Existential Petulance – One Precursor to Clinical Depression


An analysis of emotions

is an account of

our way of being-in-the-world.

- Robert Solomon

eing a coherent human being is an exhausting business. Authenticity demands that we, relentless moment by relentless moment, participate in the process of writing, producing and directing what will turn out to be the movie of our life. But because our current success in creating a masterful life is often unclear, there will be times when we must expend mighty effort resisting the beguilement of hiding places, shortcuts, excuses and excesses of comfort. When our resistance fails and shortsighted thinking drops us into one of these less impressive states, it can be said that we have been hijacked by existential petulance.

Existential petulance can make your life less a lucid movie and more an incoherent montage created by splicing together scraps picked up off the cutting room floor.

What happens next is that many, many of us engage unconsciously in a fundamental error of attribution. We believe, because we have been trained to believe, that our weak character is the cause of our digression into an existential cul-de-sac. This is a shame-based reaction, and it creates a backdraft that can ignite further unimpressive behavior. You can see how this is not a good thing. A small slip into incoherence can lead to a secondary long slide into an apathetic acceptance of too much time spent hiding from our better selves, searching for easy workarounds, making faint-hearted excuses for our lack of effort or reclining into a glut of comfort. It behooves us, I think, to attend to our understanding of both of these acts of internal insubordination – the slip and the slide – in order to optimize the odds of rarely engaging in either.

Life is difficult enough without being at such odds with ourselves we can’t get straightened out enough to move forward. What follows is a basic driving lesson in how to steer around the worst of the petulance potholes that rattle us so frequently.

Then we will uncover the more ominous situation that occurs within many of us when misguided attempts to use piety to overcome petulance leads us surely down the road toward depression.

Crucial caveat: It needs to be said here that this is an extremely long and complicated article in that it presents an advanced and integrated perspective on how to self-construct. If you go to the All Articles section of the website you will see that this piece on petulance was placed at the very end of Section II – meaning that I believe it best if the articles of Section I and Section II are all read before this one. If you are a brave soul attempting to read this article first, please understand that it was written for advanced self-constructivists, so grant yourself some extra time and gather some extra fortitude for the fairly steep learning curve ahead of you.

Defining existential petulance

Existential petulance is an unspoken and yet successful misdirection of our personal resolve away from doing something that would likely improve our lot in life. It is a seductive state of pretending that both thinking and deciding don’t matter. “Trust me,” a sneaky little part of us murmurs. “There are no issues here to concern you. It’s fine that you move off in this other, easier direction. Don’t worry. Don’t think. You can think about all this later. You have plenty of time to get your shit together.”


If you have questions, please send them to me at: jan@self-construct.com.


Because that message is metaphysically true – we can think about most things later – we are exceedingly vulnerable to the persuasion of that voice. Petulance* can then create an internal, most often silent, battle between the parts of us that want to engage in a legitimate endeavor and the parts of us that resist the challenge. Who hasn’t planned out a bold day only to find it commandeered by the faction within that feels justified repotting houseplants instead? Who hasn’t found himself avoiding work projects long past the point of mere procrastination? Who hasn’t talked herself into trying something new but then discovers she can’t close the deal with herself, choosing instead to pretend that the status quo is just fine?

Internal petulance – the emotional manifestation of unstoppable force meets immovable object – can create an impasse that is quite troubling. How despairing it can feel when your tenuous personal control collapses in the face of a psychological civil war.

The main aspect of petulance that intrigues me is that this Trojan horse was built by us to conquer an attempt to do something we actually might want to do if we gave it some thought. Although our lack of judgment with respect to petulance clearly has roots in faulty early childhood training, our current bouts with petulance are indeed self-inflicted. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think is the mantra that petulance chants. Instead of thinking, we ease into a guileless frame of mind and move through our day in an unimpressive fugue state. We might even accomplish quite a bit while in this automated condition (those houseplants were in need of replanting), but probably nothing leading us in a meaningful or potent direction. And intentionality, that most necessary ingredient of a coherent life, is absolutely absent when we succumb to what we could call task-substitution petulance.

It’s worth noting that petulance (and especially petulance extravagance) tends to make an appearance when there is little to no outside pressure to perform. This stands to reason, for our need to choose to choose (which is what petulance is trying so hard to avoid) only arises when we feel free to make a choice. Expectations from the outside ostensibly limit that freedom and can provide us with a faux choice – get a move on or face the cultural music. It’s clear how needing to meet a deadline with the outside world can protect us from petulance. What this means is that the more unstructured our time (i.e. long weekends, summer vacation, retirement, etc.), the more heightened will be our vulnerability to petulant hijacking.

So petulance is the stealthy part of us that detours our behavior, sending it in less-than-powerful directions. It feels as if a secret road maintenance crew has built an alternative route overnight that is designed to take us somewhere we don’t want to want to go.

Neurologically speaking, this is nearly the case. Our brains have constructed a very real alternative route. And, they haven’t warned us about it.

It happens like this: Inciting the petulant side of that internal battle is the data collecting part of our brain that has quietly determined (most often erroneously) that our plans for ourselves are ill-advised. Our brains are extraordinary number crunchers, continuously collecting and cataloging events in order to draw conclusions that will enhance our survival. But these data processing centers are, oddly, brainless. They analyze the data and send the results up the pipeline with no sense of how the analysis fits into the overall picture of our lives or how the results will be used. Much of effective therapy involves developing an internal quality-control system with which a person can keep their executive function apparatus alert to the need to assess these incoming data packets. Without training, however, most folks fall victim to the “garbage in, garbage out” danger of using unexamined internal information to direct their day-to-day lives.

