Psychological Debt, Saturation, and Autonomy

I believe happiness is earned.

In the same way we can accumulate wealth in a financial sense, we can accumulate happiness. In the same way we can go into debt financially, we can go into debt emotionally.  It’s amazing how getting a new gadget/car/boat with debt is identical to using drugs to feel good: it’s a fake sense of having earned something – or a fake sense of owning something.  Then we become a slave to the ‘something’ because there are certain measures we need to do in order to keep making payments.   This is identical to addiction.  Addiction is a loan with a terrible interest rate.   The happiness that comes from getting high will need to be repaid with interest and you’ll have even less than you did before.

It’s really important to understand the debt concept for your sense of wellbeing.  “Yeah, I’d like to feel better right this second, but am I fully accepting how it’s going to make me feel even worse eventually?”   It’s unlikely to have that thought (but it would be nice).  The more likely thought could be planted afterwards.  It’s in the trust of the cleaning-power of time: “yeah, I feel awful right now as I’m repaying my emotional debt, but I know if I keep making payments and I refuse to go even further into debt and take out another loan, I’ll eventually straighten things out and can build some wealth happiness.”

There are also two other concepts worth noting: ‘saturation’ and ‘autonomy’.

Saturation is one of the saddest psychological phenomena I’m aware of.  It basically means “getting used to how you feel.”   The term is used most often when talking about sleep.  After a small dose of sleep deprivation, we can tell we’re not firing on all cylinders.  We feel groggy and we look forward to catching up on rest.  If we let that level persist, we’ll lose the awareness that our cylinders aren’t firing and we’ll get used to it.  It’ll become the new status quo and we’ll forget we don’t feel very good.  It’s the new normal and we lose sight of better.  Saturation is also mentioned a lot when talking about hydration.  It is literally forgetting life can be better. Isn’t that awful?

For myself, considering the type of work I do, I think about it mostly in terms of substance use rather than hydration or sleep (people don’t generally come into my office and tell me how they’re having a difficult time staying hydrated.. lol).  Whenever I have a full dose of depressants in my blood – or when I’ve slowly built up too much of a tolerance to coffee – I’ll start thinking, “ugh.  This is what a huge portion of the population feels like. That is terrible!”  Fortunately, my compulsive side doesn’t settle for less-than-awesome, so I’ll put some work into shifting the status quo back to where I feel amazing.  Saturation doesn’t have a chance to take over.  That’s not the case for everyone.  That’s why, to me, saturation is one of the saddest phenomena out there.  It’s not on people’s radar and it sneaks in.  My intent in these paragraphs is to put it on your radar, stir up the part of you that wants more, and to encourage you to do the hard work of repaying your emotional debts.

Lastly, to return fully to the analogy of psychological wealth building: ‘autonomy’.

Sometimes when a person starts to catch the scent that the idea of psychological growth is a movement towards autonomy (becoming more “needless”), they will attempt to jump prematurely towards autonomy.  This is a near-perfect analogy to financial wealth as well.  It’d be sweet to be “independently wealthy,” right?   That’s a strong financial goal.  But a person can’t simply immediately choose to be independently wealthy.  We have to get out there and make it happen – working hard – making deliberate decisions – making sacrifices.   We have to fulfill the needs in order to reach the destination of being independently wealthy.  The same is true with psychology.  We can’t just decide to be autonomous.  We have to put the work in to get our needs met… then we are closer to autonomy.   It would actually be an obstacle (or it will completely stop you) on the path to autonomy if you prematurely act autonomous and needless.  It’s analogous to calling your job and saying, “you know what? I don’t need my paycheck this week.  Keep it.”  That’s probably not going to help your financial goals, right?  In the same way, acting autonomous doesn’t help your psychological goals.  The needs need met.  Ignoring them makes them last longer.  “What you resist persists.”

Take care of yourselves.  Repay your debts (don’t take out emotion-loans with high interest rates).  And let your needs move you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Enabling, Enmeshment, and Fear

[Scenario A]

The A’s and the cliff.  Parent-A is terrified of Child-A falling into the abyss.

When Child-A was little and learning to walk, he was completely focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other.  He was fascinated and absorbed by this new and challenging task. Parent-A could effortlessly spin Child-A around by always holding both hands and redirecting him away from the direction of the cliff.  Child-A wouldn’t even notice the guidance because of his absorption.  If Child-A would misstep and begin to fall, Parent-A would already have both hands in hers and could hold him up to keep his knees from scraping the ground.  “Wew! That was a close one,” she lovingly laughed, helped him rebalance, and they both enjoyed the excitement of the moment.  There was true and beautiful bonding occurring.  Truly beautiful moments.

