Why We Don’t Like Ourselves: The Complete List of Awful

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Spirit is the will to become whole.

- Karl Jaspers


s youngsters, we look constantly to the adults in our world to tell us how we’re doing. Spend any time around a healthy family and you’ll hear: “Mommy, see? Mommy, look! Daddy, watch this!” Tens of thousands of times within a childhood we earnestly seek out the approval and validation that comes when our compassionate parents willingly witness our attempts to dazzle them.

So it’s not hard to imagine the damage done to children when their natural eagerness to strut their stuff is met with disinterest. Even if these rejections are flung at us only occasionally, they hurt. If we are routinely exposed to messages that what we are doing is unacceptable, we will come to believe that we are unacceptable.

And, often, this is exactly what happens. Too much of the time a child is answered with one of these dismissive stock replies: “Not now. I'm busy. Be quiet. Don’t be ridiculous. Why can’t you just behave yourself? What’s the matter with you? Who do you think you are? Knock it off! Oh, for crying out loud. Shut up.”

If our world consistently doesn’t seem to like what we are doing, we will start to believe that we are not good enough. Further down that road, a road that many kids, sadly, have to traverse, lies the bleakest of places – the land where kids are taught that they are: stupid, childish, boring, cowardly, unlovable and lazy, the epithets that I call the complete list of awful. These words, meant to humiliate us into compliance, sink into our core beliefs where they provide the proof that we are pathetic. What a heartbreaking upbringing that way, way too many children face.

Too big for our own good

Let me walk you through the process that derails all of us somewhat and some of us nearly completely.

The most important research we do as children focuses on trying to understand what it means to be human. These experiments involve trying to be as big as we can be in the things that we do – in other words, attempting things we’ve never tried before. But often our attempts to mature push against people who themselves feel small and who are therefore very limited in their ability to tolerate our attempts to grow bigger. When they feel like they are losing their competitive edge, and therefore their ability to control us, they sabotage our scientific efforts to expand ourselves. And they do so very effectively with that complete list of awful. Further, these small people justify their foot-binding behavior toward children with claims that it keeps kids from "getting too big for your britches" or "a swelled head" or "too full of yourself." How odd to think that someone could be too full of themselves.

(N.B. Let me clarify here that helping children feel full of themselves requires enacting the five parental tasks and does not exclude setting appropriate boundaries with children.)

When you are given the sense that you are stupid, childish, boring, cowardly, unlovable or lazy, your willingness to take the risks in life that are necessary if you are to define your essence is severely nipped. And, equally tragically, a lifetime willingness to accept labels that shame your very existence is heightened.

The existential thinkers and existential psychologists were all very big people who wrote about how to push the limits of selfhood. They believed that humans must constantly attempt to define themselves as wholly as they can despite the fact that many mistakes will be made along the way. If we can learn to internalize both their advice and their audacity, we will no longer allow dated, naïve and small parental voices to undermine our urge to grow. This article describes a well-marked route back toward unfettered growth.

 

Composing a Life

- Mary Katherine Bateson

Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You?

- Margaret and Jordan Paul

Bird By Bird

- Anne Lamott

Novels

The Giver

- Lois Lowry

Siddhartha

- Herman Hesse

Paper Towns

- John Green

Pull of the Moon

- Elizabeth Berg

Folly

- Laurie R. King

Sunnyside

- Glen David Gold

A Reckoning

- May Sarton

The Painted Drum

- Louise Erdrich

 

 

Send your questions to me at: jan@self-construct.com.

 

The six big experiments

Existentialism points us toward six foundational areas that we need to thoroughly explore in order to move forward in life. These areas, or “givens” as they are called, state that: we are each unique, we each have to make our choices moment by moment, we have to decide for ourselves what is important in life, we have to learn how to tolerate our individual luck, we must endure the truth that we each spend much of our lives alone or misunderstood, and we each have an unknown amount of time allotted to us. Think of them in shorthand as: uniqueness, responsibility, meaning, fate, isolation and time. All are impossible to master and impossible to ignore. As such, they consume most of our life’s experimental energy and are the greatest source of our missteps and vulnerabilities.

It turns out that each epithet on the complete list of awful represents how we are made to feel about our experimentation in one of these six big existential areas.

Are we stupid or are we trying diligently to enact our uniqueness?

Are we childish or are we struggling with the very difficult process of making choice after choice after choice?

Are we boring or are we still searching for the route that will take us to the heights of mastery?

Are we cowardly or are we learning how to tolerate our helplessness in the face of a cruel and indifferent world?

Are we unlovable or are we trying to heal from damaging parental relationships?

Are we lazy or are we uneducated about how to navigate existential time?

These are all excellent questions that deserve wholehearted attention and thought.

Experiment #1: Stupid vs. unique

When someone tells us we’re stupid, they are telling us that what we are doing makes no sense to them. And not in a helpful feedback kind of way but in a shame-on-you-stop-doing-that kind of way. Why would someone bother to shame us for trying to be uniquely ourselves? And, more to the point, how is it even possible for others to conclude that we’re failing miserably at being us? It isn’t. They are simply looking at our behavior from the outside, comparing it to their own opinion of what we should be doing and finding fault. They are telling us that we are not doing the “right” thing, with the word “right” meaning “correct-to-their-way-of-thinking.” They would have us believe that we are too dim-witted to be allowed to decide for ourselves what to do with our lives, let alone how and when.

What it boils down to is this: people call us stupid when they value conformity over uniqueness – conformity to their rules of the game, of course. They are using the word “stupid” to mean slow to learn, but they are referring to the process of learning to behave ourselves, not to the process of learning to be our best self. If our adult world does not value the pursuit of uniqueness, then every step we take away from convention and toward ourselves will put us at risk for being called stupid. To condense the snarky cultural message: different = dangerous = wrong = stupid!

Two skills that can create immunity to the word “stupid” are: developing a healthy existential respect for the concept of uniqueness and marrying that respect to the first aspect of effective self-parenting, taking ourselves seriously.

The concept of uniqueness

There is not now, nor has there ever been, anyone else like you in the world. Never, never, ever. That means there is no pattern you can trace or model you can copy as you work to understand yourself. As humans, we are all forced to spend a more or less lonely lifetime exploring just who we have the potential to become and evaluating what we have been doing with that potential so far. The idea that our entire life will consist of that inner odyssey of discovery feels both amazing and horrifying.

Here’s where we can lean on the wisdom of existential thinkers like a child leans on the wisdom of a parent. All these powerful philosophers and psychologists agreed that being unique presents a very difficult challenge and they believe that we are to be admired for facing this given, even if we tremble and fumble when we try to do so.

Let me give you just a taste of their profound thinking on this crucial human truth.

Uniqueness is a given. To use the word “given” relative to the word “uniqueness” is to acknowledge the timeless and terrifying truth of both words. The existential necessity of self-actualizing by creating our sole essence is agonizing. Anthropologist and social theorist Ernest Becker characterized this human dilemma deftly in the following quote:

How can the person take his private inner being, the great mystery that he feels at the heart of himself, his emotions, his yearnings and use them to live more distinctively, to enrich both himself and mankind with the peculiar quality of his talent?

and psychologist Rollo May made it personal:

…if you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.

But if we can understand that our struggle with this dilemma of being unique joins us not only with the great existential thinkers, but with all humanity as well, then maybe we can deepen our respect for the need for continual experimentation about our uniqueness.

