Writer and coach from Sydney, Australia. Writing about the processes of psychological change and how they catalyse self-development and transformation.
Interested in philosophy, psychology, meditation and how it can be applied to personal development. Particularly interested in the idea of authentic development and how cultivating awareness can help us to understand and then integrate the disparate parts of ourselves into a state of wellbeing.
Our search for meaning is a preoccupation that can push us on to great heights of achievement; but can also lead to significant existential distress and self-destruction. For many, meaning is believed to exist in abstractions. Be it identity, religion, work. Both of these require the sacrifice of the present in order to realise an idealised conception of the future. We both discover and invent meaning, constructing the mental concepts to support these inventions that we believe are necessary to sustain a life that is worthwhile.
Meaning is important, a life without a shared sense of meaning would have some dark implications for the way in which we live and treat each other. However, there is a problem that lies in the fact that meaning is often sought in abstractions. We look up and outward, over and past one another to potential signs and symbols that we believe justify or vindicate our own personal decisions. We sacrifice years of our lives toward work or ideals that we believe will one day provide us the time and space to engage with what we hold most dear, a final delivery to our imagined paradisal paradisal future – a delivery that we hope will finally reward our negation of the present.
A diversification of meaning refers to spreading what is important to us beyond just mental abstraction. Spreading it to relationships, hobbies, personal interests and physical activity. By finding a small slice of meaning in our daily activities, we can maintain mindfulness of the present, whilst also spreading the risk of having all of our spiritual eggs in one basket. By spreading this risk beyond a narrow idealism, we lower the risk of being laid low by some crisis of faith if that ideal or our conception of it sours.
Meaning is not necessarily an unalloyed good. The individual suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, is someone who has a lot of meaning in her life, however this meaning isn’t shared with anyone and so casts her out of society. The meaning in the life of the fanatic willing to kill for their cause is also palpable, but is blind to reason, or alternative points of view, leading to destruction. Meaning can sustain us and push us to become better versions of ourselves, but it can also turn back on itself and destroy the person who previously had invested so much in a narrow vision. Meaning, too narrowly focused, becomes fanaticism. By diversifying what we find meaning from, we can reduce the risk that we are stumbling blind on a path into the darkness, cutting ourselves off from the present moment and the people within it.
Meaning is important, but it becomes dangerous when it is coupled by all or nothing thinking that holds a particular ideal or vision as the only way to live a valuable life.
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
It is the comparisons we make to others that lead to inertia and self-doubt. There are the comparisons to those we perceive as ‘better’; more talented, more together, more in tune. There are the comparisons to those we perceive as somehow inferior; unworthy, deficient. Both of these are pre-judgements made on partial information, internal bias and projections onto others of who we imagine ourselves to be. Comparisons are what drive our deluded oscillations between self-doubt and self-importance.
I notice in myself that it is the comparison ‘looking down’ that has more of an immediate, reactive influence on future actions. I notice a reactivity to push away from a person or group I deem as ‘not me’. This reactivity is triggered by a delusional sense of superiority established by my brittle ego to reinforce its own self-importance. This is an instinct to separate myself, as if saying, “No, that isn’t me”, even if my participation in this group will help me to achieve the life I desire. Ultimately it is an act of self-sabotage.
In a similar, but different way, my comparison to someone I perceive as ‘better’, doesn’t necessarily pull me in that direction, but rather stops me in my tracks. It invites parts of me to replay all the reasons that I won’t be able to do the ‘thing’ that I idealise in that individual, and so prevents me from trying and possibly failing to live up to the fantasy. Both reactions are a desire for stasis, a desire to keep the fantasy in tact. This is a warped desire governed by a fear of the fantasy being lost, which in turn will reveal subsequent feelings of shame and deficiency.
The look upward, to this person I admire (or envy) is full of projections of my own desires for a certain lifestyle or vocation that I believe this person represents. If the comparison “downward” is met with a shout of “No!”, an act of separation, then it would be natural to assume that my desire and coveting of the person I am placing on a pedestal of comparison would lead to actions of identification. An identification made possible by ‘following in their footsteps’ via actions that I believe will take me to a similar place.
This is where the problem of comparison becomes glaring. My comparisons stem from the projections and identifications that are the realm of my story of self, my ego. Both the look downward and upward are like two opposing magnets holding me in a purgatory of inertia and isolation. Whilst the downward comparison separates and isolates; keeps me safe in a narrow, comfortable conception of who I am; the opposing desire for identification results in a kind of stuck-ness and despair. Despair that I am not already that which I wish myself to be. My comparison may reflect a desire for change, a looking out to what else is possible, but in reality it is a mirage of projections that keeps me in place; reinforcing and repeating my fantasy narrative of self.
It is this alluring mirage that disorients and deludes. We become like the lost person in the desert, walking toward an imagined salvation on the horizon that isn’t there. The person we admire is a culmination of an infinite number of steps that even if we could map them, would be impossible to replicate (i.e. you couldn’t return to when they were born, or the social environment that shaped them). This is not to say that we can’t be inspired by those who model what we value. However, whilst the inspiration can act as a catalyst for change, it also opens the chasm between where we are and how far we have to go. It is following this opening that we can fall into the comparisons that sabotage our desires for change.
The fantasies that we have of others represent the fantasies that we have of ourselves. Paradoxically the only way to move toward our ideal, to change, is to forget the fantasy altogether. The notion of following in someone’s footsteps implies that there are footsteps to follow. The truth is that there are no footsteps or path. The beginning of change is a realised capacity to move, the initial direction being less important as it will be corrected again and again by errors and false starts. What is necessary is a first step into the unknown. It is this lack of direction, and resulting anxiety, that leads to the inevitable temptation to indulge in the desire for clarity and certainty – desires that become expressed in our habits of comparison.
