Communication Spirals: a journey from vicious to virtuous
It can be said that language shapes culture just as culture shapes language and I would argue that our culture needs some shaping and that maybe our use of language can help. This essay is based on my observations and derived from my attempts to help people see and share their truths with partners, children, and colleagues to repair damaged relationships and improve outcomes. Not just repair and improve, but to expand and turn once hurt and disconnected relationships into compassionate caring ones, sometimes as quickly as possible as people are often in difficult situations when they seek help. Of course it doesn’t always workout as planned. Not all people are ready nor situations ripe for the necessary reconcilation and reimagination of a relationship to happen. Sometimes people need to get out before thinking about getting back in and other times people must step in as they are already out…
The following chart illustrates and will be referred to throughout the discussion and we’ll begin at the center, where deeply rooted and often hidden from our awareness lie Pre-Biases. As you can see in the diagram, this core has direct ties to each of the 5 outer markers. For this essay, we’ll start by moving upward to the Agenda and then clockwise to Inquiry, Defense, Offense, and finally Ego before returning to Agenda and starting again. In this way each individual marker is influenced by and influencing another effectively rising or falling in cycles that spiral either vicious or virtuously:
Part 1 — Pre-Bias
Pre-Biases lie at the core of our being where they have the greatest impact, while often remaining hidden from view. It can take some work to uncover them and even more to root out false beliefs and misplaced ideals. Each inter-action is an opportunity for this inner-action. Ask ourselves what Pre-Biases might we have based on any one or more upcoming interactions with another person? What do we think we know about their background, their interests, their political views, their family, their trauma, their gifts? What makes us so sure? If we’re not sure, where did that belief come from and how might it affect this meeting and relationship? Whether we’ve known the other party for a long time or are just meeting them, we are almost certainly holding some biases toward them and they toward us.
Pre-Bias is a held belief that often dwells in our unexamined assumptions that, in consideration of the larger discussion and as a preview of where were heading, create an Agenda that propels our actions and may fuel our Inquiry that when poorly constructed strikes a Defensive response that may turned to Offense thus feeding or famining the Ego resulting in an escalating, accelerating, and perpetuating negative spiral of harmful communications.
Each of us have our own penchant for language, varying greatly between ethnicity, local and regional custom, family upbringing, and our individual life experience. Some people are apt toward verbal communications and may be audible learners, others not so much. Most of us unconscious as to the many facial and tonal ques triggering unwanted responses in our relationships. It’s no wonder than that with so many different starting points and circumstances we don’t always get the joke or understand the premise.
How many arguments arise from the wrong interpretation and poor timing? In a culture that values productivity over patience, we jump to conclusions and take words out of context futher leading to polarized arguments escalating into greater divisiveness and contempt. Around the world we see more political divide and extremist rhetoric — it’s as if the flap of a butterfly’s wing could set off the apocolypse.
Stepping back from the ledge requires looking within. Within ourselves, our communities, religions, nations, and as a people. Why can’t we get along? Just as we are wired for over consumption, hording and violence, we are wired for generosity, consideration and healing. Many would argue we are wired more for peace and that war is learned. Culture and language are learned too. They are the tools of injecting biases beyond the inherent ones. Inherent bias is that which is necessary to survive like food, shelter, and love. Learned bias are those we receive directly from witnessing the world and indirectely in teachings and social norms.
Pre-Bias can come in the form of discriminatory thoughts and behaviors around age, race, gender, ethnicity, etc. or in the more generalized biases of appearance, wealth, and fame; as well as normalized biases of our particular community / culture’s way of life. It’s important to acknowledge that all humans are looking for a sense of belonging resulting in a Pre-Bias (seemingly rooted in our DNA, although more likely sourced from our early childhood) for those similar to us and that we share the most history. It is wise to consider the other, open and tolerant to their truth, and wiser still to be open and tolerant of our own truth.
How have we been institutionalized and what has been normalized that may not be normal, right or fair? It’s normal for some people to spend more on one dinner than others do on a week’s worth of groceries. It is normal for elderly people to live among themselves away from their families. It is normal in America that we have what is called the School-to-Prison Pipeline and policies that have led to Mass Incarceration of Black people in particular. Here in San Francisco, it is normal for multi-millionaires and politicians to walk past people living on the street on their way to their places of work. How might societal norms have hacked into my sense of reality?
Pre-Bias also shows up in our way of understanding life. For example, some people tend toward feelings and others information. I’m more of a feelings person who backs it up with data. My communication style may conflict with those that require data before forming a feeling, while their need for data may frustrate me. If my hope is to convene with people that think differently, I need to know that my Pre-Bias may get in the way. Theirs does too of course, but that’s not mine to influence so directly and I must be cautious that ours don’t get entangled in the process, as you’ll see later in this writing. Right now here in America, you can see the entanglement of our politics, media, scientific, healthcare, and economic Pre-Bias opinions of Left, Right, despair, deny, mask, no mask, Neo-Liberal, or Socialist.
Pre-Biases toward what we know are natural, however modern times have put what we know into question as cultures overlap and ideologies conflict. Immigration, displacement, global marketplaces, tourism and international visas have brought the world closer, yet most communities are still very much homogeneous. Society segregated as a byproduct of discriminatory policy and a natural course of wanting to be with people we have a sense of camaraderie and trust. As individuals living in apartments, families in single-family homes, and homogeneous communities defined by socioeconomic class, we are left tragically blind to our own bias, while opening the floodgates for theirs.
At home and within our communities, parents and caretakers have Pre-Biases about how a child should act and what they should do. These biases extend to spouses, partners. parents, siblings, neighbors, businesses, visitors, elected officials, elderly, and so on. The limiting preferences and constricting requirements amongst family, friends, and neighbors is the source of much internal strife and outward frustrations. Sharing a fence, a road, a grocery store, and a trail may put our priorities at odds with another usually to be worked out through an established process of policy making and enforcements without which, I admit based on our current states of conflict, there would likely be many more problems. Still though, policy-based solutions and punitive laws don’t work very well when emotional bonds and psychological traumas exist. Early childhood development and longstanding or even existing traumas may imprint very strong biases into our psyches affecting personalities and distorting perspectives.
