What I Mean Is. . .
May/June 1999

Empowering People

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There are certain "givens" or assumptions which have been the ground for all of my writing and teaching. Since these assumptions arise from a very different perspective than do those of most psychologists, it seems to me that it could be useful if I tried to articulate some of them for you. They grow out of my study in existential-phenomenological psychology and my experience as a primal therapist.

Living beings, such as bacteria, plants, animals and humans are distinguished from that which is non living by meaning, desiring, striving, and feeling (each of which participates in determining the others). Only living beings can discern meaning and, therefore, only they can desire, strive, and feel. (In fact, so long as they are alive they are compelled to do so.) By contrast, "things," such as rocks, bicycles or corpses cannot desire, strive, or feel; therefore nothing can have meaning to them.

You might object to my suggesting that bacteria or plants desire, strive and feel. I do not mean that they do these in the same way that humans do. How they do so is dictated by their specific structures.

Meaning, rather than "data," is the essence of our consciousness. Things have "form" to us because they have meaning. More precisely, their form is their meaning. These meanings are born directly and solely from the being's specific "structure" and "personal" history

A being's structure is constituted by its biology and psychology, (again, each affecting the other). I do not have the same desires as a whale because my structure is different. For example, I don't desire and I'm not able to find nourishment by sifting huge quantities of microscopic plankton from the ocean, as do some whales. Nor would a whale want or be able to boil an egg. 

A plant can't desire to boil an egg, either. But I suggest that a plant can desire to find water or to face the sun although, as I've said, it can act on its desires only within the limitations of its structure. Since its structure is so different from ours, its striving is also quite different. It can't dig a well, but it can sense moisture and stretch its roots towards it. 

In general, any possibility falling outside the bounds of a being's structure either has no meaning for that being--will not exist--or has a radically different meaning than it has when it falls within the limits of the being's structure. (e.g., the colour green to a blind person or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to a deaf person). 

Within the limits of structure, personal history will from the very first moment of life guide meaning, desire and striving: A human raised in the Kalahari Desert without contact with "modern" culture would probably find it difficult to comprehend skiing and therefore wouldn't want and wouldn't strive to ski. On the other hand, it's quite likely that a person raised in the Alps will learn to ski by seven or eight. Similarly, it's likely that the meaning to a girl of her father's mistreatment is that she's not worthy of being loved by a man, and that men can't be trusted to care. As a result, she'll probably want to avoid being vulnerable to a man by striving to keep men from getting genuinely close to her. 

Structure can be affected by personal history, as well: The hands of a labourer grow gnarled and the legs of a cowboy grow bowed over time.

Some aspects of personal history that particularly influence desire are succeeding and failing and being validated and being invalidated. Not surprisingly, if I generally succeed at the things I try to do, I most likely will want to continue doing them and to try learning new things. On the other hand, if I often fail at what I try, I'll probably want to not try to learn to do new things. 

Similarly, if I'm criticised, discounted, put down, punished for the things I try ("Why on earth did you ever do that?"), it's unlikely that I'll continue wanting to do those things or to try new things. More precisely, I'm likely to strive to not strive anew, in an effort to keep from being vulnerable to others' disparaging and threatening judgements. In my view, being invalidated is the primary basis for psychopathology.

If I'm acknowledged and helped to accomplish what I want when I'm a child, I'm likely to see new undertakings as exciting possibilities and be eager to initiate them. But if I'm criticised when I try new things, new possibilities are likely to be daunting and I'm likely to drag my feet.

The existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger pointed out that when we are born, we each find ourselves in a situation that is not of our choosing. (This is in contrast to the assertions of "new age" folks that we choose our parents). Otherwise put, we have no choice about the hand we're dealt and we're compelled to play it. 

Not only do we have to start where we find ourselves, but from the very first moment of our lives--like all living beings--we are "directed." That is, our lives are continuing efforts to fulfil our unfolding desires, (to cross the street, avoid being punished, be held, fed, burped, warm, loved, safe, rich, popular, chosen, on time, a college graduate, skinny, healthy, long-lived, and so on). What we desire--the meanings to us of people, things and situations--depends upon our specific structures and personal histories. 

