speech, in this case, comes with the inability to process experience into speech also prevents us from putting the experience in the past.
Practicing my ability to articulate my thoughts through writing via blogging and journaling has given me a greater body knowledge and language to draw from, which aids in the healing process. Honestly, in my experience, it’s been absolutely essential in my healing process.
Understanding, internalizing, and having a vocabulary for ideas like malevolence, betrayal, archetypes, willful blindness, responsibility, sacrifice, suffering, striving, struggle, logos, animus, anima, envy, narcissism, neuroticism, the shadow, circumambulation, atonement, and so many others has been life-changing.
My speculations that this idea was true were verified when I read about many PTSD patients recovering after finding the words to describe their trauma in the fantastic book The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessell van der Kolk, which I highly recommend. I’m also adding that book to my Must-Read Book List when I get the chance.
All relationships are limited and conditional.
The only way to learn this lesson is to believe that relationships are unlimited and unconditional and then push them to their unperceived limits.
A harsh, but enlightening lesson.
After internalizing this, I’ve taken more responsibility for the relationships in my life. I’ve noticed that some people can sense this and are grateful for it (which is nice), and others are oblivious. Either way, it sets me free from the burden of feeling controlled by other people’s thoughts and feelings and empowers me to focus on what I can control. Which is usually a hell of a lot more than I could imagine.
Malevolence is real.
“Man is the cruelest animal.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
Malevolence is real. There’s darkness in people. Real darkness. It sounds cheesy, but some people really do want to hurt others just for the hell of it, and it’s not a joke. Humans are the only creatures on the planet that can hurt something else just for the sake of harming it. This is because we’re aware of our own mortality and vulnerability, which gives us the ability to exploit it in others.
If we can understand what hurts us, then we know what hurts someone else.
Now I knew this intellectually, but it’s a completely different thing to know this viscerally. When we see the evil of the human heart in an undeniable fashion, it fundamentally changes how we understand the human-animal, how we understand ourselves. It was witnessing despicable actions that presenced me to the darkness.
Understanding the evil in others helps me conceptualize my capacity for destruction and gives me proper fear of and respect for myself. Before I believed that malevolence was real, I never saw the weight of my own actions or the potential damage it could cause. Hell, it frightens me to think of the destruction that I have caused because of my ignorance of this fact.
Our choices seriously matter.
Our choices matter and we never get away with anything. We can act as if there is no such thing as good and evil, but that will destroy our lives. The choices we make ripple out in ways that we can hardly imagine.
This means our bad actions infinitely propagate throughout the world, but it also means that our good actions do too.
Everything we do starts to take on a different vibe when we think about how it will ripple off into society. What we choose to do in the present affects us in ten minutes, in ten months, in ten years, and the actions of all of those versions of us will affect other people in ways that we can’t even imagine.
When I see my actions as trivial and inconsequential, it’s easy to do the things that benefit me at the moment, but rarely do those actions benefit me in the medium to long term. When I see how much my choices matter, there’s a real pressure to get my act together.
Ignorance does not protect us from the consequences.
Ignorance does not protect us from unfavorable situations. Again, this is something that I knew intellectually, but haven’t internalized. I would have tried harder to learn more from my experiences that I did. We aren’t spared from consequences just because we didn’t know that our actions weren’t sufficient.
Children often use this excuse of ignorance to get out of anything. In my experience, teenagers often use this as their go-to excuse for not getting something done or acting appropriately. It’s always something like “I didn’t know, therefore I should be spared,” but this type of thinking isn’t cooperative with how the world works.
Just because I didn’t understand the importance of integrating the shadow, doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for the destruction it was causing.
Not knowing doesn’t protect us from the consequences, it only blinds us to them.
This is why I place such a heavy emphasis on learning efficiently. Learning as much as we can is a matter of survival. We need it to understand the consequences and act in our favor.
People will unintentionally drag you down.
“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
When drifting gets seriously out of control, people can drag others into their entropic vortex. The problem with this is that the original drifter, the person who started the vortex, may not know that they’re leading others atray.
People may not know if they’re leading you down a terrible path.
I discovered this to be true under the assumption that one should always trust family. I didn’t realize that sometimes, they don’t know when they’re wrong. Sometimes malevolence isn’t part of the picture and the destruction is simply a result of foolishness and aversion of responsibility.
People may believe what they are doing is right, but it is up to us to know what is best for ourselves.
I spent years trying to piece these ideas together and even more time letting my ignorance run rampant. To some people, these ideas may seem obvious and if they are, then I challenge you to know them viscerally. To others, these lessons aren’t true and to those people, I say enjoy the life you have and prepare yourself because the flood is coming. Nonetheless, I learned them all the hard way. I suggest that you don’t.
I hope this post helps someone learn something without having to endure extreme circumstances, but perhaps the people who need to learn these lessons the most will only do so through our mother tongue, suffering.
In my last post, I bring up the idea of analyzing hero myths for commonalities in order to find traits that would bring us success in any pursuit we choose.
What a mouthful.
I specifically brought up The Osiris Myth and how that story illustrates the power of attention. This post is going to focus on another powerful aspect of the hero of heroes, speech.
Similar to attention, speech is highly overlooked.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, renowned Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, provides a beautiful timeline of history. It starts from matter and energy appearing marking the dawn of physics and takes us all the way to the present and into a potential future. In this timeline, we see different human species appear and either evolve or die out. Obviously, we know how this story ends. Us, the homo sapiens, end up dominating the planet.
But why? What makes homo sapiens the dominant human species?
Harari argues that is it our unique ability to communicate through complex language. Homo sapiens were the only human species that were capable of communicating on a massive scale. That gives us a huge advantage over the other species. That combined with our unprecedented cognitive abilities makes us the most powerful creatures on earth.
Everything we do on this planet is created by us and our ability to communicate through complex language. Yuval talks about this idea of human beings living in two worlds simultaneously; the real tangible world and the “imaginary” world of conversation. I like to think of this “imaginary” world as the world of conversation, speech, or logos rather than “imaginary.” Referring to this world as imaginary carries implications that it’s not real. If anything, the world of conversation is more real than the tangible world.
From my experience and observations, unless overridden by conscious free will, the human being primarily lives in the world of conversation. We experience our lives as a narrative, a conversation, but we also create things external to us in that conversational world.
Let me explain using businesses as an example.
Businesses in society are not physical entities, but a conversation we are having with one another.
In Sapiens, Harari brings up Google to illustrate this point. If we were to destroy the Google headquarters, would Google disappear? No, it wouldn’t because we could rebuild it.
If we replaced all the people who worked for Google with a whole new batch of people, would Google disappear? No, not really. It might be a different company, but it could still very well be Google as we know it.
This little thought experiment is fun because it highlights the fallacies in thinking that we live in a purely physical and tangible world. Google exists in the world of conversation and because of that, we could destroy the things that represent Google in the real world, and Google could still exist.
I argue that the conversations that we’re apart of matters much more than where we are in the physical world. I’ve seen happy people in terrible places and I’ve seen miserable people in beautiful places. What determines their happiness or misery is the conversation they’re in.
People live in conversations.
Businesses are conversations. Relationships are conversations. Jobs are conversations.
Sometimes we add tangible symbols to keep the conversation boundaries clear in the physical world. We see this in things like wedding rings or uniforms. Nothing changes physically when someone gets married, but we all understand that there’s still a huge transformation that takes place. When someone changes from fiance to wife or husband, there’s a transformation in the conversation & the way we act changes along with that conversation. We symbolize that change in the physical world with wedding rings, marriage certificates, and other things.
When my girlfriend and I first started dating, nothing changed physically, but we started changing how we behaved because things have changed in the world of conversation.
The same thing happened when I became an EMT. Nothing changed physically, except maybe a few neural pathways. I was physically the same person, but the conversation I participated in was different.
