The benefits of empathy

In a culture like today’s, which is steeped in beliefs and practices of self-sacrifice (essentially, sitting on one’s needs) as well as domination (sacrificing others’ needs), how would things be different if empathy were believed in and practiced instead? I had a conversation recently with my friend Edwin of http://cultureofempathy.com about the benefits of empathy. He’s constructed a remarkable webpage about these multifaceted benefits, which is still a work in progress; in many ways the page is illustrative of the metaphor that Edwin uses to describe the empathetic process: a cornucopia.

After our discussion, I emailed him a list of benefits of empathy that I consider essential, which is posted below (you can also find it on his page linked above). Undoubtedly, a lot of overlap exists between giving and receiving empathy, yet some differences can be experienced too. Our need for empathy is of course universal, and I imagine it will be much more emphasized in society when people realize the costly nature (to self and others) of various non-empathetic strategies, perspectives, and especially systems—and, in turn, realize the life-enriching nature of the following:

For giving:
Builds trust—thus allows for transparency of oneself
Allows authentic self to come forward (rather than defenses of self, or masks)
Enables focus on what truly matters between human beings, i.e., honest expression of what’s alive in them
Takes one out of the realm of life-alienating communication (e.g., NVC’s four Ds–Diagnoses, Demands, Deserve-oriented thinking, Denial of responsibility)
Can gain real understanding of another
Enables clear and helpful expressions of caring and concern
Sends message to another of acceptance (rather than apathy or opposition)
Enables remedies and solutions to arise naturally
Can foster an intimate connection

For receiving:
Builds trust—thus allows for transparency of oneself
Allows authentic self to come forward (rather than defenses of self, or masks)
Enables one to feel accepted and understood–really heard (rather than being moralistically judged)
Can gain a nourishing sense of visibility, i.e., being seen for who one wants to be and really is
Can feel satisfaction about how one is being perceived and viewed
Dissolves defenses and promotes attuned relaxation with self and others
Can foster the practice of self-empathy
Enables feeling cared for and even loved
Can cultivate a deep appreciation for human connection and understanding
Enables remedies and solutions to arise naturally
Can foster intrinsic motivation

For systems, when practiced consistently:
Builds trust—thus allows for transparency of persons and reveals the systemic constraints on them
Invites individuals to be fully real, genuine, rather than to wear masks and play roles
Shifts focus from following rules and policies to identifying feelings and meeting human needs
Enables systems to work for individuals, instead of demands that individuals work for systems
Dissolves systemic barriers to understanding and intimacy about what’s really alive in persons
Makes coercion and punishment impossible
Makes sacrifice of individuals impossible
Enables win/win interactions, in which everyone feels heard, understood, and is respected
Generates a functional system that enables everyone to flourish, which replaces a dysfunctional one that sacrifices human needs
Fosters lasting systemic changes that ensure safety, security, and dignity for everyone
Enables each person to be 100% responsible for themselves, their thoughts, feelings, needs, desires, and actions

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The nature of needs, especially psychological needs

Recently, I’ve perused an extensive masters thesis by a researcher and practitioner of nonviolent communication (nvc), Marion Little, which I discovered in the references on the wikipedia page for nvc. She formulated an nvc-oriented program to help adolescents with conflict resolution and empathy development. Little also delves into the history of nonviolent communication’s evolution, along with various other mediation and dispute resolution models that have been formulated over the years, particularly within the last few decades. In my opinion all the others fall short of the comprehensiveness and core understanding of human nature (in terms of needs) that nvc offers.

Interestingly, the foundational aspect of the model of nonviolent communication has shifted over the last few decades. Initially, Marshall Rosenberg viewed action-oriented “wants” as pivotal in understanding humans. Then, he shifted to identifying “values” as key (which, incidentally, is how the philosophy of Objectivism views them). And then, Rosenberg’s nvc model finally reached its current (and I’d say most accurate) form back in 1999, which centered on universal human needs. He has credited economist Max Neef with shedding light on this needs model illustrated below.