Once Child-A didn’t have to try so hard to simply put one foot in front of the other, he began to explore more.

He noticed when he walked in a certain direction, Parent-A would stop him.  At first, this was just slightly disturbing… but he grew more and more frustrated.

He got older. He got stronger. He got more frustrated.  Eventually, he engaged her fully.

Parent-A is positioned between Child-A and the cliff.   She began screaming, “stop trying to walk this way!!  There’s a cliff behind me!!”  She has her hands on Child-A’s upper chest and is now pushing him as hard as she can, digging her feet into the earth and passionately trying to keep him from getting closer to the cliff.  When Child-A was younger, she could stop him without using all of her might.   It’s harder now.  Child-A is equally passionate.  Child-A, with all of his might, pushes back at Parent-A, “get out of my way!! Let me be myself!!! There’s no cliff!!!  You’re just trying to run my life!!!”   Child-A digs his toes in and is pushing as hard as he can.  Child-A is able to gain ground, inch by inch, towards the edge of the cliff.  He’s able to push Parent-A backwards.  “Can’t you see the cliff behind me!?!  I care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt!!  You need to stop going in this direction!!” Parent-A pleads with all the love in the world.  Child-A continues to push towards the cliff.  “I am so sick you of you trying to control me!!!  I will get past you!!!”    He can’t see the cliff.  All he sees is Parent-A and her attempts at obstructing his path.   All he feels is her efforts to take away his options.  “Get off of me!!!  Leave me alone!!!”  He grows and grows, becoming stronger and stronger.  He wants to be free.  He wants to have his own life.  He continues pushing, trying harder and harder.  They get to the edge.  Parent-A stops pushing and frantically clings to the shirt of Child-A because her heels are now on the edge of the cliff and she’s leaning backwards, about to fall off.

Her grip on Child-A is the only thing keeping her from falling backwards.

“You…. will… not…. control… my….. life!!!!! I am my own person!!!!  I will do what I want!!!!” Child-A screams and, with one last shove, takes them both over the edge.

 

[Scenario B]

The B’s and the cliff.  Parent-B is terrified of Child-B falling into the abyss.

When Child-B was first learning how to walk and couldn’t coordinate his vision and his steps, Parent-B would hold his hand and guide him and steer him in different directions from the cliff.  Child-B wouldn’t even notice the guidance.  As Child-B grew, Parent-B would gradually let go of his hand and give him opportunities to balance himself.  Occasionally, Child-B would trip over a rough patch of dirt and he would fall, sometimes hurting his hands and knees very badly.  Hurt, he would look to Parent-B.  Hurting deeply with Child-B, she says, “I’m so sorry that happened.  Please try and watch carefully where you’re stepping.  Sometimes there are rough patches in the dirt.  I care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt.”  Child-B begins focusing on the dirt and eventually masters walking over the rough patches.  When he doesn’t need to focus on his steps so much, he looks outward and begins to explore.  He sees the cliff.  “What is that!?” he asks, in awe of its vastness.  “That’s the cliff,” Parent-B answered.  “People who go over the edge never come back,” she said.  Child-B gazed at it for a moment, took a deep breath, and fully felt its vastness.  Child-B never ventured too close to the eternal danger.

 

[Scenario C]

The C’s and the cliff.  Parent-C is terrified of Child-C falling into the abyss.

Once Child-C has mastered his steps and has developed a good vision, he asks, “what’s that out there?” Parent-C says, “that’s the cliff.  People who go over the edge never come back.”  Walking freely and masterfully, Child-C strolls to the edge.  He looks over.  He’s intrigued.  It is vast and amazing.  Matter of factly, he says, “I bet there’s something good down there.”  He jumps off.

 

 

Freedom

A central concept within theories, systemic and existential.

The crux of family systems theory and the direction of the growth-work therein is we are born into a family system of rules, regulations, limitations and patterns. Let’s call these “forces.” We’re nearly blind to these forces by default, but we feel them. When we feel them, we tend to attribute them as “laws of nature” rather than “family forces.” Think of a couple who just moved in together: “this is just how it’s done. Why would you do it a different way!?” As opposed to, “this is the way my family did it. Wow, it feels strange to consider doing it differently.”