We create the world with our language. Change the conversation, change the world.
I know this idea seems a little extreme, but it seems like the Mesopotamians understood this as well.
This story depicts how the Mesopotamians believed the world came to be and the origins of the first men. It’s one of the oldest stories known to man and it is filled to the brim with powerful and timeless lessons. I’ll be interjecting with some analysis in italics throughout the story.
It begins with Tiamat, the goddess of saltwater, and Apsu, the god of freshwater coming together in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to create the world, Mesopotamia.
Tiamat is more than just the goddess of saltwater, she is also the mother of everything and the goddess of Chaos. Together, Tiamat and Apsu populated Mesopotamia with young gods.
Tiamat is the archetypical representation of the anima. She is the chaos from which life springs and Apsu is the penetrative decisive force necessary to keep them alive. In some ways, Apsu is the archetypical old wise king, the positive masculine, and the animus.
There are also representations of Tiamat and Apsu drawn as serpents wrapped around each other and look eerily similar to DNA. How the Mesopotamians knew that is way beyond me.
As time goes on, the young gods become troublesome and begin to act recklessly. One night, the young gods disturb Apsu while he’s sleeping. In his frustration, Apsu tells Tiamat that they need to destroy the younger gods because they weren’t acting properly. Tiamat disagrees with Apsu and urges to protect the young gods, but it was too late. Ea, (a god of knowledge, mischief, and sweet water) discovered Apsu’s plan to destroy the young gods and sends him into an eternal sleep, death.
Naturally, the younger generations start acting in ways that the judgemental farther (animus archetype) does not approve of.Apsu doesn’t believe his creations are bringing order to the chaos, judges them accordingly, and wants to destroy them as a result. Not surprising considering that the animus archetype either protects or destroys. Of course, like any good mother, Tiamat strives to protect her children (a hallmark anima trait) but in the end, the young gods end up destroying Apsu, the order of the old.
Younger generations are constantly looking to understand the world around them and older generations are constantly working to give them answers. The issue arises when the younger generation doesn’t see the value in the old ways. Perhaps the old ways of doing things are outdated and need to be changed. Perhaps the new ways of doing things aren’t the best and the young people who practice these methods are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. Either way, there is a mismatch between the young and old and it almost always results in the young destroying the old ways.
So what happens when we destroy what our predecessors have given us?
Tiamat hears of Apsu’s death and is furious. She creates an army of monsters to destroy the young gods in retribution for the death of Apsu. She places Qingu, one of the few gods she trusts, as head of the army and gives him the Tablet of Destinies to wear as a breastplate. The Tablet of Destinies was the story of the world and what was written on the tablet is what happened. Because of this, the tablet gave Qingu immense power.
Tiamat’s rage echos themes of flood myths that can be found all over the world. In most cultures, you can find a myth of a great flood wiping out the world. In this story, Tiamat doesn’t necessarily drown the world but she is the goddess of chaos and saltwater and her will is to destroy the world because it has become too corrupt.
The young gods are terrified of Tiamat’s wrath and know that they cannot defeat her despite their powers, so they elect a champion, Marduk, to fight on their behalf. Marduk had eyes all around his head and could speak magic words. He was the only god who was brave and strong enough to take on this battle. He made a deal with the younger gods and told them that if he defeated Tiamat, then they must make him king of the gods and give him the Tablet of Destinies.
Marduk, the hero of the gods, the only opportunity to overcome chaos, harnesses the power of attention and speech.
I think this idea is so powerful. The only way we can have a fighting chance to triumph over chaos is through our attention and speech.
Also, the younger gods are also willing to give him the Tablet of Destinies if he can defeat chaos. How cool? The hero that uses their powers of attention and speech to overcome chaos, will determine what happens in the world. The will of the hero can surpass the will of the gods, so to speak. The hero will no longer be under the influence of the gods and can create the world in his image.
So Marduk went to war. He armed himself with a net and a sword. The battle was long and difficult. The more Marduk would attack Tiamat the stronger she became. She grew more monstrous with every swing of his sword. Tiamat takes the form of a dragon and begins destroying everything around her, but Marduk doesn’t quit. Eventually, he catches Tiamat in his net and chops her into pieces.
From her body, Marduk creates the sky and the earth. From her blood, he creates the first man tasked to be servants of the gods with the responsibility to maintain order and keep chaos at bay.
So Marduk, the hero, confronts chaos with his net and his sword. This is particularly interesting because this is similar to how we psychologically grasp the unknown. When we are confronted with something that we don’t know, we try to grab for a general understanding (the net), then learn the details in pieces (the sword). I like to use this idea to study better, creating a general knowledge frame to understand something then learning the details after makes learning really complicated concepts much more manageable. I talk about this in my post, Strategies of Better Studying (Part 3).
When Marduk when to war with Tiamat she grew stronger with every attempt to contain her and eventually began destroying everything around her. When we confront chaos, it will get ugly and things will be destroyed, but persistence will be the only way victory. Finding the balance to know which is tolerable destruction and which is irreparable damage is difficult, but solace can be found knowing that things will get ugly.
Notice how in the end humans are created from Tiamat (life; the anima) and the thing that harnesses attention and speech. I think this shows that the Mesopotamians noticed that a part of us, human beings, had powers like Marduk but was placed in bodies created from Tiamat.
I’ve also heard versions where the people were created from the blood of Qingu. I think that’s an interesting take on the story and also carries wisdom, but I’m not going to dive too deep into that here.
Not only were we created from the same thing that created everything else, but we were also tasked to serve the gods and mediate between chaos and order. This gave the Mesopotamians an understanding of why we felt controlled by things beyond us at times. Like jealousy or lust. The Mesopotamian gods represent a lot of what modern people would call emotional states. Carl Jung said when we stopped believing in the gods, we put them inside of us.
It is also our job to be like Marduk and maintain the balance between chaos and order. If we do, we get to be like Marduk. Access to the Tablet of Destinies and be king of the gods. This is an idea I think the Mesopotamians really captured well: the hero who maintains a proper balance between chaos and order will determine what happens in the world and will not unwillingly fall to the influence of their emotions or primal instincts.
Similar to Marduk, human beings speak magic words. We use our speech to craft the world around us and it’s truly magical how it happens. What we say has a very real impact on the world as we know it. From the story, we know that the hero who harnesses speech and attention and willingly confronts chaos gets to determine what happens. This is a powerful lesson, but that leaves us with an important question:
What does it mean to harness speech?
I don’t have a clear cut answer, but I think it’s something like understanding that there is immense power in what we say but to take it further and to use that power to confront potential and bring about our will.
Harnessing speech requires a focusing of attention on our language.
How we phrase things is how we understand them.
Harnessing speech involves practicing multiple iterations of phrasing ideas while refining the meaning more accurately each time.
From my experience, whenever I’ve experienced frustration or irritation, it comes from a lack of specificity or too much generality. For example, when I was first working on my YouTube channel I was frequently frustrated because there were so many little decisions to make. I had no idea where to start and the whole thing seemed like a terrible idea.
But then I started writing down the issues down one by one. What’s the font for my brand? What is my logo? What are the structures to the beats? What are my upload days? What genre of music am I making?
Slowly, the task became less and less frustrating.
I had to focus and articulate the chaos into something small and actionable.
Once I started doing that, there was another layer of specificity. What font size should I use? What are my brand colors? What are the titles of the videos I’m uploading? What time am I uploading?
I felt like Marduk throughout the whole process — slowly cutting the chaos into smaller and smaller pieces using my speech. The way we overcome chaos is through using our language to break up the overwhelming monster into manageable pieces.
So this poses the question: if the Meopotampians meant this, then why didn’t they just say it?
Again, not a perfect answer but I think it’s because language development is a long and difficult process. The Mesopotamians saw this lesson. They knew it to be true. But they could not say it outright because we, as a human race, did not have enough iterations to be able to clearly spell out that message. We can today because we’ve had thousands of years to be able to retell the story, refining the message with every rep.