It matters to us whether or not we succeed in our efforts to fulfil our desires. That is, we're affected by whether we succeed or fail. It is this "being affected" that we call feeling or emotion. For instance, when we view something as a loss, we will feel sad, which is the experience of recognizing loss. This evaluation of how things are going is spontaneous, non volitional. 

This seems at odds with the contemporary popular and scientific views of feeling, which seem to see feeling distressed--or, at least, lingering distressed feeling--as caused either by our disturbed biology or our disturbed thinking. Among other problems, I suggest that this leads to the erroneous conclusion that feeling distressed (e.g., angry, sad, hurt or scared) is "negative," detrimental, a sign of defect. And since it is understood to be caused by disordered biology or thinking, it is something to be gotten rid of, rather than something to welcome. For me, this obscures what feeling really is, as well as how to effectively deal with feeling distressed and how to heal emotional wounds. 

It seems to me that it is currently popular to see ourselves as either thinking "machines" or biological "machines." From the former "cognitive" perspective, emotional disturbances are largely the consequence of errors in thinking, and these can be remedied by changing what we think through force of will (for example, via "affirmations," "visualisations" or "thought-stopping"). 

From the latter "biological" perspective, lingering emotional distress is an "emotional disorder" engendered by genetic predisposition and/or biological disorder. These disorders are then to be remedied largely by administering medications. 

I suggest that in the large majority of cases, the only effective way to remedy distressing feeling is to acknowledge/experience/express it--to "live it out," rather than "act it out." In my 22 years as a primal therapist, I have over-and-over again been witness to people being surprised that the emotional distress they believed they had put behind them was still robustly present. They were delighted to discover that once genuinely expressed, it was truly behind them. In my experience, whatever isn't lived out gets disturbingly acted out (e.g., suppressing my anger towards someone, on the one hand, and hitting the person with words, actions or fists, on the other) and the only genuine way out of emotional distress is through. I'm not discounting all medical therapies. For instance, it would certainly be indicated for a toothache, diabetes or epilepsy. Nor am I arguing that our genetic structure does not affect our possibilities. I am suggesting that emotional distresses will not heal unless genuinely expressed, acknowledged and experienced. 

Although it may not be immediately evident, we really don't have a choice about what we think or feel. If you doubt this, try to think about something, anything. Don't stop. Keep thinking about it. I'm sure you'll find this impossible to do, that your thoughts will quickly wander--perhaps to that important errand you may not have had time to run, or that argument you had with your partner. 

Or try to feel differently than you do. I'm sure that you'll find you can't accomplish this either, that you'll quickly drift back to however you were feeling, or perhaps you will now be distressed that you were unable to choose how you feel. I suggest that this is because what we think or feel at any moment emerges from the matrix of meanings for us of the people, things and situations that have constituted our lives up until that moment. 

Further, when I am "fixated" in thought or feeling on something, it does not mean that there is something wrong with me, that my "machine" is "broken." For most of us, the degree to which we focus on something is simply the degree to which it's important to us. We keep focusing on it because it's something we're trying to solve. Significantly, it seems always to be something distressing. I've never heard anyone complaining about fixating on something pleasurable--and I don't think anyone ever does. (You might object that someone manic fixates on pleasurable things, but I suggest that rather than being a fixation on pleasure, the manic phase is actually a frenzied struggle to evade despair.)

Even when I stay focused on something because I am panicked and afraid to let go--and logic would hold that maintaining this focus is not helpful--I suggest that it's still in my best interest to give myself over to my affected body. (My only other alternative is to fight myself, and this is a battle I can never win.) People often get stuck in this situation because they fall into a "vacillating stance." They are drawn to focus on the situation, but at the same time, they criticise themselves for doing so; so they try to turn away from the disturbing situation, only to be drawn again to focus on it and again to try to turn away from it, in a seemingly endless cycle.