So that’s the abstract use of existentialism – to feel soothed by the intelligence and integrity of all these great thinkers who wrangled so impressively with the same issues that we wrangle with. But the more concrete use of this body of knowledge is to infuse that first area of parental responsibility – taking ourselves seriously – with a willingness to explicitly explore the concept of uniqueness.

Since the only place we have actually existed is in our past, we can only get to know our unique selves by exploring what we have done with our lives so far. This perspective is extended poetically by the philosopher Ortega y Gasset:

Man is what has happened to him, what he has done. Other things might have happened to him or have been done by him, but what did in fact happen to him and was done by him, this constitutes a relentless trajectory of experiences that he carries on his back as the vagabond his bundle of all he possesses. Man is a substantial emigrant on a pilgrimage of being, and it is accordingly meaningless to set limits to what he is capable of being. In this initial illimitableness of possibilities that characterizes one who has no nature, there stands out only one fixed, pre-established, and given line by which he may chart his course, only one limit – the past. The experiments already made with life narrow man’s future. Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is – history.

Take yourself seriously

Taking yourself seriously from an existential perspective, then, looks like is this: having the capacity to analyze aspects of your past from the standpoint that, since you aren’t stupid, whatever you did do made sense at the time. Your only job is to figure out why what you chose to do made sense then and what that reason can teach you about your uniqueness at this point. In other words, your behavior in your past is just a mystery to be solved, not a flaw to be uncovered.

You simply have to change the emphasis in your question – from “What was I thinking” to “What was I thinking?” The following might sound quite kumbaya, but I have found it extremely effective to have people actually practice saying those two versions of the question out loud. That recitation helps demonstrate the shaming quality of the first and the curious quality of the second. Speaking them out loud can also reveal how difficult it might be to speak the second version. It's easy to toss off the first version because we have heard it so very often. The effort here needs to go into practicing the second one with the same gentle and respectful tone of voice you would use with a dear friend if they were exploring their past reasoning about a choice. It can help to put a "Hmmmm" in front of that second one. Please stop for a moment and lock in this skill.

When you investigate your past behavior from a curious, tolerant place, you will be surprised to discover some heretofore lost data. What does it say about us, for example, if we spent much of our energy in college getting a pilot’s license rather than getting good grades? We were stupid? No, we were experimenting with our lives and there are data to be had as a result of that experiment. Perhaps getting a pilot’s license was about trying to please our dad, or perhaps it was about exploring a less academic route to the world of work, or perhaps it was about making good use of our incredible spatial abilities, depth perception and reaction times. Whatever the incentive at the time, our behavior was undoubtedly motivated by necessity not triviality. Something occurring within us at that time made that particular experiment feel necessary. Did it turn out to be a good idea? We can’t know that until we analyze the data. Knowing what we know now, it might have been a limiting choice, but it was not a stupid one.

We cannot master ourselves within our short lifetimes, but we can master the role of being a scientist researching our singular selves. To that end, we all can benefit from studying how other folks design their lives. This will be especially true for you if the adults of your immediate childhood world were neither ept nor transparent. It will be necessary for you to now approach people who are living lives that are impressive to you and ask them to discuss how they got where they are. Biographies and autobiographies are also rich ways to explore the different routes people take to find themselves. Coming-of-age novels such as The Giver, Siddhartha, and Paper Towns can be illuminating as you work to solve the mysteries of your past. So can novels about midlife changes such as Waiting to Exhale, When Nietzsche Wept, and All New People. For excellent books that address more directly the process of becoming human, see Composing a Life by Mary Katherine Bateson, Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You? by Margaret and Jordan Paul or Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.

It's important to point out here that, for many of us, shame, with its painful emotional roadblocks, will prevent our comfortably sorting through our personal history in order to learn from it. So we must remember to reject shame and replace it with the best tool we have for getting to know ourselves – plain, old curiosity.

Thought Experiments: Exercise #1

If we’re going to be successful with our inner odyssey, we must be serious about exploring our lives to date. Existentially, authentically facing our uniqueness requires us to acknowledge the fact that, no matter what anyone thinks of what we have been doing with our lives, our past is full of precious information about us for us. It will take time and serious study before we can truly replace our naïveté about ourselves with some sense of the person we are capable of being. (Two wonderful novels that feature this process are: Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg and Folly by Laurie R. King.)

Start that process now. Take some time to think about the concept of uniqueness. Reflect on how scary that truth is and how little training you have gotten in how to both acknowledge and handle that fear. Then think about what your personal journey so far is telling you about yourself. Using the compassionate understanding of the not-so-gentle intellectual giants of existential thinking and the appropriate entitlement of the first parental attitude, think about your uniqueness from this place:

Being unique is a given that I need to take seriously if I seek to live a coherent life. That reality is difficult and presents a life-long challenge because it demands that I, deeply and consistently, review my life. That review will put me face to face with mistakes, even huge mistakes, that I have made along the way. But I must remember two things: the mistakes were not a function of stupidity and mistakes are simply unavoidable if we are living a cutting edge life. I need to also remind myself that the most brilliant people throughout time have had to wrestle with the dilemma of unique authorship. I will not let the difficulty of the task or the discomfort of facing my understandable missteps keep me from taking my uniqueness seriously.

Now, think back into your recent past and remember an incident when someone tried to make you feel stupid. Were you actually acting moronically or were you trying to figure out something that was important to you back then? It was most likely the latter. That new truth – you were trying to design your life on the fly as opposed to just being stupid – represents a paradigm shift in your understanding of yourself and needs to sink in a little. So, give it a very good think. Then think about what it was that was important at that time and reflect on how important it still is. In other words, is the value that drove that choice something you have since shed, or is it a value you still hold dear? Then think about how likely it was that the person who was trying to make you feel stupid had an agenda that was singularly about their values? Finally, think about how important it is to trust that you are free to determine for yourself what matters.

It turns out that you, and only you, are to be trusted with designing your life because no one else will spend any time inside your head where all your data collect. Those data within are what determine for us what matters to us and why. Consult with important others, yes, but the final decision about your life is yours.

Here's an example of this process: Beth's parents have maintained for years that her choice to stop playing basketball in high school was simpleminded given that it probably cost her an athletic scholarship and possibly even a professional basketball career. She chose instead to get to the college of her choice by starting out at a community college, which she could pay for with part-time work. She ended up with a small academic scholarship for her final two years but did graduate with moderate student loans. Her excellent grades paved the way to obtaining an excellent internship which converted to a job she loves. A big part of Beth, however, still believed that she had been stupid to quit playing ball. As a result of her doing this thought experiment, she came to realize that the beliefs that drove her decision were powerful and logical back then and remain so to date. Not only did she personally loath the physical ferocity of basketball, she was also opposed to the student/athlete model of college sports. There was a significant part of her in high school that did not want to risk sacrificing her academic performance in college, especially not by participating in a system that was anathema to her. It took more than a few thinks for her to replace her old acceptance of the "stupid" label with her own respect for the wisdom and bravery shown by her younger self.

We are not stupid

In conclusion, remember this: We have been with ourselves every minute of every day. We alone can see how we have been trying all our lives to figure out how to best be ourselves. And how to be our best selves. And we get up every day and try again. There is no one more competent to be us than us, and our past should be proof of that. But the lonely burden of being unique makes us susceptible to the shaming label of "stupid," so we must learn to be a good parent to ourself and take our uniqueness seriously. The takeaway: Study your personal history with sufficient compassionate curiosity to allow you to digest the indispensable, intricate nuggets of your past that have all contributed to making your unique being.