I have wished for most of my life that someone would show me the way, that there were coat-tails I could ride on. Experience time and again has shown me that this is completely at odds with my deeper desire for self-determination. To follow in someone else’s footsteps or to ride their coat-tails is to be determined by someone else’s path. Advice and reassurance may feel good at the time, but they are temporary salves for the angst that led us to initially seek them – angst to express ourselves in an authentic and original way. In the words of David Whyte:
“People who are serious about pursuing their vocation look for purchase, not for a map of the future or a guided way up the cliff. They try not to cling too closely to what seems to bar their way, but look for where the present point of contact actually resides. No matter what it looks like.”
David Whyte, The Three Marriages
What he is saying here is that the development of a vocation or a style of life begins with some kind of inkling, insight, opening – a call. The root of the word vocation comes from the latin vocare which means “call” – but the call is all you get. The flash of inspiration is all you get. There is “no map into the future” beyond that. The only option after hearing this call is to leave the comparisons behind and launch from the contact point available, wherever that may be.
The existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard referred to this as a “Leap of Faith”. Faith is one of those words that is tangled up in so much religious connotation, but at base it means to ‘trust’. To trust in yourself rather than relying on the superfluous reassurances of, and meaningless comparisons to those we think we want to transform into or avoid becoming. This trusting is predicated on a kind of radical self-acceptance. Self-acceptance, so often misunderstood as passivity, but actually meaning a willingness to act on what is here now. Once the comparisons and fantasies have fallen away, we are left with who we are – and no other choice but to act accordingly.
To compare is to measure ourselves against someone else and feel either disillusioned by how we fail to measure up, or deluded by how we feel superior. In a time of almost inescapable social media platforms, which, if nothing else seem designed to prompt comparison; it can be very difficult not to fall into this habit of mind. To equate ourselves with others is to lose our own unique identity. The difficult (and radical) act is to have faith in your own conviction and embark without the map.
As the telling of a story deepens, it becomes more therapeutic. As I journal, I notice there is a quality of depth, a feeling of descent as I continue to write. As the descent continues, the practice of just writing what comes to mind becomes more therapeutic.
Is this the value of free association that Freud was originally advocating? Let the person talk until they land into a depth of feeling that speaks some significance or meaning.
Can story still be in the here and now? Story in a coaching or therapeutic relationship has often been looked down upon as a ‘resistance’, or a ‘projection’, a defence against an interlocution that might reveal unwanted truths. And yet our mythology, our novels, our poetry, our erotica, they all make you feel something vividly.
The drama of our stories – their contradictions, fantasy, horror, absurdity, lustfulness, hatred and self-centred heroism – drive our feeling. We project the dramas within onto the canvas of our novels, our poetry, our erotica; they are personal mythologies that collectively infuse the cultural narrative.
The images created in these forms and the effect they have, impact our feeling and our sense of who we are. They become not just stories but visceral exchanges that unfold our depth and realisation of the self.
The challenge for us are the nagging internal questions of “is it real?”, “does it matter?”, can I grasp it? Our desire for certainties can lead to stories that close us down, make us rigid, snuff out potential. The desire to grasp, to understand, to have some kind of final destination kills the vitality that kindled the story in the first place.
Stories are the tremor of our day-to-day experience of the world. They are the winds that whip up the oceans of our emotion and drive the clouds of thought and feeling across the sky of the mind.
Coaching is the process of guiding someone through change. This change is often couched in the language of goals, and these goals could be based on many different (and at times competing) domains of life. Goals may be related to performance (e.g. sales targets), skills (e.g. develop public speaking ability), or developmental/lifestyle (e.g. “I want to act with more conviction”), but what is constant is a desire for change. Often when we engage another person to help us with a problem, we are in a state of conflict, a feeling of being lost in a sea of possibility or locked in a prison of maladaptive behaviours. The above painting by Jackson Pollock, literally paints a picture of how many people feel when engaging a coach, there is confusion, noise, ‘stuckness’ – a feeling of being lost. The purpose of a coach is to enable the development of an individual by helping them overcome the internal and external impediments that drive feelings of polarisation and ‘stuckness’. To overcome these feelings a client needs to understand what is relevant to their ultimate aspirations, how goals are framed to achieve this and how to act appropriately. This is an ongoing, dynamic process – with the coach serving as a guide along the journey.
The answer isn’t the answer
This process is not about giving the client the answer. Even if a coach had the answer, by telling someone what to do, it fosters a sense of dependence on the coach’s knowledge, which in any case is abstracted from the clients lived experience. The complexity of most problems faced by coaching clients, precludes the exclusive use of any rule-based, algorithmic-like decision making inherent in being given ‘the answer’. It also potentially reinforces a sense of self-deficiency in the client, by reinforcing a misbelief in their own lack of resources to deal with a problem – the primary reason for why the client sought coaching in the first place. Whilst the client may desire knowledge of how to act, to be shown the way, the job of the coach is to reinforce the client’s own sense of efficacy and capacity for self-leadership. Fundamentally the purpose of the coaching relationship is to help clients catalyse the change they seek by realising what is relevant to the achievement of their goals.
Heuristics, or shortcuts to realising relevance
The nature of the world we live in is incredibly complex and as such the impediments a client faces reflect this reality. We deal with this complexity of everyday life through what psychologists call heuristics; shortcuts for decision making that highlight what is relevant and allow us to act. A significant amount of evidence supports the Dual-Process Theory of Cognition, which holds that there are two ways that our minds process information. The title of Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller “Thinking Fast and Slow”, refers to how the majority our thinking is fast (automatic, intuitive), with the requirement for slow thinking (deliberative, analytical) when a problem requires deeper levels of investigation.
One of the key mechanisms in our use of heuristics is what psychologists call, attribute substitution. Attribute substitution refers to how our mind replaces a difficult question requiring high cognitive effort with an easier, heuristic answer. An example being, “how likely is it that this new job will provide the happiness I am looking for?”. There are so many unknown variables involved in this question that it is impossible to calculate or deduce the answer to it. Instead, a person may substitute this question with an easier one, “how do I feel about the prospect of the job following the interview?”. The individual has substituted an automatic/intuitive response for the more difficult and possibly unknowable, deliberative/analytic response. They have swapped ‘thinking slow’ for ‘thinking fast’.