This also mirrors the battle between Marduk and Tiamat. The battle was long, but after a while, Marduk was able to capture the Tiamat (chaos, the unknown) and chop it up. The Meopotampians captured this idea, so to speak, but we have been able to chop it up and understand it on a deeper and clearer level.
Over time, messages from the great myths become clearer and clearer, provided that the ones confronting the unknown are harnessing their powers of attention and speech in a responsible and constructive way.
I’ve seen this to be true in writing too. The age-old phrase that I’m learning to accept captures it perfectly — writing is rewriting. I used to think that writers just wrote down whatever they wanted to write the first time through, but I’m starting to see that there are significant differences between the first iteration of something and the 10th or 20th.
I try to embrace the idea and use it to write my blog. I usually write something that barely makes any sense at first, then I try to make it clearer with each rewrite.
This blog post literally started as “Mesopotamian God Story – the being that confronts chaos is the thing that chooses the destiny – articulation – logos – speech.” As you can see, I’ve fleshed it out a bit more.
Another place I’ve seen this idea is in Napoleon Hill’s fantastic book, Outwitting the Devil. It’s on my Must-Read Book List. In his book, he talks about the importance of definitive purpose and how it is what separates the drifters from the non-drifters. The act of defining purpose is a form of harnessing speech. Defining purpose requires us to use language to carve out exactly what we want from the unknown. Creating or defining purpose is a great way to get people to consciously grab hold and actively participate in the world of conversation, especially if they don’t have the vocabulary to do so.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that our brains have systems for dealing with environments that they don’t understand, I talk a little about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). These systems in our brains are primarily associated with negative emotion. We experience negative emotion when we find ourselves in places that we don’t know how to navigate (chaotic environments). When we’re in predictable environments, we experience positive emotion. Like the humans created in the story, we must manage the balance between chaos and order. We get access to positive emotion from confronting the chaos and turning it into order through harnessing speech and focused articulation.
This is something that I try to actively practice, especially in highly stressful or overwhelming times. Believe it or not, one great way to practice this is to create checklists. Whenever I feel like a challenge is too much to overcome, I emulate Marduk and chop the great dragon into little actionable tasks. This simplifies the situation, instead of trying to control for all the variables, my task becomes one easy thing — cross things off the list.
I recommend checking out The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. It’s a beautifully written piece on the hidden (an extremely underrated) powers of checklists. It’s really cool to see how using checklists can completely eradicate mistakes and move projects along faster. He also goes over what makes checklists effective and what makes them more trouble than their worth. Using checklists to practice harnessing speech is so powerful. Just keep in mind that more accurate articulation comes from multiple reps, the first checklists you make aren’t going to be very good.
When it comes to being an effective student, determining what you need to get accomplished or what you need to learn is a fantastic way to practice harnessing speech.
What we say creates who we are. We see this in jobs and our relationships with people. I try to make this known with my students — the only reason they see me as a tutor is that we agree that in the world of conversation, I am a tutor. There is nothing that’s physically different between me and them (except a few neural pathways). I find that this helps them feel like they could learn the material too, despite their failures in the past. It also humanizes me and makes me more relatable. When I’m tutoring I find that things run smoother if my student sees me as similar to them rather than some “math guy” who knows the answer all the time.
Our language plays such a huge role in the world we participate in. I don’t like to write about what people ought to do, but we should treat our powers of speech with respect and use it to build a better place for everyone.
“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.”
“Life is to man, in other words, to will, what chemical re-agents are to the body: it is only by life that a man reveals what he is, and it is only in so far as he reveals himself that he exists at all. Life is the manifestation of character, of the something that we understand by that word; and it is not in life, but outside of it, and outside time, that character undergoes alteration, as a result of the self-knowledge which life gives. Life is only the mirror into which a man gazes not in order that he may get a reflection of himself, but that he may come to understand himself by that reflection; that he may see what it is that the mirror shows. Life is the proof sheet, in which the compositors’ errors are brought to light.”
Arthur Schopenhauer (The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; On Human Nature)
In my post, The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 1), I talk about how many of us fail to recognize the significance of the relationship with ourselves, the different aspects that make up this relationship, and how we can use this knowledge to turn our biggest enemy into our biggest ally. It’s difficult work, but doing it is worthwhile and enriches our lives in a beautiful way.
However, utilizing the knowledge of the relationship with ourselves is more than just creating ourselves. It is also accepting and not avoiding ourselves. Meditating on our flaws, contradictions, and inconsistencies, then embracing them. What I’m suggesting is deeper than “self-love“, especially since that term has been bastardized in the modern world.
Taking on the responsibility of developing an integrated and healthy relationship with ourselves is a form of true love and acceptance of all that we are, in our beauty and catastrophe.
The more I write about this topic, the more I discover how much I cannot cover in these blog posts, so I’m going to hone in and just focus on one section of this idea. This post is going to focus on the archetypically negative side of ourselves. The sides of ourselves that many of us like to reject, ignore, and avoid at all costs.
Existence is the positive, the good, and the light. But it is also the negative, the bad, and the darkness. To be a human being is to understand that both the good and bad lies within our soul. Pretending that we are only good (or that we are not bad) ignores half the story and, more often than not, causes more harm than good.
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago)
The human mind is commonly compared to a horse and it’s rider. The horse being the unconscious mind, and the rider being the conscious mind. It’s the rider’s job to direct the horse to a desired goal, similar to the conscious mind to the unconscious mind.
From what I can tell, our psyches are more than one horse and one rider. We have many horses and it is our moral obligation to pay attention to our horses and how they may act. Similar to how people are responsible for their pets.
If we cannot comprehend that we’re dangerous, then that horse is without a rider, so to speak, and it’s free to cause as much meyhem as it will.
We have horses that we purposely try to reject, ignore, and avoid. Since these horses are usually archetypically negative, they are commonly conflated with pain and suffering. However, the structures of suffering are built right into existence and we must learn to contend with it or we’re doomed to chasing phantoms forever.
“Pain and death are part of life. To reject them is to reject life itself.”
Havelock Ellis (1859-1939)
Good Children and Repression
“When one tries desperately to be good and wonderful and perfect, then all the more the shadow develops a definite will to be black and evil and destructive. People cannot see that; they are always striving to be marvellous, and then they discover that terrible destructive things happen which they cannot understand, and they either deny that such facts have anything to do with them, or if they admit them, they take them for natural afflictions, or they try to minimize them and to shift the responsibility elsewhere. The fact is that if one tries beyond one’s capacity to be perfect, the shadow descends into hell and becomes the devil.”
Carl Jung (Visions: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1930–1934)
A fantastic example of repression are in children who consider themselves “good.”
Good children can be spotted as the ones who finish their homework early, are a little shy, always try to help their parents, and maybe even have neat handwriting. Good children strive to be perfect and on most measures may even match up with these extraordinary expectations.
The real insidious danger of the good child lies in other people not thinking anything is wrong with them. From a surface level analysis, it’s easy to conclude that there isn’t anything wrong with these kids. Adults will shift their focus, and attribute most of the problems to children who are causing conspicuous trouble, even though a little trouble is necessary for a healthy psyche.
Since good children are always doing what’s expected of them, they constantly repress their own desires and inner feelings.
This can be from a number of reasons.
Maybe a parent is depressed and overwhelmed. The child notices this and believes that this parent can’t take anymore trouble. So the good child does everything they can to make sure they aren’t the source of anymore trouble, ever.
Or perhaps one parent is a violent angry perfectionist who explodes at any behavior that’s less than perfect.
No matter the reason, a need for excessive compliance is not natural or healthy and should be treated like the danger it really is.
When a child develops a need for excessive compliance, they become over encumbered with secrets and repress their inner wants for the sake of complying with others.
