Accumulation: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

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Every attainment,

every step forward in knowledge,

follows…from cleanliness in relation to oneself.

- Friedrich Nietzsche


t might be helpful to think about owning a brain in the same way we think about owning a house. Homeowners realize that a large part of their job is monitoring the accumulation of things in and on the house. Some things that accumulate are the result of hard work. New flooring, dual-pane windows, blooming iris and stocked pantries are all to the good. Some things unfortunately collect that we wish didn’t. Chipping paint and weeds and moldy things in the refrigerator are bad. What can be ugly about a home are those structural issues that we hope to either accommodate or renovate. But there are sometimes more projects involving low ceilings, cracked foundations and poor insulation than we can tackle.

As a brain owner, we have a similar responsibility to watch what is accumulating within our skull domicile.

The similarity continues with these truths: it is much harder to see the good accumulate (clean windows or a habit of regular exercise) when the bad is in the way (detritus from the superbowl party or an emotional hangover from an ice cream binge). And some deep structural damage can inhibit both our willingness and our ability to stay focused on positive accumulation (poor drainage can deter you from renovating the basement and a history of being shamed can deter you from trying new things).

At its most basic, we have a fine life when we can steadily accumulate good things, prevent the accumulation of bad things and work to overcome the unfortunate parts of our past that create ugly things.

Eli Wallach

So let’s start with the ugly. Of the three sources of accumulation, the reversal of the ugly is the most negatively affected by our naïveté. The homeowner metaphor really works for me because one of the greatest obstacles to new homeowners is the same thing that haunts the newly adulted human – how to tackle DIY projects around the house or how to get out of old, unhelpful behavior patterns. Which brings us to this: How do we figure out what we don’t know that we don’t know?

As I’ve said over and over, the things that are cause for alarm in our psychological lives are always the result of a birth curse. We inherit the cracked foundation and poor insulation – we wouldn’t willingly and intentionally choose to inhabit a poorly launched life. All psychological work, be it formal (therapy, self-help literature, etc.) or informal (thinking, reading, talking with others, etc.), is in service of learning how to find and repair the damaged emotional structures passed down to us from our ancestors. And this heritage is hundreds of years in the making, coming to us from the grandparents of our grandparents. Some of these issues (e.g. a general attitude of pessimism which we learned from our parents who learned it from their parents) can be life-long projects to overcome. Others (difficulty being loyal to ourselves because we were trained to be compliant as children) can be fairly smoothly resolved with straightforward mental health training (assertiveness and self-esteem).

But the important thing is to pay attention. A psychologically ugly legacy creates a crisis when the brain owner has been unable to acknowledge that there is a problem. For then, left unattended, the inherited crack in our emotional foundation will slowly widen.

When it comes to identifying then addressing the ugly fissures underlying our psyche, it is can be extremely prudent to remember that, because there is never a perfect match between a set of parents and a child, we all have had less-than-perfect childhoods. (If you are resistant to accepting this reproachful stance toward your upbringing, please, please follow that link to the article that discusses this vital component of self-construction.) Therefore, all of us move into a fixer-upper adult life. Our job as that brain owner is to find resources (like therapy or self-construct.com!) to help us recognize and repair structural problems in our life.

Lee Van Cleef

The psychologically bad, like the actor cleverly cast for this part, tends to be easy to spot, but that doesn't mean we will be keenly vigilant about doing so. It can be so beguiling to sweep our poor behavior under the rug with the belief that it was a one-off and we surely won't do it again! But without nearly constant attention, our brain starts to accumulate the telltale signs of poor living. Like dust bunnies in the corners, debris collects from sloppy habits, forcing us to either double-down on our pretense that our lives are running cleanly or to acknowledge the presence of less-than-stellar behaviors. Now I’m not saying that we have to have pristine minds, but most of us are happier with a certain level of psychological tidiness, as the Nietzschean epigraph I used for this article suggests. If we start to get careless about clenching our jaw or indulging in gossip or fibbing to ourselves, the grime of life will start to accumulate. So when we tuck ourselves into bed at night or write out a to-do list with our morning coffee, it behooves us to check the corners of our minds for cobwebs. Gentle nudges on our conscience that move us away from bad behavior are an effective way to not accumulate evil dust bunnies.