Most of the ‘questions’ we face in our day-to-day life are like this, in fact everyday simple actions, if we stopped to analyse every possible step, would make our lives impossible. We would be overwhelmed by all the myriad elements in a problem, lost in a sea of possibility. Heuristics narrow down the questions we need to ask and allow us to find patterns in our environment that are relevant, affording us the opportunity to act. Working with a coach involves wrestling with assumptions. Reflecting on how we have gotten to a certain point and what is needed to achieve future goals is a process of understanding our own use of heuristics and how relevant or irrelevant these might be for our desired future.
The concept of Relevance Realisation and its application for coaching
John Vervaeke‘s, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, theory of Relevance Realisation refers to a dynamic, self-organising process that is central to decision making. He refers to this concept as a capacity to transform and self-correct decision making through new understandings (realisations) of what is relevant to a person’s goals. An example of relevance realisation in coaching can be seen in the context of an early part of the coaching conversation. A client comes to a coach with a problem and often that problem has been framed in a way the client believes is relevant to the achievement of a goal. Through the initial conversation the coach will ask questions relating to how the goal is framed, how observable it is (i.e., can you track progress), and to what purpose the client wants to achieve this goal.
The purpose of this conversation is to help the client formulate and define the goal in a way that makes it achievable. The initial conversation itself is a way of helping the client develop awareness of what is relevant to them. Realising what is relevant helps the client overcome various impediments to achieving the goal or prompts the client to redefine the goal itself as something more in line with a broader aspiration. For example, the client may come to coaching with a desire for more fulfilling work, this is an admirable aspiration, but it may not be possible to track progress or achievement. The coach’s role is to help the client re-frame this aspiration into more observable goals, enabling the client to develop confidence in their capacity for change as they reach those goals.
In a successful engagement this process continues throughout the lifetime of the coaching conversation and flows through into the everyday life of the client. A developmental coaching conversation will work with the client in a process of unfolding realisations that build on one another, however it will also work to break down or reframe patterns of thinking that are no longer relevant, and which act as impediments to change.
The Shadow of Heuristics: When relevance realisation goes awry
Our effective use of heuristics is predicated on our accurate mapping of patterns we can see in the environment and how well those patterns map onto the reality of what is happening. As discussed, the mental shortcuts we use to make decisions are essentially shortcuts to realising what is relevant so we can act. However, these shortcuts whilst efficient can also lead to biased or deluded thinking by mis-framing something as relevant when it is in fact irrelevant. Misplaced realisation of what is relevant can lead to vicious loops of thinking that are deluded and detrimental to the achievement of goals and to the process of change itself.
Vervaeke emphasises that otherwise intelligent people act irrationally due to a misuse of automatic thinking (thinking fast) in the place of more deliberate analysis (thinking slow) or vice versa. Vervaeke suggests that what is missing in these situations is a way of thinking that can reflect on the relationship between the automatic, fast thinking and the deliberate, slow thinking so that use of each is properly managed. He goes on to say that self-deception is about being locked into a feedback loop that maintains and reinforces the incorrect framing of problems and situations, and subsequently the misjudgement of what kind of thinking needs to be applied to a particular situation.
We can often see it in ourselves and others that maladaptive patterns of behaviour continue to repeat, despite our best efforts to change. If the way we are framing the problem hasn’t shifted, then it is likely that the changes we make are only going to lead to manifestations of similar problems, albeit in different forms. What is required is a re-framing of our experience, something that requires the cultivation of our capacity to reflect on our thinking, something referred to as meta-cognition.
Meta-cognition and self-awareness
The capacity of reflecting on our thinking is referred to as meta-cognition in cognitive science. This capacity is also commonly known as self-awareness. Self-transformation, often the reason for why someone employs a coach, is predicated on self-awareness; a clarity of thinking that enables someone to see through the illusions created by their own framing. The road to self-awareness, and subsequently self-transformation is paved with insights into the nature of our problems.
The coach’s role is to act like a mirror for the client, enabling them to develop greater insight into their own thought patterns, and enhance their realisation of what is relevant to their goals. This mirror works via the coach’s reflecting back the client’s words or actions in the context of a specific impediment or issue, as well as through the interpretations of the coach. The value of these interpretations isn’t necessarily their accuracy (although accuracy is helpful) but rather the reflection of the client’s thoughts and actions as a means of helping a client see into their own cognitive processes (perception, attention, thought, knowledge, memory). Having the client either recognise and/or reject and re-affirm a more relevant interpretation is an expression of insight that helps develop the client’s own capacity for further insights and self-awareness. In this way coaching can be looked at as a “mindfulness for two”. The client is being mindful of what they are feeling/saying and the coach is mindfully tracking and reflecting this back to the client, with the client re-defining or re-articulating a more accurate description as required.
Impediments and Insight
The impediments that a client faces are the result of fixed and rigid patterns of behaviour, what psychoanalysts call defence mechanisms. These defence’s whilst being valuable in the past, a classic example being workaholism, have now become a barrier to the client living in a way that aligns with new aspirations for life. Insight in a coaching conversation can help a client not only reframe what is relevant for a new direction in life, but also develop a kind of intelligent ignorance to the many irrelevant facts that cause confusion or internal conflict. This process is one the Psychoanalyst and Professor of Psychology, Robert Kramer refers to as “Learning and Unlearning”, something we do each day, but which is accelerated in the coaching conversation.
