Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

The Moral-Mirror Journal

Photo by Min An from Pexels, modified by author

Many have learned the value of habitually asking themselves, on seeing the behavior of others, “What does that tell me?” That is useful because actions speak louder (and, we feel, more truly) than words. Patterns of behavior are particularly telling.

Get some perspective

It is also good to look at one’s behavior from the outside, as an objective onlooker would see it, rather than through the distorting shimmer of one’s intentions and motivations: one’s actions by themselves, standing nakedly alone. People always have good and sufficient reason (in their eyes) for doing what they do, and they view their actions in the light of those reasons, which makes it difficult for them to see how their actions appear to others.

Writers, for example, generally know what they’re trying to communicate, so when they read what they’ve written, they read it in the light of that knowledge. Indeed, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge titled their (superb) book on writing The Reader Over Your Shoulder because the book’s goal is to help the writer become that (third-party) reader, able to read what they wrote from the view of someone else. (This post includes a link to a PDF of the book’s examples to use as exercises.)

But for a writer to read his output objectively is extremely difficult, so you often encounter writing of the COIK variety: Clear Only If (already) Known. It’s not unusual to see a writer trying to convince someone who is puzzled or confused by some passage that it is, in fact, clear, even though the evidence that it’s not is right at hand.

Perspective is difficult

Even with a sincere desire to view one’s actions as others see it, it’s difficult and thus rare, which is why people treasure an honest friend or relative who will “lay it on the line.” But our social conventions and personal psychology make it challenging to be forthright. Most cannot offer honest criticism because it goes against our training, social conventions, and our desire to avoid confrontation. See, for example, the Abilene Paradox, a situation that would not have occurred if any of the people involved had been able to be honest and forthright.

But even though the stakes in that situation were very low — nothing was seriously at risk in terms of relationships or things of value — none of the group could bring themselves to speak up. We have a strong drive to “go along,” conforming to group judgment and perceptions even when those don’t match the reality that is in front of us — and worse, we don’t consciously choose to do it. It happens when the unconscious mind is in control and managing what we perceive.

It is, after all, the job of the unconscious mind to translate nerve impulses from the eyes into the “picture” the conscious mind sees: because the unconscious controls that process, it is in a position to make alterations. For example, we can get a sense that someone we’ve just met is creepy or untrustworthy for no reason we can name or interpret, or we (unconsciously) attribute motives to accompany actions we observe. (Indeed, sometimes our adaptive unconscious is running the show, our conscious selves just along for the ride. See Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, by Timothy Wilson for a fascinating account of the unconscious and of how you study something not available to your conscious mind.)

Treasure honest feedback

Because honest feedback is rare, one treasures any friend or relative who will provide it. A good counselor can help because they are a third-party observer as we describe our behavior. The counselor’s questions can peel away our interpretations and our stated intentions to show us our actions and words unadorned, as others see them. A counselor is trained (and paid) to be honest — and has the advantage of not having a dog in the fight.

The same honest and objective view of our actions can also occur in well-run group therapy. Moreover, when we hear from several people at once how our behavior looks to others, it’s hard to dismiss their observations — harder than when hearing it from one person. One person’s comments, we can all too quickly decide, come from some idiosyncratic point of view — a rationalization harder to make when four or five agree.

An excellent example of this group feedback can be found in Chris Argyris’s Increasing Leadership Effectiveness, in which a group of young CEOs tell each other how their behavior in leading their companies looks when viewed by an outside observer. (Naturally enough, CEOs have trouble getting honest feedback from within their company because subordinates are reluctant to point out to their boss behavior that contradicts the boss’s stated values. Thus the boss’s view of her or his behavior can drift far from how others see it.)

As an aside: all of Argyris’s works are interesting and worth reading: he studied how a learning organization works and why such organizations are rare, and why so many organizations actively resist learning and severely punish those who try to make changes that would benefit the organization.

Our view of ourselves is clouded

Though it’s easy to say “look at your actions as a third party would see them,” we are so enmeshed in our intentions and motivations that those generally shape how we see our actions whether we want them to or not. We observe our behavior through the lens of our intentions. When others don’t interpret our behavior as we expect, our impulse is to blame them for not grasping our intentions, because our intentions are so palpably present to ourselves.

We are familiar with how groupthink arises when a small group isolates itself, getting no outside scrutiny and input. Group psychology overwhelms individual perception so that the group arrives at decisions that the group would quickly dismiss had the group been operating openly, accepting input and critiques from outside.

When we observe our actions through introspection, we are in the same isolated situation and liable to the same sort of distortions. In this case, “group pressure” comes from our unconscious, which adjusts our conscious view to accommodate our unconscious inclinations: groupthink of one.

The answer here, as for groups making a decision, is to open up the process and seek outside views. Otherwise, our view of our behavior can become skewed and distorted. For example, many who commit immoral/unethical acts view their acts from the context of an internal monologue that portrays themselves as victims of powerful forces. They adopt the view that they deserve this, perhaps adding that it’s only temporary and will be corrected before people find out—the typical excuse embezzlers offer.

Another example: people who are controlling tend to view their actions as “being helpful” (and are puzzled when their helpfulness prompts negative reactions).

Another example: the person who often interrupts may well be thinking that he is helping move the conversation along (because he’s sure he knows what the other person’s going to say).