With nvc, needs are considered central to human functioning. Moreover, rather than being viewed in a hierarchical way as Abraham Maslow outlined (as everyone who’s taken psych 101 in college has learned), needs are theoretically not ranked in nvc. As Little put it:

Although the concept of needs has persisted, the hierarchy Maslow proposed is no longer supported by modern theorists.  Instead, current thinking tends to put forward ideas of fundamental needs and general needs, or primary and secondary needs, or simply a broad range of needs, where the needs support each other and are not mutually exclusive (Burton 1990a, 1990b; Clark 2003; Gordon, 2008; Rosenberg 2003).  Theorists have come to recognize that Maslow’s original hierarchy has been confounded by, for example, communities and individuals who have scarce physiological resources yet still engage in practices that deeply meet self-actualization needs (such as artistic expression, divine connection, or life-purpose).

The concept of human needs stems from our biological nature, a nature that can be broadly viewed in both mental and physical terms. In order to sustain ourselves physically, we need such things as food, clean water, shelter, sleep, physical movement, and so on. These needs are understood by virtually everyone as incontrovertible. If you don’t get them met, you’ll die. For nearly all humans, being able to survive by meeting physical needs seems uncontroversial, for obvious reasons. However, I’ve noticed that meeting psychological, or mental, needs is not so readily embraced in our culture, lest one appear “needy.” Such a stance is both tragic and untenable, because it downplays or even ignores a major aspect of human functioning that enables our flourishing: conceptual consciousness.

Indeed, on the psychological side of things, we have needs such as self-worth and self-confidence (self-esteem), understanding, (logical) clarity, learning, meaning, efficacy, growth, choice, autonomy, excitement, challenge, play, fun, joy, humor, self-expression, creativity, inspiration, celebration, beauty, purpose, and so on. To not get such needs met or met fully translates into a less fulfilling life. Additionally, in order to sustain ourselves as social animals, we require lots of other needs to be fulfilled as well, such as acceptance, respect, consideration, belonging, love, touch, sexual expression, nurturing, caring, freedom, authenticity, honesty, empathy, presence, to be known and heard, cooperation, support, peace, justice, fairness, ease, harmony, order, safety, protection, trust, equality, community, warmth, and so on.

Now, I wonder how many people would consider such needs optional in order to have a happy life. I suspect not many, even though many do believe that being a zealous advocate for getting needs met might appear “needy.” Such is the consequence of not having needs recognized and met from a very early age. I refer you to my resources page to learn more about this. You’ll find more detailed lists of these various needs, many of which overlap and are interdependent, here and here. In the realm of the psychological, it’s fascinating to reflect on the dynamic nature in which needs-fulfillment happens—or doesn’t happen, as the common case may be.

Tragically, most individuals who grew up in our present culture likely didn’t identify the majority of their psychological needs explicitly. After all, most parents haven’t learned about a vocabulary of feelings and needs and were probably taught to get what they wanted by not directly addressing their needs, but rather, by expressing them in terms of moralistic judgments (right/wrong, good/bad, should/shouldn’t, and various other costly ways to express what we favor and disfavor), demands, and punishments. And this, of course, is how our overall culture—and our own precious lives in it—can become greatly diminished, representing only a small fraction of what our potential for life-enrichment truly is. As Little related:

Rosenberg says it has been his experience that, “from the moment people begin talking about what they need rather than what’s wrong with one another, the possibility of finding ways to meet everybody’s needs is greatly increased” (Rosenberg, 2003, p. 54). Nonviolent Communication facilitates self-directed needs-based empathic connections, between disputants, which are critical to resolving conflicts and to sustaining relationships beyond the moment of conflict (Rosenberg, 2003). Rosenberg’s work makes the critical connection between needs and emotional states. He identifies needs as the root of feelings, claiming that feelings are stimulated by needs which have either been met or which are going unmet. Accordingly, what a person thinks or imagines about needs being met or unmet can also trigger feelings (Rosenberg, 2003).