This repression could take the form of psychosomatic symptoms like twitches, sudden emotional outbursts, excessive bitterness, or irritability. The child may not even be able to identify the reason for the psychosomatic symptoms because they have such little familiarity with their own feelings.
The good child does not have access to the privilege of other people being willing or able to tolerate their imperfections. A privilege necessary for a mentally healthy child.
Good children typically do not have the privilege to express their negative emotions and still be loved or accepted by people around them. In a situation like that, it’s no surprise that someone could conclude that the only way they’ll be accepted is through acting good all the time.
The good child may grow to believe that their personal wants and desires are inappropriate.
This causes a detachment from their bodies and emotions. People like this have a difficult time forming healthy relationships with others later in life. Or, as a response to the repression, the good child may give in to their inner desires too much creating a whole new pathology.
Adult life is full of moments when we need to “break the rules” or act in ways that may upset people. Good children end up having issues as they get older, because they tend to follow the rules and try not to upset people. Without either of these abilities, the good child is damned to a life of mediocrity and people pleasing.
The dangers of repression can take many different forms and don’t just apply to good children. Aiming to understand the shadow sides of ourselves is the path to proper maturity.
Proper maturity involves a deep integration of our less than perfect sides as well as our dark sides. Accepting ourselves in our beauty and catastrophe is crucial to building a strong foundation for the relationship with ourselves.
Establishing a Foundation
Human beings are creators through Logos. We create our lives through our speech. We invent worlds and stories through our conversations and live in them. Most of the time we can’t tell the difference between our conversational world and the “real” world. We build relationships through conversation and the relationship with ourselves is no different.
Most people wouldn’t tell their child to lie as much as they can to get what they want. Many of us know, either from personal experience or otherwise, that lying is a terrible long term strategy. If we were to catch someone lying to us, it would be upsetting and we wouldn’t be as willing to trust them in the future. We also know that if we were caught lying to someone else, they would feel the same way about us.
However, there is one person whom we don’t mind lying to and I bet you can guess who it is…
Healthy relationships are built on honesty. In order to have a healthy relationship with ourselves, we must be able to be honest with ourselves. Honesty is a solid foundation that must be established first before any relationship can be built. If we try to build a relationship without honesty, sooner or later it will all come crashing down.
Honesty comes when we choose to stop lying to ourselves, but in order to do that we need to understand why we lie to ourselves.
We lie to avoid pain.
We love to lie about all of the problematic aspects that take tremendous effort to alter including but not limited to, our careers, relationships, health, habits, or ideologies.
It’s easier to attempt to elicit sympathy from others and ourselves than be honest with our inadequacies. The truth is we could change these things about our lives, but we lie and say we can’t. The best part is no one can call us on our bluff because we are lying to ourselves! Modern people have learned to avoid responsibility, even though adopting it provides us with meaning.
We lie to think well of ourselves.
We lie to not feel inadequate.
We lie because we are angry with people we are supposed to love and the matters we are angry about are petty.
We lie because it’s easy.
We lie because telling the truth makes us responsible.
We lie because if we don’t it will be ourselves holding us back and nothing or no one else.
As long as we understand the drives within us, then maybe we could see past the lies and look at our lives honestly. While the lying satiates us in the present, we will be forced to deal with the truth later. We can choose to confront our lies willingly, or let them take us unexpectedly when we are older. When we confront them willingly, we prove ourselves to be braver and establish a solid foundation to build the bravery upon. That bravery now has the freedom to grow into something much bigger.
No matter which choice we make, it will be painful. The idea that freedom is on the other end of suffering is a tragedy. Everyone deals with their own tragedy of life in their own way and lying to ourselves isn’t the only trick up our sleeve. This can be different for each individual and I recommend looking into methods of coping with the tragedy of life. I wrote a little bit about other methods we use to deal with our own tragedy in my post Proclivity for Comfort.
Here are some of the popular maneuvers that we use to lie to ourselves:
Distraction & Addiction
This can look like porn, news, drugs, work, etc. I go a little deeper about distraction in Proclivity for Comfort.
Repressed sadness can often display as intense happiness. The rejection of negative or sad emotions is so deep that we don’t let ourselves feel any sadness at all resulting in an overly happy affect.
Being irritated is a fantastic indicator that something is wrong. However, general irritability is a cover up for unspecified issues. Honing in on elevated articulation is key for combating general irritability.
Destructivly critiquing ourselves or others. Any fool can tear something down, but it takes substantial effort to critique then offer a solution. Most of the time, denigration is misdirected energy. Talking shit helps no one, focus on what really needs fixing.
Being over critical of ourselves or other people is another sign that we are misguiding our efforts. Usually, it’s easier to find the mistakes in everything else, rather than fixing the fault where it really matters.
Defensiveness comes when we have something to prove. We only feel like we need to prove something if we feel like what we are isn’t what we would like to show. If we understood what we are, accepting both our strengths and weaknesses, then maybe we would lose the need to prove we are more than what we are.
Cynicism & Dispair
These come with the loss of naïveté. When we first encounter more chaos than we can process, we inevitably lose our childlike view of the world. Suddenly, not everyone is a friend and life is no longer fun and games. While it’s easy to ride that train straight to Hell, true wisdom and freedom comes from integrating our childlike wonder with our newfound understanding of malevolence and destruction. Keep the child alive in us, but let the adult really run the show.
“We should not try to ‘get rid’ of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is.”
Carl Jung (Civilization in Transition)
Before we get into using anxiety to our advantage, let’s discuss why we get anxiety in the first place.
“The distinctive characteristic of the human being, in contrast to the merely vegetative or the merely animal, lies in the range of human possibility and in our capacity for self-awareness of possibility. Kierkegaard sees man as a creature who is continually beckoned by possibility, who conceives of possibility, visualizes it, and by creative activity carries it into actuality.”
Rollo May (The Meaning of Anxiety)
Human beings have a special capacity to project possible scenarios into the future. We can think about how events could play out without actually having to act them out in real life. A lot of this type of processing happens in our prefrontal cortex, I talk about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind. This gives us a huge advantage when it comes to survival and undoubtedly a huge contributor to our reign over the animal kingdom.
But it’s not without a price.
Choosing which potential projection to bring into reality is how we create our lives, but it’s also one of the sources of our anxiety. In this way, humans must contend with their freedom like no other animal must. We ask questions that other animals cannot ask themselves. Which potential reality is best for me? Which potential reality will bring me danger? What do I do about potential threats in the future?
Søren Kierkegaard, renown Danish philosopher, suggests the escape from a life of passivity, stagnation, or mediocrity lies in our willingness to attend, what he calls, The School of Anxiety.
Kierkegaard believes anxiety has two sides to it.
One side is demonic and can ruin our lives. This is the side we traditionally think of when we think about anxiety.
The other is constructive and guides us towards a development of the Jungian Self. Anxiety can act as directions in the journey of circumambulation.
Most people advise to follow one’s dreams, Kierkegaard advises to follow one’s anxiety. Avoiding and rejecting our anxiety leaves us blind and frozen. Our anxiety gives us a glimpse into which possible scenarios we ought to take. Anxiety can tell us what to direct our energy towards. It lets us know what we really find important.
“The capacity to bear anxiety is important for the individual’s self-realization and for his conquest of his environment. Every person experiences continual shocks and threats to his existence; indeed, self-actualization occurs only at the price of moving ahead despite such shocks. This indicates the constructive use of anxiety”
Rollo May (The Meaning of Anxiety)
As May suggests, moving forward through our anxiety is the way to a greater version of ourselves. Greatness lies on the other side of anxiety, as long as we are willing to push ahead.
Unfortunately, much of the common attitude towards anxiety is to reject or avoid it. Having anxiety is seen to be a problem that we “shouldn’t” have and feeling negative emotion has been made to be “bad” & “wrong” in modern society. This is because the constructive elements of anxiety are not easily visible to the masses.
