Well, last time I wrote on the topic, I introduced the importance of knowing one’s context. Without understanding one’s context, I argued, it’s not possible to know exactly to what one must adapt. However, understanding the context is not in itself sufficient to advance the self to its ultimate state. One must also look deeply into the self, and be willing to evaluate the self with respect to the contextual constraints (the context’s criteria for success).
The second principle of psychoadaptation is clarity of self in relation to one’s context.
Looking into and understanding the Self is at the center of most psychological theories of mental health, and is the cornerstone of psychotherapy. One cannot change unless one knows what must be changed. Yet, little is written in most theories about how one evaluates the Self in order to change. Fortunately, this is covered well in psychoadaptation, with specific directions for how to make changes to the Self when necessary.
After one learns about one’s context and its constraints, the next step is to adjust one’s understanding of the world, along with one’s competencies, to the context. The context has specific constraints to which each of us must adapt in order to be considered successful. For instance, kids must go to school and get good grades. Good grades are defined on a letter scale. Getting A’s and B’s is good. Getting a C is average, whereas getting D’s and F’s is poor performance. Within a specific class, getting an A is defined as scoring above 92 or 93 enough times so that when averaged, the score remains above the cutoff for an A. Thus, one is considered highly successful if one can achieve an A, successful if one can achieve a B, average if one can only attain a C, below average if one attains a D, and a failure if one receives an F.
One may counter by asking what happens when one cannot attain an A or a B for other reasons, including biologic reasons, even if the individual works extremely hard. Good question, I’d say. However, the system offers solutions for students who are unable for some reason to achieve high success, including tutoring and remedial classes. Thus, if the individual is unable to achieve success in the traditional fashion, that student’s constraints change and adaptation must occur to the new set of constraints. However, it is important to note that the macrosystem (culture) doesn’t change, and high achievement is still defined by A’s and B’s, as before. Although this individual will now adapt to remedial standards, s/he will still be judged in relation to the macrosystem’s standards by most. It doesn’t seem fair, but life is nothing about fairness; it’s about adaptation.
The education context, and grades in particular, is but one example of how adaptation works. However, students are monitored by a system that identifies competence and places students in classes based on some objective standards. Psychoadaptation, however, suggests that we learn to adapt to our constraints. In other words, we are capable of knowing our contexts, the contextual constraints, along with our Self’s standing in relation to those constraints. Thus, unlike school students, we must know ourselves. Knowing one’s Self is easy and hard at the same time. It is easy because we are the source of this knowledge. We are our own libraries and databases. However, knowing the Self is hard because our selves have many layers, some of which are difficult for us to fathom, and others are just plain scary.
The notion that one’s own Self can be scary is not far fetched. Indeed, we can easily scare ourselves with unsavory thoughts, such as murder, suicide, terminal illness, and even speaking offensively or being offensive in public. Further, we may fear embarrassment or failure. Thus, there are many dimensions of the Self that are outright scary. Further, some of us may even have a higher than average propensity for nightmares, visualizing demonic images or images of dismemberment and other utterly disgusting scenes. Then of course there is the fear of madness. Many a person has lost sleep fearing going mad, or losing control of the Self. These are all thoughts that are difficult to bear. Thus, it’s no metaphoric walk in the park to look into the Self. Yet, the only way to adapt and attain the healthy Self is to accurately judge one’s Self in relation to the environment. Like target practice with a bow, one must align the arrow with the target. Failure to thread the arrow in preparation for its release will not allow the archer to pierce the target.
To understand the Self, one must have an open understanding of one’s psychological and biologic processes. Mindfulness is the goal. Mindfulness is a state of high awareness. When mindful, we are keenly aware of what we feel physically and emotionally, and perceive, in relation to our contexts. For instance, when eating, we are aware of the different flavors we perceive when chewing. This is natural. However, some people are more mindful than others. Thus, it requires great training to become truly mindful. Buddhist monks are mindful and they achieve it through intense meditation. As for the rest who don’t have time to mediate in peace all day, we can attain mindfulness through practice during normal activities, such as eating, walking, or even working. For my part, I practice mindful driving. When my attention strays from the road, I return it to my driving. I just stay focused on what I am supposed to be doing at every moment, like focusing on the road ahead instead of checking out the cute girl to my left:-) When at work, I keep my attention focused on my writing rather than my desire for yet another scone. Yes, it takes great practice, but learning to attend to what I’m doing at the moment enhances my ability to experience my Self and its fluctuations, as my awareness is sharpened and when there are issues that become pressing, I’m more aware of them.
We think many thoughts throughout a given day, too many to count. Yet, not all thoughts are equal. We weight some thoughts more than other thoughts. Those thoughts receiving the highest weights are the thoughts we think most. They are the ones that are really important. Once our mindfulness increases, we come to experience these thoughts more fully. Yes, that means that even the scary thoughts are more scary. However, the good news is that we now are more motivated than ever to improve our conditions to eliminate those recurring thoughts. As we are well aware of what constitutes success in our contexts (contextual constraints), and we are able to experience a problem with our selves, based on the recurring thoughts, we can now judge the relation between our thoughts (conceptions) and our contexts. William James once wrote that self-esteem is the ratio of successes to pretensions. He suggested, that when we cannot succeed in ways we’d like, we should drop our pretensions to increase self-esteem. He was right. If we find that we cannot live up to some of our conceptions of ourselves (pretensions), we should change them to make ourselves feel better. From a psychoadaptation perspective, this means that if the way we conceive of ourselves is not in line with our context (or the data of our experience), we must change the Self so that we can eliminate this misalignment.