Those who must acknowledge misdeeds and missteps often feel shock, surprise, and dismay when they say what they did and, in saying it, recognize how their actions look when viewed by others. “It wasn’t like that!” is unconvincing when it was indeed like that. The only thing missing from the picture is the siren song of that internal monologue the lured the perpetrator to act as they did.

Step back to get a new perspective

Many homes, hotels, and apartment buildings have a mirror beside the door or elevator so people can see their appearance as others will see it. Even when they feel confident in how they present themselves, the mirror can show them a splash of powder on their coat, a bit of food on their teeth, or a clash of color in their clothing. Seeing themselves as others will see them allows a comfortable, non-judgmental way for them to take stock of their appearance and make any needed corrective adjustments.

I’ve already mentioned the benefits of having an honest and frank friend and relative, or of having a good therapist or participating in a well-run group devoted to feedback. But what can you do on your own, without the benefit of an outside observer? It would be handy to have a mirror that would reflect not our appearance but our actions, so we could view them objectively, as others will see them, just as we view our appearance in the hallway mirror.

The journal as mirror

A good third-person journal can be such a mirror. It’s a journal in which you record your behavior but not your thoughts, writing only what an onlooker would observe. It helps if you write in third person. For example, suppose I ate the last piece of cake. I would record only the fact that I ate it and would omit “because I felt like eating something sweet, and there was only a little left, and I’ve been quite good on my diet, and it seemed pointless to put it away, and I didn’t think anyone else would want it” and so on. And rather than writing “I ate the piece of cake,” I would write “Mike ate the piece of cake and then put the dish into the sink without washing it.” Record just the facts and describe yourself and your actions in third person. Then let some time pass before you read it.

This method seems to work best when you use the moral mirror to reflect a single aspect of your behavior:

  • a food journal (as in the example), recording your observed behavior when food is involved; or
  • a work journal, recording your observed interactions with co-workers; or
  • a study journal, recording your observed behavior when you study (recording after the fact, not while studying); or
  • a relationship journal, recording your interactions with your partner (omitting reasons and rationalizations and attributed motives, recording just what an observer would see).

In this context, morality and ethics apply only to your behavior, not your private thoughts, desires, or proclivities, nor your sense of success or failure in what you did. Your inner desires and your feelings about what you did are irrelevant. When doing this moral-mirror exercise, look only at your actions. (Those actions include what you say or write, since those too are actions that a third person can observe.) What you record should be a purely objective description. (For an extended example of such writing, see Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Glass Key.)

Ignore intentions — record only actions

Intention can indeed be significant (as in deciding whether a person will be charged with murder or manslaughter), but in this journal, record observed acts and ignore intentions. You can deduce the intentions of others, but they are not directly observable by an onlooker. And as noted above, your own intentions are an unreliable lens through which to view your behavior.

The Moral-Mirror Journal functions as a third-person account of your actions.

By looking at your actions from the outside, you remove from the equation all rationalizations and justifications. By referring to yourself in third person, it’s easier to adopt the mindset of an onlooker, a neutral witness giving an objective account. Similarly, the journal avoids mind-reading others whose actions you describe, not guessing at their motivations.

Then look into the mirror

After you have collected several entries and after some time has passed (a few days is enough so that you can put aside the thoughts and feelings involved in the events), read the record of what you and others did and said. As you read, ask yourself, “What does this tell me?” Look at the behavior — both your own and that of others — and see what messages the behavior conveys. Actions speak louder than words (and certainly more truly than words: actions are not false — they are what one actually does). And look for patterns: the same message being conveyed again and again at different times in different actions.

If you find that you dislike what your actions say, consider how you can act in the future to send a better message. Just as you examine your image in a regular mirror to adjust your appearance (straighten your tie or scarf, or remove a bit of spinach from your teeth), you can look at your behavior in the journal and decide what adjustments you can make.. A regular mirror helps you see how to improve your appearance; a moral mirror can help you see how to improve your behavior.

And at the same time, you may well discover that the actions of others become quite illuminating when viewed as messages. In some instances, the scales will fall from your eyes, and you will realize (for example) that a “friend” is actually quite selfish and manipulative, and an “enemy” is only trying to get you to do your best.

It’s worth pointing out that those who don’t care about their appearance (or don’t like their appearance) tend to avoid looking into a mirror. The mirror helps those who do care about their appearance. Similarly, the moral-mirror journal will be of little interest to those who don’t care how their actions affect others. If you want to understand more about your behavior and how it affects relationships with others, you will find this journal useful.

Focus on what you can control

One final note: you can control your behavior but not the behavior of others. In Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: Restoring the Character Ethic, as he discusses Habit 1 (“Be Proactive”), he points out the importance of where you focus your attention and energy. (You can read this brief — and thus incomplete — outline of the book (PDF).)

Your circle of concern consists of those situations and events over which you have no control. If you focus your attention and energy on things in your circle of concern, you gradually become reactive rather than proactive (because you have no control over these things, you can only react to what happens).

Your circle of influence consists of those situations and events that you do control or influence, and here you can be proactive. Your actions and how you respond to situations are, of course, squarely in the center of your circle of influence. By focusing your attention and energy on things in the circle of influence, your actions and choices can be effective — highly effective.

Evaluating your actions allows you to change those actions, and such changes will also change how people respond. A Moral-Mirror Journal makes this evaluation easier.

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Michael Ham

Michael Ham

Wrote “Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving the Double-Edge Way.” Blogs at leisureguy.wordpress.com. Enjoys cooking, reading, movies, and listening to jazz.

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