So, raising our awareness of what we’re feeling, and connecting that to what we’re needing (instead of strictly what we’re judgmentally thinking about ourselves and/or about others), enables us to find ways to make our lives and the lives of others more wonderful, as Rosenberg would say. This fosters connection to what’s really going on inside of us—removing distractions from what’s most essential. While it’s true that our thoughts tend to give rise to our feelings, and by changing our thoughts, we can work at changing our feelings, this is not the whole story. Whatever we are thinking and valuing, wanting, and judging can be traced down to the foundation of our humanness, to what we really are needing. However, if we assess our feelings based solely on our thoughts or beliefs (for instance, as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy formally instructs), we might neglect the fertile soil of needs, which sustains and helps us thrive as persons worthy of both happiness and enjoyable relationships with others.

Thus, psychological needs arise from our capacity to live to our full potential, to optimize our functioning—to self-actualize and become happier and more fulfilled. Given our nature as conceptual beings, our needs are always there to be identified and integrated. Sometimes, or maybe even much of the time, we are presented with the challenge of prioritizing various needs, because we’re individuals with only so much time on our hands. At times, some needs will go unmet for certain periods. This might be a topic for another post, but suffice it to say that the more fluent we become in both a feelings and needs vocabulary, the more easily we can manage various trade-offs, and establish deeply satisfying and endearing connections with others (utilizing win/win strategies and outcomes).

And if you happen to encounter someone who responds with dislike about talk of needs, and who even shows disdain for “being needy,” it’s likely that he or she didn’t get the need for empathy met (among many other needs) from an early age. In a culture that fosters dissociation and other defense mechanisms, we all know what this feels like. So, it helps to speak plainly about this fact and help individuals realize that a person’s strategy for meeting needs makes all the difference in the world—no sacrifice of self to others or others to self is ever necessary.

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A language of life and self-esteem

The last few months I’ve been studying what seems like a brand new language. I say “seems like” because this language actually isn’t foreign to me or to you, like Chinese or Russian (assuming you’re not bilingual:). Rather it’s what we spoke naturally when we were very young, before we became immersed in the language of our culture (any culture presently), which contains the themes of domination and submission. This “new” language is called nonviolent communication, or compassionate communication, or simply a language of life. The reason for this, as articulated by its main founder and disseminator Marshall Rosenberg, is because it focuses on the feelings and needs of human beings, rather than on thoughts of right and wrong, goodness and badness. Moral judgment of self and others, in the form of condemnation, criticism, blame, shame, guilt, and even anger, as well as praise, is viewed as inauthentic—as tragic expressions of true feelings and needs, tragic ways of saying “please” and “thank you” (in the case of praise).

In order to dispense with the habitual ways of speaking and thinking that we humans have been tragically trained in since we were little people, nonviolent communication (I recommend watching this entire 3-4 hour workshop, btw) urges us to get connected with what’s really alive in us, our true-self feelings and needs. Our feelings ought to be distinguished from evaluations of self and others that lead invariably to the sorts of moral judgment noted above. For example, to say that another person “ignored me, so I feel disrespected!” doesn’t identify the feeling so much as tragically express unmet needs. The genuine feeling may be agitation or sadness or resentment, and the unmet needs likely involve connection, such as for consideration, recognition, and of course respect. The point here is to separate what you’re feeling from what the other person is saying and doing. Nonviolent communication instructs us to not take anything another person says or does personally, but rather as simply expressions of feelings and needs, and it’s our task to figure out—through a process of educated guessing—what those feelings and needs really are. Clearly, the best way to do this is to stay focused on the process of empathetic connection and understanding, sans judgment. Taking things personally, after all, demonstrates that we are doubting that the other person understands or even cares about us, which greatly decreases the likelihood that we will get our needs met by the other person.