Thus, if the data center sends up an inaccurate message that things are not going too well or that an upcoming challenge is too great (the implication being that further effort in this direction is futile), our petulant side can coopt that misinformation and use it to strengthen it’s silent plea for abdication.

There can be many explanations for the conclusion we reach that we should not move forward, which we will discuss below, but the alternate neurological route is unquestionably physically present – and data-driven to boot. Thus, petulance occurs when we are fully free to design our next moment and it is activated by a loss of faith precipitated by data suggesting that nothing we do matters. Undeniably an inside job.

In defining petulance, it is also helpful to describe what it is not.

I see petulance as distinct from resistance to an outside pressure to act in a certain way. For example, if there appears to be a bratty part inside you that never allows you to commit to admirable behaviors such as veganism, learning to play the piano or saving for retirement, that is more likely belligerence. Understandably, we often surreptitiously avoid initiating an “appropriate” behavior because we don’t like being pressured into things – especially difficult things. If, however, you routinely reject positive and flattering input that you should, for example, go to college, sing karaoke or send your short stories out to publishers even though you secretly want to do those things that’s petulance. See the difference? Really not wanting to do something tedious yet worthwhile that others want you to do is belligerence. Really not thinking about why you’re not doing what you actually want to have done is petulance.

Petulance is also distinct from procrastination, although they are first cousins. The distinction is that petulance is not the part of us that doesn’t want to do this thing now, it’s the part of us that doesn’t want to do this thing ever. When we procrastinate we know the behavior is worthy and we’re kind of on board, we’re just hesitant to get started. When we are petulant, part of us doesn’t like the idea at all. And worse, we don’t want to think about our reluctance. It’s a childish side of us that refuses to be a participant in our next wise move. Therefore, petulance does not just steal time from you like procrastination does. It steals the process of thinking about the life experiment that the majority of you wants to try next. If left untended, petulance will eventually steal your will to power as you habituate to avoiding the will-to-power corridor. (If what is stopping you is procrastination, you can find some help for that here. For an article on the will-to-power corridor, read this.)

Additionally, petulance is easy to align with despite its self-destructive nature because it can be augmented with an argument about the futility of non-cumulative endeavors. For instance, because chores don’t stay done, doing them or not doing them can be seen as having little permanent effect. Tasks will be there tomorrow in their repetitive and meaningless way. Thus we believe we face minimal negative consequences if we recline into inactivity. Because we’ve taken ourselves off the hook in terms of thinking, we will miss the point of running the errands that run the household. It’s not that all chores need to be done before we can embark on an impressive day. It’s that a mind that cannot understand the power of accumulation is a mind that is extra vulnerable to a hijacking. In other words, all things that lead us to a more coherent life, like a well-administered daily life, insulate us from the threat of petulance.

Petulance is a demoralized internal mood state that causes us to back away from a good next life experiment. It is an automatic internal process that results in our accidentally choosing to choose not to choose. (Got that?)

Should we just work to eliminate this tendency?

Petulance as an ally

No, we shouldn’t.

Petulance isn’t actually feckless. As mentioned, petulance occurs when some portion of the self sincerely believes that what it is being asked to do is imprudent. It even knows why it feels that way. Sadly, no one ever asks it. Petulance is forced, therefore, to work behind the scenes to derail possible harebrained behavior with that uncanny, unconscious mindlessness. While it’s tempting to believe that this faithless, unexamined aspect of ourself is simply childish and needs to be eliminated, it is very likely that our petulance is a multi-determined and rich source of information about our inner psychological status. Wow. I'll bet you didn't see that coming!

It makes sense, then, to both deepen our understanding of petulance and also to remove the strong negative bias against it that makes respectful listening to its message unlikely. In this section we will look at how petulance can be an asset and in the next section we will work to extinguish that negative bias.

At it’s most basic, the argument for seeing petulance as an ally is this: petulance is data driven. Data are always valuable. Therefore, petulance is valuable.

To expand on that: our petulant reasoning, once encouraged to communicate directly with us, connects us to that internal, data-driven point of view. Data are good. Once some information is made available, we can start to think. Thinking is good. Thinking can lead us to ask intelligent questions that uncover even more data. Questioning is good. Questioning involves analyzing the quality of the data. If the data are compelling, our thinking is informed and we can adjust our plans accordingly. For example, upon reflection we recognize that a small part of us doesn’t want to go to a dinner party because part of us is tired of being expected to provide entertainment for the gathering. This is a valid concern and can explain our unexpected foot-dragging over accepting the invitation. The explanation should also invoke an empathic response within (self to self – “Of course you’re tired of that. It’s been going on for years.”), and that can clear the way for an open mental discussion about whether or not to go to the party, or how to behave at the party if we decide to go.

If, on the other hand, our petulance is a function of more unrealistic worries created by skewed data (We don’t want to go to the party because we felt like the hostess was cool toward us recently so really must not like us.), we will have a clearer sense of how to negotiate a release of the action that is being held hostage (Could this just be another iteration of that eighth-grade psychological injury?). Respectful and empathic internal discussion tends to ease the tension between our executive functioning and our petulance. These two can become members of the same team and agree to work together to construct a well thought-out plan.