However, momentary insight isn’t enough to facilitate transformation. A singular insight is like a reassuring conversation with a friend, a sugar hit to our sense of self-worth or confidence. Without a sustained shift in framing or attitude the ‘hit’ from these insights gradually fades. As the quote from John Vervaeke at the start of this article states: “development is a systematic form of insight”. This means that sustained transformation is reliant on insight into the entire system of cognition (perception, attention, thought, knowledge, memory), not just isolated parts, although this process may start with the isolated parts.
Bringing it all together
As much as it is possible to understand ourselves and live more alignment with our values we need to realise what is relevant. Realising relevance requires the self-awareness inherent in reflecting on our thinking and the accurate framing of our problems. Coaching is one avenue that can help an individual enhance their self-awareness by acting as a mirror to their perception, attention, thought, knowledge, and memory. By doing this systematically through integrative practices with the coach, clients can develop a muscle of understanding that allows them to act in a more aligned way in service of their goals and aspirations. Self-awareness, systematic insight and action aligned to what is relevant enables the small and big changes that catalyse transformation and lasting change.
Last year a report by Microsoft Work Trend Index showed that Australian workers were the most burnout of those surveyed, with 62% reporting that they felt ‘burnt out’ during 2022. Extensive research across multiple countries has shown work intensity has been steadily rising over the last two decades. Heavy workload is a major cause of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety, which are all key indicators and symptoms of burnout . In the UK, an alarming report at the end of last year showed that 1 in 6 of the workforce was sick with more than 50% of those illnesses being work-related mental health issues. The term burnout is now ubiquitous, and it could be argued that almost everyone has now experienced this syndrome at one point or another over the last few years. Journalist Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times last year, referenced statistics showing that whilst work has become physically safer. It has become psychologically more dangerous as workloads and expectations become unmanageable.
The key components of burnout include exhaustion, detachment from work and inefficacy, the sense that you can’t accomplish what you need to with the resources you have. Christine Maslach and Michael Leiter, psychologists, and leaders in the research of Burnout, define it as a syndrome “emerging from chronic interpersonal stressors at work”. It is these interpersonal stressors that have been accelerating over the last two decades, so what is driving the acceleration?
Computers, clients, and colleagues
The constant use of technology is a key component in the increasing intensification of work over the last two decades. In a recent article titled “Working Still Harder”, Professor Francis Green of University College London and his colleagues found that the rising complexity of computers and related technology was thekey factor for this rising intensity.
Similar findings were also found in a 2021 paper by the Institute for the Future of Work, who found that the next two biggest factors in work intensity were demands from clients and colleagues (including managers). We can understand work intensification as being driven by the accelerating intensity of client, colleague and manager demands, the engine of this acceleration being our digital technology.
Demands from clients and colleagues now pervade our homes, and what used to be our personal time. No wonder that people feel as though the intensity of work has increased. We are always on. This constant ‘always on’ state meaning that there is little time to rest and reflect on the work being completed and to generate the new ideas and approaches that are critical for creativity. Not only do these demands feed into exhaustion, but they can drive a sense of inefficacy and the resulting cynicism that was captured in the “quiet quitting” movement of 2022.
A corrosive contagion
Burnout is a contagious syndrome and as such it can be a toxin that poisons the culture of a workplace. However, according to research by the McKinsey Health Institute last year, organisations underestimate the role that they play in creating this syndrome. What tends to happen as a result is that wellness programs are rolled out, which whilst well intentioned, put the responsibility of managing and dealing with this syndrome back on the individual. It becomes another thing for them to do or complete or succeed at whilst the same issues creating the problem remain. Without meaningful organisational change, individual efforts to cope with burnout are likely to fail, feeding into those feelings of inefficacy and cynicism, or worse.
What can be done? ‘Psychological Flexibility’ and ‘Self-Efficacy’
Research by Jacqueline Brassey and colleagues from McKinsey Health Institute state that the starting point for change is with leadership teams. The effective role modelling of behaviours by leaders can help to alleviate their own symptoms of burnout whilst adapting behaviours that change how team’s function. Without positive examples of leaders tackling these problems for themselves and their teams, broader organisational change is impossible.
Brassey and her colleagues found that teaching the skills of what is known as “psychological flexibility” has a significant impact on a leaders sense of efficacy. Remember that efficacy or its lack of, is a key component in the development of burnout. In fact, Michael Leiter, one of the leading researchers in the field refers to burnout as a “crisis in self-efficacy”.
Psychological flexibility is the capacity to remain in the present moment despite unpleasant thought, emotions, and bodily sensations; whilst choosing to act based on the situation and one’s values. Psychological flexibility has been found to be highly effective in the treatment of mental health issues in clinical and workplace settings.
The 3 core pillars and six sub processes of Psychological Flexibility
1. Being Open to Experience, with Acceptance and De-fusion
Being open to experience, is being aware of the different thoughts, emotions and sensations taking place. Opening to experience involves acceptance, something often misunderstood as passivity. What acceptance means is an act of will based on what is here now, what is available. Defusion, relates to identifying internal experiences such as thoughts as being just that, experiences, not fixed truth. In fact, it is easy to think of defusion in context of its opposite, fusion. Psychological flexibility is about ‘de-fusing’ or creating some space between our thoughts and emotions, not being caught up in them.
2. Being Present, via contact with the present moment and ‘Self-as-context’
Being present means maintaining a non-judgmental awareness of what is happening now, without trying to change it. It is otherwise popularly known as mindfulness. Self-as-context can be understood in comparison to its opposite which is ‘self-as-content’ i.e. you are the content of your thoughts and feelings. Self-as-context refers to the sense that you are the one experiencing the content of your mind, rather than being the content itself. An example of ‘self-as-context’ is when a mistake is made at work, or a conflict arises, the individual sees this in context of the bigger picture, rather than catastrophising this event into their downfall.
3. Do what matters, informed by Values and through Committed Action
Doing what matters implies that you need to know what is important before committing to action. This commitment requires the understanding or discovery of your values so that your goals align with them. Values are the compass pointing in a certain direction, whilst goals are the destination. To reach this destination, committed actions are required to follow through, action that persists even when unpleasant bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts arise.