Experiment #2: Childish vs. responsible

It is difficult to rebut the charge of childish because we all act rashly some percentage of the time. How do we make sense of this truth? What can explain our impetuous side? And what is rash and what is spontaneous? These are also excellent questions. It's a fair premise that no one has ever walked you through a discussion of the issues these questions raise. Let's spend a little time looking at them because I think it is vitally important to recognize two psychological truths here: episodes of apparent immaturity should not necessarily precipitate the charge of "childish" and, perhaps more importantly, even "childish" behaviors may have their time and place.

There is a residual child residing in everyone. Sometimes that part of us appears with precious, childlike earnestness and wonder as we stumble across something in our world that amazes us. That admirable enthusiasm for life often provides us with a mighty assist as we unleash our curiosity onto our future memory. But sometimes that vestigial part appears with childish sloppiness as we succumb to the inner urge to be impulsive, reckless or thoughtless. But, then again, sometimes those seemingly foolish jumps land us in marvelous places.

The italics in the previous paragraph highlight the distinction that psychologists tend to make between childlike and childish – the former connoting an uninhibited and empowering enthusiasm, and the latter reflecting a risky and unbridled thoughtlessness. But are those distinctions helpful or even necessary? I don't think the pejorative tone inherent in the definition of childish is helpful. It reflects a cultural commitment to labeling, then shaming us for the design characteristics that are inborn in our humanity. If we can strip away that pejorative sense and see the two versions of the inner child in terms of self-construction, we can keep the power available in childlike behavior and rehabilitate the power available in our more childish moments. How do we do that? In the absence of shame, curiosity thrives, allowing us to watch our behavior to see which construct best describes it. If we are being delightfully childlike right now, we can simply appreciate that but watch that our earnestness doesn't swamp our executive functioning too often. When we identify childish behavior, however, we will need to do some deeper investigating. Something has bumped us out of the will to power corridor and into an extremely spontaneous stance. The danger of this situation is addressed in more detail later in this article, so let me just say here that we need to be alert to the fact that when we make decisions off the cuff there may be a cost for doing so. Sometimes the cost is too high, but sometimes spontaneity is worth the risk if only for the sheer joy of leaping. In sum, we will be at our most coherent when the majority of our decisions are made in the will to power corridor, but there is definitely room in our life for sometimes living with childlike enthusiasm or for occasionally, childishly leaping before we look.

But even if we rehabilitate the words "childlike" and "childish", we remain vulnerable to the allegation of being an immature, irresponsible kid. This is because, in addition to the shaming intent inherent in those two words, our cultures also shame the act of making a mistake. So shame will be heaped down upon us whether the choices we have made come from childlike, childish or deeply considered thinking. We need then to also rehabilitate the word "mistake."

Oops!

No one hops out of bed in the morning thinking “I guess I’ll make the same mistake I made yesterday because that was so satisfying. Or better yet, I’ll come up with a whole new set of mistakes to put into action. That will be fun.” But much of the misleading, actually absurd, feedback we receive as youngsters reflects that our world thinks we are doing just that – intentionally, serially working to participate recklessly in life.

We will make a lot of mistakes growing up as we choose which experiments to try. Unfortunately, mistakes will prove to us that we’re irresponsible if we have been told that errors mean we don’t care about the consequences of our actions, rather than being an inevitable byproduct of being human.

Mistakes are unavoidable for the existentially straightforward reason that we’re not gods. (And if fleas, ticks and mosquitoes are any indication, I have to say even gods make mistakes.) Every moment of every day we’re either choosing to choose (making an authentic choice) or choosing not to choose (agreeing to something by default). A certain number of those choices and defaults will be errors. So we have the godlike responsibility of creating our best selves without the godlike omnipotence. We deserve compassion for our endless struggle as humans, not nasty comments about our pitiful level of responsibility. If you have not already followed the link to the article on mistakes, it might be a good idea to check out its message about how to kindly assess your track record in life. In fact, this entire website is dedicated to helping you turn cynical, hostile self-loathing into warm-hearted and patient respect for your continuing efforts to be conscientiously yourself. You should be proud.

As it was for uniqueness, there are also two strategies for inoculating yourself against feeling childishly irresponsible: being reassured about how hard it is to be responsible in the here and now by some of the greatest minds of all time, and deepening your understanding of the second parental attitude – holding yourself accountable.

The concept of responsibility

When it comes to stating terrifying existential truths with relentless pithiness, no one beats Sartre. He defines responsibility as the “consciousness of being the incontestable author” of one’s life project.

Authorship of one’s life seems like a desirable goal and having a life project sounds intriguing, but with a little honest reflection, we realize that there are ghastly fears that can interfere with enjoyment of this writing-of-our-life-in-the-here-and-now process.

Writer’s block

One foreboding reality about self-authorship is that it forces a face-to-face relationship with putting failure down on paper. As obituaries will attest, our lives boil down to what we have done and what we have failed to do. As creator of our unique life project, we are responsible for what we see, seek and learn, and what we ignore, avoid and refute. In the face of this reality we may feel like nothing is possible but surrender to lethargy. But, actually, we cannot even surrender without taking responsibility, for choosing not to choose is still a choice.

Also frightening is the concept of unnecessary losses. Being alive results in doing and not doing many, many things that – when judged by us in hindsight – turn out to be ill-advised and existentially expensive. These mistakes can be little and irritating (leaving the sprinklers on all night) or huge and grisly (unwittingly starting a forest fire). They can stop our forward momentum briefly (saying the wrong thing at a job interview) or for an excruciatingly long time (marrying someone despite numerous red flags.) Being alive involves holding ourselves accountable when we make these errors, for as Sartre wrote: “The peculiar character of human reality is that it is without excuse.” But because we are conscious beings, when we make mistakes and hold ourselves accountable, we feel the terrible angst of waste. The waste of what we could have done, what we could have had or what we could have become. The waste feels unnecessary because it was created by a mistake – our mistake – the implication being it could (should) have been avoided.

You can see how our existential writer's block can freeze us in the present as our bright minds remind us of the danger of making a misstep that will cause us to feel that wretched angst of loss.

The here and now

In addition to the very reasonable fear of potential mistakes, in order to be present in the present, every human has to overcome the difficulty of remembering to choose the act of choosing. (I know that last sentence is a bit of a mind twister, so it might require a think or two.) As I've discussed in other articles on this website, trying to make decisions in the here and now is much, much harder than we've been led to believe. Because "now" actually has no duration, we need to utilize willpower to create the space from our near future within which we can make those responsible choices. And because willpower is such a limited resource, we need to utilize will and will to power to support the process of mindfully optimizing the present moment. And because those three existential skills are so poorly taught to us growing up, they are very vulnerable to being hijacked by the temptations of procrastination and petulance. Each one of those five concepts (willpower, will, will to power, procrastination and petulance) are complicated existentially and require a great deal of study. They do not tend to appear on most of our childhood syllabi, so we need to bootleg our training in how to make them useful to us as we strive to act responsibly in the here and now. Hence the five articles on this website dedicated to these five crucial concepts.

Let me end this section on the formidable concept of responsibility with a quote from the brilliant existentialist Karl Jaspers:

In actual fact, however, the demands which the situation makes upon man seem to be so exacting that none but a being who is more than man is capable of complying with them. The impossibility of complying with these demands can tempt us to evade them, to accommodate ourselves to that which is merely present, and to set limits to our thoughts.