Let me give you a more profound example. You’ve been working hard in therapy, say, and have recently put together a lengthy string of strongly lived days. Your health is getting better, your house is getting more organized, your job performance has improved and the appeal of intoxication is dimming. Then your old college roommates all come to visit for a long weekend. After just four days of enjoyable but sloppy living, your petulant side refuses to discuss getting back on track. Without being able to access the data that can explain this impasse, you will likely and instantly jump to the belief that your previous good habits were a fluke. The data that you are so busy ignoring, however, will contain the clues about how to break up this stalemate. What’s at issue here is, of course, resilience. The reason you are in therapy is because your natural ability to rebound from fate-driven episodes of chaos was damaged by your upbringing. Your petulant side is now recommending the safety of not trying again by recommending that you not think about what’s happening. What is needed is a verbal leg up back into the adult stance that acknowledges both the degree of difficulty of life and the futility of resistance to that truth. Since you weren’t taught how to give yourself this verbal assist as a kid, your petulant side naïvely believes it’s stuck. Once you and your therapist put a pep talk in place, your petulance will feel reassured that its concerns have been legitimized. So, rather than being convinced you have a weak character, you and your petulant side can agree that, yep, it’s hard all right. But you did it once and you can do it again.

But there is even more benefit to having a petulant side. Petulance can simplify life by ushering in a valuable regression strategy. By this I mean, petulance is a childish state and, as such, talks with very clear, direct and unapologetic words. Once we learn to tolerate the fact that we have an immature and possibly hyperbolic little varmint living within, we can come to appreciate its unedited honesty.

One last plug for this part of our self: Petulance is the single best attitude to have to avoid burnout. If you can listen to your work petulance or your family role petulance, as examples, you can preempt being so overburdened by aspects of your life that you implode. So when the press to be responsible fills you to the point of petulance, maybe this childish voice has a point.

Unless we can come to see petulance as an acknowledged stakeholder with an important message, it will continue to run silent, run deep – taking its valuable information with it.

So, petulance is a good thing labeled as a bad thing.

How did we get so wrongheaded in our thinking about this?

The shaming of petulance

We are born with the ability to be petulant, and like all psychological tools, it shows up early. Read: terrible twos. And when an ability appears in a youngster, it will be poorly formed, crudely implemented and thus rather unpleasant to witness. Therefore, those in charge of our early lives will work to simply eliminate petulance rather than provide us with training in its use. The strategy of choice for the elimination process is shame. The sources of the shaming are the parents/teachers/coaches that direct the child’s early life as well as the dominant culture that broadcasts incessant propaganda about how “good people” and “bad people” behave.

The perjury of poor parenting: Kids have very little power and very big imaginations. This spells trouble. They will imagine, appropriately, plucky experiments to try. These daring ideas about what to attempt next will oftentimes not align with the parental view of what ought to happen. And sometimes, even with parental permission, the scope of these great ideas scares a child into retreat. Both of these situations – a plucky step the child wants to take or an effective step the child thinks is too scary – will precipitate potential teachable moments around petulance that few parents know how to handle.

As a matter of fact, most children’s caretakers directly interfere with the development of a healthy relationship with petulance. There are a couple of ways adults do this and they both involve lies.

The first happens this way: Parents and teachers want children to develop lock step with their peers, parents because their egos are involved and teachers because it synchronizes the classroom. If pushed too hard to move too fast, a child will routinely feel overwhelmed and quickly conclude that they are inept. The lie is, of course, that they should be able to handle anything the parents and teachers want them to handle and right now. When they can’t, the child is given a clear message that they are a great disappointment. Alternatively, when a child has already mastered the material and wants to sprint out ahead, they are often told no. If they react to that “no” with anything other than compliance, they are also told that they are a disappointment. Disappointing our adults is experienced as shameful. This is how that data skew described in the previous section gets learned. Shame is such a potent punishment, that those behaviors, thoughts and feelings that get shamed get more statistical weight. In other words, something that happens infrequently but involves feeling shame gets so much neurological attention that it feels like it happens all the time. And, if it happens all the time, it must be Reality. A brain undermined by shame is a brain that will send data packets urging retreat up the pipeline more often than not. As vital as this skew might be to basic survival (i.e. in case of doubt, freeze), it is not at all helpful when seeking coherence in life.

So the shaming of kids leads to a diminished ego strength which leads to a tendency to back away from difficult challenges. One very successful way to back away from a challenge is to be petulant. But then the child is punished for being petulant. What a terrible existential trap for kids. The shame they get for being unique and for developing at their own speed creates a tendency to doubt themselves which precipitates petulance which gets them in further hot water.

The second source of interference happens when kids experience petulance but don’t really know what’s happening inside. Some of the markers of petulance – cranky, fretful or whiny behavior – are noticed by the caretaking adults who work to nip these behaviors in the bud. The lie is that “bad moods” are a sign of a bad character and should just not happen. When the child has difficulty simply “cheering up” and “getting on with things,” he or she will be shamed. Again, because children are so susceptible to the lie of shame, they easily buy into the message that petulance is an awful act. Which sadly means that they, too, are awful.

It stands to reason, then, that when those children (i.e. most of us) grow up, we treat our internal petulance the very same way our parents and teachers treated our external acts of resistance. Damn me, shame on me!

How can parents do a better job of handling petulance?