What I’ve found most interesting, and most unfortunate, is that even though I’ve studied self-esteem dynamics for nearly two decades, following the helpful works of Nathaniel Branden, nonviolent communication in its pure, consistent form has somewhat escaped me. It has escaped nearly everyone, it seems, on account of the non-life-enriching language we learned early in life. Indeed, our culture (even in secular circles)  is steeped in religious terminology, in moral judgment of self and others, which disconnects us with our feelings and needs and discourages us from taking full responsibility for our emotions and the most life-giving strategies for getting our needs met. Our interactions thus become much less about mutually beneficial and joyful exchanges and more about battles of the wills and a series of subtle or not-so subtle put-downs of self and others. The true-self becomes denigrated, and sacrifice is extolled as virtuous; the false-self pursues myriad short-term pleasures which lead ultimately to self-torment. We are told that we have to do things we don’t want to do, and we are punished if we don’t. Anyone living in a “law and order” or religious society knows exactly how this tragic and unjust game goes.

Nonviolent communication also explains that humans all have the same needs. Differences are definitely found, however, in the ways we go about getting our needs met, or not met (reflecting the above-mentioned denigration of self). Oftentimes, some needs are met at the expense of other needs, and many needs go either unnoticed or denied. Framing human functioning from the standpoint of need-fulfillment and need-unfulfillment simplifies matters significantly. Nonviolent communication is thus a language everyone can understand and speak. It helps us make so much sense of what’s going on in the world.

Self-esteem, the sum of self-confidence and self-respect, of course represents a host of profound needs. It’s really the psychological foundation of need-fulfillment. Without a belief in self, a conviction that one can bring life-enriching things into one’s life and make sense of things, as well as a belief that happiness is one’s birthright, we remain adrift in a sea of oftentimes toxic cultural debris. Absent an explicit focus on self-knowledge and thus working on self-esteem, the things most humans tend to clutch to in this troublesome sea consist of the familiar remnants from their upbringing. How they were treated as children, the subconscious assessments they incorporated into their self-concept, and the particular strategies they employed to try to get their needs met, all tend to be reflected in their language and behavior later in life. Given that most parents pass on what they were shown by their own parents as good and proper, intergenerational transfer is nearly a foregone conclusion.

Operant conditioning, or what Alfie Kohn calls “pop behaviorism” still predominates the culture. Especially in parenting and schooling, we see countless ways that adults don’t fulfill the needs of children, needs for respect, choice, independence, and autonomy—as well as needs for clarity, understanding, honesty and authentic communication. It stands to reason that if you’re trying “to get others to do” certain things (typical among parents and educators), you’re not meeting various needs of the other person. The treatment of others as means to one’s ends, rather than on volitional terms of mutual respect, cooperation and collaboration, is sadly part of the age we live in. This of course leads to win/lose scenarios rather than win/win ones. If individuals stopped making demands on others (supposedly “for their own good”) and instead compassionately connected with them, guessed what they are feeling and needing, and then made kind requests, how different would our world be!

So, it appears that society is suffering from a combination of low self-esteem and disconnection from feelings and needs. This, in and of itself, is a diagnosis, which nonviolent communication correctly contends is not a very useful way to get our needs met. Diagnosing what is wrong with people reflects a lack of authentic connection to what’s truly alive in them. Yet, we do live in a diagnosing culture. People are constantly indicating what they think is wrong with others and with the world.

So, what’s the solution? It’s to first work on giving ourselves considerable empathy—self-empathy—for all the needs that were not met in our childhood, and are not being met presently. Only you can devise functional strategies to get your needs met; it is no one else’s responsibility. How’s that for self-empowerment! Really, it’s all in you to make your life extraordinary. And in order to do that, it’s important to not only work on the six pillars of self-esteem—the practices of self-acceptance, self-assertiveness, self-responsibility, and living consciously, purposefully, and with integrity—for instance via the sentence completion method of subconscious exploration, but to also focus on how you are relating to yourself and to others, in terms of your feelings and needs. In order to get in touch with these fundamentals, it’s vital to free your mind of all the judgments, diagnoses, criticisms, blame, shame, guilt, while taking nothing in yourself and in others personally. Look at these simply as inauthentic processes from days long gone, which lead to quite costly strategies of getting your needs met.