Therapists often help to uncover our harmful Pre-Biases and guide one toward healthy resolution, while coaches and teachers help you discover and develop your talents with an understanding of your limitations. Turnaround specialists in business, like my father, help uncover biases that may be limiting growth or profitability. Often these biases are found in assumptions around long-held beliefs that can be expressed in conversation with Production Managers when they state that it has, “always been done that way.” Our tendency to leave such assumptions unexamined is often due to an avoidance of conflict, as most people share a Pre-Bias to not challenge for fear of upsetting someone and creating an argument or being wrong and making things worse. Pre-Bias is all around, inside and out.,
To say “pre” in bias is actually redundant and I considered doing away with it, however at this point in the discussion I’ve come to realize it does serve a purpose. ‘Pre-’ appears to mark a moment before cognitive biases appear. Psychology Today points out 12 types of cognitive bias including, for example, “confirmation bias” which is a bias toward information that confirms what we already believe. ‘Pre-’, without saying too much, gives voice to the curious question of why we have bias and where did it come from? Looking at human evolution, we know that “Pre-” is so that we can operate in a reality full of competing interests without becoming overwhelmed. By operate I mean ‘choose and act’ wisely as it pertains to our survival. We are “pre-wired” in many ways for the task of survival. Born with instinct, intuition, and talent, our body continues to wire itself throughout our lifetime as demonstrated by individual personalities and interests, often found in the habits of the individual.
I think Pre-Bias is why, even though humans are naturally biased to avoid conflict, so many conflicts exist. Biases that lie deep in our psyche are more able, when triggered, to initiate the sympathetic nervous system responses commonly known as, “fight or flight.” When activated we are literally in a physically charged state from experiencing shock and fear as opposed to a more relaxed state from feelings of nourishment and love. It is not reasonable to expect ourselves or others to communicate clearly, listen, or learn when our nervous system is on high alert.
Although always forming, especially from intense or traumatic experiences, our Pre-Biases are imprints that often hide deeper truths of self doubt or hate, grief, and shame. Understanding and deactivating such negative influences may require expert help in the form of therapy, books and teachers, and even transformative plant medicines like Psilocybin from magic mushrooms, or the like. Each requiring a willing partner that is me/you/we as it is not always easy to face these truths. A sincere attempt to uncover Pre-Biases is a step toward freedom. Freedom for ourselves, for our oppressors, and for those we wish to be in relationship.
Part 2 — Agenda
Moving up and out from Pre-Biases in the center, we set Agendas designed to feed those biases. Maybe not everyone wants fame or fortune, but we do all desire comfort, acceptance, validation, and sovereignty among other basic human wants and needs. America is built on the Pre-Bias that Capitalism and a Democratic system of governance are best for obtaining those things. Other nations might choose a different Agenda based on a different set of Pre-Biases as to how to best govern and civilize. While somewhat nuanced between countries, remarkable deviations exist in the Pre-Biased ways of thinking and being of our ancestors and of the indiginous cultures still in existence today.
Ingrained beliefs are like pre-set Agendas, creating ways of thinking that can direct our lives often without our consent. Even with our consent, problems will arise when Agendas don’t match. Conflicting Agendas create push-pull relationships, each trying to get the other side to see, hear, feel, and behave as they wish, which may be asking them to abandon their Agenda in favor of ours. While it can be hard for you to consider when and how you’ve priotized your own Agenda, it’s likely easier to remember when others have prioritized theirs… a coworker or boss perhaps? How about your kid or your teacher? What about your spouse or partner? Or the hurried driver that cut you off?
When Agendas naturally align the relationship may feel like a breeze and when they don’t doors may slam shut and shutters are closed. We must be cautious of both scenarios as Agendas will not always match up so nicely, nor be at such odds. As I say this, I catch wind of an ugly divorce filled with anger and resentment taking a turn toward a loving and amicable resolution upon a child’s request for them to be “nicer” to each other. Sharing an Agenda of being nice will help conflicting parties find common ground. On the other side, I can feel the breeze of a love affair with all the stars aligned that, once cast into a family constellation (full of Agendas), becomes a swirl of discontent. This is also true in relations with ourselves. Oh, how we ‘love’ to torment ourselves with Agendas too demanding, unrealistic and even harmful — pushing and pulling ourselves (and our loved ones) apart.
Now not all Agendas are bad. It’s good to have a plan! Especially if part of that plan is to go with the flow. Often what is possible or helpful can’t be truly understood until we understand what’s at stake for all parties involved. In 7-Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey reminds us to, “seek first to understand, then be understood” while also promoting the idea of “keeping first things first”. If our situation is dire or urgent, then perhaps it is best to prioritize our own Agenda. Speeding to the hospital with my wife in labor comes to mind. Otherwise prioritizing alertness and openness, seeking to understand instead of assuming we already know or neglecting to even consider it in the first place, while learning to be flexible and adaptive, will be huge to our success.
When our goal is to learn their Agenda, we can then merge into and even temporarily divert the flow toward our Agenda without stopping or permanently siphoning theirs. This reminds me of a core tenant of Tai Chi, a martial art known for the way it is practiced very slowly, which is, “yield without giving up your root”. If I yield, I am able to give way to their Agenda. Further, I can then join their direction at which point a simple nudge may change their trajectory. Tai Chi’s Agenda is to defend yourself from physical harm, whereas life has many more variables than a physical confrontation. In a fight, it’s mostly about the value of my life and the life of my loved ones. However, my root must include them too. I must also value their life because, as non-violent activist Pancho Ramos says, “there are victims on both sides of the gun” and while I certainly don’t want to be shot, I don’t want to shoot either.
In organizations, executives and managers might demonstrate their willingness to ‘yield’ along with their deeply ‘rooted’ valued system by starting with an honest desire to get to know the individuals they lead and manage. By asking questions about family, hobbies, dreams, and workplace improvements before asking for their loyalty and dedication, and then actively finding ways to engage their family, hobbies, dreams and workplace improvements will assure never having to ask for their best effort as we have “Pre-” strengthened the bonds of trust and camaraderie. This connection starts with their Agenda rather than ours, while remembering not to ‘give up our root’ or that which you hold most dear / value the most.
With our children, we can start by exploring what is most important to them and nourishing those interests before asking them to show interest or desire in our interests or desires. In the process we may find opportunities to invite them to learn from us and guide them instead of requiring or forcing them to develop their talents, often with very different emotional impacts on a young heart and mind. When they are struggling, we can bring them closer by making space for their pain, yielding to their needs without rushing to fix anything. Yielding to the energy of the moment may mean helping them up and brushing them off or it could be standing back and letting them do it for themselves. Either way, by making it okay for a child to be a child creates a connection where our nudges and motivational speeches are way more effective because we first gave way and allowed the negative energy to be released.
Sometimes raising kids seems like an epic battle as children need help establishing their roots and learning to yield. I would argue that they can best learn these things by witnessing it in others and that parents and caregivers be cautious in our teachings for to uproot a young person or fail to yield can be destructive. Often when trying to motivate we praise and when trying to modify we shame. Pride and shame are two sides of the same coin and when we estabilish relationship based on these rewards and punishments, we reinforce an authoritative and conditional relationship. Naturally all people fear humiliation and crave appreciation and these are effective motivators and modifiers, but everyone is deserving of love whether things come easy or hard, whether you lose or win or tie. How can we as parents and caregivers find the right amount of accountability that leads to humility and not humiliation? How can we motivate in such a way that isn’t so outcome oriented? Praise feels really good and has lots of power when offered from someone we respect. Shame is something we can handle when our sense of belonging isn’t also threatened.