This rejection and avoidance are so deep that some people would even claim to not desire a greater life. When our comfort and security are more appealing than the anxiety that lurks in the unknown, resignation of this nature becomes common practice. This is precisely why the trap of passivity, stagnation, and mediocrity lies in the rejection of anxiety.
When we refuse to move into the possibilities which make us anxious, we sentence the side of us seeking self-realization and a greater life to death. This isn’t a clean death either, it’s slow and sloppy. Repressing this side of ourselves breeds a violent shadow and I would go as far to say that it is like repressing the will to life itself. The tension within ourselves created from willingly seeking self-realization or circumambulation is what gives our lives meaning and stimulates the deepest parts of ourselves.
In order to access the constructive parts of anxiety, we first have to understand that we can always take action, even if we are enveloped with anxiety.
Believing that we have to get rid of our anxiety before we can act puts us at a serious disadvantage for a couple of reasons. It facilitates procrastination and it can lead to a serious dependence on drugs or alcohol.
Holding on to the idea that we need to remove anxiety to act makes us weak.
The next thing we need to understand to access the constructive parts of anxiety is understanding that no one can do this for us except for ourselves.
Realizing that nothing in my life was ever going to change unless I did something to make it change was one of the most anxiety-inducing, but empowering realizations I’ve ever had. I was able to switch my Locus of Control. This realization helped me see the constructive side to anxiety.
The possibilities which stress us out are precisely what we need to pay more attention to. The anxiety is an opportunity to exercise our divine abilities, it’s the call of the hero’s journey.
“One of the most important [revelatory] moments is when the client grasps that no one is coming. No one is coming to save me; no one is coming to make life right for me; no one is coming to solve my problems. If I don’t do something, nothing is going to get better. The dream of a rescuer who will deliver us may offer a kind of comfort, but it leaves us passive and powerless. We may feel if only I suffer long enough, if only I yearn desperately enough, somehow a miracle will happen, but this is the kind of self-deception one pays for with one’s life as it drains away into the abyss of unredeemable possibilities and irretrievable days, months, decades.”
Nathaniel Branden (1930-2014)
Enhancing our levels of articulation is another constructive and effective way of coping with anxiety. We experience anxiety when we find ourselves in too much chaos. When things don’t work out the way we expect, our brain responds by trying to prepare for whatever potential danger is lurking around the corner.
Let’s say we’re pre-med, but we get an F on a test. When we recieve that F, we are thrown out order into the domain of chaos because we aren’t sure what the F symbolizes.
Did we just get one question on the test wrong? Did we just forget to study a concept? Did we not properly learn the prerequisite material from the last class? Do we need to change our lifestyle choices? Are we incapable of learning this information? Are we not good enough to get into medical school? Are we too stupid to take this class? Are we even good enough to pursue anything bigger than us?
It’s easy for these questions to spiral out of control, because we don’t know exactly where the error lies. Maybe we just forgot a concept, but maybe we might not even be cut out for our goals at all! Anxiety comes from our mind trying to prepare for all of those scenarios at once. Our threat detection systems in our body are put into overdrive and that makes it difficult to do a lot of things. However, once we specify what we are able to prepare for, the anxiety immediately begins to subside. If there was some way of knowing exactly where the error was, then there’s no need to prepare for everything all at once.
Enhancing our levels of articulation helps us direct our energy towards something definitive, which keeps anxiety at bay, rather than letting our minds run while trying to plan a new career path, prepare for a panther attack, and an alien invasion all at the same time.
We will constantly have to choose between avoiding or moving forward. What will aid us in moving forward isn’t wisdom, intelligence, or even new information. It is the integration of the Jungian Shadow. Creating a relationship with ourselves which captivates the sides of ourselves we tend to reject, ignore, and avoid will provide a steady mechanism that can impel us to act even when our reason tries to stop us. Sometimes our instincts are wiser than our evolved executive cognition. Accepting the sides of us which yearn for chaos gives us the advantage in utilizing our anxiety.
Life is too short to not take the bold risks a fully lived human life requires.
“For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is – to live dangerously!”
“How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty and you will know at once what you are worth.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Maxims on Life and Character)
I have spent many weeks putting off writing about this topic simply because it is so big and I didn’t know where to start. I kept scrapping intro after intro because I felt like none of them could accurately express the magnitude of importance that this idea holds. I was getting frustrated because I had this huge message inside me, but I had no way of getting it out! So rather than try to build up to the idea I’m just going to start from the point I want to make and work my way around it.
The main idea is that people are relational creatures and we do not pay enough attention to our most important relationship, the relationship with ourselves.
We see it everyday, so much energy, attention, and money are dedicated to our relationships. In fact, we have entire industries built on this phenomena – therapy, self-help, sports, the arts, the list can go on forever.
We put so much care and attention into how we relate to our work or our loved ones, but rarely think about how we relate to ourselves. This is peculiar because how we relate to ourselves impacts us far greater than how we relate to anything external of ourselves. I’ve read so many different books written by people from all different time periods, and it seems like the biggest influence on our experience of reality, life satisfaction, and peace of mind is ourselves.
People are constantly looking outward to change their lives or find happiness. The inconvenient truth, is that everything we desire is within.
They tell themselves “Once I get _____” or “Once ____ is over” or “When I’m finally ____” then I can be happy.
Most of us intellectually know that this isn’t true, but to internalize it is a different story.
Our life satisfaction, our abilities to take on new things, and potential opportunities are all dictated by how we know ourselves.
We all have feelings and thoughts about ourselves that we do not share with other people and these patterns control our orienting reflexes. People are purpose driven creatures and I talk a little bit about how we need to track things in order to succeed, but the relationship with ourselves decides what we believe we can even keep track of at all.
The relationship with ourselves is the sum total of all our achievements and failures that we observe in ourselves. We subconsciously keep score of everything. Every time we said we were going to do something but didn’t creates a relationship with ourselves that suggests we aren’t reliable. Every time we’ve done the impossible and surprised ourselves with our abilities creates a relationship with ourselves that proves we can do amazing things in the face of adversity.
Everything we do is kept record.
Christians believe that God is watching them always. I believe that we were made in God’s image and it is not only God always watching but it is the god within ourselves that is always watching. Regardless of religious affiliation, we are the only ones who have been with us since the beginning.
No one understands the experiences and situations we have been in better than ourselves and it is through this understanding which we develop the relationship with ourselves.
Who we know ourselves to be is not based in what we say to other people, but how we feel about ourselves. Our perspectives of ourselves is the only thing that has truly been with us through all of our situations. This part of ourselves keeps score, it pays attention to what we have and haven’t done and casts projects of what we can and cannot do. How we relate to ourselves dictates our orienting reflexing and ultimately our lives.
Imagine that you’re planning to meet a friend for dinner. You plan to meet them at the restaurant, but they don’t show up. You try getting in touch with them, but they’re dodging your calls. Eventually, you get a hold of them and they give some weak excuse that barely explains why they couldn’t show up. You just got let down. Your friend did not fulfil what they committed to you. Naturally, we’d feel disappointed and upset, but the real truth is we will forever see that friend as less reliable and accountable. Their word has taken a slight dip in believability and the person can no longer be counted on as much as they were before. It can seem harsh, but it’s the truth. Now, the real kicker is that we can replace that unreliable friend with ourselves.
We rarely pay attention to the expectations and commitments we put onto ourselves. Partly because we like to think as long as only I know, then it didn’t really happen. However, the feelings associated with that unreliable friend can easily be put onto ourselves if we pull the same stunt. Our self-esteem, self-efficacy, confidence, ambition, life satisfaction is a direct result of this. It’s easy to put things onto others and it’s even easier to put things on ourselves, but sometimes we tend not to notice the relationship with ourselves.