Holding yourself accountable

Holding yourself accountable means that you will not allow yourself to succumb to the state of abdication in the here and now that Jaspers describes. Instead, you will commit to both strengthening your ability to handle making mistakes and also developing the capacity to stand in the will to power corridor.

Starting with the first requirement, it is again important to remember that our childhood syllabi tended to be a little lean in terms of covering the skills that underlie learning how to tolerate making blunders. That curriculum needed to look like this: we will learn how to handle the truths that life is difficult and why life is difficult when our solid self-esteem is supported by an understanding of the beauty of an apology, an expectation of forgiveness and an ability to differentiate. When those skills are buffed and shiny, our trust in our resilience allows us to take greater and greater risks without the fear of triggering toxic self-loathing when we misstep.

With respect to the second requirement, we need to remember that we can hold ourselves accountable only in the present, because, obviously, that's where we are. But, as mentioned, we have to learn how to create a long enough duration in the present to allow for all the tasks needed in order to work through the process of taking responsibility. To create a duration in existential time, we need to study those five constructs referenced above (willpower, will, will to power, procrastination and petulance). The first three skills create an authentic moment in time, which I call the will to power corridor. We locate ourselves in this powerful existential stance when we have developed high levels of both willpower and will. If left unexamined, the last two constructs of the five tend to create obstacles we will need to overcome if we hope to be genuinely present in the act of designing our lives.

We can be said to be holding ourselves accountable when we refuse to allow ourselves to pretend to be making decisions, and instead learn the skills we need to maximize the percentage of the time we are actually choosing to choose something meaningful to us in the present moment. (Another dense sentence worth an additional think.) I wish I could tell you that the skills underlying holding ourselves accountable can be quickly learned. I can't, for they will take some committed practice to absorb and assimilate. But I can reassure you that they are straightforward to understand and, with that committed practice, you will absolutely be in a position to utilize them. You can start that learning process right now by implementing the following experiment.

Thought Experiments: Exercise #2

My heavens. How can any thinking person fail to quake and quail when confronted by the fact that there are 525,600 minutes in a year? How many of those minutes fly by without our consciousness even registering them, let alone tending to them? This is a huge existential truth that our minds try so valiantly to ignore. Time flows relentlessly and, unless we choose to stop it in order to create something with it, the sweep of those minutes will simply carry our passive selves down the creek ever closer to the river Styx. So our thought experiment needs to focus on that curriculum I keep referring to: lessons to help us learn those skills that create the potent will to power corridor. Like juggling, we have to learn how to keep all the skills in the air simultaneously. That means we have to learn all five of those skills simultaneously – strengthening willpower, will and will to power even as we rehabilitate procrastination and petulance. So the thought experiment requires us to think through our recent present moments and evaluate the balance of those skills. Like a 5-band equalizer, we need to turn up the study assignments for those skills that are lagging behind even as we hold others steady as we seek to even out our growing existential potency.

An example might look something like this: I had to make a tough choice today between responding to a client's need and protecting my needs. I think I did a good job of taking a moment to think it through (willpower), but found myself face-to-face with a conflict of values. With a little thought, I had to admit I almost always default to my ethic of beneficence when client needs are at stake. Today I was able to balance that automatic behavior with a willingness to connect unflinchingly to my great desire to continue with the writing of this article (will and will to power). Because both of these choices represent things I want to do, I had no problem with petulance, but I'll admit I did procrastinate a bit before I resolved the issue. Looks like I need to assign myself a little more procrastination-tuning homework.

We are not childish

When we choose the red pill of reality, we choose to hold ourselves accountable for designing our lives in the impossible present. There are several factors that make the present impossible – it doesn't exist, we have to create it, no one alerts us to this fact or teaches us how to do it. Add to that dilemma our natural human tendency to be both childlike and childish when facing the daunting present, and you can see exactly how our vulnerability to this shaming label from the complete list of awful is formed.

The takeaway: Pay attention to how you are administering your life in the here and now. When you do so, you will come to trust your adult self to most often utilize the will to power corridor in the service of marshaling your psychological troops to seize the present. That confidence in your mature behavior will allow you to release both your childlike and your childish sides occasionally in order to take some gutsy leaps of faith.

We do not hop out of bed in the morning eager to be irresponsible. We are each in our own way working steadily toward the best version of ourselves with responsible – and sometimes incorrect – choices. That’s impressive and mature behavior.

Experiment #3: Boring vs. meaningful

One of the worst things adults can do to children is to treat them as uninteresting. This inappropriate disinterest will appear in many dismissive comments such as the rude “don’t bother me,” the unhelpful “here, just let me do it” or the ubiquitous “maybe later.” All those phrases tell youngsters that they don’t matter much. When a parent ignores such things as extracurricular lessons, trips to the library, or opportunities to teach their kids by letting them help out, the child senses that the adults aren’t very enthusiastic about them. And when parents refuse to be an audience for the child’s attempts at mastery by not attending school activities, recitals, athletic events, etc. kids feel dull in the parents’ eyes.

It’s not that adults have to be enthralled with everything children are endeavoring to do. After all, we grownups have mastered already the majority of the childhood curriculum. But what each child is uncovering about his or her unique self should be fascinating to us. Is this particular child left-handed or right-handed, even-tempered or intense, interested in athletics, scholarship, or creativity? Can she carry a tune? Does he have a sense of humor? How does this child keep itself entertained? We should also find the child’s passion for the process of discovering itself (also known as “play”) enchanting to watch.

One of the most important things children are experimenting with is the existential given of meaning. What will be meaningful to a person is a function of what they are designed to do well. In other words, the search for meaning is the search for signature strengths. In the absence of adult interest in that search, children can often grind to a halt in their quest to find their special gifts, especially if they hit an obstacle or two. Low stakes entertainment such as watching television or playing video games may then replace their natural, enthusiastic experimenting and risk taking. That’s a route that can lead to a very disengaged and depressed teen or an adult whose life is organized around intoxication.

Signature strengths tell us who we are and are only discovered through intense play…not because all play is passionate for kids, but because all passion feels like play. And this searching, obviously, should continue throughout our lifespan because different strengths come into play with each decade that passes in our lives. Everyone needs to be encouraged to experiment with diverse kinds of play so that they can discover where their many talents lie. The best-case scenario vis-à-vis supporting youngsters in their quest for meaning, therefore, is a childhood with an abundance of chance, choice and cheerleading. But at the very least, adults should refrain from discouraging children from searching.

If this particular indictment from the complete list of awful jumped out at you, it's likely that your childhood did not serve you well when it came to launching your personal talent search. To continue with our pattern of existential reparenting, what needs to happen now is for you to reject the label of boring and recommit to both embarking on a quest for meaning with the help of some stirring rallying cries from the existentialists and also strengthening the third element of self-parenting – finding yourself delightful.

The concept of meaning

Hamlet notwithstanding, “the undiscovered country” is a terrific metaphor for the future. It conjures up frontier images of old-growth forests, unspoiled meadows and clear-running streams, images that make the idea of exploration alluring. And explore we must because our job here on earth is to find our unique way to a good future – to that undiscovered country within which we can use our signature strengths to build a meaningful life for ourselves. All the big guns of existential thought weighed in on this process. Here is a sampling:

Kierkegaard was concise: "Truth exists for the individual only as he himself produces it in action."

Sartre put it this way: “Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.”

Unfortunately, we only get to have one future, so we feel terrible pressure to move unerringly toward the "best" one. We look to our world for clues about how to get there, but, as Jaspers acknowledged:

This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart…The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

José Ortega y Gasset gives us a more optimistic view: "Man is a substantial emigrant on a pilgrimage of being, and it is accordingly meaningless to set limits to what he is capable of being."