From my experience, humbling aligns us with our life purpose and humility helps us set a realistic Agenda that focuses on Win-Win opportunities to achieve it. If you haven’t experienced situations where everyone won, you might not believe it possible. This is why a Pre-Bias that believes in a Zero-Sum Game may not know how to win or even that it’s possible without creating loss. In a polarized political debate, one without hopes for bipartisanship, we create winners and losers in society. In a competitive job market, only a small percentage of applicants are hired. In the games of “King of the Mountain” there is only one king and in “Musical Chairs” there aren’t enough chairs for everyone. It would seem that the world spins on winners and losers, haves and have-nots. Society celebrates the victors and can be very harsh critics of the runner-ups. If our Pre-Bias says that losing is unacceptable, then naturally our Agenda will be set to win at all costs. This mentality cuts short the journey and fails to reward the effort, while placing great economic and social pressure on not losing.
Part 3 — Inquiry
As we move forward, clockwise on the diagram, influences both positive and negative may become cumulative. Consider for example how when one’s personal Agenda is held too strongly, their Inquiry becomes full of personal needs and desires, making them appear to lack empathy and be self-centered. Additionally, a strong Agenda leads to the likelihood of an interrogative style of communication resulting in Defensive reactions which we’ll discuss next escalating into Offensive tactics that, if successful, feed the Ego and onward again into an even stronger Agenda. To avoid this transference and amplification, our Inquiry needs to be as free as possible of one’s own Agenda and Pre-Biases. So what makes a good question?
A good question allows people to share openly. It comes without a right or wrong answer. This isn’t math class. No matter how many multiple choices we might come up with, they are not enough. Asking a question that has a right or wrong answer is more like an interrogation or test. It puts people on the spot by making them right or wrong. What are the consequences for being wrong? Inquiry is a powerful tool, one that can be used to create and destroy. No wonder people lie and cheat to get it right.
For the good student, the one with the right answers, a world of opportunities exist. Who defines good? Is there not good in all of us? Our education systems and educators have very strong Agendas and interrogative styled Inquiry. They create curriculums and syllabi, assign tasks, require attendance, and test for competence. Teachers have the right answers and a student’s job is to learn and demonstrate they do too. This is a one-sided review, I know, but still largely holds true in mainstream American education with State and Nationally mandated “core competencies” and standardized testing, for example.
For the good employee, they have the right resume and answered the interview questions correctly. They also gave off the right impression which, while no longer standardized, has its own Pre-Biases based on the founder’s and executive’s beliefs, as well as local or perhaps industry-related customs. The point is that the more right answers they already have, the more likelihood that we are wrong at some point. If being wrong means not getting the job or promotion, what would you do to be right? Working harder and getting more rest, yes, but what if that’s not enough? I recently saw a study that says over 80% of applicants lie in their job interviews. What if the right answer is all wrong?
That doesn’t make wrong right either! What it does is question our knowing what is right or wrong and in the pursuit of truth and understanding staying open to it being either, neither or both. We do not live in a binary world. The deeper our sciences look the more we don’t know. Universal laws speak of probabilities and relativity. Yin and Yang are infinitely divisible. Is it a particle or a wave? Depends on who’s looking and how.
Therefore, regarding Inquiry, a choice word is “curiosity”. Curiosity indicates both mystery and desire. Mystery of the unknown, a place free of our existing beliefs, and desire, to uncover the truth and have honest human connection. Curiosity arises in us when we listen and attempt to learn from others. An Agenda fixed on a particular outcome at a particular time will drown out the curiosity and an opportunity for greater connection will be lost.
Every question has embedded both curiosity and interrogation. Often tone and context is the only way to know which is which. Questions lacking leading words like What, Where, When, Who, Why and How may also be lacking in curiosity. Examples like “Is it done?” and “Are you sure?” demonstrate a desire for a yes or no. Alternatively, “When will it be done?” and “Why are you so sure?” show a desire for more information, curiosity as it were. Other forms of Inquiry aren’t a question at all. “Please tell me what you want” is a demand for information that, no matter how nice, could be misinterpreted as interrogation. A little softer is a request like, “Will you please…” which is really just another example of tone and timing being critical to being understood.
Our curiosity is a gift to others, opening doors and dropping Defenses. In order to be received, it must be authentic. Curious about their question. Curious about their wellbeing. Curious about their upbringing. Curious about their motives. Curious about our motives. Be authentically curious and let that be your best Defense as somebody has to lower their shield first…
Part 4 — Defense
In communication, feelings literally come face-to-face. Well, nowadays, emoji-to-emoji, but you get what I mean — that we cannot communicate with another without some emotional bond. It may be a stranger and we are filled with uncertainty and excitement, or it may be a family member that we have experienced past trauma and pain, or a friend that is like a sister, or a demanding and demeaning boss, or a dedicated and determined partner. In some of these relationships we need well-defined borders and strong Defenses, while others may not need any at all. In a world of “rivalrous relationships” as Daniel Schmachtenberger likes to call them, we would be foolish not to consider the competition. However, we must watch that we haven’t created some false enemy or misidentified the actual competition. Also, a deeper understanding of our Defenses helps us to understand and adapt to the Defenses of others.
Knowing our vulnerabilities is the first step to developing a good Defensive strategy. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know one’s weaknesses when we’re conditioned to hide them. We learn to trick even ourselves or something like addiction does it for us. We all have weaknesses. Stuff that doesn’t come easy, things we’ve lost, and were taken away. The emotional impact is often traumatic and isolating in a society obsessed with productivity and success.
It takes a village to raise a child and many children today don’t have two parents, yet alone a village. Even those children who do have two parents may feel neglected as their parents are too busy making a living or settling a divorce. [Not to be totally grim as there is so much beauty and bounty all around, but this is a critical commentary so please forgive me.] Point is that as children we are too often missing the attention and support to deal with our emotions and are rewarded by either suppressing or overcoming whatever truths lie beneath. Without help, most will go through adulthood performing similar plays on different stages. From the addict on the street to the narcissist in the oval office, we can see various degrees of psycho- and socio-pathologies that result from a system of punishment and reward out of whack with basic human needs and true benefits to society.
In a Zero-Sum Game with winners and losers, everybody has their defenses up for the more you have, the more you have to lose and winning comes at someone else’s expense.
Not all of life’s communications fall so nicely into a game. Most people we interact with want the same things and healthy communication should be the norm. It’s not, you are not alone. As hard as it is to get the right words out with right timing, harder still it is to form them with right intent, compassion, and honesty. With so many complexities and defense mechanisms already in place, how can we get people to share instead of being defensive?