In a world of legally mandated education, I’ve noticed a lot of students wondering why they’re forced to learn and work on countless “pointless” concepts and it’s a fair argument. Most of the concepts and “education” people recieve is only useful in an academic setting and rarely applicable in The World Beyond. Admittedly the education system, at least in the United States, needs a ton of rework. However, there is something invaluable we can get from our education.
Our current education system provides students with an opportunity for them to prove to themselves what kind of person they are.
Are you the kind of person who gets things done when the going gets tough or do you quit the first chance you get?
The relationship with ourselves is always transforming and refining with every situation we encounter. Since most kids spend most of their time at school or working on their education, a large portion of the relationship with themselves is rooted in how they handled their academic responsibilities.
We can choose who we are, but first we need to discover what our relationship with ourselves is like. We can ask ourselves the follow questions to get a quick snapshot of what our relationship might look like:
What degree is it damaged?
What can we do to make it better?
Do we trust ourselves?
Do we believe we are capable of helping ourselves?
What kind of person do we think we are?
What kind of person are we actually?
The good news is we can build the relationship with ourselves no matter where we are. First we have to know what our relationship is like for ourselves, then work on ways to prove to ourselves that we are the kind of person that we want to be.
This starts with our integrity and identity.
A common definition of integrity is what you do when no one is looking. People who having integrity are typically considered moral and trustworthy because we know that even behind closed doors they will still make the right choices. This definition of integrity is fantastic and if we see it through the lense of the relationship with ourselves, we will see that integrity is important because we, us, ourselves, are always looking. We constantly are watching us and we know how we would act behind closed doors. People with integrity have a healthy and strong relationship with themselves because they know exactly what kind of choices they will make.
There’s another definition that I believe is much more useful and powerful. Integrity is also known as a state of being whole or undivided. Every commitment we break, to others or ourselves, puts a little crack in our integrity. Every aspect of our lives that is not aligned with our chosen commitments also puts a little crack in our integrity.
When our integrity is not perfectly whole, we are prone to negative emotion and lose the ability to live in the present. This creates intense dissatisfaction with our lives.
Living with perfect integrity is better than anything we can ever experiences. It’s comparable to true peace of mind and contentment. It is our goal to seek out what does not make us whole and undivided and reorient that part of our lives so it serves us, or at least does not hold back. When we have perfect integrity, the relationship with ourselves is pristine. We get out of our own way and become our biggest ally.
When we have a commitment, or vision for our lives, we create a value structure which deams certain actions as “good” (they bring us closer to our goals) or “bad” (they bring us away from our goals). When we stay on the path, so to speak, we are operating with perfect integrity and are creating a positive and powerful relationship with ourselves. If we were to stray off the path, make a “bad” decision, we won’t be able to have perfect integrity until we make up for the damage done. In a Judeo-Christian context, this can be seen as atonement – at one, at return to a state of wholeness.
I believe this is why the world religions have this mechanism built into their structure. Human beings must stay on a path towards something they find valuble. This is clear when we have a goal or a commitment. However, sometimes we may choose to act in a way that does not align with that path.
In archery, they call missing the mark a sin. In a religious context, they say not staying on the path is a sin. I’m saying that from the perspective of developing a relationship with ourselves, not saying on the path is a sin, in the technical sense of the word.
When we sin, we must correct our trajectory in order to return to the path. The world religions have their own ways for doing this, but I believe they all contain the same basic mental exercises.
In order to restore integrity we must:
Admit that we have missed the mark
Understand the impact of our sin to the highest degree that we are capable
Discover methods to make up for the sin
Implement those methods in the real world
This can look an infinite amount of ways. In the future, I’ll write more about integrity because I feel like it is one of those HUUUGE ideas that could make a significant positive impact in many people’s lives.
Living with perfect integrity requires us to clearly understand what our values, goals, and commitments are. This is not an easy task, and many people love to not clearly articulate themselves so they can escape the responsibility of paying attention to their actions. I talk about this idea in a few of my posts, but it first came up in The Reality-Possibility Exchange.
If we could be honest with ourselves and understand our commitments, we know when we’re doing something right and when we’re doing something wrong. If we pay enough attention, there is a specific moment when we decide to do the wrong thing. There is an actual second that we can point to on a clock when we decide to not follow through on our commitment. Pay attention and you will notice it when it comes. What we decide to do in that moment determines the relationship with ourselves.
Our identity, in terms of the relationship to ourselves, is how we understand ourselves to be. We know what we like or don’t like. We understand what we are skilled in and what we are ignorant of. We know ourselves as a certain kind of person.
Our identity is one of the strongest motivational forces and determines what our goals and aims are. Our identity shapes our ideals and the paths we walk towards them.
No matter what we declare our identity to be, we can act out of line and define ourselves whenever we want. This is a turbulent process which comes with its own set of stages, but it can be done. Our identities aren’t permanent, not until we’re dead.
Don’t sacrifice who you could be for who you are now.
Our identity is closely related to our integrity. We see all of our own actions and know all of our own thoughts. Our identity is built from our integrity. If we aren’t following through on our commitments and projects, then we are supplying proof to ourselves that we aren’t trustworthy and reliable. Creating an identity of being unreliable prevents us from creating an identity of someone admirable or virtuous.
The game is pretty rough, but it’s what we all have to play. It’s play the game (whatever game you choose) and play it well, or know yourself as a loser.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones Season 1 Episode 7)
We try hard to stick to the identity we give ourselves simply because we hate being wrong and what’s worse than being wrong about who we are? Additionally, our identities are usually justified by the people around us. Our friends and family members will consistently remind us of how we are this kind of person or that kind of person. Their perceptions of your identity are just as malleable as our own. Our identities are never permanent in our minds or in the minds of others.
Consistency & Toughness
Life is hard, but we’re tougher than we think, the only issue is that we have to prove it to ourselves. How do we prove it to ourselves? Through consistent action.
Consistency is key to building a relationship with ourselves and it’s also key to building a lasting and formidable identity. Developing a relationship with ourselves is much like developing a relationship with another person, it takes a lot of time. So we need to create consistent action to create ample proof that we are who we think we are. However, unlike relationships with other people, the relationship with ourselves is 20% discovery and 80% creation. Relationships with other people tend to be 80% discovery, and 20% creation.
We need toughness because relationships are hard work and working over the long term will require us to be tough. A lot of early life relationships end because people don’t have the toughness to deal with the challenges of intertwining the life of another. The unique part about this relationship is we can never leave it! We are always going to be in a relationship with ourselves and it’s damn hard to craft it into something steadfast and powerful.
A couple tips for developing toughness – do not say things that make you weak. You are listening to yourself when you speak, and if you say you’re weak then you’ll listen and internalize it. Be mindful of the comments we make about ourselves. Also, try operating in your Zone of Proximal Development. It’s an excellent way to grow yourself in any domain of life you choose.
This is the difference between success and failure in terms of someone reaching their full potential. The “talentless” can surpass the naturally gifted individuals and reach unimaginable heights as long as they cultivate the grit within them.
According to wikipedia – grit is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state (a powerful motivation to achieve an objective). It is the key to stellar performance in any field and the best part is anyone can create it within themselves. The simplest way I think about grit is as passionate persistence.
Renowned scholar and author, Angela Duckworth wrote a book appropriately titled “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” and has a TedTalk which has over 6 million views on YouTube in which she gives a fantastic overview of grit and how we can use it be reach out full potential.
The reason why I bring up grit now is because the key to understanding grit and using it to our advantage is to know ourselves as someone with high levels of grit.
Developing a relationship with ourselves where we are full of grit and cultivating an identity that matches can give us full proof armor when we encounter difficulties such as The Attack, or what Steven Pressfield describes as Resistance in his book, The War of Art.
Grit can be thought of as having 5 characteristics. Focusing on developing each of these characteristics in ourselves will help us cultivate grit as a whole.