Self-Efficacy and the benefit of social support
Through two 4.5 workshops and one 2.5 hour ‘booster’ workshop, Brassey and her colleagues from Maastricht University and the McKinsey Health Institute demonstrated that the psychological flexibility skills listed above could be cultivated and that this had a positive effect on self-efficacy, one of the key factors in burnout.
One of the benefits of developing these kinds of skills in a group setting relates to the social context and support inherent in the training. Extensive research has shown that one of the best treatments for burnout is providing social support for those struggling. Group settings remove the isolation and misplaced sense of personal failing and provide social reinforcement and support for learning new skills.
Caveat and conclusion
What is important to note here is that psychological flexibility doesn’t mean happiness. The aim of developing these skills isn’t to promote a grin-and-bear-it attitude, but to help people navigate the shoals of shifting circumstance.
Maslach and Leiter make clear in their research that Burnout, is syndrome fundamentally caused by organisations and as such requires an organisational response. One of these organisational responses is equipping leaders to role model the right behaviours so they cultivate a culture of support. Psychological flexibility is a mindset and set of behaviours that can be a pillar of this support. The development of these psychological skills is an evidenced based way of alleviating one of the key factors in burnout, self-efficacy. However, without additional changes to organisational elements like workload, employee autonomy, rewards and quality performance reviews, these efforts will be in vain.
Who was that person? Of course no one yet. Your faint light extinguished, like a lit match in a breeze.
An inchoate potential of unfolding – stopped, released and drained.
My own face, a pulling beneath the eyes, heavy. My cheeks as though thumbs were pressing and pulling down. A deep tiredness, the dampening deep of disappointment.
But then also a relief, a feeling of a weight lifted, a reprieve, a deep sense of being unready; despite feelings of excitement. The imagined images of who you might have been, dissolving in a few moments.
Were you anyone before your light flickered out? Of course no one yet, but something.
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
This is a re-write of a previous article originally posted in September 2022.
For many of us, personality seems fixed, like an essence; the fully formed ‘me’ that sits in the driving seat of consciousness. But what if personality was more heavily shaped by learning and environment than we think? And what would the implications of this be for someone’s ability to change? The above quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald views personality as a series of successful gestures, and psychologists seem to agree; defining personality as the characteristic patterns of thoughts, behaviours and emotions that mould individual difference.
Chicken and the egg
Whilst this definition is useful, it begs the question: What is the starting point of these patterns of thought, behaviour, and emotion? The anthropologist Helen Fisher, states that these characteristic patterns are shaped by two fundamental traits: one being temperament, the other being environment. Fisher quotes the Spanish Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset who said, “I am, plus my circumstances”, stating through this quote that temperament is the container that that our character and personality grows out from.
What this implies is that personality is more malleable than we realise. That as we learn from our environment we have the capacity for change, but not infinitely so. As F. Scott Fitzgerald shows in The Great Gatsby, there is great folly in thinking that you can turn yourself into anything, regardless of your past. There is no clean break or blank slate. The paradox of this is that we also have the freedom to imagine who we would like to become and with an open mind, can unlearn old patterns and learn new ones, changing in accordance with our ideal.
The brilliant film Whiplash, riffs on this eternal chicken-or-the-egg like puzzle of nature versus nurture and of how much temperament and environment influence who we become. Toward the end of the film, the driven, yet by now traumatised jazz student played by Miles Teller confronts his tyrannical teacher, asking if the brutal environment he created may discourage the next jazz greats from emerging. His teacher, played by J.K. Simmons, states that no environment would ever discourage a great from being great, that if the person has the drive, then they will drive through anything, no matter how unpleasant, to get there. Talking about the jazz great Charlie Parker, Simmons character describes the hostile musical environment he grew up in (almost being decapitated by a symbol for messing up a set) as the catalyst for Charlie Parker becoming Charlie Parker.
What is interesting in J. K. Simmons view is that despite the harshness of his beliefs, he is effectively saying that Charlie Parker needed both the temperament and the tough environment to become who he was. He required a certain obstinacy which allowed him to be shaped, and not crushed, by the difficult environment he grew up in. The view of this character is that there was a speck of a great jazz musician already there, yet it was the cauldron his environment, that forged him into who he became.
An instructive way of approaching this question of how we become who we are is by looking at the views of Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner, two giants of 20th century psychology. Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner had antithetical and competing views to one another, however both viewed learning as critical to the development of personality and personal growth. A marrying of their views can go a long way to explaining personality in the context of learning experiences with beneficial implications for understanding a person’s potential for change.
B. F. Skinner and the ‘keys to human nature’
B. F. Skinner was a key figure in the psychological movement called Behaviourism, which originated at the start of the 20th century out of Pavlovian conditioning (the monitoring of instinctive reactions). For undergraduate psychology students, B. F. Skinner is often perceived as a villain, the stereotypical “man in white coat” that was pilloried in novels such as Brave New World, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Clockwork Orange. Skinner famously denied the concept of personality entirely, claiming that what distinguished one person from another, didn’t emerge from internal mental states, but from learning experiences in the environment. His influence is still felt across psychology and education today, most notably in the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which is partly based on his theories.
Skinner was a seeker for the ‘mechanisms’ of human behaviour, believing that if this could be found, the keys to understanding (and predicting) human nature would be assured. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning held that all elements of human behaviour were shaped by the provision and withdrawal of rewards or punishments in the environment. According to this theory, administering a reward or removing a punishment would strengthen behaviour, whilst removing a reward or administering a punishment would weaken behaviour.
A simple illustration of this theory is the example of a child that has the desire and temperament to draw. If the child’s drawing is produced in an encouraging environment, then according to Skinner this will reward the behaviour of drawing. The child will learn from this, which then reinforces this behaviour into an important part of the child’s personality. An environment that doesn’t encourage drawing, or actively punishes it, would lead to a weakening and possible extinguishing of this behaviour, as the child is pushed into different behaviours.