Easier said than done! Here’s the easy part, become a trusted source and seen as an ally. Hard part is accomplishing this task as it requires Inquiry into our own Defense. Question: in what relationships are we most defensive, not able to open up? Answer: where we feel most vulnerable.
We have responsibilities that haven’t been met, promises not kept, secrets to keep, and emotions to suppress so we may appear to have it all together. At work we are required to meet quotas, balance budgets, and increase profits. All measurements that may put a manager’s need for results at odds with reality, while putting one’s job or security at risk. Teachers are in a similar dilemma with their school’s principals, parents, and students. If we’re asking for an assignment it’s probably already late! There is a right answer and a wrong answer to each question on a test. Grades are dolled out like future performance reviews.
Imagine a career path starting at early childhood that aimed to discover and develop your talents, while expanding your interests and cultivating your values. For the most part that image looks so much different than what we have today. What we have instead may not only fail to reward you, but actually punish you for your gifts or for just being you.
I remember having a very hard time sitting still in class as I was a gifted student and didn’t have to work very hard to get good grades and so got in trouble for misbehaving leading to a distrust of authority as my gifts were causing me hardship.
Even the rewards were flawed. What does an A+ tell someone about themselves or what they’ve learned? Some important things, I admit, like executive functioning and a will-to-perform matched by a good performance. What else? It also suggests how you compare with your peers. The birth of the ‘rivalrous relationships’, especially when graded on the Bell Curve.
I always hated the Bell Curve as it seemed to amplify your standing in the class. Funny thing is I usually stood at or near the top and, well, it didn’t really feel that good. I wanted my friends to do well and the better I did the worse for them. I was caught in a double-bind. Such binds cause lapses in our Defenses that lead to hypocritical thoughts and actions, like being a good student and cheating for a friend. Many of Donald Trump’s voters are caught in double-binds around Republican ideals and those of one’s personal religious or moral beliefs, respect for women, and support for minorities. When faced with criticism of hypocrisy, Defenses that may be well established go up fast as such accusations may feel very personal.
Anyways, back to my A+, I imagine it would have felt good had I really cared about the material and it was a reflection of my enthusiasm for studying, but no, it didn’t feel good because it was all about the grade, which is all about the college, which is all about the job, which is all about the life you want to live. That’s a lot of pressure. We’ve been pushed out of the village to ‘make a living’ and with smarts, hard work, and a little luck might even ‘make a name’ for ourselves. Back in the village, everyone knew our name and together we made our lives. We can’t go back, but with the right tools and systems, I suspect we can move forward with the ‘village’ in mind. Intimate, compassionate and clear communication is one of those tools.
Now back to how we might Inquire in such a way that lowers one’s Defense, not to take advantage, but to demonstrate our trustworthiness. Trustworthiness starts with our intentions and, as my rambling suggests, intentions don’t have clear starting points or boundaries for that matter. Simplifying our intention to ‘curiosity’ as suggested earlier allows us to practice using the tools of Inquiry instead of trying to fix everything at once. Just remember that good questions open people and bad questions shut them down because they may not have the right answer. Another insight from Stephen Covey says that we best “begin with the end in mind” so that our approach chooses a path in alignment with that end. If the end I have in mind is to empower, learn and grow, I may rethink my style of Inquiry to become more supportive and in line with their Agenda and Pre-Biases instead of demanding it be done my way.
For the student having difficulty turning in assignments, teachers can choose a hardline that may negatively impact the student far beyond a failing grade. What if there are troubles at home and an F leads to more trouble? If we wish for others to put down their Defenses then we must demonstrate that we are on their side. Asking for more background and offering to help are ways around such hardlines. Teachers teach for the sake of students, yet are required to assess students based on very specific criteria aimed at objectively grading the subject — a fixed Agenda built on the Pre-Biases of generations of educators, whomever they may be.
Looking at our own Defenses, we may come to see that we fear things we probably shouldn’t and fail to fear others we probably should. We don’t really know ahead of time. What I can say is a reliable antidote to fear though is truth. Despite craving authenticity, transparency, and open-mindedness in others, I’m amazed just how fake, closed, and opinionated I can be! No wonder people are so Defensive, me included, as it appears most questions are actually interrogations. I say “appears” because intentions, words, and perceptions may be worlds apart. Defensiveness is then a natural response in preserving self-respect in a world of competing interests.
Defensive communication takes several forms, including and often escalating, sometimes very rapidly, in this order:
- Evasive — ie. not returning messages and changing subjects
- Passive-Aggressive — ie. distorting and deceiving information
- Aggressive-Aggressive — ie. blaming and discrediting others
Many will seek to avoid confrontation by evading attacks and deflecting attention away from themselves. Others have a more aggressive defense mechanism that may range from passive to downright aggressive. When confronted the passive-aggressive will cry, “what about…?” and choose arguments that confirm their bias including outliers to either support or debunk the other. The aggressive-aggressive will blame the previous administration, foreign powers, and dark states, while discrediting and attacking the accuser. Typically, defensiveness leads to escalating narratives toward more and more extremes. Until one party puts down their weapon, both are locked in a cold war of sorts.
When in Defense mode we are hard to reach. We may be actively defending the indefensible or unconsciously defending emotional triggers and traumas. When breached we may become overwhelmed, reactive and self-destruct. This is why Inquiry is so important. True curiosity, without judgment, lowers Defenses. How do we obtain such curiosity without judgment? Perhaps an Inquiry into our Offense will provide some insight…
Part 5 — Offense
I had a rally cry when coaching my kids’ soccer teams… with hands in the middle I would shout, “What wins championships?” to which they reply, “DEFENSE!” followed by me asking, “and what’s the best defense?” “OFFENSE!” they would shout as our hands raised to the sky. We won more than we lost.
Life is not as straightforward as a game of soccer. In life I think a tie sounds really nice. There are still good players and great ones too, amazing shots and saves, heroic efforts, victories and defeats, only the victories may also be found by doing one’s best and defeats may be honored as pathways to success. Blood sports aside, the difference in life is that we must face death and our very survival depends on a good Offense for in a world driven by profit, where people literally go hungry and are forced to live on the streets, you best score a good job and keep out of trouble. We are all on the Defensive. As children we are constantly assaulted by demands to “eat this, don’t do that, say you’re sorry, sit up straight, clean your room, do your homework, study for the test, finish the essay, lose your virginity, get over it” from people who really care about us, not to mention the more insidious assaults on our person or character. Children are pretty Defenseless and without proper guidance and protection may be easily hurt. As is typical in modern society, our vulnerabilities are exposed too early in development and much of our childhood becomes more about Defending ourselves and where those that thrive do so with a good Offense.