The 5 Characteristics of Grit
Courage – developing courage does not mean ridding ourselves of fear, it means to accept the fear within us and act anyway. In order to create a relationship with myself in which I know myself to be courageous, then I have to pay attention during the times when I’m more afraid, decide what they best course of action is, and take it. No withdrawing or freezing in hopes that things will go away on their own.
Conscientiousness: Achievement Oriented vs. Dependable – being conscientious a useful trait to develop within ourselves because conscientious people work like mad. Knowing ourselves as someone who is focused on achievement and dependable makes us invaluable in any industry at any level. Conscientious people tend to rise to the level of expectation, but only because they prove to themselves that they can over and over. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they laid bricks every hour.
Long-Term Goals and Endurance: Follow Through – nothing is worthwhile without follow through in the long term. Things that take longer are usually better and designing our lives is a long game. We need to be able to know ourselves as people who can follow through even if they goal is years down the line. We need to know that we can maintain vision over the long term. Sometimes I think that the true test of success is just maintaining the vision over the trials and tribulations.
Resilience: Optimism, Confidence, and Creativity– we will encounter hardship and challenges that rival our wildest dreams. The only way through it is knowing ourselves as resilient. If we know we have what it takes to get through it, then we will. The only thing is that we’ll need to know how to get through most challenges. Knowing ourselves as optimistic will help us keep faith and push forward. Knowing ourselves as confident will give us the willingness to push the boundaries into unexplored territory. Dragons lay in the unknown, but so does treasure! Knowing ourselves as creative will give us the means to solve some of life’s toughest puzzles – the challenges which impede us from obtaining the life of our own design.
Excellence vs. Perfection – excellence is a difficult idea to wrap our head around without tangling it up with perfection. If we know ourselves as perfectionists, or someone who produces perfect work, then we are frozen forever. Our super egos would be too strict and that would leave no room for any kind of action. However, if we know ourselves as excellent, or someone who produces excellent work, then we will inevitably put our best effort into everything we do. Going the extra mile is only tough if you don’t normally do it.
The relationship we have with ourselves can be reflected in our self-efficacy. Self–efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). It reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment.
If we have a powerful relationship with ourselves and know ourselves to follow through on our commitments, then we will have high self-efficacy.
If we have an unstable relationship with ourselves and we know ourselves as wishy-washy, then we’ll have a low self efficacy.
Remember, part of us is always keeping score and self-efficacy is the part that controls our confidence and willingness to try new and difficult things.
Now, this is not the same as self-esteem. Self-esteem is more like the amount of self-respect we have rather than confidence in our ability to perform. Self-esteem is important too, but self-efficacy is what I believe really controls the trajectory of our lives.
There is more I’d like to go over when it comes to the relationship with ourselves, but I’m going to cut it off here for now. How we treat ourselves and how we act affects us. All. The. Time. The relationship with ourselves is a part of our lives that doesn’t get as much attention as it should, especially considering that it determines the majority of our life outcome.
Love yourself. Trust yourself. Push yourself. Earn yourself.
“Most habits take on one of four common forms: things you want to start doing, things you want to stop doing, things you want to do more, and things you want to do less.”
Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)
Before I dive into this post, I have to make a few honorable necessary mentions. Most of this information is from James Clear’s amazing book Atomic Habits, which I highly recommend. He explains the importance of developing systems and focusing our attention at the level of the habit in a seemingly effortless and powerful way. I also have to mention Josh Kaufman’s The Personal MBA, a must read book for entrepreneurs looking for well packaged high quality information. I think my must read book list needs some updating. Kaufman goes over more than just business, he also lays out a wealth of knowledge regarding habit formation and lifestyle design.
Intentionally creating our own lives starts with understanding our every day actions and how they develop into habits. I like to think of habits as belonging to the four categories mentioned above – Things We Should Start Doing, Things We Should Stop Doing, Things We Should Do Less, and Things We Should Do More. Meditating on these categories and articulating which habits fall into each category is a fantastic exercise in identifying key habits. Identifying which habits we want to start, stop, or change is the first step in creating our lives by design. Another way I like to identify habits is to categorize them as Old Habits – things I want to do less or stop all together – or as New Habits – things I want to do more or start doing.
The Habit Cycle
Understanding the Habit Cycle is like learning the anatomy and physiology of habits. The Habit Cycle explains how habits come to be and what we can do to make that process easier or harder.
According to Clear, habits have 4 stages that they follow. Cue. Craving. Response. Reward. Understanding each stage will help us intentionally create habits that we want in our lives and destroy the habits we don’t.
The Cue is the external stimuli that triggers the brain to start the behavior. When we see a cue, we get a Craving, which is the motivational force behind the habit. The Response is action or set of actions we take to potentially satisfy the craving. The Reward is what makes it all worth it and the last stage, the satisfaction of the craving.
Let me give an example to ground this in real life.
Let’s say I’m working on a blog post and I reach an issue in articulating what I want to say. Cue – I encounter a difficult situation. I start feeling stuck and my motivations change. I just want to be relieved of my frustration. Craving – yearning for relief. Despite my best intentions, I reason with myself that I am going to die sooner than I’d like and my experience of life is all that truly matters so I should stop blogging and play video games. I save my blog post, turn on my PS4 and have a good ol’ time. Reponse – leaving the challenging situation to play games. I feel delighted that I get to play my video games and my relief has come. Reward – obtained relief from tension caused from blogging. In this case, I layed out my provility to play video games when I’m confronted with difficult situations. Identifying the steps in this habit cycle helps me take the steps I need to ramp this up or turn it down depending on what I want for my life. For me, I love developing myself to overcome challenges in anyway possible so I’m going to try to break that habit and replace it with a new and more positive one.
If we pay enough attention to what causes our cravings, then we can take premeditated steps to intentionally create our ideal lives. We do not have to let the habit cycle run over and over, we can stop it at any point. We just need to know how.
Breaking Old Habits
Breaking old habits is a skill worth practicing. On our journey, we pick up ways of being or thinking that may have been useful in the past, but no longer serve a purpose to us in the present. I know I have more than a few habits holding me back from bringing about my Jungian Self.
The first thing we need to do when we’re breaking habits, is identifying the things we do that are not bringing us closer to where we want to go. Once those habits are identified, we can practice a few things to make those habits more difficult for us to live out.
One of my favorite ways to break bad habits is to add friction to the mix. Friction can be thought of as obstacles preventing us from completing an action.
I’ll give an example to bring this down to Earth.
Let’s say we have a habit of spending too much time on our phone in the morning. The first thing we do when we wake up is check out phone and we end up losing track of time and it throws off our whole day.
Analyzing this situation in terms of friction, we can see that we are only partaking in the “bad” habit because there’s nothing stopping us from doing it! If we were to set our phone on the other side of the room before we go to bed, then there will be a lot of friction between us and checking our phone in the morning.
Those small, yet big, steps of getting out of bed and walking over to your phone gives you enough time to develop the willpower necessary to not act out the habit. Friction is what makes or breaks my habit formation 90% of the time. I’m so sensitive to friction, but I choose to use my susceptibility to measure the effectiveness of my environment.
I love using friction to my advantage. I can increase the friction to prevent actions that I don’t want, or I can decrease it and it’ll be easier for me to build the habits I desire.
Invert the Habit Cycle
Another effective way to break old habits is to invert each step of the habit cycle.
The first step is Cue. If we can cut out the cue completely, or at least make it invisible, then we have a fighting chance to break that specific habit loop. Let me give an example, if I see my PlayStation controller in my room I’ll get an urge to play and I’ll have to use willpower to fight off the craving. Instead of using willpower to break the habit cycle, I put my PlayStation controller in a place that makes it difficult for me to see it and the craving never exists in the first place.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Now, I still may get cravings to play video games, but this way I can control for at least 1 variable. To break the habit cycle at the cue stage, we can make our cues invisible.