In my view, all consciousness, whether thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, remembering, etc., has the same basic structure: figure, backgroundand horizon. When I am looking at something, like the eraser on this pencil, it is the figure. It is in focus, distinct, clear. What surrounds it in my visual field--for example the rest of the pencil, the computer and monitor, the desk, telephone, wall, bookcase, etc.--is in the background. Whatever's in the background is out of focus, indistinct, fuzzy. In turn, the background is bounded by the horizon. While I have some sense of what's in the background, I can't at all discern what's on the horizon..

The background and horizon, as its context, participate in "defining" the figure. For example, were you to put one hand in cold water and the other in hot water and then plunge both into warm water, even though both hands are now in the same warm water, you would believe that the hand that had been in cold water is now in hot water, and that the hand that was in hot water is now in cold water. The original water (background) participates in defining the new water (figure). Similarly, some discarded food in a dumpster may look very attractive when I am starving, but repulsive when I am not.

Furthermore, other modalities, such as hearing (e.g., the radio I am listening to as I focus on this pencil) or feeling (perhaps my frustration that its point is broken), also serve as background, (context) and participate in defining the figure. (I wonder whether it was figure, background and horizon that Freud was trying to describe when he spoke about the conscious, subconscious and unconscious.)

An important part of the background is intention. Two people can enact the same behaviour with very different intentions. For example: Neither of us kept promises to call the women we met last night. I didn't call because I am very attracted to her: Since I was put down a lot when I was a kid, I don't believe I'm loveable and don't believe that she--or anyone--can love me. I anticipate that even if I call her and we get involved, she'll eventually drop me and I'll get hurt. Therefore, I didn't call her. On the other hand, you didn't call her because you now realised that you're not attracted to her; you're embarrassed to tell her and afraid it would hurt her if you did. 

Someone or something is attractive or repulsive to me precisely to the extent and the way he/she/it fulfills my intentions. For example, in one instance I am attracted to food because I'm hungry. In another instance, I disdain food because I've been gaining weight and am afraid of the ill-effects on my health. Or perhaps I'm attracted to gutsy women because life frightens me and I look for them to protect me, while you're attracted to fearful women because you hope to buoy up your flagging esteem by rescuing them. Whatever significance obtains, it's not arbitrary; it arises from the accrued meanings that are our personal histories. 

Further, something has a particular meaning to me and at a particular time and may have a different meaning to someone else or at a different time. And something is likely to have a different meaning to someone with a different life history; for instance, someone from a different culture. We seem not to realise that we each "see" the world from our own unique perspective. Consequently, instead of describing how we're affected by someone's appearance ("I'm really excited to look at her"), we almost inevitably describe the other person--e.g., as "beautiful," "handsome" or "ugly"--as though these were qualities that resided in that person, instead of effects on us. As a result, we don't grasp that someone who is attractive to us can be unattractive to someone else. I realise now that each of us has a different perspective and that there is value in my learning how things look to other people and what they have discovered about life from their own "travels."

Similarly, things don't exist "in themselves." (What is the sound of a tree falling in the forest if there is no one there to hear it?") People, things and situations do not have meaning in and of themselves; they have their unique meaning to a particular person at a particular time, and only in terms of that person's specific structure and life history. A flower may be an inspiring reminder of the miracle of life to one person and a painful reminder of a lost love to another. Nothing has a universal value. Keats was correct when he penned "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

My experience of being my father's child was of being an annoyance. As a child and young adult, I was unable to situate this. I didn't understand that while my father was disturbed by me, others might not be, and might even enjoy me. I took his annoyance to mean that I was annoying. Only after considerable life experience and therapy-particularly primal therapy-was I able to situate his frustration with me. I now realise that my father's being upset by who I was didn't mean that everyone else would feel the same way, and that others could enjoy my presence even though it might have been annoying to him. 

The scientific world is an objective world and we are urged to be objective. But the objective world doesn't actually exist. In order to be objective, I have to "bracket" my everyday life experience--I have to ignore it--and take an "as if" stance. To take an objective stanceI have to stand "outside" of my experiencing and "look" at some aspect of my situation from a viewpoint that is not my own (that is not anyone's viewpoint).