Many people that I’ve recommended sentence completion exercises to have found it difficult to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and actually do them for an extended period. Many never even attempt them, sensing that the voyage into the self is going to be more problematic than they are comfortable with. Here is where self-empathy really comes in handy—acknowledging the particular feelings of fear, anxiety, worry, and even disinterest, and connecting these feelings to the particular needs of comfort, tranquility, safety, and stability. By grasping explicitly what you are feeling and needing, you can then realize that there are more life-enriching strategies to get these needs met, ones that don’t come at the expense of self-awareness and self-knowledge.

In a sense the practice of nonviolent communication provides the fuel for the pillars of self-esteem. Connecting compassionately with what’s really alive in you can kick-start the process of voyaging into the self and reaching new levels of clarity, insight, and wholesomeness. To decipher and implement life-enriching ways to get ALL our needs met is to become grounded in what matters most. And this also will bring about a future world in which this language of life comes naturally for adults as well as children. The more we learn it and speak it to ourselves and to others, the less power the habitual languages of disconnection and inauthenticity will have in our culture—and the more power we’ll have to fulfill our needs and meet the needs of others. It nearly goes without saying that your child-self will thank you for it. :)

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Bullshit! hit piece on self-esteem and Nathaniel Branden

Time for a break in a long blogging hiatus. A close friend of mine informed me that Penn and Teller recently did a Bullshit! episode on self-esteem, which can be viewed here (though it might become defunct due to being in violation of so-called “intellectual property” laws). A very thorough explanation of the show was done on an Objectivist forum post.

Naturally, Nathaniel Branden was one of the self-esteem proponents they featured in the episode, alongside a line-up of others whose views on self-esteem were either underdeveloped or seriously misguided (easy targets for Bullshit!’s team). Even though Branden and his work could have been the logical counterpoint to these others—after all, he’s the go-to expert for a comprehensible understanding of self-esteem—they instead discredited him and his views. Toward the end of the show, they declared that he “was wrong” on the value of self-esteem in society, which they based on an out-of-context quote (more on that in a bit) taken from the California Task Force study. The study’s full title was Toward a State of Esteem. The Final Report of the California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. Among other things, the Task Force was charged with integrating self-esteem principles into such disintegrated organizations as statist schools and government itself.

A choice quote from the Task Force’s conclusion was: “Governments must recognize the inherent worth in being human.” However, since governments are logically defined as groups of humans who coerce other humans in a monopolistic fashion to obey rights-violating laws and harm them if they disobey, one wonders about their meaning of “worth” here. Many advocates of human freedom and property rights have noted the destructiveness of using coercion to achieve anything purportedly good. If individuals don’t consent, then clearly it’s not voluntary. Viewing human beings as sacrificial fodder for the alleged common good or public welfare is inherently anti-self-esteem.

Yet, contrary to Bullshit!’s contention, the Task Force (regardless of its problems) did conclude that issues of self-esteem are indeed tied to a host of problems in society. I downloaded the study linked above and converted it from pdf to text, so that I could find the quote Bullshit! used to disparage self-esteem (while overlooking Branden’s views on self-esteem): “The associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent.” Well, as it turns out, that was a quote within a quote by the individual views (not the Task Force) of David Shunnuhaff-Khalsa, who was quoting professor Neil Smelser, who was part of the academic research team that offered their views to the Task Force. Here’s the quote, in context:

My views and experience are so substantially different from the group consensus that I am compelled to address four areas of major discrepancy.
1. The Task Force’s interpretation of the UC professors’ academic findings understates the absence of a significant linkage of self-esteem and the six social problems [which were: (1) family (parenting, child abuse, teenage pregnancy); (2) education (schools and academic failure); (3) substance use and abuse; (4) crime and violence; (5) poverty and chronic welfare dependency; and (6) the workplace]. Quoting Professor Smelser’s overview (p. 15), “The news most consistently reported is that the associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent.” (p.142)

As you can clearly see, the Bullshit! team picked a particular view that is at odds with the general findings of the Task Force. To get a better understanding of the Task Force’s findings, here is a quote from their “Recommendations and Discussion” section that takes Smelser’s assessment into account:

Formal inquiry has nonetheless contributed significant insights. The research papers that several professors prepared for us were published by the University of Califomia Press under the title The Social Importance of Self-Esteem. Neil Smelser, who edited the book, contends that the variable of self-esteem remains elusive because it is difficult to pinpoint scientifically. According to Dr. Smelser, this does not mean that the study of self-esteem be abandoned, but that the current scientific procedures be altered. (For a thorough discussion of thc new research characteristics that Dr. Smelser recommends, refer to his introduction in The Social Importance of Self-Esteem.)

In the scientific literature, no consistently accepted definition exists for self-esteem, which makes it difficult to compare various studies. As a result, our researchers felt unable to establish causal relationships. Most existing studies speak of significant correlations, which is customary within social science research. To paraphrase Martin Covington in his research review for the Task Force on academic success, just because the causality chain is incomplete with regard to self-esteem, it does not mean that it is implausible. In fact, the case for self-esteem is not only plausible, it is compelling. Current research findings essentially support the notion that improving self-esteem and self-esteeming social conditions can have a positive impact on many of our most pressing social problems. (pp.43-44)

And if the Bullshit! team had gotten to the truth in this matter, they would have used the following summarizing quote by the Task Force:

We of the Task Force are excited with the results of these three years of study, discussion, and decision. We believe that we have substantiated the premise on which this project was built—namely, that self esteem is central to the personal and social concerns we face today. We are even more convinced that healthy self-esteem is central to positive possibilities for us as individuals, as communities, and as our state. We are grateful that so many Californians have chosen to share this dream with us. (p.44)

So, even by the standards of the California Task Force (many of which are admittedly illogical and even unjust, such as using extorted money and a legislative process), Branden was not incorrect, contrary to what the Bullshit! team stated (namely Penn the narrater, since Teller refrains from speaking as part of his shtick). In fact, none of the individuals who created this show offered to the audience a coherent and sensible definition of self-esteem, such as: having confidence in one’s ability to think and accurately judge the facts of reality, to cope constructively with life’s challenges, and the feeling that one is worthy of happiness. Unfortunately, this episode was filled with ad hominem attacks and lacked some objectivity in narration. By the way, here’s a five-minute audio clip by Branden in which he addresses critics of the idea that self-esteem deficiency is the common denominator in human psychological and thus behavioral dysfunction.

Given my immense appreciation of Branden’s work (all his books and workbooks and audio content on self-esteem principles and dynamics), it’s heartbreaking to see him entering the twilight of his life; from the Bullshit! video it’s evident that his mind and body are not nearly in the condition they used to be (a few surgeries and 80 years have taken their toll). Needless to say, he was not able to effectively overcome the Bullshit! team’s editing tactics. It also appears that neither Penn nor Teller and the crew took the time to read any of Branden’s books. Even though they ended the show with a point about taking persistent, goal-directed action to improve one’s self-esteem, the fact that this entails practicing and living the six pillars of self-esteem escaped them. Living consciously, practicing self-acceptance, self-assertiveness, and self-responsibility, as well as living purposefully and with personal integrity are those pillars, which Branden has explained in detail.

In a thread on the LAobjectivist Yahoo Groups list about this episode’s oversights and errors, Judd Weiss wrote: “Penn has apologized for getting the episode wrong. I wrote to him right after I saw the show, and told him I couldn’t believe he lumped Nathaniel in with those crackpots, when Nathaniel should have been portrayed as the antidote from reality. Penn wrote back to me that he was sorry for that, that he honestly didn’t know what angle to take with Nathaniel, and that he ultimately got it wrong.”