What makes for a good Offense? One able to control the ball and direct it into the goal with superior athleticism, skill and teamwork. Assuming you are not playing soccer, what ball are we controlling and directing toward what goal? Those questions hark back to our Pre-Bias and Agenda, then appear again in our means of Inquiry. Let’s examine some strategies, conscious or not, for Offense designed to control, defeat, and dominate:
- Superiority — ie. statements like “with all due respect” and “IMHO”
- Inferiority — ie. words like “ignorant” and “stupid”
- Irrelevance — ie. dismissing as “uninformed” or “out of touch”
- Delusional — ie. gaslighting or narcissistic personality disorder
- Manipulative — ie. hurt people, hurt people.
Making known your Superiority is a powerful offensive attack. Making the other look and feel Inferior is like going for the knees. Irrelevance is to mock them, while Delusional is to call them crazy. Manipulative is to force one’s agenda without regard or worse.
In writing this piece, I was just beginning to gather phrases reflecting communications that are Offensive when I got into a debate on Facebook with what I call a “Defender of Truth.” This individual represents an almost archetypal personality that feels to me like a hero gone astray. Being a Defender of Truth is such a noble and important task, but the problem is who’s truth are you defending and for what cause? Here’s a summary of what they said along several comments in an even longer chain between the two of us. In order of appearance and not too far out-of-context:
- I think you’ve made several logical fallacies and cognitive errors
- Well, this isn’t a personally important point worth arguing over, but the potential misuse of XXX to promulgate personal convictions, might at least worth a civil conversation. At least, I find it worth it.
- In this case, agreeing to disagree won’t harm anyone, hurt any feelings, or deny each other rights. I don’t think either of us need to “win” a Sunday morning friendly Facebook debate.
- In fact, agreeing to disagree would likely have health benefits for us both
- It’s just that it can be used as a “weasel word”. (Such as Fox News saying, “Many people are saying”.) I’m not saying you’re using it that way.
- Also you’d definitely lose me on…
- I feel like you’re resorting to a reactive state, which is surprising
- I’m not attacking you.
- This is a friendly discussion/debate.
- You’ve totally mischaracterized
- If you are emotionally invested in being “right”
- With all due respect (seriously)… your ideas on XXXX (not you personally), are bunk
- sounds profoundly…let’s say “uninformed”
It is very interesting to examine each phrase’s intended, unintended, and perceived intention that may reveal this individual’s Pre-Biases and resulting Agenda, as well as the nature of their Inquiry and state of Ego as we’ll discuss next. Regardless of what I actually said, many of these phrases are introducing an idea, which even though retracted or qualified, puts the ball in my defensive zone. I felt I had to respond because there were so many attacks, yes on the idea (ie. “logical fallacies’’) but mostly personal (ie. “cognitive errors’’ and pretty much everything thereafter…) that left me wanting to share my feelings of being attacked (although at this point I probably should have recognized that we would have to “agree to disagree”) and while I didn’t much care that they see things my way, I did care that they were so intolerant and demeaning toward my beliefs on a post that I shared online among my Facebook ‘friends’.
AN EXCERPT OF MY REPLY: please note that the introduction of “weasel” and stating that, “I’ve lost you” are personal attacks even if you wish and intended otherwise. Also suggesting that I’m invested in being, “right” is a personal attack as is quipping that I’m being “reactive.” Further you say I, “totally mischaracterized” and that “with all due respect” my ideas are “bunk” and “profoundly… uniformed.”
Our thread continued down a predictable path of escalation as neither person thinks they are wrong. Aren’t we all invested in being right? As the Defender of Truth, they set the battleground and rules of engagement for a fight I hadn’t sought nor expected. Whatever I said was outside of their belief and/or value system and they came with a full arsenal of attacks. Overwhelming the enemy with knowledge (each comment multi-paragraphed and full of links), discrediting everything they think they know (bunk, misinformed), making personal attacks (emotionally invested in being “right”), and twisting narratives (I’m not attacking you. This is a friendly debate) while escalating into greater extremes (profoundly, totally).
Why we employ such Offensive strategies are obvious in a dog-eat-dog / winner-takes-all economic or political environment, but why we do so with our friends (does Facebook count?), lovers and families is another question entirely.
The next thing they did was pick on another sub-plot, something else I said and one in which they appear to have extensive knowledge, to further prove their Superiority and reinforce my Inferiority. I read their posts and reviewed the links and it did not sway my belief. Not that I’m fixated on me being “right”. In fact, the belief in question has lots to do with uncertainty and the sub-plot having to do with how quantum sciences have disrupted the dominant scientific narrative putting into question the very systems of measurement that many studies so depend, specifically double-blind placebo based research. Anyways, they went as far as to say all this all in one comment:
-Dude: you made an off-the-cuff, confidently-asserted, boneheaded comment about a subject you don’t really understand, as if you are some kind of spiritual leader who has studied whole lifetimes
-You’ve connected a bunch of dots simply by virtue of their use of similar words (but with different meanings), in vague hand-wavy ways, with conviction, that sound authoritative.
-It’s not a crime to be wrong or say something dumb.
-There’s no shame — *except* when you dodge responsibility and accountability for it, or pretend it didn’t happen, or otherwise try to rationalize, justify, or explain it away.
-You’ve been sufficiently called, and refuse to fold — you’re just going to tip the table over and storm off. Instead, why not be a strong male role model, and own it. Be accountable.
-You made a mistake, big whoop. You would earn my undying respect if you *just acknowledged making a mistake*, not having all the answers, and not being free of bias. Or even just one of those things.
-But lashing out emotionally, resorting to unwarranted personal insults, ego clearly bruised, is not a good example for male strength. At least, that’s my opinion. I could be wrong.
Accusations are flying and this feels like a direct attack on my character! Starting with ‘Dude’ denotes superiority by belittling, then accusing me of doing many things that I would argue are their projections made as factual statements. Fake News! The next line goes on to explain to me my faulty reasoning and then suggests I am not emotionally capable of making mistakes. It further accuses me of being a fraud, authoritative, dumb, emotional, wrong, a poor role model, insulting, and wounded. Seems to me like he’s defending many truths and he’ll need many enemies or maybe just one big monster, like me! The truth is that I was none of these things (this time) and he, I’m afraid, was moving down the ladder toward Delusion and Manipulation.
Here is one of my comments in response to these waves of proving me wrong and then trying to make me wrong, intellectually and emotionally:
this entire thread is of your creation and i’ve been defending myself from your attacks. i am hoping for you to see your own bias and never suggested i didn’t have my own. i see you as a defender of truth, which is great. just that you don’t have the whole truth and never have i said anything that suggests i do either. i suggest you re-read your comments and see for yourself the many nuanced and well arsenaled attacks in your defense of the truth. this attack style prevents you from seeing me as an ally of truth and instead pits me as the enemy.