If the debris has reached a level that threatens our ability to accumulate the good, we will need a more stringent come-to-Jesus moment. The starkest way to take stock is to remind ourselves that we are what we do. If we absentmindedly do things we don’t intend to do, that is still who we are becoming. A second or third glass of wine every night, an increasingly petulant tone of voice with our spouse or sloppiness about returning phone calls from friends are examples of psychological plaque that would require what a writer friend of mine calls "mental floss." Mental floss is simply taking the time to have a think about how we're running our lives. And, of course, frequent psychological deep cleaning (workshops, retreats, thought exercises, and so on) is always a good idea.

 

I and Thou

- Martin Buber

 

 

Can you reward yourself with something that may seem counterintuitive, like a piece of cake for losing five pounds?

Yes and no. No, if the behavior you are trying to accumulate involves abstinence. In other words, you cannot reward quitting cigarettes with a smoke. But if you are not using abstinence as a strategy, then, yes, a piece of cake can definitely be a lovely reward...

 

Clint Eastwood

What’s nice about this movie metaphor is that the person that Clint Eastwood played was complex rather than purely virtuous. It’s wiser to aspire to a high percentage of goodness rather than beat your head against the solid granite wall of perfection.

Having said that, however, I want to be clear that a hallmark of maturity is the ability to reliably accumulate good. If youngsters aren’t taught how to do this, they will struggle in their attempts to develop into potent adults. If we return to the five parental attitudes, we can identify the components of sound mental health that will allow for the accumulation of good.

1. Delay of gratification. This most basic of life skills is a reflection of the ability to take ourselves seriously. If we earnestly wish the best for ourselves, we will willingly tolerate immediate discomfort for later, greater rewards. But this life skill has to be learned within the context of taking yourself seriously because delay of gratification is a purely cognitive function. There are no emotional reward centers in the brain to reinforce delay of gratification and, in fact, there are often negative emotional consequences to putting off satisfactions. We can only learn this skill, therefore, if we can reason our way through the process. As we practice delaying gratification, we deepen our faith in our cognitive ability to make good predictions that what we are aspiring to in the future will be worth the current suffering. So it is very helpful to learn this thinking skill with tiny little delays as children. We learn that recess, dessert and our birthday all eventually come and that they are all worth the wait.

2. Responsible procrastination. Odd as it may sound, holding yourself accountable will involve a certain level of procrastination. A calculated decision to delay an action can often be a good bet. Because this is a complicated and shame-laden concept, it has been given it’s own article. Suffice it to say here, however, if we can skillfully procrastinate we can avoid both habitual delays and also panicked striving for perfection that each interfere with positive accumulation.

3. Self-remuneration. When we find ourselves delightful at least some of the time, we will be willing to reward our efforts. Rewards work. Actions followed by reinforcement will be repeated. Clever and kind incentives are a mature – not indulgent – way to treat yourself because they are such effective behavior modifiers. As a brain owner, one of your most important jobs is to administer effective yet healthy rewards. There are two tricky truths about rewards. First, they have to be custom made because they have to make you feel better after you receive them. So trying to reward yourself with something you don't really like or, worse, for which you have an insatiable appetite, will not make you feel good. (The latter case will remind you instead that you feel perpetually deprived.) And second, rewards lose their potency if they are used in non-rewarding ways. In other words, rewards have to feel special. To use me as an example, cookies (tragically) never feel rewarding because I eat cookies often yet am never satisfied when I do. If I try to pretend that allowing myself to eat cookies if I finish an article will feel reinforcing, my wise inner child will cry foul. Pencils, plants or books however, always work for me. I love a brand new number two pencil, so if I sometimes reward an action with a bright yellow Dixon Ticonderoga, that reward feels both special and sufficient.