Our task, in an existential nutshell, is this: despite being thrown into an unreasonable world, we must uncover our passions by first discovering what feels like fun and then making plans to pursue that fun into a meaningful future.

Finding yourself delightful

We are supposed to be trained to gleefully explore our potential by adults who believed firmly that we are interesting and that we absolutely do have signature strengths. (Aside: Have you ever met anyone who didn't have some gifts? I'll bet not. I think everyone is good at something.) If this has been true for us, we will naturally pursue the activities we enjoy until we find our passions and master them.

What can we do if this environment of chance, choice and cheerleading wasn’t provided for us? We can seek stipulation from a therapist, friend, family member or clergy granting that there was something missing in our environment and not in us, and then we work hard to put that something into place.

Chance

Chance, from an existential point of view, is what we seek out in the world when we are trying things on for size. This process can start with daydreaming about what sounds like fun. We might then make a plan, implement it, and hope that our world will move over a tad and give us the space to work. Sometimes we're in the wrong place with the wrong idea. Sometimes we're in the right place with the right stuff. The cosmos gives a slight statistical edge to us when we are in the latter situation, but it simply cannot be trusted to give us reliable feedback. The world will randomly deny those with talent, reward those who would be better suited doing something else and commonly traps folks in velvet-lined ruts of perquisites. What could be a fairly straightforward search for meaning, therefore, feels more like a tug of war with a mysterious adversary. But we have no other world within which to do these critical experiments, so we have to put energy into creating interesting places to go, people to see, things to do, and hope that the world will offer us opportunities. We often do better with a buddy system, like finding a neighbor who will join us in tap class or a brother who will drive across the country with us. Most of us need the comfort of the emotional basecamp that close relationships offer us as we venture out to try again and again to find meaning. And, of course, we all must have the resilience of a well tended self-esteem in order to sustain us on this lifelong quest. It is crucial to understand, though, that if we stay at home and disengage, few opportunities come our way and we won’t have a chance.

Choice

Choice reflects our individual freedom to decide how much effort we want to put into making sure we get a particular opportunity and to decide which opportunities we want to take advantage of. This aspect of learning how to find our questing selves delightful is troublesome because we have to guess about what will be meaningful to us in the future. That means we have to guess which plans to implement. (Again, this brave choice behavior is much easier to learn if we were raised by adults who were themselves sold on the acts of dreaming and choosing.) When we sense there are choices to be had, we start to ask ourselves questions such as: Should I go back to school to study industrial psychology? What if I don’t like it as much after I get my degree? Maybe I should get an MBA instead. We can learn to design experiments that can give us both clues about how we may feel in the future and also feedback as we go along toward our goal. To continue with our example, is there someone I could talk with who could give me a sense of what industrial psychologists do? If I find myself bored with the classes after the first quarter of the program, maybe I’d better reevaluate. Is the MBA my idea or my father’s idea?

If we were not encouraged by our world to learn how to exert our freedom when the stakes were low (what to play at recess, what color to paint our bedroom or which friends to invite for a sleepover), we will have to gird ourselves to uncover our freedom now when the stakes are higher (do I buy that house, is this the person for me or should I run for city council). This is not easy. It is hard. Even those lucky enough to have been given early practice facing the demands that freedom brings to bear upon us will need to strengthen that core skill. The ability to both recognize and embrace our freedom is nonnegotiable if we seek to create our essence. Many, many of my articles about self-construction deal with the components of the skill of self-determination. I would need to link you at this point to nearly every article on this website, but a good place to start the process of creating choice for yourself would be the article on self-esteem.

Cheerleading

Cheerleading is the appropriate response to those common calls from children that I described in the introduction to this article. When we holler “Mommy, look!!” we are supposed to hear back “I see!!” We will come naturally to finding ourselves delightful when we try out things and the world willingly witnesses us then gives us enthusiastic feedback on our act of trying. There are two parts to this existential duet – affirmation and confirmation – and they are of equal importance.

Affirmation is our internal feedback system which tells us that we are liking what we are trying out right now. It is the system that activates our reaching out for confirmation – that triggers the spontaneous phrase "Check this out!" Unfortunately, it is often dormant in a person raised by inadequate adults. If you rarely hear positive comments inside your head about how you are doing day to day, then you can assume your affirmation system has been put on standby mode. You will need to reactivate it deliberately by deciding to talk to yourself with encouragement. (This reactivation will go well if your self-esteem is healthy.) Affirmations need to be consistent, precise and concrete rather than glib, vague or inauthentic. A good rule of thumb is this: try to speak to yourself in the same warm and genuine way that you would speak to your best friend when you want to encourage her or his efforts to try a new, important something. Script it, then speak it. This skill cannot be over practiced. Let me use Tillich's words to reinforce that thought: "In every act of moral self-affirmation, man contributes to the fulfillment of his destiny, to the actualization of what he potentially is."

Confirmation, a specific subtype of stipulation, is an external feedback system. This is something that no human can do without, for as Sartre wrote, "In order to get any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person." When we are confirmed, our world has acknowledged that our efforts have been witnessed and validated. Often, however, our ability to receive this valuable feedback is damaged by a poor upbringing. If you cannot remember at the end of the day receiving any positive input from your immediate world, then you can assume your receiver has been turned off. Turn it back on by intentionally listening to compliments, even if they make you uncomfortable and by consciously seeking positive feedback in areas of your life that matter to you from people you can trust.

When affirmation and confirmation are interlarded daily like butter and dough, our lives end up as tasty as a fresh croissant.

Let me address briefly the clichéd adult behavior of giving everyone trophies for effort. First of all, one would have to wonder about the need for childhood activities to be about competition. Do any of the things that kids do need to be judged and ranked? And second, although trophies and ribbons are concrete, they generally provide fairly generic feedback. It is much more encouraging to a child when the adults watch the child's participation in an activity, think about what that current behavior suggests specifically about that child, and take the time to empathically share their thoughts. Just about any kid will tell you that they would much prefer Mom and Dad's focused time and energy to a ribbon for participation.

To summarize this self-parenting attitude, unless we can find ourself delightful, everything in life will be just that much harder. The colorful links in the above three sections point us toward the conventional construct we may be more familiar with – self-esteem. If you don't like yourself very much, please dedicate some of your precious energy to studying this sacrosanct capacity for self-confidence.

Thought Experiments: Exercise #3

You were a little delightful bundle when you came home from the hospital, eager to start the playing that would lead you along toward a fine life. You may have gotten discouraged by the lack of a supportive environment and frightened by the high stakes that Jaspers, Sartre and the other dudes described above. If that has happened to you, leaving you a little bored with your life, here are some things to think about that can help you resume your journey.

An uneventful life can trap us in vicious circle – low satisfaction leads to low energy which leads to low striving which deposits us back in an uneventful life. It's an easy step from there to assume that, because we are bored with our life, we are boring people. An uneventful life represents a life off the existential rails and says nothing about the person living the life. Existentially-based skills can get our lives back on track and protect us from the resignation that is triggered by the character assassination label "boring."