Delusion makes it nearly impossible to see the truth as it twists narratives to fit our worldview. We all are delusional mind you. None has the whole truth and those that thought they had were later proved wrong. Science builds on science and the process is often one of destruction and creation. Destroying old narratives in favor of new ones. Problem is that we humans become attached to our narratives and destroying them may disrupt our way of life and sense of purpose. Naturally we wish to defend against that which could destroy us and we naturally pursue that which we are rewarded.
The word Delusion strikes of mental imbalances and it is not very nice to call someone delusional. While impossible to separate, I wish to focus on the delusional thought(s) instead of the delusional person. Many delusional thoughts may arise out of very real situations and rational minds, whereas others are entirely projections. We humans project our perspectives onto reality and so all have some delusions about what is real.
Science is built on the belief that there is an objective reality, however the learnings from Quantum Physics have called into question this belief and many spiritual, new-age people like to refer to these learnings. I do. I have studied and practiced esoteric arts including Qi Gong and Tai Chi for the better part of my adult life and, while I hold a Masters degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine, I also have a BS in Business Administration. I grew-up with science as my true religion, not really believing my Jewish teachings and later grew-to-know Eastern philosophies and they became my chosen religion. Turns out Quantum Physics sounds a lot like Eastern philosophy and New-Age actually comes from ancient roots. I said:
Our hyperinflated sense of knowing is destroying the world via the mechanisms of scientific reductionism. Really smart and well intended people trying their best are contributing to the story that say control, dominance and force are necessary to secure human survival. Not only is this wrong in my opinion and will led us deeper into despair, but even if right does not represent the more beautiful world possible.
I too am a Defender of Truth, as I’m sure we all are at times. In this case, I didn’t feel like I was defending my hypothesis as much as defending myself and, in this example, I am now moving the ball into their zone. They asked me to abandon my point of view based on loads of information, some of which was admittedly copy/paste suggesting he’s had these discussions before, and demanded I admit I was wrong and suggested I wasn’t emotionally capable of doing so. Honestly, none of this bothered me as I was trying to make a different point entirely. An excerpt from one of my replies at the tailend of the thread to provide insight as to why this conversation is so confrontational:
The reason being is that you’ve reasoned us into a corner where someone is right and someone wrong. What if neither or both are right? What if the question can’t be answered?
There seems no room in your world for non-binary reality and from this conversation, I believe you lack the humility to see this and have created very strong defenses. I understand that you may be quick to or already think the same of me which is why this is so dangerous for both of us to engage in this way. Sometimes tho it is good to take a risk!
I called it like I saw it. No apologies or qualifications. I was attempting to come from a place of compassion as I know they are not my enemy. I’m afraid however, knowingly or not, they chose me as theirs. People looking for a fight need people to fight. What is a Defender of Truth to do if there is nothing to defend? Heroes go astray.
Heroes also take risks and stand up for what they believe. A good Offense is not inherently bad. Here, for example, I am “heroically” stepping over the line to tell them exactly what I see because no matter the truth, honesty and transparency are real. Telling someone they lack humility is definitely stepping over the line and they may and probably should take it personally. I didn’t say they lacked the capacity for humility, outside of suggesting that they had created very strong defenses. A strong defense is not inherently bad either! Also, I needed to state-out-loud that this was dangerous for us both because it is a classic case of entanglement where Egos collide and anger, resentment, and worse are formed. As an example, twice I used a sarcastic reply in an attempt to belittle this person. At first it felt good. I felt powerful, righteous, and funny. Then I felt remorse. Not because I had hurt them, but because I had hurt myself and likely furthered our divide. I deleted the jokes and am hopeful they were never seen.
I chose to share this personal experience as I believe it represents many mindsets (Pre-Biases) in modern society that glorify reason and vilify emotion. I am a hero of intuition and the unknown, not an enemy of intellect or knowledge, although I do fear relying too heavily on those tools of engagement. As Albert Einstein advised, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Defenders of Truth, if not careful, may become Crusaders and in their Defense arises an often potent Offense who’s capabilities may be great and spirit relentless. We must be attentive to our attachments lest we end up defending the indefensible and crusading for the wrong cause with false motives. Crusaders represent something truly dangerous as they have a stronger ideology that more closely resembles religious fervor than the rational science of the Defender of Truth. Such strong ideologies (Pre-Bias) become explosive blocks to healthy relationships and I have found that it’s usually best to let them be and go about your business, whether in relationship or not, as best not to poke a hungry tiger. That said, many family units, tight knit communities, and once productive workplaces have fallen apart as our cultural divides deepen and each of these collapses further accelerate intolerance and hatred, which may quickly move from hurtful language into violence and destruction.
When Crusaders go on Offense, they may stop at nothing because of their need to be right. Any survivors may tell the true story. Any remnants are a reminder. The truth is that all ideological extremists share being wrong in common. Reality is never so black and white, which in essence forces the hand of the Crusader to discard any evidence to the contrary and accept, as well as consciously manipulate, all supporting “facts” in their favor.
Crusaders are unconsciously very good at this game because they actually believe they are right, scarier still are the conscious ones for a Conscious Crusader is Manipulative rather than just Delusional. Delusional Crusaders are a more innocent version wrapped in ignorance and subject to propaganda. Manipulative Crusaders are those that take advantage of others’ ignorance and use propaganda to further their Agenda.
Fascist regimes thrive on delusional masses and Crusaders, in their own delusion, tend toward authoritarian leadership and totalitarian governance. If you are 100% convinced that you’re right, then how could you not authorize and execute your plan? Anything less would be outrageous, irresponsible or downright heresy. I can think of several past regimes in various forms of governance around the world that broke from reality and caused great harm to others. I fear future ones. I believe these brutal regimes were led by Manipulative Crusaders and executed by the Delusional ones.
Here’s what I once said to a Crusador that I crossed paths. They were taunting me and belittling my beliefs, which were upsetting enough and could have garnered a direct response on their own, but it wasn’t until they attempted to misrepresent my words that I decided to let them have it…
That is not what I said. Please feel free to read my text and quote me directly. Glad you are entertained, I am not.
Here I used timely, relevant, and readily accessible facts to reject their assertion, while establishing my right to an opinion by using their own words (“entertaining”) against them.
Also not entertaining is how you attempt to make others look stupid as part of your debate strategy. This is not debate in a true sense and instead becomes just a series of insults and diversions shutting down debate and killing any hopes of cohesion.
These tactics are immature and yet effective at creating disharmony and divide to which certain types of people seem to pride themselves, like you for example.
In this final response, I felt I had to be sure not to give ground. I had yielded far enough. Instead and as directly as possible, I attempted to state the facts and call them out personally. Crusaders must be called out or else they will continue their rampage. Ultimately, my mistake was to engage with someone fixated on an ideology and someone that I believe has a hard time being wrong. I did not set out to make them wrong. The truth I was sharing is that I don’t know what is right and am open for discussion. This flies in the face of their accusations that I think and act as though I know and their desires to falsely labeling me as such. Where do these fixated ideologies and false accusations arise?
