Sunday, November 28, 2010

An Intelligent Life - It's What You Do

My previous post was about faith, belief, will, thought and finally just being. To establish the conditions for a new life and break down old habits, to end the downward spiral of depression and hopelessness one needs to change one's beliefs. This includes one's beliefs about oneself.

The techniques of meditation and mindfulness are key to this process, which is as much about disabusing oneself of false notions as about establishing faith in new ones. It's destructive creation! We are leading to a new understanding of ourselves and others. Beyond the self our relationships with others have a powerful effect on our understanding of who we are and where we are going. Patterns that we have established in our relationships over a lifetime can be ingrained, worn-in, habitual and enormously debilitating and destructive to our mental health and our interactions with others in intimate contact with us.

To fix these relationships and truly grow we need to change our behaviour, not just our thinking, since without behavioural change, there will be no lasting cognitive changes.

In his book "An Intelligent Life", psychiatrist Julian Short aims to help us make our lives happier. His message is about love, individuality, relationships and self respect. (He draws a distinction between self respect and self esteem). In describing the book he says:

If we are not sick or in some way physically threatened, there is no emotional problem that is not caused by either our fear of being alone, unloved and rejected or our fear of weakness, belittlement and loss of control. Because of this, the quality of relationships is central to our self esteem and to our happiness and therefore central to An Intelligent Life.

To feel good, we need to act well. We see ourselves in the mirror of other people's reactions and if we want to like the person we see, we need skills for loving and getting love while maintaining our adult equality and making sure our own needs aren't swamped by others. Looking after ourselves means looking after our relationships.

Thinking is one kind of action, and our actions are in a feedback loop with our feelings. Acting well helps us feel well. Friendships and relationships of some level of intimacy and meaning provide us with the ground or stage where such actions play out. Not only that, but they open us up to love and encourage a sense of belonging.

For those of us who suffered a disrupted or disordered attachment to our primary caregivers as children this sense of belonging is something very precious. Julian Short argues that a threat to this belonging, a fear of being alone, is the cause of emotional problems. The book details how our relationships not only provide the opportunity for us to develop self respect through a sense of belonging but also by enabling us to act with kindness, to act better, and therefore earn that respect from others too.

The counterweight to this is self assertion, which is like a territorial defence of individuality. As has been shown in assertiveness training, when practiced in a positive, caring way, this self assertion also contributes to our self respect.

In my previous post about the book "Eat Pray Love" I was inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert's realisation that freedom, mental release, could be achieved through control of one's thoughts. Julian Short seems to be saying something similar, that individuality and self respect, even happiness, can be achieved by controlling one's behaviour.

The concepts of understanding and discipline seem to be intertwined here, and we seem to have arrived at the same ancient truths espoused by various religions via an exploration of philosophy and modern psychology.

Of course, progress on this path is easier said than done, this is the path of The Hollow Man, whose essential goal is authenticity and whose reward is self respect. What could be holding him back from achieving his true dignity? Fear.

But there's nothing to fear but fear itself! For no loss will ever be as great as the loss of attachment that broke his selfhood as a child.

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