Skinner would claim that the child’s desire and temperament has been shaped by an uncountable number of reinforcing experiences going all the way back to parental genetics. Whilst it may feel to the child that this desire to draw emanated from his personality, Skinner believed this was a delusion, claiming that this desire was shaped by the micro-learning experiences of the environment. Coming back to the Whiplash example, Skinner would say that Charlie Parker didn’t become who he was because of some essential, fateful drive; rather it was his environment that had shaped and determined who he became.
Carl Rogers, Free-Will and Potential
Carl Rogers is one of the most influential figures in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy. He was one of the leaders of the Humanistic Psychology movement that grew out of opposition to Skinner in the 1960’s. As a psychotherapist and researcher with decades of clinical experience, Rogers observed that individuals have the power, given the right conditions, to change their own lives. His view of learning as fundamental to personality development is encapsulated in his theory of Learner-Centred Teaching which emphasised an approach to learning that gave students more freedom to learn what was valuable to them. For Rogers, temperament would have been primary to how a person responded to their environment.
In direct opposition to Skinner, free-will was a fundamental assumption for Rogers. Rogers believed that human beings were future-oriented, and it was the goals set in the future that influenced how they responded to learning experiences in the present. Roger’s concept of the fully functioning person posited that there was an ideal self within everyone, a guiding potential to which they were oriented. Popularising the term incongruence, his clinical experience demonstrated to him how an individual learnt from their personal experience of whether they were living up to their potential and adjusted accordingly.
For Rogers, it was this guiding, future-oriented-will that shaped the individuals responses to the environment. Rogers would have agreed with J. K. Simmons character from Whiplash, alluding to the fact that nothing would have stopped Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker; that his future-orientation to being a great jazz player was what allowed him to learn from his environment in the way he did. The feelings of shame and humiliation of not living up to his potential were what led him to hone his skills and become who he was. However, without the initial ideal, there would have been no guiding principle to guide his practice. Where he would disagree was in the way the environment had been structured. If Charlie Parker had had the freedom to learn how he had wished, would he have been even better?
These differing views of Skinner and Rogers view psychological agency or freedom very differently. Skinner’s view implies a lack of free-will, as though our personality was completely at the mercy of our environment. In contrast, Rogers viewed the fully functioning or self-actualised person as the type of person most likely to learn from environmental circumstances, but only when psychological freedom had been maximised.
In a further deviation from Skinner’s determinism, Rogers believed that psychological freedom could only be achieved by learning to fully experience one’s own thoughts, behaviours and emotions.A famous quote of his states:
We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are. Until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about unnoticed.
This speaks directly to Roger’s experience that someone comes to accept themselves by learning to fully experience and reflect on who they are. If we are in the process of learning anything, there is a necessary phase of observation before we can take any action. We need to see what is being done, or how it is being done, before we take the necessary steps to do it ourselves or do it in a new way. For Rogers, his view of the importance of learning experiences leads to the conclusion that to change into something we desire, we need to be aware of what we are changing from.
Bringing it all together
Looking at learning as a key to change is an optimistic view. Firstly, it implies that personality is not as fixed as we think and that given the right circumstances, people can transform their lives. This is critical to the process of teaching, coaching or therapy, the success of which according to Rogers is to facilitate change in a way that concords with an individual’s goals. For both Rogers and Skinner, the environmental processes within and without a person’s control, are critical for understanding personality development. By attending to the reinforcers in their environment and their thoughts, behaviours, and emotions; individuals can become more aware of that which is satisfying or dissatisfying and subsequently move toward a state of positive development.
On the surface, the differing views of B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers have little in common. However, the dichotomy of their philosophical assumptions, when combined, provide a useful framework for understanding how personality can be shaped by our learning experiences. By incorporating both views managers, teachers, coaches, and psychotherapists can bring a holistic understanding to how the process of learning and unlearning can help employees, students and clients achieve their potential.
In so many ways, suffering – when allowed – looks like love. Our cry of suffering is the cry for reunion: it is the calling toward home and the awakening of our True Nature
Georgi Johnson, Nondual Therapy: The Psychology of Awakening
I have hidden myself through fear of rejection, fear of hurt. I hid myself through conformity, through alcohol, through performing, through self-deprecating humour. There had been no profit in standing out at the schools I attended, although some had the courage to do so. Looking back there is a sense of shame in this gradual conformity to the status quo that typified my adolescence and early adulthood. The desire to be popular and liked overpowered the desire to be creative and independent. That overpowered desire eventually became covered up by the shifting sands of my life.
There is a remembered feeling of fear arising out of the darkness, fear of the night. Acknowledging and feeling this fear unfolded that unpleasantness into an expanding light, an anticipation and vitality. The here-and-now memory of that creative and solitary child’ s surroundings brings me back to the place where that creative urge was first remembered. To an image that is no longer a memory, but a re-living, I am seeing everything again through that boys eyes and feel the beckoning arm of life. A life that has already been lived in one way, but stands to be lived by this boy again. Lived not as a recurrence but a re-imagined, reunited return to the guiding embrace of presence.
I dreamt last night that I was on a large boat, a superyacht, with my father. We were standing on the top of the boat in a large dining/ballroom overlooking Sydney Harbour. It was dusk, almost night and the lights to the room were on. The room was panelled with polished wood, and carpeted in a royal red and blue plush with looping gold threads forming a Baroque pattern. It felt very luxurious. My father was complaining about customers who were renting the boat and saying that these overnight trips weren’t worth doing. He had a bottle of champagne that he was holding and he kept his glass full, forgetting to top up mine. He was moving around the boat in a distracted manner, belatedly moving to fill my glass whilst fumbling an apology, the dregs of the champagne hitting my empty glass.