Of course, admitting a mistake lends itself to correcting it, especially one involving so important a need as self-esteem in human functioning (there was further comment on the thread that Bullshit! should make the correction on their DVD). Penn likely realizes this too, and given that he cares about rationality and freedom, these are also two essentials that Branden has espoused his entire adult life. Since it is supposedly their job at Bullshit! to attempt to expose and refute bs, I’d prefer that they redo this episode or at least offer a recantation in the DVD, along with doing an informative interview with Branden (unfortunately, since doing interviews at this point in his life appear difficult, they could instead show past clips of his take on the meaning and value of self-esteem).

Allow me to end with a poignant quotation from Branden’s Honoring The Self, published in 1985:

I could say that this book is addressed to my colleagues, that I might share with them observations that would prove useful in their own work. I could say that the book is addressed to anyone, in any profession, who is interested in the great issues of psychology and ethics. Both these statements are true but limited.

It is to anyone who loves his or her life and has not known that there is no higher virtue that this book is addressed.

To anyone struggling for personal happiness while being told that personal happiness is the concern of the spiritually inferior; to anyone who understands that ego and self are a height to be climbed, not an abyss to be escaped; to anyone who does not see freedom as a burden or choice and responsibility as a tragedy; to anyone who appreciates the courage and integrity that honest selfishness requires; to anyone who grasps that without self-assertion, no dignity is possible; to anyone fighting for self-esteem against an onslaught that begins in the nursery and extends to the Himalayas; to anyone able to see that this earth is the distant star we must find a way to reach—it is for you that this book is written.

In your defense. In your honor.” (p.252)

Ad astra, Dr. Branden,

W

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Owning feelings, then changing them

One of the most important and psychological insights is that feelings are not irreducible primaries. While most people take them as “the given,” feelings are actually the result of our subconscious assessments or interpretations, in the form of super rapid thoughts (or “silent assumptions,” as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) calls them). This means that feelings are not to be viewed as detached from the evaluative context in which they arise.

Because feelings are derived from subconscious, super-rapid assessments, they’re ultimately derived from our basic premises and value-judgments. In addition to Nathaniel Branden‘s stellar work on this subject, David Burns has a great CBT book called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. It’s profound —and incredibly liberating—to discover that by changing the way you are thinking about a particular subject (i.e., specifically how you are interpreting it), you can change how you feel.

But there’s a bit more to it than that, especially given the fact that in the moment you are feeling something, only by fully accepting or “owning” that feeling, will you be able to discover a new way of interpretation. After all, you have to admit where you are in order to get to where you want to go. Feeling something in the moment, while simultaneously wanting to change that very same feeling can be problematic. Without truly coming to terms with what you are feeling, yearning to feel differently is a prescription for denial and repression. Fighting against reality doesn’t work, and it’s actually detrimental to understanding reality in an honest way.

When you feel badly (angry, anxious, fearful, humiliated, ashamed, depressed, etc.), you may experience the tendency to disown that feeling or distract yourself from the nature of it—to not acknowledge it in a genuine sense. Because of the additional negative emotion you may feel about the implications of that genuine acknowledgement, you may even have conscious habit of saying “This is not what I should be feeling!” or “It’s wrong to feel this way!” Of course, this tendency often stems from how you learned to treat your feelings as a child; oftentimes, adults fail to assist children in developing an emotional vocabulary that’s in line with cultivating emotional intelligence. Thus, feelings tend to be stifled and not totally acknowledged, which fosters a pattern of repression that can lead to self-estrangement and all sorts of dysfunctional behavior.