So the growth-work entails recognizing this beginning state as a family system state (as opposed to a blind state or a universal law state) and then moving away / beyond / or out of the limitations and regulations. The task is to chew on the forces (the beliefs, the patterns, etc) and digest the ones you’d like to keep and spit out the ones that don’t really fit you. In psychobabble terms, this movement is called “differentiation” towards “autonomy.” In the end, you are a *self* whose rules have been choicefully examined and moderated to fit your flowing life. You’re not operating on rules that may have been passed from generation to generation and you’re not restricted in your range of behaviors because someone else believed you shouldn’t behave that way. Your beliefs are yours. You are you.

I’ll do a quick contrast with “emotional reactivity.” This is where a person may *appear* differentiated but, upon closer examination, they’re largely doing the opposite of what the family forces were. This person is not differentiated because they’re still operating in relation to the family forces, even though the relation is opposition. “Wow, you are so different from your family” as opposed to “you are you.”

That’s growth from a ‘family systems’ perspective.

Now to existentialism.

There is a root fact that we inherit a ‘self’ without asking for one.  (Not to mention we have to figure out how to operate it and they can be pretty complex and difficult.)

We appreciate this ‘self’ in varying amounts (self-esteem) while we also know, on a very deep/core/mostly-unconscious level, that we’re moving uncontrollably towards death – the loss/end/destruction of this ‘self.’  We can’t stop this movement.  It’s happening.  It’s happening while I type this and it’s happening while you read this.

The way I visualize this concept is as follows: the “root fact” is at the bottom. It’s cement. It’s the base. You can’t go further down than that. It’s a brutal fact and it’s arguable we can’t fully accept it because of the amount of terror that’s actually involved. What we do in defense is we live “above” the cement. We get involved with things and we “forget” about the root fact. We forget we only have a certain amount of time here. We forget about the aloneness inherent in dying.  We forget about the burden of shaping our lives on a moment-to-moment basis.  We forget about the odds that no one will remember us in 50, 100, 200 years. Like we never existed. We float and dance above the cement.

To continue the visualization, there are ‘forces’ above the cement also, a lot like a tornado but a ‘fun tornado,’ if you will.  While we “forget” about the root fact, we float and dance inside the winds of the fun tornado, not minding how we’re above the cement.  We swirl around. We float and dance.  There are so many people swirling, floating and dancing in the winds of the fun tornado – it’s very normal.  That’s all well and good but sometimes the tornado’s winds shift. There’s a quick gust downwards and the forces grab a person and violently slam them against the cement.  Violently, I said.  Everything is different now.  It might pick the person back up and put them back in the current of winds (concussed and shaken) or it might leave the person laying on the cement.  This gust could be anything – the death of someone close to you, the loss of a tooth, a car accident, an illness, a movie, a bad grade on a paper, anything – anything that touches you near the core root fact.

Now growth from an existential perspective.

Lara Perls said, “your feet are for grounding and your hands are for connecting.”  Using the cement and fun tornado analogy, we want people standing on the cement and having fun with their hands.  We don’t want people floating above the cement; they risk getting violently slammed down.  And we don’t want people huddling or crouching scared on the cement; they’re missing out on the joy of living.  In addition, we don’t want people’s feet to actually BE cemented.  In tai chi, you learn how to move from step to step while staying rooted to the center of the earth.  Same here.  We want people to be able to move, in a grounded way, on the cement – even dance on the cement. But we’re grounded.  We’re rooted.  And we’re living with meaningful joy.

One of the reasons systems theory and existentialism fit so beautifully together is the “differentiation” towards “autonomy”.  In the opening paragraphs about family systems, I described that movement away / beyond / or out of the original family’s limitations and patterns.  In the existential paragraphs, it’s the growing movement from floating with the gusts of the fun tornado down to the cement.  It’s the same movement, the movement towards autonomy – ‘selfing’ – growing – developing – towards the deepest, fullest, most grounded, most defined “you are you.”  A developed self can recognize family of origin forces for what they are and can recognize culture for it is – and can see ‘self’ as embedded within, AND separate from, these forces.  That’s the concept of autonomy, crucial in both family systems and existential theories.

I like connecting dots. Two more.

This concept is very relevant in the Buddhist idea of “attachments,” the recognition of attachments for what they are and the ability to let them go and let them move.

This is also very relevant in Mark 7:6,7, “These people honor me with their words, but I am not really important to them.  Their worship of me is worthless. The things they teach are only human rules.”

The attachments, the human rules, the forces, the tornado winds: same idea.  They’re all descriptions of the value of the movement towards the fullest and truest version of yourself, to let go of the things that are not you and to embrace and utilize your true self.