When I woke from this dream my first thoughts were of the luxurious waterfront house we used to live in when I was a child. It was an obscene luxury. My expectation when I first sat to write about the dream was to be reminded of unhappy memories of that place, of nighttime fear and loneliness, of insomnia and sneaking down the stairs to watch rage at 4am, waiting for the dawn to banish my terrors. What unfolded instead was one of my most cherished childhood memories of my father. All of the family at the dinner table, in the dining room overlooking Sydney’s Middle Harbour, my father at the head of the table singing a silly song in a silly voice, laughter ringing out. This is one of my shining exemplars of ‘happy family memory’ and yet it was so long ago, maybe 1997, and in that expanse of time those happy memories, with dad in them, are sparsely dotted along that stretch of time.
I always thought and said to myself that I had a happy, ordinary childhood, but how true was that? There was such dissociation as a teenager: The TV, the playstation, the pornography. What was I trying to block out? Perhaps that is just how teenagers are, the changes and new drives in the body unbearable to wrestle with whilst trapped in the bonds of school and family. Maybe I just tell myself that I had a happy childhood because the opposite conclusion is unbearable. Whilst seeing a Psychoanalyst last year, I shared this belief of a happy childhood, in the guise of presenting a partial belief of having nothing to complain about in my upbringing, as though the comforts and privileges I was surrounded by removed any avenue for aggrievement. By removing this avenue I had frozen a cosmetic conception in place that felt like a betrayal to question or dislodge. Essentially I had erected a rigid taboo that stood as a critical judge against the psychological suffering that in the face of that taboo seemed inexplicable. It was only by questioning those assumptions that a crack appeared in the mask, allowing the beginning of some deeper insight to pour through.
Before my father left the family home, I never had any desire to leave Sydney. I had a deep love for the city all through high school and yearned to return whenever I was away on a family holiday or school trip. Coming back from a trip to a family friends farm and travelling north across the Harbour Bridge, I remember looking up at those iron arches and rivets thinking, ‘thank god we are home’. The desire to leave only came up at the start of Year 12, soon after Dad left. I remember coming home from school early one afternoon in Year 12, standing in the empty kitchen of a different, equally cavernous house and feeling a deep sense of emptiness and loneliness. At that moment, I remember thinking, “I have to get out of here,” and took a series of steps which wouldn’t see me properly settle back in Sydney again until my son was on the way fifteen years later.
What is interesting to note is the timing of this dream. I had a call from the head of a consultancy I applied to on Monday. Since finishing a terrible experience at a start-up in August last year, it has been the only role I have seen that interested me. I hadn’t expected a call back so soon and a part of me felt elated that they were interested in my application. I noticed two parts surface almost immediately: a somatically prominent tired part that felt drained and exhausted straight after the call, and an ‘excited/carried away part’, that ran off imagining grand possibilities and a return to some kind of status. A return to the world of performing, praise, recognition – of doing well! I wouldn’t have called it a polarisation at the time, probably because there was no wrestling internal dialogue, but in hindsight it clearly was. Exhaustion experienced somatically and excitement experienced imaginally; the former pulling down the latter up. Throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening I had an aching jaw. A deep ache, right at the back of my mandibles, in line with and just in front of my ear lobes.
I noted that the timing was interesting as the dream happened on the night following the phone call. I believe that my father in the dream represented the world of work and success in an imaginal or achetypal way. The luxury of the yacht, the view of the harbour, the pouring of the champagne, the apologies that he had nothing left for me. The waking flashback memory of the luxurious house, the image shifting as I wrote, to a rare imprint of a happy family memory with him front and centre. The dream woke me up at about the time they normally do, 430am, but there was no anger or sadness. Rather there was a sense of release and calm, an excitement and anticipation. Writing about the dream whilst my wife and son were still asleep, that happy image of dad, front and centre, fed into and was fed by the images and feelings from the dream. The memory I thought I was going to find when sitting to write (fear, emptiness, loneliness), wasn’t there, and instead I had the unexpected fortune of a cherished memory taking its place,
To come back to the champagne glasses, that image speaks to me as a symbol of my father saying in an apologetic way, “I gave you all I could. I am sorry that is all I had”. A wave of sadness came over me when writing that sentence and yet this is where the calm seems to emanate from. There was a recognition of a shift, an acceptance and forgiveness that says, “OK”, and says so in a non-begrudging way. Says it in a way that indicates that I have to live without his explicit guidance but that I have to hold the good of my father with me. The good that is represented in that image of him, front and centre, sitting at the head of the table, his back to the window, the harbour shrouded in dusk behind him and the sound of laughter ringing out.
Sesshin, “to touch the heart-mind”, is a period of intensive meditation usually performed in a Zen Monastery. My own experience of Sesshin was a six-day silent meditation retreat, held at an old Franciscan Monastery in a nature reserve near Stroud, New South Wales. I have been practicing with the Ordinary Mind Zen School since October 2020, and this was the first time that I felt ‘ready’ for my first retreat. I was very apprehensive as the retreat approached. There is a family history of psychosis on my father’s side of the family stretching back three generations and my old fear of being overwhelmed by ‘the shadow’ and succumbing to a psychotic break resurfaced. Going into Sesshin I realised how much this spectre has informed much of the nameless little fears that have shaped my life in countless unknowable ways. A recurring dream as a young child of a black shadow looming over the foot of my bed still holds an image in my consciousness, and I was anxious about the possibly of seeing this figure again. My apprehension had me prepared for a visit to the underworld, Dante’s “abandon hope all ye who enter”, flashing in my mind as a kind of steeling for a difficult emotional battle.
The liberation of silence
The aspect of the retreat that I was most worried about, the silence, in the end was the part I enjoyed the most. There is such liberation in silence amongst company! This silence removed all social hierarchy within the group. There were no cliques, no in or out groups, no one on top or bottom, no cool or not cool, even male or female felt irrelevant. This silence removed so much of the mental planning, analysis and rumination related to social interactions that fuels so much of our internal chatter. “Should I say this?”, “I can’t believe he said that”, “I don’t like that comment”, “His voice is annoying”, “That’s not what I meant”, “I wish I said it this way”, “I wonder if they like me?”