Let’s take a break and review an example to clarify what is meant by aligning the self to the context. Suppose for instance, Tommy believes he is a good singer. Indeed, he loves singing and sings all the time in the shower or whenever he’s out walking. Yet, he rarely exposes his singing to others for fear of rejection. Why? Well, Tommy is scared that others may not believe he’s a good singer and by not exposing his singing to others, his pretension of his Self as a good singer is protected. Importantly, given that nobody has told him otherwise, he is indeed a good singer. Of course, nobody could tell him otherwise since he does not let anyone judge his singing. Using James’s formula, his self-esteem should be high since his pretensions equal his successes; he experiences equilibrium.
Now, let’s say that Tommy is walking around town with some nice headphones and he’s singing out loud, forgetting that others can hear him. I mean, that’s possible when one is in the zone, not to notice others around the Self. However, to his surprise, a cackle of youth are following him and laughing at and making fun of Tommy’s horrific singing. Catching a loud outburst of noise from behind his back, Tommy notices the kids laughing at him and one vociferous youth even mentions that Tommy should give up singing because he’s so bad. The unforgiving youth asks, “have you ever heard yourself sing?” Following this with an emphatic, “you suck!”. This causes quite the embarrassment and Tommy gets angry and walks away even faster than before. Given that he started practicing mindfulness, Tommy began to realize the anger and pain welling up from within his psyche and even began to question his singing ability. Yet, he continued to sing, albeit more cautious of being heard than ever before. As the psyche is relentless in its pursuit of equilibrium, thoughts about his bad singing started to creep into Tommy’s head, and even affected him when speaking to others about unrelated topics. The psyche begins to ask for change and, like a broken record (antediluvian reference for old people; what’s a record?), it keeps playing back the same message; it has only one shut off button, and we have to discover it for ourselves.
C.G. Jung wrote of the transcendent function and how the psyche has a natural propensity for balance; equilibrium. Material from our personal unconscious, the part of our Self outside consciousness but close enough to encroach upon consciousness when necessary, wants to escape captivity. Like water behind a dam, it has great potential energy. Unlike a dam, though, instead of flooding the village below and causing destruction, liberation of this painful content brings balance to the self, and creates a special third thing, as Jung called it, something that is greater than either consciousness or the unconscious alone; it’s a special, sought-after state. It’s the Christmas star, it’s the alchemist’s gold. Once this content is liberated and incorporated into the Self, we become truly special individuals, no longer the same individual we were before; it’s as if we were once caterpillars but now butterflies.
Singing in public started to bring shame. Indeed, fear became so great that our hero no longer wanted to sing. Worse, Tommy’s voice would crack more than ever when any opportunity came to sing or even speak in public. He started to develop a singing complex and it was affecting his whole being. Paraphrasing Jung, people don’t have complexes, complexes have people. Tommy’s life was now no longer his own. Thankfully, though, Tommy was exposed to mindfulness and was keenly aware of these painful feelings. Further, reading the psychoadaptation blog as he was so fond of doing (of course I’m taking liberty here), he came to realize that the easiest way to alleviate this problem was to re-conceptualize himself. Knowing that in his context, good singing is judged by others with very clear standards for what is considered a good singer (the internalized Simon Cowell), he asked a peer who is a professional voice instructor to judge his voice. Kind but straight forward, the instructor told Tommy that his voice was not good as is but that with lessons and practice he could improve as a singer. He’d never be a truly great singer, she noted, but he could certainly improve. Now, Tommy had clear knowledge that he was not a good singer, and learning from psychoadaptation (Tommy was smart too!), he re-conceptualized himself as someone who enjoys singing but does not have a good voice. He then decided that if he was to sing again so that others could hear, he would invest in some lessons first. Doing so, he embraced his true singing nature, aligning it with the data of experience and his context. He even learned to make fun of his singing in public and invested in lessons. These lessons improved his voice to the point where Tommy became a competent if not a really good singer. He even began singing in a church choir and no longer has anxieties.
True to Jungian analytical psychology, the anxieties our hero experienced were purposeful. Part of the transcendent function, their purpose was to help Tommy re-align his Self with reality. The Self was out of balance. Tommy believed he was a good singer (Self) when others (Context) did not think he was a good singer. The result was disequilibrium and anxiety, a symptom of disequilibrium. By learning mindfulness, Tommy began to attend to his experiences and came to realize he needed clarification. Receiving it, he was able to adjust his Self conceptions to the data of his experience and attain equilibrium, attaining a higher Self than he had achieved previously.
Life is adaptation (quoting Piaget). We are constantly faced with evidence that either supports or contradicts our conceptions of Self. We also receive evidence that supports or detracts from our perceptions of our competence. Learning to attend to these clues and how we feel in our various experiences allows us to align our selves to reality. Psychoadaptation is the aligning process. It is not possible, however, unless we know our contexts’ standards for success, and know where we stand in relation to those standards.