One potent way to discover what may be fruitful for you to try next is to think about what activities you have done in the past that have made time hop. Make a list of all the activities (no matter how inconsequential they may seem) that used to engross you so thoroughly that hours seemed to fly by. DO NOT EDIT YOURSELF when taking this step, for as Camus wrote, "a man defines himself by his make-believe as well as by his sincere impulses." Think micro-moments (smelling bread baking) as well as macro (curating a running playlist). Think recreational (backpacking) as well as professional (running a meeting). Read the list over several times and then let your mind start to daydream. Keep adding to the list and keep daydreaming. Wonder about what to try next. A new idea will rise to the surface of your awareness because your brain is designed to solve this particular puzzle. When you come up with a new challenge to try, focus on how to create chance, choice and cheerleading for that dream. Trust, also, that all little dreams lead to big dreams. You are designed to step into the undiscovered country.

We are not boring

The truth to remember is this: There is a very real possibility that your parents weren’t interested in you or your pursuits. What this will tell you is that they were likely depressed individuals, that they were probably bored with their own lives and that the family environment you grew up in was very lean in chance, choice and cheerleading. If this describes your childhood, your challenge is to grieve over the past (perhaps with professional help) and then get your life moving in an interesting direction.

Whether you’re on the road toward your passion or you’ve arrived, you’re going to be exciting. And when you are in this powerful place, if someone tries to intimate that you’re boring, you’ll correctly assume that they simply don’t know you very well.

Experiment #4: Cowardly vs. brave

Kids already feel puny next to the adults in their world, so it doesn’t take much to convince them that they are weak or cowardly. Lies children hear about their strength and courage will leave them convinced that they are faint-hearted runts. What a cruel and hypocritical way to "raise" kids.

The damage to our confidence in our strength and courage starts with lies of omission. What ineffective parents neglect to tell us are two major existential truths. Truth One – we have been thrust into an indifferent universe. That means we have to navigate through a life that fate can mess with at any time and in any way imaginable. To borrow Nietzsche's words: "Life itself means being in danger." Truth Two – everyone feels cowardly when facing fate. When these two critical truths are left unspoken, we will misinterpret the natural sense of fear and overwhelm we experience throughout our lives as a lack of strength and courage, rather than as an appropriate response to facing a terrifying adversary.

Fate is a terrifying adversary.

In the absence of this truth about fate, sharp misunderstandings arise. Kids, for instance, come to believe that strength and courage are inherent character traits defined by infallibility and the absence of fear. When they make mistakes and if they’re fearful, they understandably begin to believe they lack both strength and courage. Further, overt lies that shame kids if they are afraid reinforce the covert lies that tell them they shouldn’t be afraid in the first place.

How do we perpetrate these lies on kids?

First, poor parents consistently and blatantly tell kids that they are cowards. They may call youngsters crybabies, or tell them they shouldn’t be afraid of the dark. They may ridicule their need for comfort, or shame them for being scared when they are hurt. In all these cases the message of cowardice is the same.

Poor parents also shove kids prematurely out into the world to face things for which they are not ready. They may refuse to pick up a scared young son at a sleep-over, laugh at a daughter’s failure to jump off the high bars on the playground or leave kids home alone before they are old enough.

In addition, poor parents may not teach kids about legitimate fears. What causes kids to back away from scary, difficult things is the basic self-preservation that protects them from taking inappropriate risks. Because kids don’t have a well-developed sense of what role fate has in life, they will often be cautious about trying new things and dramatic in their efforts to solicit soothing when they fail. This does not make them cowardly. They are simply – and wisely – trying to stay metaphorically close to home to take advantage of the safety that their adults represent.

Good parents acknowledge that life can be scary and they demonstrate the ability to handle fate. Wise adults use age-appropriate dinner table conversations, for example, to cover issues such as how mommy feels about losing an election, getting an unexpected promotion at work or being injured on a hike. When parents can accept and discuss the role of fate in their lives, their display of composure can help create children who are strong, resilient and courageous. These will be children who are quite clear on the concept that courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to act in the face of fear.

If your upbringing left you feeling cowardly, it’s time to deepen your respect for the concept of fate and your understanding of the fourth parental attitude – live your life existentially to the fullest.

The concept of fate

The cruel truth about fate is this: we can understand that the cosmos controls our lives but we cannot understand why it often does so with such discourtesy. Even the existentially brave philosophers tended toward mewling when discussing the subject of fate. Jaspers is a case in point:

The more decisively I comprehend the world, the more outcast I feel in it; for the world, as the Other, as nothing but world, is bleak. Unfeeling, neither compassionate nor pitiless, subject to laws or floundering in coincidence, it is unaware of itself. It cannot be comprehended for it confronts me impersonally; it can be explained in its particulars but can never be understood in its totality.

We humans are alone with the understanding that fate will interfere with our lives, up to and including our death, in ways that appear incomprehensible to us. Only when we willingly stand and stare into the terrifying face of fate, can we realize that we should no longer chastise ourselves for having moments of fear.

Live existentially

To live fully despite our fears is to live existentially. When we live intentionally, we commit to trying to move relentlessly toward our signature domains – those aspects of our individuality that bring us the greatest joy. In a race against death, we seek to reach the finish line of life with mastery in the key areas of our personhood. We do this best when we can acknowledge the trial-and-error process of life that will need to take fate and fear into account.

If there was no one in our immediate family who could teach us how to live existentially, we will have to learn to do so on our own. That is not as hard as it sounds. We replace the lies we were told growing up with the truths outlined and explored by the existential philosophers and psychologists. And we reorganize our thinking to recommit to the six big experiments of life – research that continues to the last day of our life.

I leave the last word to Jaspers: "One who has genuine courage is one who, inspired by the anxiety of sensing the possible, takes hold in the knowledge that he alone who wills the impossible can attain the possible."

Thought Experiments: Exercise #4

Learning to confront the existential given of fate is like going through Lamaze training for childbirth – we replace the sense that there is nothing to be done in the face of the inevitable with the sense that there are a few things we can do. If we can resist the temptation to try to reduce the degree of difficulty of life (or childbirth), we will be able to access the poise reflected in this marvelous quote from Gertrude, by novelist Herman Hesse:

If what matters in a person’s existence is to accept the inevitable consciously, to taste the good and bad to the full and to make for oneself a more individual, unaccidental and inward destiny alongside one’s external fate, then my life has been neither empty nor worthless. Even if, as it is decreed by the gods, fate had inexorably trod over my external existence as it does with everyone, my inner life has been of my own making. I deserve its sweetness and bitterness and accept full responsibility for it.

Fear and doubt about our strength and courage generally show up in adult lives as anxiety. Our general goal for our thought experiment in this section, therefore, is to enhance our understanding of the role that anxiety has in living a life that takes us toward our passions. Oddly, there is significant reassurance to be had when we join with others who have resolutely acknowledged that life without fear is not only impossible but undesirable. Let me reuse the quote from Kierkegaard:

Anxiety is our best teacher. I would say that learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition either by not having known anxiety or by sinking under it. He therefore who has learned rightly to be anxious has learned the most important thing.

And let me add this rather dense quote from him that addresses elegantly and subtly the source of our fear:

Negative is present in all consciousness. Doubt accentuates the negative. Belief chooses to cancel the negative. Every mental act is composed of doubt and belief, but it is the belief that is the positive, it is the belief that sustains thought and holds the world together. Nevertheless, belief understands itself as uncertain, as not justified by any objective fact.