All this inane, back-and-forth, self-conscious chatter dissolved during the retreat. Interestingly, despite being no talking, there was a real sense of getting to know everyone just by being in presence with one another. Everything outside of the language realm took on much more significance. A small smile whilst crossing paths the hallway. The sound of a turning foot on the floorboards of the dojo. The way a person ate their soup. Through these observations it was interesting to watch how the judgemental and critical part of the mind, could still find the tiniest of social moments to latch onto and use as a way of separating itself from others. Comparing and competing over the tiniest differences in behaviour.
I had a truly wonderful, rich experience during this retreat. Moments of real joy, which were very unexpected. My experience was a privilege of being able to be present and witness the ordinary beauties of the flowing natural world and at times the equanimity and wholeness of my own essential self. Much of that sense of wholeness was experienced during the Samu or working periods, where my job was to wash up after lunch with two other people. I had noticed my impatience on the first day, which eventually dissolved or transformed by the third day. What was formed in its place was a deep sense of compassion and inter-relationship with the two others that I was working with. It was an unusual feeling in the sense that it was as though I had tuned into a sense of compassion rather than it being something I possessed or had cultivated. I had an intuition that whilst I could feel this compassion within, simultaneously it was a universal feeling, outside of me, available to everyone. Around the same time, I noticed that my inner critic and rumbling tremor of anxious internal chatter had also completely died down. I found it interesting that this died down in parallel with the quietening down of the judging mind that constantly monitors social interactions.
The musical flow of nature
With more than 8 hours of Zazen (sitting) during the day, there was so much… nothing happening. Much of the experience, particularly in the first couple of days was noticing the slow-moving lava lamp of discomfort throughout my back and shoulders whilst sat on the cushion. However this nothingness, compared to our everyday rush of stimulation, cleared me out to experience some infinitesimal, ordinary moments of pure wonder. The first, was sitting on a chair during a break with a cup of tea looking out the window. It was a warm, overcast, breezy afternoon and as I was sitting, there was a big gust of wind that led to the puff of a Dandelion dispersing in the breeze, whilst a rusty-red, rapidly rotating gum leaf fell through the expanding white mist. This moment must only have lasted a second, but it is seared in my memory like a painting. Another moment was standing on the bank of a lotus pond in the dusk of the final evening. Looking at the pink and blue lotus, my eyes were drawn to a lotus-free part of the pond, where ripples were emanating from some unseen disturbance. There must have been some unfelt or isolated sun shower that I couldn’t feel, with invisible falling droplets triggering rhythmic ripples that were like notes of music on the pond. I saw the music of the natural world in that moment standing next to the lotus pond and a feeling of melancholy came over me in realisation of how distracted and ignorant we have become of these everyday wonders.
The paradox of change and transformation
Our teacher, Geoff Dawson, gave a fantastic talk on the second day about the three Buddhist personality types, grasping, aversion and confusion. Which interestingly map onto the three Buddhist poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Realising my own grasping nature and how closely I matched the characteristics described by Geoff from Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart provided a lot of clarity to past behaviours. At the same time, I noticed how I also grasped at the category of grasping, with a “Ah! That’s the problem!” making it feel like an infinite regress into the past, something inescapable. The nuance (and lesson) in Geoff’s talk that helped break out of this eternal recurrence was shifting the perspective from change, as though we could change into some other character, to one of transformation. Any change in ourselves comes not through a complete negation of who we are but rather an extension of our characteristics into something beneficial, which in the case of grasping is generosity. It is not about becoming someone else, but realising who we are and extending or transforming this pattern of personality into a different shape. In my case, the open palm of generosity, instead of the closed fist of grasping. Nothing about the hand has changed, except the way it is being used. This process of transformation isn’t about a Gatsby-like quest of changing yourself into someone else, a fool’s errand. Rather it is about extending beyond the fixed set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that have stiffened through habit. A process that commences with mindfulness of these thoughts, feeling and behaviours. What was common across the transformative gestures for each personality type was the opening to others. Grasping transformed into generosity. Aversion into wisdom. Confusion into vulnerability.
The most profound experiences of this retreat occurred once I returned home. Firstly, everything was incredibly vivid, even driving down the freeway back to Sydney, a drive I have done often and always write off as ugly and dull. Everything had a charge to it and a sense of spaciousness, as though everything had fallen into its rightful place. When I first saw my two-year old son, he didn’t look real, almost like he was shining as an angel. There was such a surreality to seeing him and a lightness to holding him, that it took a couple of minutes for his familiarity and weight to register. The following day, sitting at breakfast I could feel a sense of vibration throughout my whole body, gently pulsing up and down. Later that afternoon whilst I was lying in bed with my wife in the summer afternoon, my son napping, I felt a return to the feeling I used to have when we were first falling in love. It was such a rapid transformation to a feeling of another time, that suddenly the 13 years we had been together felt as though it had collapsed into an instant. It was as though, for that moment, there was an atemporality to my experience; 13 years and those early moments together in 2009 collapsing into one instant of feeling.
The difficulties of written reflection
Writing it all of this down performs a kind of reification of the experiences which isn’t my intention. The moments which have held their place in my consciousness from this week were fleeting, at most a couple of seconds. There is an impossibility in trying to pin down any kind of internal experience, even if that experience is nested in the everyday wonder of the world. The danger in writing a reflection like this is that you embellish and, in a sense, betray the nature of what happened. In this article I have tried to be as true to reflection as possible. The paradox lies in the fact that our words are re-presentation of all we experience, and at times a poor one. However, they are all we have to share our experiences with others. In this instance I have written about my experience for posterity, but also in case others see in these words a door they would like to walk through to explore zen meditation and mindfulness for themselves.