By coming to esteem both little kids and the tool of petulance. Little kids are very rarely resistant – they almost always want to want what we want them to want. When they don’t, it’s often for a good reason. When adults sincerely listen to their reasoning, children will become more articulate about their hesitancy, which allows for fruitful discussions and less need for sulking. Sometimes the child is absolutely correct in not wanting to go along, such as not wanting to go to a day care where there is unkindness. Sometimes it’s not so clear-cut, such as not wanting to try swimming lessons because they are unsure about the deep water. But if parents treat their child as a legitimate shareholder in the child’s own life (sarcasm intentional) and get into a habit of listening carefully, they will often uncover the hang up and be able to sort through the resistance constructively. Two parental stances (challenge – we want you to take swimming lessons; and support – of course you feel worried) will leave plenty of room for the child’s resistance to exist without shame. Then a discussion about how to handle the petulance becomes an exchange of ideas enlisting the child’s spirit in developing a solution.

The process described there is an external example of how to use petulance as an internal tool to understand our inner psychological workings. Seeing this enacted by parents over and over on our behalf when we are little normalizes petulance and demonstrates to us how to use this tool. We will then habituate to treating our petulance with both curiosity and respect rather than shame.

Here is an important aspect of petulance germane to this issue: Although petulance is extremely childlike, like a child it is receptive to clear, honest truths presented by a thoughtful and patient version of our adult side. If we haven’t learned how to speak to ourselves in this way, we need to learn it now.

Note: There is no use pretending that the parents don’t have the bulk of the power in the relationship, but there is also no use pretending that the child has none. And, while adults can simply overpower the child’s refusal to go along with them, it is clearly not good parenting to do so often. If children are too encumbered by poor parenting, they can learn that petulance is their only weapon and they can get very, very good at it. No one wins in this situation.

Cultural pressure to conform: Culturally, petulance is considered an inappropriate behavior because it is seen as a form of resistance to authority. It’s no surprise that noncompliance would bother people who have the authority, so they would be quick to label the passive aggression of petulance with shaming descriptions such as “peevish” and “sullen” or worse. Although there is truth to the idea that the petulant one is hostile, petulance is more closely aligned with the concept of nonviolent resistance, a wise strategy that is used by people without power when they want to withstand coercion. As always, the shaming is done with thousands upon thousands of messages that tell us that bad people are petulant and good people aren’t. Simple as that. (More sarcasm.) The ideal citizen is seen as one who willingly and consistently moves toward culturally defined success. There is a further expectation that one will meet a certain timeline in life, with steady forward progress being the norm. He does his homework, she works overtime, he accepts as adequate those rewards presented to him, she takes the risk to start her own business. Anyone who deviates from that model is met with one of the many terms the dominant culture uses to convince us we’re unimpressive – bratty, spoiled, lazy, underachieving, disappointing, unmotivated, risk averse, lost, difficult, undisciplined and so on.

The message we receive over and over and over is this: strong, good people always want to do the hard thing, the right thing and they do it right now. If you’re stuck in a petulant place, you are weak and bad and lazy.

It is obvious that societal tales concerning petulance reflect the bias against seeing it as a skill to be learned. For example, I have yet to find a good literary model that demonstrates for us how to do petulance well. All the stories that deal with people becalmed by petulance end tragically, with a lucky protagonist assisted by others out of their funk, or with an inspiring win by those heroic few who can overcome petulance using grit, and only grit, to get themselves back on track. Nowhere is there a demonstration of an internal dialogue within the character discussing the reasoning underlying petulance. (If you have found a novel or movie that does illustrate a healthy relationship with petulance, please email me and I'll happily check it out!)

So, we learn in countless ways that our petulant side is shameful and needs to be eradicated. But few of us manage to do so. Which brings us to the question: despite our best efforts, how does petulance escape our detection and continue to hijack us so frequently and effectively?

How does it do that?

How does petulance work? How does it slip under our awareness to whisper its siren song to us of a morning?

It does so by hiding in the shadow of shame. As described in the previous section, our upbringings quite effectively link petulance with shame. And because looking at shameful things is singularly unpleasant, we will assiduously avoid turning our gaze toward shameful aspects of our lives such as suspected petulance. The labels of shame – brat, spoiled, lazy, an underachiever, etc. – serve as camouflage for petulance.

In addition, shame carries with it the self-perpetuating message of futility. Shame tells us we are bad, weak and disappointing at the characterological level. Thus, there is little incentive for us to even try to overcome this indictment because we believe we are just too weak willed.

Unfortunately, because we are convinced that our petulance is due to characterological weakness, we often look desperately in the opposite direction within to solve our problems. That means looking toward piety. This new orientation results in our metaphorically turning our backs on the door that petulance uses to sneak into our lives. Let’s explore that tendency a bit.

Petulance and piety – Misunderstood twins

Psychological piety can be described as an abstinence model for flaws. In other words, we seek to be pious by trying to be perfect. The particular protocol for perfection that we select (i.e. the particular “shoulds” that we internalize to direct these desired all-star behaviors) tends to be designed by the same shame-bearing sources that got us into this mess in the first place – parents, teachers, coaches, etc. Plainly, this effort to be perfect will take us on a wild goose chase of galactic proportions. With floggings of shame, we will force ourselves relentlessly toward the unachievable objective to do things perfectly and quickly, things that we may not even value just so no one can ever again shame us. Please read that last poignant sentence three times.