Our specific goal for our thought experiment in this section, therefore, is to learn to breathe in the face of fear. Literally. Think back on times when you were anxious and watch what happens to your breathing. Chances are as you relive those anxious moments, you will either start to breathe too quickly or you will notice that you are holding your breath. Either way, your body takes the change in your breathing pattern (absent physical exertion) as a signal to start the response-to-danger sequence of physiological changes. Start paying attention to how well you manage to keep breathing normally over the course of a stressful day. If you find your breathing has started to react to the situation, look to your muscles to see which ones are tightening in response to the danger signals. To reverse this one-two anxiety punch, first learn progressive muscle relaxing skills to drain the tension from your body (there are many good tutorials on this skill on the Internet), and then learn breathing skills (generally it's the pacing you want to watch - strive for an in breath for a count of two and an out breath for a count of four) to stop the anxiety message from being sent out to your limbic system (again, many examples of sound breathing patterns are available on the Internet). For further reading see The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook or Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

Existence takes courage

So don’t forget: we can count on the fact that when we realize the magnitude of the task of facing fate and acknowledge that we have been striving to do so all of our lives, our vulnerability to being labeled “cowardly” is reduced. And, we will benefit from seeking out inspiration and guidance from impressive people who are not hesitant to disclose their fear as they move continually forward in their lives.

Experiment #5: Unlovable vs. chosen

Children naturally put a great deal of energy into experiments about loving and liking. That’s not surprising given that we humans spend much of our lives alone in our thoughts and feeling misunderstood, stresses that make relationships vitally important to sound mental health. So kids watch the way the adults around them behave in relationships, they listen to stories about friendship and they sing along to the songs of love. A daughter will study her parents’ every little behavior toward her, watching for fairness, caring and love. A son will listen to the words of the parents to see if they match their actions.

Being in a family is a messy, organic process that unfolds daily in many, many small interactions. Within these constantly changing and stressful circumstances, it is very hard to fool a child. If most of the time, under most circumstances, we give our children the message that they are worthy of our extended, consistent effort and affection, they will conclude that they are lovable. If not, they will come to understand that their parents don’t love them. And from that they come to firmly believe that no one will ever love them. No one will ever choose them. This tragic conclusion subsequent to a poor childhood is inevitable because children are incapable of drawing any other. They lack the perspective to more realistically determine that the attachment problem lies within the adults.

The conviction of being unlovable that we carry from childhood has within it a thousand painful memories tucked away as proof. What these memories ought to tell us, however, is that we were unlucky in the set of parents that we had. For whatever reason, our folks didn’t feel lovable themselves, so were unable to extend themselves lovingly toward us. In other words, we were entitled to be loved (and to be liked), we just had parents who were incapable of enacting that love.

Although the problem comes from outside of us in the form of inept parents, the solution lies within ourselves. We are fully capable of using our existential intelligence to correct the misperceptions of our past. Our tasks here are to explore the concept of love from a philosophical perspective and to learn how to hold that fifth parental attitude within ourselves – work on your relationships.

The concept of love

Unfortunately, when we turn to existential thinkers on the topic of love we get rather inaccessible descriptions such as this one by the late philosophy professor Marjorie Grene:

In existential terms, the transcendence of the lover here neither transcends nor is transcended by another but becomes aware of itself, i.e., becomes itself, through the participation of the very freedom of another in his freedom; and, in turn, the other’s transcendence – the project that he is – expands and ripens in its way through similar participation.

Not exactly a Valentine’s card. The existential whiz kids weren't much into mushy stuff. Luckily, existential psychotherapists have worked to translate this information for us.

Building on the work of psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, a sound definition of love would be: Love is an act of will to reliably extend oneself toward a significant other in order to create intimacy across difference for the purpose of providing comfort and challenge, and for facilitating the allocation of resources. In other words, when we love, we choose to put consistent effort into trying to move toward a deeper knowing of another person despite the fact that our being two different people makes that a tough endeavor.

It is beyond the scope of this article to explore each potent ingredient of this definition. To more fully understand this complex metaphysical concept through an existential/feminist lens, please see the article The Architecture of Love. For now, let me just state that love is not a feeling that hijacks us. It is a choice. The feelings that accompany love can be powerful and sometimes painful, but we need to choose to love. Magical moments will absolutely appear within all healthy relationships, but they are quality moments that can only appear when the quantity of time has been put into the attachment.

Work on your relationships

There are two pieces to the fifth parental attitude, work on your adult relationships, and each is there for a reason. The second piece, adult relationships, reflects the truth that parents who diligently surround themselves with other adults will never need to make "friends" out of their children. They will also always have other grown-up people around to foster their ongoing personal growth, meaning their parenting skills continue to improve over the course of their lives. The first piece, work, is the thrust of this section.

Relationships take work for two main reasons. First, they are extraordinarily complex. To wit: a relationship is a particular bond that is being formed – real time – between two completely unique individuals who were each formed by hundreds of years of their distinctive cultural and family history and who are discovering themselves and each other anew every moment of every day at a point in time that has never before occurred in human history. That’s quite an undertaking. To be able to form a bond under these conditions, we need: courage, passion, confidentiality, juxtaposition, time, energy, similarities, differences, curiosity, caring, integrity, discipline, confidence, hope, vulnerability, humor, privacy, autonomy, communication, patience, and much, much more.

Second, relationships always involve the need for cooperation in terms of sharing fixed resources. Each human in the bond will want what they want with respect to the time, space, supplies, attention, the TV remote, etc. that are available. There will never be enough of those resources to provide for all the needs of both people. As a result, there will always be the tension of competition to add to the already long list of challenges that relationships create.

So relationships are difficult. But here’s the thing – knowing this to be true means that when someone chooses us, they are telling us that we are worth the effort. We feel lovable and that feels wonderful. In other words, it is precisely the work of relationship that makes us feel so validated for having been chosen.

Thought Experiments: Exercise #5

When parents love and like their children and the children know it, those youngsters are vaccinated for life against feeling unlovable. These lucky kids were chosen ten thousand times over the course of their childhood. If this gift of being chosen by loving parents wasn’t given to you at birth, you must find it for yourself.

It’s time to put some effort into your relationship with yourself.

First, think about how impressive it is that you continue to seek relationships even though your original bonds were so painful to you. It would be so easy to retreat from the social world by being cynical, reclusive or bitter. The bravery you are exhibiting by not retreating deserves deep respect.

Now, I can guess what you’ve just done. You’ve read the previous paragraph and perhaps nodded in rote agreement and then conspired with your wounded self to ignore the entreaty in those words. Please don’t do that. Please sit with this first step until you can accept it deeply into your belief system. If you find that you cannot, find a professional healer who can help you do so. This first step needs to happen fully and you deserve to be able to take it.

Next, think about those people in your life who are generous and kind, and seek out corrective emotional relationships with them. Perhaps you have extended family members who can stand in for parents and give you a sense of being loved. If so, make the effort to spend time with them and soak up their affection. If not, look to your community for folks who have healing natures.

Finally, think about the concept of liking yourself. How could you go about learning to enjoy yourself – to find yourself delightful? Begin by making lists…reflect on things that you value about others, strengths you know that you have, personality quirks that you like about yourself, nice things people have said about you, accomplishments you’ve made, problems you’ve solved, situations you’ve risen above, etc. Don’t stop until you have pages and pages of notes. Then interview people who know you in different aspects of your life and make a spreadsheet of their responses. (People tend to be squeamish about trying this step, but I have never seen it fail to surprise and delight. When you screw up your courage to ask nice people in your life what they like about you, you will find that they will describe many of the traits you suspected you had and many strengths you either didn’t recognize in yourself or that you took for granted.) Make a master list of the strengths you have identified. Keep that list handy and add to it after you read each article of this website.