4. Psychological spreadsheeting. To live existentially is to pay attention to hard truths. One hard truth is that we need to pay attention to what is accumulating in our brain. If you have the time and the RAM, you can do this monitoring in your head. Most of the time, however, we are better off seeing our truths in black and white. Chore lists with items checked off, savings accounts and day planners are all types of spreadsheets. Much of what is now being called evidence-based therapy involves the use of structured worksheets to document improved mental health habits. But any simple systems of ledgers can be an effective way to monitor accumulation – from tallies on a chalkboard to formal workout logs.

5. Emotional budgeting. The fifth parental attitude involves working on your adult relationships. This is a crucial aspect of accumulation because there will be a tipping point in our habituation process where things either get easier or much, much harder. If we have been successful as a brain owner and our brains are accumulating primarily good stuff, we happily build on this forward momentum to keep things moving smoothly. Things are much easier. If, however, we have been sliding toward the bad or the ugly, we can tip into a deficit from which it is hard to escape. At that point, what can save us from slip sliding away is the emotional equity we have stored up in relationships. When we are in despair, friends and family can donate psychological energy to us that can help us reverse the downward trend. The vigor we get through attachment feels wonderful because it is a combination of confirmation, encouragement, attention and respect. As with sound financial planning, we can't go wrong putting energy into maintaining a positive emotional equity among our friends, family and neighbors.

A wise brain owner uses all five parental attitudes to foster the accumulation of good. We are what we do. We need to do good.

Nag, nag, nag

But how do you accumulate those annoyingly noncumulative tasks? So much of maturity involves absorbing and accepting what I would call “bossy pants” answers. That’s the case here. The answer to the question is the patronizing: what you are accumulating is the pattern of days spent with your chores attended to. What can make this response less priggish? Sadly, the answer to that question fits into the life-is-difficult category. We need to do some things just because they are the wise things to do even though the rewards for doing so are vague at best. The trick is learning how to find the damn benefits of cleaning up the kitchen for the millionth time. Remember to compare the very ephemeral satisfaction of having a chore done with the greater dissatisfaction of not having it done. In addition to having a clean workspace by cleaning the kitchen, you have eliminated the tiresome negative feelings you get when you see the sink full of dirty dishes or the counter sticky. Remember that good self-discipline gets easier with practice. When cleaning up the kitchen is what you do after dinner, you can usually just do it without having to ask yourself to do it. Remember all good things are made easier with a tidy mind. And clutter in the kitchen creates clutter in the mind because you have to have that nag/shut-up conversation over and over. Remember to be nice to yourself when you have a hard time remembering all these bitter truths. Life is difficult. Accumulation of the good – again, especially the good that doesn’t stay done – is one of the most difficult.

And when we find ourselves on a roll, when our tally sheets are full of positive ticks, we will be in a position to enjoy one of the most rewarding, yet faint psychological perfumes our brain biochemistry makes available to us – serenity. Like the subtle scent of the freesia, serenity must be enjoyed with connoisseur-like dedication. We must stop what we are doing, clear our palate of conflicting emotions and then register the combined sense of both peace and joy that serenity provides for us. So, when the good accumulates, remember to stop and smell the serenity.

Collection

The most remarkable thing to me about snow is the way it can accumulate. Crystal by crystal, it builds up on the most unlikely of places – a tiny twig, the top edge of a stop sign or the twisted wire of a cyclone fence – a million spots where Mother Nature had patiently stacked her snow, balanced and gorgeous. I am always blown away by the patience that had gone into the creation of this magical landscape.

But the same could be said for being blanketed by despair. The same phenomenon occurs, a gradual accumulation of missteps that builds to cover everything with bleakness.

Never underestimate the power of accumulation to create the good, the bad or the ugly.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.