In so doing, I draw away from my connection with the world and the Other and occupy a hypothetical world. For example, I've just changed the colour of the walls of my room from dark blue to white. In my experience, the room is now larger. But I'm told that it isn't really, that from the objective viewpoint the size of the room is unchanged. ("Look, it's still eleven feet wide.") But what's gone unnoticed is that I'm now viewing a "map" of the room. (I scarcely notice that I've just changed my stance) It is an abstract of my experience, and the map is not the territory. (Yes, it will still require the same amount of paint, but that's because when we're calculating the area we will need to cover, it's still the objective wall we're considering painting, not the wall I'm experiencing.) 

While viewing the map has many valuable uses, I suggest it has proven to be quite detrimental when it comes to understanding and dealing with our personal lives, our planet, and one another. Among other things, it can be a very seductive hiding place. Men particularly have learned to run from their pain this way and it's this "drawing away" that so many women complain about in their relationships with men. (Actually, although their styles may differ, this "fleeing" is common to both genders). Too frequently, rather than facing Others with our concerns--rather than engaging in the dialogue as a means to resolve conflict or to express care--we choose to draw away from the Other, to abandon him or her--as we, too, have been abandoned--in a futile effort to evade our pain.

From the contemporary scientific perspective, time runs along a line that stretches behind me and ahead of me. The portion of time that is behind me is "the past" and is irretrievably lost. The portion ahead of me is "the future" and it has not yet arrived. The infinitely small part where I am now ensconced is the ever-squirming-away "present," impossible to dwell in because it's ever-departing.

For me, this does not bear scrutiny. I do not have the sense of my past as simply past, of my future as never arriving, or of my present as an ever-fickle moment. My experience is of a past that stretches behind me, resides in my present, and even occupies my future; of a future that both stretches ahead of me and dwells in my present; and of a present that is, well, ever-present, that is definitely not squirming away.

Since my past in fact dwells in my present, it can change in my present. While the "objective" facts of my history--such as our having gone to the movies on Friday evening--cannot be altered, I can discover that I was mistaken about the facts, on the one hand, and the meaning of those facts can change, on the other hand. For example: When I was a child, my parents were strict and critical. I resented how they treated me and grew to believe that I was unlovable. In the course of doing parenting myself--in that "present"--I came to recognise and appreciate how difficult an undertaking parenting is, and that they had cared more than I had realised; and I began to see that I might be worthy of care.

Our histories are not merely "objective facts." Rather than being fixed, they are constantly being altered as our lives unfold in our now (through ever-accruing meanings, not through willpower). For instance, I fired a contractor after he dragged his feet for many months and failed to finish the job. I was very angry at him for letting me down, until I learned--months later--that he had gone bankrupt. I no longer viewed him as incompetent or uncaring; and instead of being angry at him, I felt sad about how our relationship had been disturbed and I regretted that he hadn't told me about his financial difficulties so that we could have dealt more cooperatively with our situation.

Another example: In a TV show that I'm watching, she coldly declares that she's leaving. He feels hurt. Later, she confesses that she hates goodbyes and he realises that her cold good-bye was a manifestation of her distress about good-byes, rather than her judgement about him. For him, the meaning of her cold good-bye has been changed by his new understanding of it.

Our futures also change in our present. Such is the case in the recent spate of high school shootings. For some students, their futures came to an abrupt halt in that present moment and for others, e.g., the girl who was left paralysed, their futures were greatly altered.

I suggest further that the time we experience doesn't unfold in always equal duration. The 50 frightening seconds when my aircraft engine temporarily conked out really did last nearly an eternity, while the three weeks I've spent writing this essay have gone by in a flash.

Living beings ultimately want to live and will typically struggle to maintain life when their being is threatened. In fact, I will argue that even the act of suicide is a choice of people who want to live and would choose life if they trusted that they could find relief from their pain. They come to the possibility of suicide only in the face of what is for them unbearable pain--physical or emotional--and they can't figure out how to continue living with this pain.