As I noted in “The Pursuit of Happiness” section of The Psychology of Liberty:

Yet our emotional world may have become fragmented in childhood. We may have been recipients of practices that neglected our feelings. Since most parents treat their children as they themselves had been treated when young, cycles continue. Branden wrote about the varieties of unfavorable treatment:
For the majority of children, the early years of life contain many frightening and painful experiences. Perhaps a child has parents who never respond to his need to be touched, held and caressed; or who constantly scream at him or at each other; or who deliberately invoke fear and guilt in him as a means of exercising control; or who swing between over-solicitude and callous remoteness; or who subject him to lies and mockery; or who are neglectful and indifferent; or who continually criticize and rebuke him; or who overwhelm him with bewildering and contradictory injunctions; or who present him with expectations and demands that take no cognizance of his knowledge, needs or interests; or who subject him to physical violence; or who consistently discourage his efforts at spontaneity and self-assertiveness.9(p.8)
These influences may be subtle or not so subtle. Either way, they can encourage a child to repress and disown his or her emotional world. Such influences, not surprisingly, can also be noticed in people we encounter in our daily adult life, although the forms may be different. Repressing and disowning major parts of ourselves necessarily affects our behavior, self-assessment, and treatment of others. How we deal with and think about ourselves ultimately influences how we deal with and think about others.
Yet our emotional world may have become fragmented in childhood. We may have been recipients of practices that neglected our feelings. Since most parents treat their children as they themselves had been treated when young, cycles continue. Branden wrote about the varieties of unfavorable treatment:
“For the majority of children, the early years of life contain many frightening and painful experiences. Perhaps a child has parents who never respond to his need to be touched, held and caressed; or who constantly scream at him or at each other; or who deliberately invoke fear and guilt in him as a means of exercising control; or who swing between over-solicitude and callous remoteness; or who subject him to lies and mockery; or who are neglectful and indifferent; or who continually criticize and rebuke him; or who overwhelm him with bewildering and contradictory injunctions; or who present him with expectations and demands that take no cognizance of his knowledge, needs or interests; or who subject him to physical violence; or who consistently discourage his efforts at spontaneity and self-assertiveness.”9(p.8)
These influences may be subtle or not so subtle. Either way, they can encourage a child to repress and disown his or her emotional world. Such influences, not surprisingly, can also be noticed in people we encounter in our daily adult life, although the forms may be different. Repressing and disowning major parts of ourselves necessarily affects our behavior, self-assessment, and treatment of others. How we deal with and think about ourselves ultimately influences how we deal with and think about others.
Here are some sentence completion exercises related to this topic to work through (write 8-10 endings for each, quickly, without thinking too much):

Right now I’m feeling…

As I learn to “own” what I’m feeling in the moment…

As I look back on how I came to feel this way…

I am becoming aware…

It’s important for us to realize that feelings are neither “rational” nor “irrational,” because the virtue of rationality pertains to using reason, which is the identifying aspect of the human mind. Feelings are part of the interpreting aspect of the human mind. In other words, rationality comes from the cognitive aspect of consciousness, and feelings come from the evaluative aspect of consciousness. Cognition (identifying what things are) and evaluation (determining whether they are good or bad for us and our value system) are the two main functions of consciousness. Hence, we experience reason and emotion as two primary aspects of mind. I expanded on this in The Psychology of Liberty, btw.

However, as noted, feelings can be based on irrational or faulty assumptions or interpretations, and these can be explored and remedied via psychotherapeutic exercises and curious introspection. Questioning the nature of our values can lead to new insights and new ways of feeling about things. Of course, something—some feeling—needs to motivate us to begin questioning in the first place. Feelings are indeed invaluable indicators of the sort of thinking we have done (or failed to do). They can also give us immense insights into the nature of our experiences. So much of our evaluative world lies in the subconscious realm that it’s always important to not just note but also experience what we are feeling, especially when it seems to contradict our conscious beliefs as well as new evidence or new arguments. Ultimately, by using a process of non-contradictory identification, coupled with authentic emotional acceptance, we can attain increased levels of serenity, joy, and happiness.

=)
W

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