We are remarkably vulnerable to a pious coup because every single one of us knows that every single day we could have done better. That truth leads directly to the lie that we could have done a perfect day. That leads us to seek perfection as a once and future goal. No thinking person would believe that perfection is attainable, yet we covertly ask this of ourselves. It is so difficult to live with ourselves when we demand and demand and demand. If we stop to think about this for a moment, we can recognize how demoralizing it is to be held to a goal or set of goals beyond our human capacity.

It must be said here, however, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with to-do lists (even rigorous ones), predeciding how to order your day, or striving to up your game when it comes to behaving piously. But to be pious well is as difficult as it is to be petulant well. What we want to learn to avoid is seeking an abundance of piety for piety’s sake. (Aside: We also want to avoid using pious behavior as a weapon, so if you notice yourself virtue signaling your piety, give that fact a little think. And as part of your thinking, remind yourself that virtue signaling is a symptom of being understipulated. That topic is addressed later in this article.) We’ll discuss in a minute how to hold piety at an appropriate distance from the heart of your decision-making.

Piety is as much an existential cul-de-sac as is petulance in that it redirects your energy and intentions away from healthier, good faith efforts to design a robust life for yourself. Both piety and petulance are intoxicating in their excessiveness of virtue or indulgence. But the price of the intoxication is steep – an abdication of audacity. In the place of cheering on our bolder side, these twins advocate inactivity. Piety says you can’t take the risk of making a mistake (and ruining your perfection), and petulance says you don’t have the right stuff to take risks (and it wouldn’t matter even if you could do so).

Now we have petulance and piety, devil and angel, both trying to convince you to behave in ways that are counterproductive to the pursuit of your next dream and doing so without giving you good reasons.

Piety, like petulance, shouldn’t be blindly enacted – it should be interviewed. For, again like petulance, it is the holder of information about your inner workings, those default settings that run silently in the background of your life. Piety can tell you where the bodies are hidden – less dramatically, it can point out to you all the “shoulds” that line the route to a culturally-approved, shame-free but metaphysically vapid life.

How depression gets created

Depression can hit us when we have been lost in petulance and then tried and tried and tried to use piety to shake ourselves free of the grip of petulance-induced inertia. Sometimes, like a car stuck in the snow, we just rock and rock to try to get out of petulance but remain stuck. Sometimes, like a ping pong game between three-year-olds, we fly back and forth between the two “P’s” in wild and unhelpful arcs. When this last-ditch strategy of using piety as an antidote to petulance fails, we are forced to admit that we just can’t do life. When faced with living out the rest of our lives knowing we have never been nor will ever be successful, it feels like there is no option but depression.

Depression can hit us when we have been so dedicated to perfection that the lack of existential investment in our actual lives leaves us unexcited to the point of petulance. In other words, because a pious life is one that is designed for us by others and it involves little to no metaphysical risk-taking, we rarely get any personal satisfaction from it. The combination of exhaustion and dissatisfaction caused by piety creates a huge opening for petulance. The perfectionistic strategy to recover from this plunge into petulance is to try to reconnect to our old, pious ways. But, we now know that piety is not an antidote to petulance. It is, instead, a partner to petulance in the brain’s childish efforts to keep us from thinking about thinking or choosing to choose.

Depression can hit us when we believe that no amount of accumulation of effective life activities is going to make a positive difference in our life. Despite an actual upward trajectory, we believe we will always be just stuck right where we are – on a long plateau of disgruntled slogging. Petulance knows how to use this loss of faith in incremental favorable movement as an argument for abdication of adulthood. And when we abdicate adulthood, we are, perforce, refusing to think about thinking or choose to choose.

How can we recognize when we have slipped from one of the dangerous places – a petulance fugue state, a pious search for perfection or a ping ponging between the two – into depression?

Existentially, depression is defined as disengagement from life caused by a crisis of faith – a lack of belief in your own ability to produce results and in the ability of the world at large to provide you with basic safety, essential resources and enticing opportunities. This untenable position leaves you unable to trust that you will ever feel important, that you will ever be chosen or that you will ever potently move toward a goal of your own choosing. What a desperate and lonely state. And while this state is always based on some data concerning your misfortune, it is almost always also an over-interpretation of the data. It will be a battle to rearrange the thinking in your head that has torpedoed your faith in yourself and in the world, but it is a battle that can be won. An important weapon to use in fighting your way free from this place is the faith-building process of taming petulance and piety.

Please Note: While the material in this article is appropriate to learn if you want to tackle depression, it may be that your spirit and your body have been too depleted by depression and its self-perpetuating downward pull for you to escape it without outside support. Please be kind to yourself and seek help if you are struggling unsuccessfully to break free from depression.

Another Note: Therapists have to be alert to the many dangers inherent in working with depressed clients. One of those dangers is outlining a lovely route out of the client’s depression that inadvertently aims the client directly into the maws of piety. If that happens, therapy can actually set the client up for that pendulum swing between petulance and piety. Both, of course, are demoralizing and neither are behaviors that move a client forward. What needs to happen in therapy is the same as the self-construction process I have been describing here. The client needs to be trained to listen to and talk with their petulant side before any attempt is made to move toward piety. Then the client needs to be reminded to also discuss everything in detail with their pious side.

Taming petulance and piety

Before you can tame either petulance or piety, you've got to capture it. And both can be hard to track down.

