Power and Responsibility

Honesty is the power you’re not ready for. The more, the better.

The difference between being a Failure and being a Victim is a state of mind, because it is all about who you think is in control”.
David Summerton, business consultant

Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

A First-Person Perspective Makes All the Difference

In the book A Road Back From Schizophrenia, author Arnhild Lauveng describes her progression into full-blown schizophrenia and her eventual recovery from it. The book is interesting because it chronicles what Western psychiatry claims is medically impossible—healing schizophrenia—and because it’s a first-person account of the reasons for this behavior.

The result is a logical explanation of the role of hallucinations and dissociation not based on trauma or neurological dysfunction, but involving both in subtle ways. The story makes plausible the descent into and the subsequent emergence from schizophrenia. It follows an oddly twisted logic of a hypersensitive person who can’t think straight. Aspects of this story also apply to normal thought and behavior.

You’re left to wonder why these events drove Arnhild over the edge, and what they would do to you. There is clearly something in her experience that we all struggle with, yet she was consumed by demons to the point of having to be committed and forcibly restrained. She could not be around sharp or fragile objects because she would rush to turn them into weapons to cut herself. She became the epitome of insanity.

Being A Victim Versus Being a Failure

Arnhild repeatedly returns to her being categorized as helpless, versus being considered responsible for her actions. She makes the point that when your behavior is excused because you’re sick, you have no responsibility. You’re told that you have no power and no control over what’s in your head. You’re treated as a person whose own efforts make no difference and to whom there is no point in explaining anything. You’re reduced to nothing more than a diagnosis.

Alternatively, if you’re given responsibility you’re also given blame and guilt. She gives the example of a rape victim who can either be seen as innocent or culpable. If you’re innocent then you were simply unlucky, and if your culpable, then it was your fault. In neither case are you understood or helped to understand.

She would be blamed for her violent behavior. Her response—now that she can form a response—is, “Would you blame a drowning person for struggling? Would you condemn them for making excessive attempts to get attention?”

She was either treated as incurably ill, or told she was acting out of a perverted attempt to control others and gain reward. She was alternately seen in one light or the other. That took away her ability to help herself, and helping herself was ultimately the path to her recovery. Nurses rarely tried to understand her needs and motivations. Doctors only prescribed drugs. But it was the interactions with people who worked to understand her that helped her regain her autonomy.

You and I are not locked in physical restraints by authorities who pass judgement without appeal. But we are pressed into compromised positions by the judgements of people who don’t really know us or care. These judgements prevail by accidental or institutional norms. As a result, we are subject to a similar effect, and develop relationships that identify and limit us.

Most of my counseling clients can be seen as having gotten stuck in a situation they’re powerless to change. They have created relationships that aren’t working. They don’t know who’s responsible or how to change them. They are fighting, and some part of them is adding gasoline to the fire. They are at war with themselves.

Destiny is a good thing to accept when it’s going your way. When it isn’t, don’t call it destiny; call it injustice, treachery, or simple bad luck.”— Joseph Heller, author

Must You Accept the Bad With The Good?

We build reputations that are social, personal, and professional. We look in the mirror and learn to accept ourselves even though we’re not sure who we are.

Few people hate themselves, but most people have a warped self-image. We express ourselves in a complicated language that no one else understands. We feel we had little choice in creating how others see us. We have limited power to change our “true nature.”

In Arnhild’s case, this inner nature could not think straight, but it could learn. All personal change is based on learning, but only a small part of it is intellectual. The larger part of this essential learning is emotional, physical, perceptual, cognitive, and spiritual.

It spite of how obviously we obsess about our appearance and presentation, we make little effort to understand ourselves. We do ask questions and we do try to control our behavior, but we don’t ask metaphysical or metapersonal questions. We don’t ask whether we’re thinking straight or in touch with reality.

This is one of the reasons psychedelics are valuable: they force these issues. They force us to see the illogical and nonsensical in our perceptions and behavior. Arnhild was on a psychedelic trip that would never end. She was treated as crazy, and she was crazy. You are not treated as crazy, but you might be.

We take our presentations for granted on the absurd belief that others will understand us based on our appearance and behavior. Because roles are trivially defined in the popular mind, we mimic these predefined personalities rather than build our own. And when these roles don’t work, we don’t know why.

This drove Arnhild crazy. It could be that a schizophrenic is a person who is particularly vulnerable to the inner conflicts we all experience. These inner conflicts are struggles between feeling yourself to be a capable person who can learn from your mistakes, and feeling yourself unable to fully understand or control your mind.

Understanding Starts With Honesty

The confusion I see in my clients stems from their failing to accept aspects of themselves. Self-acceptance is, itself, a step before honesty. If you’re not honest about yourself, then you’ll never understand or evolve beyond your lack of insight.

Emotional disconnection is a partner to dishonesty. By dishonesty I don’t mean intentional deception—which is simple to remedy if you choose—I mean habitual, willful blindness.

Few people are intentionally deceptive on larger matters because it’s too difficult to maintain the lie. Eventually you’ll be found out. But many people are willfully blind because what you don’t see you don’t need to explain. Rather than twist the facts, the more successful way to lie is simply not to see them.

In this case, what you’re lying about are uncomfortable matters. They’re uncomfortable because they take you across the boundary of what you have chosen to ignore, and they’re uncomfortable because what’s on the other side of that boundary are situations you’ve found threatening in the past. You can tell when you’re leading another person across their boundaries by how evasive they become.

“Follow the pain,” is reliable, counter-intuitive advice. Pain is partly something that afflicts us, and partly something we create for ourselves. We excuse our avoidance of painful issues on the basis of the pain being a real and reliable danger signal. But it is not entirely real or reliable.