The second step is Craving. To stop a craving we can use willpower to resist it (but that takes too much energy), we can make the cue invisible, or we can make the craving seem unattractive.
Let me put it this way, let’s say I have a craving to eat a snack at midnight. I can think about how good it will feel to satisfy my midnight craving and how happy I will be enjoying my little snack – thinking like this will just make me want to eat more.
Or I can think about how I’m developing a habit that could lead to an unhealthy lifestyle which consequently leads to a shorter and lesser quality functional lifespan. I can imagine my body failing me in ways that I take for granted now and the frustration I will feel confronting my true powerlessness.
Once the snack is framed like that, it’s much easier to say “How about a hell no.” Making things unattractive can stop a craving dead in its tracks.
The third step is Response. To stop the habit in the response stage, Clear recommends to make the response difficult. This goes hand-in-hand with my “add-friction” tip from earlier. If we add friction between us and our response, then we are much less likely to act out the response. This makes sense when we think about what the purpose of habits are.
We have habits to save cognitive load, and overcoming friction would add cognitive load, which works counter to habits. We have habits to make things easier, so making a response more difficult will cut off the habit before we get our highly sought after reward.
The fourth and final step is Reward. We love the reward because of one simple reason. It is satisfying. If we make the reward unsatisfying, there goes all the power!
Imagine, sacrificing what mean most to you only to receive a lackluster reward. The visceral and lingering feelings of disappointment will power through any urge to perform those sets of actions again. If we feel like what we doing isn’t worth it, then we aren’t going to do it again. Simple as that. Find what makes the reward sweet and ruin it.
Be weary that there aren’t just clever mind tricks that play into our breaking and forming of habits, but our emotional states as well. We tend to break the “good” habits and start the “bad” habits when we’re feeling H.A.L.T. – hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. When we identify with one of these 4 emotional states, we are way more susceptible to aiming down and following through with it. We are pretty tough people, but we only have so much willpower. Save your willpower for when we’re feeling one of the four detrimental emotional states. We should invert the habit cycle whenever we can so we can have the energy to fight when we need to.
Creating New Habits
Once we set ourselves free from our old bad habits, we can finally create new habits! But that poses the question:
How do we create new habits that last?
We can approach this a few different ways. If you’ve read my other blog posts, specifically about studying, then you know I’m all about finding a bunch of ways to do things and modifying them to create my own personalized system.
Optimize to Win
In his fantastic success manual, Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss talks about the importance of meditating every day. While I do recommended practicing meditation, that isn’t what I want to focus on. People tend to have a difficult time creating a habit from meditation, after all most of the benefits only occur when meditation is being practiced as a habit.
Tim says when you start a new habit, you want to rig the game to win. It takes 5 sessions to make something a habit, and it doesn’t matter how long the sessions are. Keep it simple and make the first 5 sessions short. The first few times stepping up to the figurative plate will take significant willpower, but once we developed a little habit it gets easier over time. Optimize to win. Eventually our actions will eventually become what we are, I talk a little bit about this in my post Hypnotic Rhythm.
We don’t have to stop at making it short, we can make it easy too! When I first started working out consistently, I made my first 5 sessions short and easy and now it feels a little weird if I don’t get at least a little exercise.
Another thing we want to keep in mind when we are trying to create new habits is knowing that we only want to do things when we believe it will pay off for us. If we believe it won’t pay off or it’ll actually harm us, then we won’t do it. To take advantage of this bit of knowledge, we should presence ourselves to why starting this new habit is worthwhile. Be advised, this is different for everyone and requires rigorous self reflection.
Encourage the Habit Cycle
Another effective way to create new habits is to encourage each step of the habit cycle.
The first step is Cue. The cue usually kicks off the habit, but if we’re making new habits we might need a little extra help with this step. Make the cue obvious. I lay out my yoga mat and have my kettlebell out in the open so I don’t have to spend any time setting up. Working out consistently has always been difficult for me, but when I set out my equipment in a place that’s easy to see it’s much easier to just start working out. Making cues obvious can also be thought of as a method of removing friction.
The second step is Craving. This comes after the cue and gives us that feeling that we should be doing something. Craving a good habit is an interesting feeling, but one that we should try to encourage. Encourage the craving by making it attractive. Imagine, actually craving to workout or study. It’s not that hard when you think about how good you will feel once you finish or how much longer you’ll live if you’re healthy. Find reasons to pick the good choice.
The third step is Response. Once we have the craving to do something, our next move is to act. If we want the habit, to stick then we need to make it easy. I’ll use the example of my yoga mat and kettlebell again. Since the mat and kettlebell are already set up in the center of my room, it’s easy to just start working out. It’s actually easier to workout than it is to ignore the equipment! That’s why I put it in the middle of my room. I’m making it harder to ignore working out (stopping the old habit) and easier to start working out (creating the new habit).
The fourth and final step is Reward. This is what makes it all worthwhile. If we want to keep a habit going, we have to make the reward satisfying. Since I absolutely adore my video games, that’s usually the go-to treat for me after doing something difficult. Creating new habits is not easy and responding to those changes takes a lot out of us. I also love watching carefully written television like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones(Seasons 1-4), and Westworld. When I have the time I also love to cook. Sometimes I’ll make a really nice meal to reward myself for creating new habits. Find what makes you happy and indulge once everything is said and done.
Developing New Traits
The best part about knowing all is this is discovering that traits and skills can be developed through simple habit formation. This means we can create habits of traits that we admire in our role models within ourselves!
There was a study at Harvard which suggested that the most productive people don’t wait to be told what to do. Successful people take initiative and we can use the knowledge of breaking and creating habits to create the habit of taking initiative within ourselves!
The best best part – this doesn’t have to stop at initiative!
We can create a habit of being honest, courageous, hard working, dedicated, reliable, or any other trait that we would like. It’s not an easy task by any means, but it is possible with serious attention, dedication, and time.
The Issue of Willpower
Creating habits takes willpower. Sometimes it requires a lot and sometimes it requires a little. If we are trying to create new habits, we. need to find ways to minimize how much willpower we’ll need or designing our lives will be too difficult. We can minimize will power through optimizing our environment. I talk a little bit about that in Strategies for Better Studying Part 4.
If we set up our space to encourage the new habits and add friction to discourage the old habits, then willpower won’t be necessary!
James Clear talks about different ways to minimize required willpower by adjusting our actions to the habit cycle. At first, the changes will requires a huge amount of willpower, but every time we run through the loop we strengthen the neural pathways and the required willpower becomes less and less.
Josh Kaufman also talks about habit cues in his fantastic book, The Personal MBA.
“Habits are easier to install if you look for triggers that signal when it’s time to act. For example, if you want to take vitamins, it’s easier to remember to take them if you use another habitual action as a trigger for the action. Instead of relying on your mind to remember to take your vitamins in the middle of the day, you can use brushing your teeth in the morning or evening as a reminder.”
Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)
In addition to building a guiding environment, we can reduce willpower by focusing our attention on one habit at a time. Kaufman also mentions this in The Personal MBA.
“For best results, focus on installing one Habit at a time. Remember, you only have so much Willpower to use each day, and overriding your default mode of action depletes it quickly. If you try to install too many Habits at the same time, you probably won’t succeed at adopting any of them for long. Focus on installing one Habit until taking action feels automatic, then move on to the next.”
Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)
Creating and destroying habits takes a bit of practice, patience, and discipline. If these methods don’t work, try longer. We are surprisingly malleable creatures despite our proclivity towards habits and routine. Getting better: at first it’s uncomfortable, but later will be worth it. Perhaps the real lesson is to learn how to internalize discomfort and push forward, for once we do this we can do anything. Feel free to pick and choose which parts of this post you like and go forth to design your dream life!
Start by winning the moment right in front of you.