Both petulance and piety have been superbly trained to avoid detection. Petulance will hide away due to the constant threat of its annihilation. Piety stays hidden because it has a bit of a reputation for priggishness as well as the distinction of being unattainable. Getting either of them to converse with you involves, need I say it, eliminating shame. Easier said than done, I know, but no mental health can exist in the company of shame. Shame is bad for you. It is bad for your heart. It is bad for your soul. And it is bad for your mind. Eliminating shame should be a priority for everyone, always. For more information about how to eliminate the toxic, punitive and cruel epithet of shame and replace it with educative, firm and appropriate feelings of guilt, please read this.

A subtle subset of shame that trips us up vis à vis both petulance and piety is the culturally trained aversion we have for making mistakes. There is an entire article dedicated to reminding you that when you’re learning new things or designing your life in real time, you need to grant yourself immunity. You must be able to risk doing things that might disappoint you without being condemned and punished for making a misstep.

Once shame is at least caged and you can at least imagine that mistakes are a sign of bold living, you have to train yourself to have genuine curiosity about these two states of mind – petulance and piety. This is not easy to do after decades of seeing them as the devil (completely undesirable) and the angel (yet priggish and unachievable). It may be, in fact, that you will need a guide in the form of therapist or wise friend who can help you imagine that these parts of you are not hostile aliens but are rather familiars – sidekicks ready to accompany you along on your journey. The shameful conclusion (I lack the self-discipline to lead a potent life.) needs to become the respectful hypothesis (There is some part of me that is not invested in this proposed endeavor perhaps for a good reason.) This reframe will take practice. Lots of practice.

Then you need to think about these two aspects of your life and try to visualize how they tend to get triggered in your life. That curiosity will lead you to recognize when they make an appearance, and then you will be ready to stop and interview them when you next see one of them.

The interview itself is straightforward. Petulance and piety have information you want to have. If you ask respectfully, they will tell you. Over time, as with a good friend, your discussions will deepen and the information you gather will be more rich and nuanced. Notice. Ask. Sit. Listen. Ask some more.

Don’t be misled by this short little section – like a pair of feral kittens, these two little rascals can be difficult to tame. So let me remind you – you have to stop treating them like the enemy, you have to feel truly curious about what they have to tell you (see the epigraph of this article) and you have to learn to sit quietly in their company. This may all sound a bit woo, but these two parts of your inner being actually exist as entities and they are eager to talk once they trust that you don’t hate them.

Let me see if I can't seed your curiosity a bit.

Information from petulance

Petulance seeks to seduce us into making a childish escape from the relentlessness of adulthood. Once caught in the act of mutiny, it needs to be reassured that we are genuinely interested in its motives. Therefore, when the petulant voice says, “I don’t want to.” a perceptive command and control part of the brain needs to ask, with a sincerely curious tone of voice I might add, “Why not?”

The answers may sound like this: I've already tried and it didn't work; because it’s too dangerous for me to recover from if things go wrong; I’m in danger of running out of willpower; I’m tired of being good; I’m embarrassed to admit to what it is that I really want to attempt – even to myself; I think we’ll fail; nothing matters so why bother being “good”; there’s something bigger that I really want but I can’t admit it; there’s something much smaller I really want but I can’t admit it; I’m too tired; it’s too hard; it’s not my idea; it didn’t work before; I want to do something else much more; it’s too big a bite; I can’t trust you; this is not your idea; I won’t try it if I can’t be superb at it; I’ve run out of good; I don’t know how; I’m not good at this; the odds are too long that it will pay off; I’ll have to do it forever; it’s starting an unendurable demand for a string of piety; no one will notice if I do it; it won’t stay done; it’s painful; you’ll never be satisfied; my dreams are bigger than my ambition; I’m still tired of being good especially since no one ever notices; other people have already done it better than I can ever do it; I can’t do it the way I want to do it; no one cares so I don’t matter; it won’t make any difference if I do it or not; and on and on.

Basically the words are all portraying a part of us that feels nervous, powerless, not validated, unrewarded, risk averse, distrustful, fatigued from trying, and so on. These are understandable conditions for which we can uncover both their etiology and strategies to ease them. And, you’ll notice, they are all descriptions of how difficult life is rather than indictments of our character. Please read that sentence three times.

But you can also see how childlike and resigned these messages all sound. It is very tricky to not overreact to this, to feel embarrassingly unimpressed with this part of ourself. Try to stay with the process of uncovering the deeper reasons for the whining. It may take a lot of patience as petulance may rather enjoy having the opportunity to grouse a bit and to exaggerate a lot. After all, it’s been ignored and vilified for quite some time. As I mentioned and as woo as it still sounds, petulance is a distinct part of your psyche and, as such, can actually talk with you in some depth. You must do the work of listening as you keep asking respectful questions and double-checking that you are understanding the answers rather than simply judging them. Work with each episode of petulance to understand what data are driving it. There will likely be some truth to the data as well as some historical overreaction to it. Again, it may take the help of a professional listener to get some of your petulant side to learn to trust you enough to be honest with you.

Information from piety

Piety wishes to take us into the land of soulless ultra-adulthood. If petulance can be said to represent the id (absent, of course, Freud’s neurotic need to make it both sexual and shameful), then the pious side of us reflects a superego of big game proportions. It seems to have little patience with our human limitations, meaning it clearly doesn’t respect us or maybe even like us. So it would be quite natural for us to feel some defensiveness when talking with this somewhat disdainful aspect of ourselves.