People choose death in order to alleviate their pain. Whether or not the pain of their situation is unbearable is related to their particular structures and life histories. Hence, Christopher Reeve can flourish even when paralysed from the neck down and in constant need of a machine to help him breathe, while someone else might become suicidal or homicidal in the face of a verbal sleight.

When someone names me, he or she is saying that I am someone and, moreover, this one and not that one.. But naming is more than merely designating. Names are not random assignments. They have particular meanings in each culture and subculture, and to each parent. Our parents gave us names that had meaning to them, so in some way our names embody their pasts and connote their intentions for our futures. Then, as we grew, our names came to signify for us the accretion of all the meanings that others ascribe or seem to ascribe to us. I've known quite a few people who've tried to escape their painful pasts by changing their names--ultimately without success, in my view, because we cannot escape our histories.

Although we appear to be separate from one another, we are not. We have become and are becoming who we are entirely through our interactions--our connections, our involvements--with others. And who we are for them and how they behave towards us is continually influenced by who they are for us and how we behave towards them. I suggest that there is nothing we understand, nothing we aim for, nothing we do that is not affected by how others around us have been and are being. The recluse, for example, has chosen to move away from all others because of his or her distressing experiences with some others. Yet even the recluse needs others, typically relying, for example, on someone else to buy groceries.

Many years ago, entirely by chance I ran into an uncle who I hadn't seen or been in contact with for more than twenty years--and this was 3,000 miles away from our previous meeting. My brother had a similar experience on an airline flight. He ran into a cousin who he also hadn't seen or spoken with for many years. In the western world--particularly in the United States, where "rugged individualism" is the mythos--we tend to look at ourselves as fundamentally separate from one another. But these experiences simply underscore for me that we are connected much more closely than we tend to realise. I contend that what a farmer in the Ukraine or a gaucho in Argentina do affects me, and vice versa. 

It is a commonly accepted practice--and it is even considered desirable--to withhold and otherwise conceal ourselves, even in our close relationships (e.g., to tell "white lies" in order to avoid hurting someone). It seems to me that many of us have erroneously concluded that only the part of a relationship that we actually reveal to one another is real, that "what she doesn't know won't hurt her." For example, I've had wives tell me that they don't care whether their husbands "go out" on them, so long as their husbands don't tell them.

We conceal ourselves out of our fear of being abandoned or harmed. In so doing, we believe that we can maintain or grow love in our relationships. However, just the opposite is the inevitable outcome of this strategy. To engage in a "strategy" (as opposed to dialoguing) is to manipulate the other person. It requires that I step "outside" of our "I-thou" connection. Employing any strategy creates pain for all involved and damages the relationship. The only means by which we can "connect" with one another is through "dialoguing," real-talk--through our being genuine, authentic. It seems to me that this is what Martin Buber meant when he described the I-Thou relationship (I and Thou, Between Man and Man).

We tend to believe that people have to be cajoled to care. Consequently, we are taught "rules" for caring (e.g., the golden rule) and are threatened with punishment (social and legal) if we do not act out of care. I suggest that this actually impedes the possibility of genuine care and that just the opposite is the likely outcome. Contrary to the common view, we cannot choose to care, so any effort to care by following the rules can only be an act, which is not care and actually disturbs the relationship and those in it.

I suggest that the basis of care is the recognition of my kinship with others--of my belonging and our connection--and my consequent concern about both my and their welfare. I make care manifest through dialogue--speaking my truth--which in turn requires my commitment to acknowledging my pain. (Always with the caveat that--as with any skill--we need first to learn how and when to do so.) Care is the glue that joins us. Without care we would not have survived into adulthood and unless our unexpressed past is in the way, care for ourselves and for one another is our nature.



© 1999 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People

In my experience, whatever isn't lived out gets disturbingly acted out, and the only genuine way out of emotional distress is through.

We conceal ourselves out of our fear of being abandoned or harmed. In so doing, we believe that we can maintain or grow love in our relationships. However, just the opposite is the inevitable outcome. The only means by which we can “connect” with one another is through “dialoguing,” real-talk—through our being genuine, authentic.

Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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