Part 6 — Ego
Ego is a sense of self. An inherent belief in oneself as separate and whole, capable of great feats and subject to great loss. The Ego does not like to lose as losing comes at a cost. It may mean losing your life, which represents the end of the Self. No more you. It may mean losing face, which represents your exile. You have no place here. These things are to be feared above all else. For without a place your life is at risk and without a life there is nothing. Therefore, the Ego sets out to expand and protect its existence and worth. It has helped us build skycrapers and travel thru space. It has also helped us to wage war and engage in slavery. The Ego is a powerful thing and its power can be felt most directly in the emotions of pride and shame…
A successful Offense feeds into the Ego and may further enlarge it into abnormal proportions. Pride. Such a strong Ego prevents us from seeing our flaws and amplifies our Pre-Biases leading to even stronger Agendas often marked by a more interrogative Inquiry, impenetrable Defense, and focused Offense. In some cases, the Defense was made so strong or Offense so potent that the Ego never experiences its metamorphosis from a centric sense of Self to more multi-dimensional worldview. Often those who have been through tough times are both humbled and empowered. Humility is like the Ego’s best friend and empowerment the Ego’s lover.
A strong Ego is great so long as everyone is aligned on the same mission. We need confident decisive leaders. A strong Ego is not so great when trying to balance the divergent needs of many as the stronger voices and more assertive actions tend to prevail. Left unchecked, untethered Egos lead to escalating conflicts with greater division, polarity and extremism. Alternatively, a weakened Ego arises for many who do not have such an effective Offense nor particularly strong Defense and so potentially new self-defeating Pre-Biases form while their Agenda’s get lost among all the noise. Shame.
My personal story is not unique nor necessarily very similar to yours, but I know that if you come from a modern society then we likely share in the trauma of not belonging. The trauma of being born into families without villages where we will need to make a name for ourselves because, despite being given names, the world out there doesn’t know ours. Very early we are forced into a systemized path of education and career often void of creativity and self-determination. Rarely are we seen for our gifts and supported in developing interests into talents. The fear of not making it through the square holes of society leads many parents away from unconditional love (due to worry, doubt and fear), while creating a competitive landscape with abandoned playgrounds.
I suspect young people who have been seen and had the opportunities to cultivate their gifts are far less traumatized, no matter their surroundings. When seen by others we learn to see others too, feeding and humbling our Ego as we do. This empowerment and humility give the Ego the strength to reflect and correct imbalances in our Pre-Biases about our true value and the value of others.
It is said that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. Sounds true, but don’t tell that to someone who recently failed at something as the Ego takes time to adjust to miscalculations and changes in perception. The Ego appears to prefer what it knows and seems willing to go to lengths to be in the know. Therefore, in so many ways, the Ego is not to be trusted. It doesn’t deal well with emotions as they are so hard to know and control. Shame in particular can be more humiliating than humbling. When humiliated we tend to lash out to protect our sense of self worth as we seem to love dishing it out to share or deflect the blame.
Shame at being wrong, disliked, weak, poor, old, dumb, whatever! It’s not easy to deal with loss of face and we have a society that craves lost faces to better sell perfectly found ones.
- If the Ego doesn’t feel too good about itself, it enjoys making other people feel worse.
- If the Ego doesn’t feel respected, it works to make a name for itself.
- If the Ego doesn’t feel seen, it will likely make a scene.
- If the Ego doesn’t feel love, it tells us love ain’t real.
Seeing the other person and other points of view requires seeing our Ego first. What is it that our Ego wants or needs and why? Once seen, it no longer needs to make a scene to be seen and can instead be present in reality. If trying too hard we often squander the respect we may deserve for as long as we seek outside endorsement we need it. Giving ourselves a break from Egoic ideals of self promotion allows us to relax and let others be heard. Listening to others, we come to recognize that we are not so different from ‘them’ and that we likely have a lot to learn or gain in the process. It’s in these reflective moments that the Ego may come to know that failure is often on the path to victory and that victory incomplete or impossible without the help of others and a little good fortune along the way. I like to say, “even if I could, I wouldn’t want to be alone at the top.”
Where don’t you feel too good, respected, seen or loved? I can tell you that I didn’t feel too good about my parenting or partnering at times and at those times I was also quick to shed the blame and get mad at my loved ones. Examples of my Ego feeling hurt by others includes:
- When my opinions are dismissed. I don’t feel disrespect when others disagree with me, but I do when they try in their defense to make me look foolish.
- When others don’t listen and at least attempt to let my view into their perspective. Sometimes this happens as a defense and sometimes it’s just neglectful. We neglect to let others in when we are too busy or too distracted or too busy already forming our response to actually hear them.
- When someone is quick to take my story and spin it into theirs. Like, for example, sharing a tale of their childhood that was even more traumatizing than the story I was just sharing. Not to be dismissive of their stories, but timing is important as sometimes this can be appropriate and beneficial while other times it feels like hijacking.
- When people race to comfort and assure me when I’m in the midst of a trauma and recovery as it can feel disrespectful to the process of grief or depth of sadness to tell me that it’ll be okay and that that I’ll get over it.
As children we rely on the love of others and may fear that it could be taken away or we could somehow lose access to it. This is most obvious in the mother-child relationship, but expands as the child’s world expands. I noticed that love in the form of adoration or simple attention came my way when I behaved a certain way or did a certain thing. Unknowingly, I believe, I feared that love was conditional and so my Ego endeavoured to find out. I pushed all boundaries, broke all covenants, and still for me love was there. Disappointment, frustration and anger too, but I could see that love was still there for me.
I was/am fortunate and I know that not everyone and certainly not all the time sees or feels the love. In such persons and at such times, it is very possible that love is available and that perhaps our Ego is getting in the way. To assist our Ego, we must pay close attention for signs of love: what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like and in doing so may come to trust that it is real. It’s easier in some ways to know what isn’t love. Establishing Superiority, mocking Inferiority, and being Irreverent are not acts of love. There is no love in abuse. There may be love around abuse, but not in it. To a fragile or developing Ego just trying to survive, abuses are likely very traumatic especially as they often comes from loved ones or trusted friends. A devastated Ego is almost certain to create Delusions and may become Manipulative out of the preservation of Self and in such situations anger, depression, and even suicidal or homicidal ideations become probable.
Knowing our own Ego, we know how sensitive we are to love and loss. All will be lost and that’s a hard thing to swallow. Losing all without loving is harder still. That is why they say, even though certain to cause pain, it is better to have loved and lost than not love at all. Those we care most deeply about will crush our Ego — and set our spirit free. Humble and empowered.