Summer People by Marge Piercy, The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner and Woman by Natalie Angier are very interesting books that explore the development of self-liking. When you come to like something and spend time fostering that liking, love naturally follows.

First, choose yourself

Remember: Your parents might not have liked you and may not like you still. That has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Their own unhealed childhood damage has left them incapable of providing adequate parenting and with a tendency to lie about your character, causing you to doubt your very nature. You deserve to be liked. You deserve to be loved. Each of us does, if for no other reason than that we are each valiantly playing the hand we have been dealt in life. Even if our effort fails to show on the outside, we are earnestly striving on the inside. I like people who do that, don't you?

Experiment #6: Lazy vs. disciplined

Adults use the term lazy as an all-purpose measure of inadequacy. Whenever a child isn’t putting enough energy into his or her life, the child is called lazy.

Kids are never lazy.

Kids appear lazy when they won’t try and they won’t try if they feel overwhelmed, rebellious, uninspired, scared or disconnected. These reactions will all occur naturally. Children will feel overwhelmed by the fact that their lives are unique and must be taken seriously. They rebel against being held accountable when mistakes are so unavoidable and so embarrassing. They will be uninspired by aspects of life that are simply not delightful to them. The need to face bad luck will scare them. And when they feel disconnected from the people in their world, they will find little reason to put much work into their lives. These feelings are all quite normal and acceptable.

But if kids are not well parented, these feelings will start to dominate their lives and will leave them vulnerable to habitual procrastination and/or petulance. Once that happens, they will come to believe they are lazy.

The antidote to habitual procrastination is knowing how to work within the ultimate given – time.

The concept of time

Time is the über given. Humans know that they exist now, that they exist temporarily, and that, at some point, their time here will be up whether or not they have spent that time wisely.

Not only is time an unnerving existential given, but kids and adults have vastly different perspectives on it. Adults are usually fairly well balanced in their focus among the past, present and future dimensions of time. But for kids, only the present really makes sense. Children don’t remember much of their past, and the future seems vague and vast. Not surprisingly, parents want their kids to align with the adult sense of time – to make use of their time the way the parents deem efficient. When the youngsters don’t, too often the adults whip out the word “lazy.”

Rather than vilify resistant or stalling behavior, effective parents help kids unpack the underlying concerns that often appear as outward obstinance. Most children are extraordinarily good at using self-knowledge to their advantage. So if, for example, your son is making a fuss about going to school one morning, it may take only a brief conversation to discover that the class is reading "Where the Red Fern Grows" and he knows the end is coming today and he will cry. If you can help him see that his big heartedness may make him unique among the more stoic boys in the class, it is definitely a wonderful way to be. He can then decide what to do about the upcoming day.

Good parents also help kids make better use of their time if their resistance is due to sloppy behavior by helping them explore their tendency to procrastinate or to be petulant. As you’ve probably come to surmise as you've been reading this article, it’s the first five terms on the complete list of awful that create a tendency to procrastinate, creating the belief that we’re lazy. What needs to happen to help kids return to their natural diligence is to help them feel unique, responsible, delightful, brave and chosen rather than stupid, childish, boring, cowardly, and unlovable. In other words, they need to experience all five aspects of good parenting.

A sound parental attitude

Kids need to learn the self-discipline that helps us all avoid chronic procrastination. Given good tutoring, a daughter will learn that she will have a much more wonderful weekend if she gets her piano practicing done on Saturday morning. When calmly and resolutely held accountable, a son will learn to save money for the future without being nagged. Most kids figure out on their own that staying up until two a.m. doesn’t tend to work well if there are compelling things to do the next morning.

Good tutoring about the concept of time occurs when all five parental attitudes are present in a fairly consistent and transparent manner. The energetic stance of good parents inspires the child to continue to explore his or her own level of energetic commitment. Because the grownups don’t postpone their parental tasks, the kids learn not to postpone their childhood tasks. Within that kind of family, the only use for the word “lazy” would be in reference to a planned, relaxed day at the beach.

Thought Experiments: Exercise #6

We are all very susceptible to thinking of ourselves as lazy because we know that there is perpetually a long to-do list in place in our minds, perhaps with very few items crossed off. A few days without exercise, an unfinished project around the house, tasks at work piling up, phone calls unmade. Things not done prove to us that our fears are justified – we really are lazy.

We are also very susceptible to the tendency to procrastinate, because sometimes procrastination pays off. For example, if you avoid making an embarrassing phone call to cancel plans with a friend because you double-booked yourself, sometimes he calls you to cancel first. Habitual procrastination, however, is a true existential quagmire.

Finally, it takes very little to convince most of us that we are ruled by a petulant brat. The much shamed concept of petulance is an extremely complex human characteristic and requires some serious study. It therefore has its own article in the section of the website on complex psychological skills.

What can we do to escape the swampy ground of believing ourselves to be lazy procrastinators or petulant brats?

To be existentially intelligent around the concept of time, specifically, our thinking needs to run through the following checklist: Am I labeling myself lazy? If so, what am I accusing myself of avoiding? Is it something specific or am I just assuming that I am a person without ambition? It will be helpful for me to remember that self-discipline will be especially difficult if I’m feeling overwhelmed, rebellious, uninspired, scared or disconnected. I may need to attend to the source of those feelings before I will be able to put some urgency into my life plans. To do that, my capacity to self-parent with all five attitudes needs to be solidly in place. Finally, I need to work on each aspect of existential intelligence until I feel unique, responsible, delightful, brave and chosen. Again, there is more information about how to do this in the articles on self-parenting, procrastination and petulance.

In Conclusion

Each of us will be better off after having had some serious internal discussions concerning our personal experience with the complete list of awful. If our parents liked us and were fairly skilled in the design-of-life process, we will have escaped childhood with little damage to our self-esteem. Our basic ego structure, partially complete at the cusp of adulthood, will be fairly free of engineering flaws, meaning that only a shadow version of these hurtful words got lodged in our psyche. With a few runs through the exercises in this article, those lingering lies can be ferreted out and removed.

If, instead, we remember being told over and over that we were stupid, childish, boring, cowardly, unlovable and lazy when, in fact, we were earnestly trying to design personal strategies to address the existential truths surrounding uniqueness, responsibility, meaning, fate, isolation and time, that childhood produced within us a shame-marinated brain. A brain steeped in such lies will likely struggle as it tries to work through the exercises in this article. In fact, many damaged psyches can find it difficult to conquer the will to return to the “comfort” of the complete list of awful. This odd tendency to want to recline into resignation and self-loathing makes sense if you remember that the cultures of our childhood tend to create in us a sense of safety even if they were anything but safe. It may take a while and lots of practice, but it is completely possible to move out of shame and into a state of solid self-esteem.

It comes down to this: Before anything good can happen for you, something good has to happen to you – you have to believe in the psychological human rights advanced by both existential and feminist writers. These are: your right to take yourself seriously, to hold yourself accountable, to find yourself delightful, to design your particular enterprise and to make significant attachments. When you can use these five superb parental attitudes to repair the damage inflicted by the complete list of awful, you will be all set to head on down the road toward a life designed around your specific talents.

You will benefit from this for your spirit can fulfill its will to become whole. And we will all benefit when this is true for you, for you will then contribute your giftedness to the welfare of all.





Congratulations. You have made it through one of the more complicated and dense articles. As always, I'd love to hear from you about what it was like for you reading this. Please write me at: jan@self-construct.com.

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