It helps to first puncture the priggishness of piety by explaining to it gently (woo woo one last time) that perfection is both unattainable and undesirable, because, as we must carefully spell out, an authentic life requires that we have a deeply held project to which we can attach our passion rather than a series of perfect days that have been designed by the dominant culture or our families of origin. And being passionate means living on the cutting edge of being us, and that means creating something novel in real time and that means we are going to be making mistakes. Just to reiterate, that doesn’t mean that piety is not an interesting goal, but it needs to be a self-chosen one as well as a distant one – as in sighting off the North Star.

When you interview piety to see what’s on its mind, you will initially find within it a tendency to want to install every perfect behavior into your day, setting you up for perfect failure. Piety isn’t asking you for devotion to good choices, piety is telling you to fill your day with a schedule that leaves you no room for will to power, because – and this is the critical piece here – piety has already decided you have no reliable will to power.

In other words, our pious aspect has a theory about how much it can trust us to behave ourselves. To the extent it doesn’t believe we are capable of guiding ourselves maturely forward, it will attempt to take over the management of our days with a harsh strategy of over parenting.

What piety is trying to tell you by tightening parental controls to a near suffocating degree is that you have been way too loose with your self-parenting. After reading to this point in the article, you can now recognize that this lethargic indifference to self-guidance is caused by a petulant fugue state, but piety assumes that it is the result of weak self-discipline. Piety jumps in to fill that void with parenting directives that are way too rigid.

A good way to visualize this diagnostic information from piety is to use the bilateral model of parenting discussed in the article on this website on self-parenting. Assessing our competence in directing our lives using both expectation and support can help us see where we can gently improve our self-parenting skills without flipping into excessive piety.

Balancing petulance and piety

As mentioned previously, piety doesn’t work as an antivenin to petulance despite the cultural suggestion that it does. An excess of piety will show up with internal parental boundaries that are much, much too tight. Nor does petulance serve to eliminate piety. An excess of petulance will show up with parental boundaries that are much, much too loose. You want to hit the Goldilocks zone here with internal parental supervision that is just right.

What balances petulance and piety and sets them the optimum distance from us?

Respect for the equal and opposite potency of the expectation and support voices.

In other words, if neither voice is privileged over the other and if neither voice is stronger than the other, both will work in concert to provide the space for thinking about how you are running your day. Thinking becomes us. If we’re lucky, when we take the time to think, the pull toward what we desperately, secretly want our lives to mean will be strong enough to reconnect us with our authentic side and free us from excesses of petulance and/or piety.

Psychological skills to ease petulance/piety

Our internal executive function system (aka our adult side) has only two jobs, really. One is to make sure that our infrastructure is in place and in good form. In other words, we need to be healthy, well rested, well nourished, strong and fit enough to step out into life. The second job is to ensure a certain level of psychological preparedness for tackling the next life project. Both these tasks are complicated and ongoing. The first is outside the scope of this website but it is a vital domain of study for each of us. The second is the subject of this entire website, but which I’ll discuss briefly next vis à vis the petulance/piety twins.

We must all journey into the existential void if we are to define our essence in a robust and meaningful way. (Our essence is that personal potpourri of life choices that as closely as possible reflects our unique participation in the human experience.) We need adequate levels of two psychological constructs – internal self-esteem and external stipulation – in order to move fully out into the void. Because both of these constructs are essential if we are to lead an authentic life, they each have their own complete article on this website. Let me nutshell them here and link them to petulance and piety.

Self-esteem: Self-esteem is an extraordinarily complicated state of mind that reflects our faith in our ability to lead ourselves effectively through this one-and-only life. Unfortunately, it is generally formed in us like a quilt designed by the committee that brought us the camel, resulting in a stitched-together hodge-podge of vignettes, data and input from the outside world. Sloppy at best and wildly off the mark at worst, it lies crumpled on the floor of our minds. A little wiser process for developing solid self-esteem starts with acknowledging that this vital construct shouldn’t be directed by cartoonish characters, but should be deliberately and constantly built and maintained. The article that covers this topic is in the Section IV of the website, but here’s the nutshell: five steps that construct the foundation of a healthy self-esteem are – mentally retreat from the world into a safe place where you can learn to trust yourself; self-construct your very own “self”; make a plan using your genuine intentions; persist bravely in forward progress; and solicit and accept help from others. Many of the basic psychological skills integral to these five steps are also covered in this website with links highlighted in the self-esteem article. I would say it’s worth a read or two.

It’s good to remember here that both petulance and piety can lie to us. Petulance utilizes the lie that we don’t need to think, and piety utilizes the lie that constant self-denial is great. Because self-esteem must reflect an honest appraisal of how we are currently managing our lives, these two lies create serious errors in that assessment. It is also important to remember that petulance and piety are not lying to endanger us but to preserve us. It follows then that replacing a naïve and reactive relationship with these two rascals with a wise and considered relationship will bolster our self-esteem.

When we have healthy and accurate self-esteem, our pious side doesn’t tend to get activated because it has (albeit reluctant) faith in our abilities and our leadership. We are also less vulnerable to hijackings by our petulant side because our adult behavior subsequent to healthy self-esteem is satisfying, creating no need for us to routinely retreat from a fearful challenge, to seek a temporary place to hide and rest, to revel in taking a short cut, to make a face-saving excuse or to indulge in an overindulgence of hedonism.