In those times, may we give and receive the care we need. People often struggle knowing what to say or do when a friend gets sick or loved one passes. Our Ego wants us to say the right thing and there really is no right thing. There are wrong things to say and for some reason they are often the things that get said. For example, telling someone “it will be okay” and that they will “get over it”, bypasses the necessary pain their Ego must face. What if it is not going to be okay and that they will never get over it? We too must face our fragility or mortality in offering care to another facing the same. While the Ego must face the end of the Self, it cannot however imagine an existence beyond Self and therefore is stuck in a 3-dimensional reality. Whether there is something tangible like life after death isn’t the only thing that matters, although the Ego seems to think differently. Oftentimes the Ego fails to see the interconnectedness of all things in the here and now, as well as over time. It’s too focused on the Self to see the bigger picture, therefore our Ego tends to express itself within limiting beliefs focused entirely on our life’s purpose, direction, and meaning.
What if we released the burden of saying the ‘right’ thing? What would you say from an authentic way of being? Turns out people want us to be authentic. They want our authentic truth. If we are scared, they want to know that. If we don’t know what to say, they want to know that too. Dismissing our Ego’s self-adulation allows us this freedom to be ourselves and that almost assuredly brings us closer to those we interact and it is very brave too. People can be mean or close-minded and being authentic sets us up for ridicule in a world full of it. So best not as the Gospel of Matthew advises “cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them and turn to rend you.”
We can pick and choose when and how authentic to be, so long as we know what authentic is. Ego is part of your authentic personality and it should not be demonized. The Ego serves the essential purpose of getting us off our asses and making you feel good (pride) if you do and bad (shame) if you don’t. This is good for the goose and the gander. Thank you, Ego.
Ego is not your whole being however and so needs to be called out and recognized for its presence and limitations. It does appear the world is run amuck with self-centered individuals and the systems they rule. The very act of ruling is like the Ego’s ultimate goal, creating a legacy so that it never dies. Meanwhile, reality is sometimes feast or famine for the Ego and so it’s always on edge. The Ego wants to preserve the legacy so that it never dies. Amassing generational wealth is one way, perhaps your name on the Presidential Coin another.
Returning to the diagram, we see that Ego feeds back into Agenda and the cycle begins again. So in each cycle we need to check our Ego. How did we get here and why? The discussion up to this point is to bring attention to the things our Egos might rather not see. Not necessarily because they are shallow or weak, but perhaps they’re too busy shaping the world in front of them. They’ve already closed the door and are looking for the next to open. So that we don’t become overwhelmed and lose ourselves, we set ourselves in motion. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless they experience friction, in which case they may slow, stop, or overheat and explode! Stress is the kind of friction that causes an explosion, whereas mindfulness may help prevent it.
Slowing our motion and not over-accelerating are timeless tools of intervention. Tai Chi is a martial art that is practiced very slowly often without any acceleration or deceleration, helping one to know themselves and find greater balance and skill. Meditation and mediation both slow down accelerating forces. In the former, we can watch our thoughts pass like clouds. In the latter, we can find middle ground with a little help from an objective third party. Most people enter mediation with a strong idea about what is true. Through the process, most will often see another truth or multiple other truths. Meditators will tell stories of their monkey-minds incessantly ranting and racing. These can be very humbling experiences and very necessary for reconciliation and health.
Therapists primarily work with people that show enough humility to seek out their help in the first place. Those without it either don’t come or don’t last very long as the process can be humiliating and requires a professional to guide us through it. I’ve been humbled and empowered by many great books, group work, and a couple very important friends. All of life offers value, but few things both humble and empower.
I hope to communicate through this writing a humble approach that is empowering. I once heard a visiting executive say something close to this:
“Thanks for coming, I have a full agenda today and want to jump right in. But first, please if there’s anything that needs to be said, anyone having a difficult time that needs our ear, anyone with another agenda item in need of consideration, and any questions along the way, please speak up without hesitation. [long pause] Thank you.”
They were serious and then took the time to look around the room. We were seen. To see another is a humble act that comes from an empowered person for that which we see, sees us back.
Equally humble, was the employee who admitted to having something rather urgent and despite their sincere desire to be present and in spite of it being ‘mandatory’, they said:
“I am so sorry and embarrassed to say this, but since you asked I really must share that I’m dealing with something really heavy right now and I know that we have to be here, and I really want to and am willing to stay, but I’m hoping It’s okay if I go.”
Several in the group agreed to share their notes and the presenter took a moment to walk them to the door. Later my colleague told me they were in tears because the executive not only thanked but also praised. They knew how hard it can be to admit your vulnerability and ask for help, and admirable to speak your truth. Without such gratitude and praise, this employee certainly would have left worried about making a bad impression and probably felt lots of pressure to get over whatever it was to become a productive member of the team. Ever felt like your production was all that mattered? In this case, we knew from that moment on that this leader had our best interests in mind and it made easy for us to adopt their Agenda and want to bring it to fruition. Once everyone’s onboard, we humans can be very creative and productive!
Caring about the other can be at odds with one’s goals. To be creative we may need space to think and to be productive we need fewer distractions. Such conflicts can put our morality into question too as this is how we justify walking past the homeless person on our way to the expensive restaurant or how a District Attorney can supress evidence to get a conviction. In this example, not attending a mandatory meeting could have cost them their job or promotion, perhaps even ridicule and isolation. All of this was negated by simply caring about each other moreso than any particular outcome. Caring seems to have been on the Agenda and I think it got there because of the humility of the presenter. To care requires humility, for what you let in can hurt you deepest. Caring comes with hardship and loss, to which an Ego hungry for recognition may be too busy to attend.
Humbling ourselves to care for things not on our Agenda is like a sacred offering to a God (or whatever!) that is always watching. Only our Ego can trick us into believing that none of that matters. All that matters is the Self that I define and when that Self vanquishes there is no more. Therefore preservation of the Self is the most important mission in your lifetime. That is the religion of science that says we are all separate selves separate from a world of separate selves in a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” view of the world that places man above beast and well beyond other non-sentient life. The world we created is of human dominance. Preservation of ourselves.
How often do we unknowingly partake in this narrative? Answer: every time we don’t stop to care. Granted most lack of care is part of a larger system, but we race past opportunities to care all the time. An Ego that can see itself in others and others in itself becomes aligned with a larger Agenda that can be trusted to effort for the common good. Even bad is seen as worthy of care, for the capacity to do badly resides in all of us. A humble Ego is then more free to love and empowered to care for and about things beyond itself.
I believe a humble Ego marks the beginning of the end of the downward spirals of harmful language and poor communication. We cannot expect another to humble themselves and so might as well just humble ourselves. In doing do, in letting go of the Crusader in me, I open the door for the Compassionate One to enter. The Compassionate One speaks and acts wisely not because they know themselves to be right, but because they see the humanity in all people.