Pain comes from perceptions we recognize, and recognition is something we have to engage. Emotional and intellectual pains are not physical pains but they feel similar. It’s quite possible not to feel pain, if you learn not to recognize it.

Recognition is something we take little responsibility for. It is an unconscious process we largely play no part in, but it is the crucial connection between awareness and insight.

The connection between awareness and insight is the process of willfully discriminating between what we want to engage with and what we’re able to hide from. Recognizing pain is similar to recognizing other feelings in our environment; pain is just more insistent.

Some Aspects of Pain Are Learned.

Not all discomfort is painful. You learn to feel uncomfortable with emotions that disturb you. This is pain that you chose to recognize and willfully avoid.

The parent who tells their child, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” is willfully lying but at least their lie is close to awareness. The parent who hurts a child thoughtlessly is unconsciously destructive.

Those sorts of actions are part of a self-deceptive world-view, and they are the kinds of deceptions that mislead others. The unconscious abuser teaches others that perversion is reasonable and, in that way, obscures their own twisted mind.

I see my troubled clients either committing acts of self-injury without question, or trying to recognize their role in the self-injury they commit. In either case, they’re stuck in a cycle that they want to exit. My role is both to point out the cycle, and point out the exit. My role is not to lead them out. That requires a change in perception, and only they can do that.

We decry our repetitive behavior, but it has a reason. Before we can act intelligently, we have to see clearly. This means being honest with ourselves, and recognizing what we would rather not see. It means accepting discomfort and reframing what’s painful as instructive.

When a person gets closer to insight, they often become distracted. That is a willful attempt at avoiding what’s coming into focus. One reason I liked mountaineering was that you could not safely allow yourself to become distracted regardless of whether or not you liked what you were seeing. People who excuse their own bad behavior tend to be neurotic or sociopathic; mountaineers who excuse their bad behavior tend to die.

conflict power responsibility therapy coaching counseling psychotherapy growth change insight lincoln stoller

Becoming Aware of What You Don’t Want to See

You cannot clearly see what you’re most afraid of. Selective perception is so effective that it’s outside your control. You once had control, but you made decisions that resulted in your own blindness. You’ve closed and forgotten certain doors. Opening the doors of your self-perception requires reclaiming memories, and unless you want this to happen, it won’t.

I learn psychology from my clients, and I learn about myself from them too. Ninety-fine percent of what I read in the therapy literature is garbage, and I’d say the same regarding the popular press. Unless a person has passed through the territory, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

It is necessary to listen to each person’s story, but what’s most import is what’s left out. The person speaking won’t say the most important points and you won’t hear them, but you can infer their existence from the larger picture. The more clever a person, the more they disguise this picture. Smart people seem so together, but are often the most disturbed. They deceive themselves more.

Therapists are taught be have a false kind of empathy that won’t burst a client’s bubble. In that way, therapists gain trust and extend their profit. The client feels heard and continues to support the therapist. It’s basically a kind of rent-a-friend prostitution: you don’t get real friendship because it’s not really a caring relationship.

To some extent, hearing yourself is therapeutic, at least it can be if you really want to change, but most people don’t. They want satisfaction without change. This is reasonable; being dependable means defending your investments. But the bigger changes require divesting yourself of old thinking and finding new realities.

Evolving More Aggressively

I’m changing my strategy and becoming more aggressive. This is more of what a real friend does: they call you on your shit because they value honesty more than stability. At least, that’s what a friend should do. What I don’t do as a therapist is lay my shit on you. It’s that restraint, along with a chance of giving useful feedback, that I’m paid for.

In two of my past cases, big changes were triggered by my small comments. In the first, I listened to the client’s woeful story and said, “You’re miserable. Change your life. Get a different job.” In the other case I said, “You hate yourself. All the support you get doesn’t help because you’re not presenting yourself honesty.”

I didn’t say these things as commandments, they were just observations, but they were the truth and they had a stunning effect. They seemed to disintegrate a lifetime of fabrication. In both cases, my clients’ lives and attitudes changed 180-degree for the better.

I would be mistaken to give myself too much credit. These were people living in glass houses and they handed me stones. I didn’t know the effect that throwing these stones would have, but I think they did.

They did and they didn’t. Part of them knew, the wiser part, but their normal personality did not. This is what you want: to decouple from your normal personality and follow your wiser part. It’s an escape from prison.

Freedom is Organic. It Gets Stronger With Use

Our normal personalities stand in the way of our evolution. We build normal personalities are for safety and security. They create the reality that is missing the pieces that we fear. These are often the pieces we need.

Unless we’re trapped in the mental health system and assigned a diagnosis, we’re responsible for disempowering ourselves. We do this by trying to compensate and making excuses for ourselves. We are either too loose and get in trouble, or we’re too tight and never have the “happy accidents” we need.

The victim of assault who asserts their rights and disregards risks is irresponsible on one hand, and responsible for being assaulted on the other. This doesn’t mean assault was justified, only avoidable. The depressed person who never takes the risk of revealing their stupidity becomes irrelevant, and suffers for it.

Freedom of choice is not something you enjoy, it’s something you use. And you are not free to ignore, isolate, or disengage. Your freedom is loaned to you. It’s a tool you’re expected to use. Your environment gives you freedom to evolve yourself and advance others.

If you make responsible use of your freedom, which means taking intelligent risks and learning from your mistakes, then freedom expands.You become more relevant. If you are miserly and selfish with your freedom, then it is withdrawn and you’ll find yourself encased in limiting structures. Don’t invest in happiness, happiness is an obsession. Be useful.

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