Stipulation: When someone tells you that they have seen you, thought about you and realized that you are doing something splendid (even if it is very impressive for only you), that is being stipulated. It’s an advanced version of empathy. Put another way, stipulation is a demonstration that we matter to people who matter to us in a manner that matters. It is also a donation of faith in our abilities and our decisions from another person, and as such, is indescribably valuable. Please read more about it here.

Many humans who don’t exist in elite and well-funded cultural enclaves tend to be unseen, undervalued and ignored. Many humans who exist in bleak conditions are on the receiving end of unearned distain, neglect and violence. These appallingly less-than-desirable conditions provide scant stipulation and much anti-stipulation. (Hence creating, for example, the allure of a high-validation gang affiliation.) If you are understipulated in your life in general and/or with respect to your idea for your next experiment, you will be vulnerable to petulance derailing your willingness to attempt anything or to piety deciding it needs to take over the reins of your life.

It’s hard to overstress the necessity of stipulation in an existentially authentic life.

But let me try.

Being unstipulated can activate a fail-safe aspect of petulance because your petulant campaign to “just don’t do it” is designed to save you from the extremely painful angst that gets generated when you complete something and no one cares. It isn’t simply the lack of stipulation that is the problem here. It is the profound reminder that your life choices are being made in an interpersonal vacuum. To all those folks who toil away in a silent world, my deepest respect. It is a forsaken and wearisome way to live. When you’ve got no one who notices, who chooses you partly or even mainly because of what you’ve chosen to do with your life, it can feel nullifying. So, your little petulant side wants to save you from this eviscerating response to your good efforts. “Don’t try”, it says, “and save yourself the bitter pill of no one noticing or caring.”

Being unstipulated can activate a panic response from your pious side. If it senses that your life is becoming too painful for you to take any risks, it will double down on its attempts to fill your day with "satisfying" and culturally-approved tasks. Our pious side has great faith in the safety of a task-saturated life.

If lack of stipulation is activating either or both of these extremely self-protective behaviors, I encourage you to assign some urgency to the process of strengthening your social world. Take some of your precious energy to find people who are emotionally substantial enough to be able to see who you are trying to become without being threatened by that. These coherent people will easily support you in taking brave, existential leaps into becoming a bigger you. And if that effort needs to start with a therapist, please take that step.


As we get older we come to realize that we are very often stuck between a rock and a really easy place. When this happens for you, leaving you bewildered by your decision to bash yourself against the rock rather than move toward the really easy place, take a look to see if you haven’t been hijacked by petulance.

If you sometimes feel like your life is rushing by in that task-saturated and uninteresting way, take a look to see if piety isn’t running the show.

Then honor yourself by shifting to a curious rather than shaming place relative to these two very useful aspects of a normal life. Take them out to lunch and ask them for their opinion about how things are going. Don’t let disgust for petulance steal from you the wisdom to ask “Why don’t you want to do that?” And don’t let naïveté about psychological piety steal from you the freedom to be wildly and sloppily human.

Turn yourself into the person who makes the kind of choices you most assuredly want to want.

*In the interest of protecting my carpal tunnel, I’m going to just refer to existential petulance as petulance for the remainder of the article.

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Addendum: For those readers who are interested in the existential underpinnings of our struggles with petulance and piety, I have added a few thoughts to this article.

The Existential Givens That Aggravate Petulance and Piety

Petulance, piety and uniqueness/past

Within every human is a fantasy life.

It’s important to know that some of these fantasies are not outlandish but are sincere wishes for outcomes we cherish. We humans are meant to dream dreams of potential positive futures based on the life we have experienced to date and all the data that that history entails. Also using our historical information, we will construct a belief in our unique position relative to achieving some of those dreams. All the while, we bask in the idea that someday soon we will win the game of life.

But, sadly, many of us don’t progress steadily toward our fantasy successes but instead hit roadblock after roadblock. Some of us are on the wrong road altogether. And some of us are so disenfranchised that neither dreams nor roads figure into our days. There is only survival. When any of these unfortunate situations cause us to feel lost, we become vulnerable to the culturally implanted idea that, because we are not winners, we must be losers.

Losing sucks. It brings with it tons of icky feelings that aggregate, trapping us like quicksand in a landfill. As we sink into the mess we believe we’ve made of our lives, petulance offers to throw us a rope. We would be fools not to grab it. As discussed above, petulance offers us comfort in an effort to keep us alive. But although petulance has rescued us from resignation unto death, it has only dragged us as far as surviving – the outskirts of Loserville, if you will. We are still left feeling unsuccessful even if we have been somewhat comforted by our petulance-assisted escape.

We can also arrive in Loserville through the overuse of piety. On some level, this is what a mid-life crisis is – a blunt and painful come-to-jesus meeting with the reality that, well behaved though we may have been (even to a stellar degree), the life we have been actually living is not actually to our liking. We realize we have been ultra compliant in moving down a well-traveled road toward a goal chosen for us by someone other than us. The “successes” we have had along this road are the result of our pious diligence rather than our passion and commitment, and thus, in turns out, have very little personal meaning.

So what can we do to overcome the horrible dismay precipitated by either our lack of advancement toward our beloved dreams or our accidental advancement toward someone else’s beloved dreams?

Existential dilemmas require existentially sound counter attacks. Stay tuned. We will address this after describing the four remaining existential givens.

Petulance, piety and responsibility/present

Within every human is a monarch.

Within our skull kingdom, we rule. We sit all day in our cerebral throne room proclaiming our wishes for a winning life. But there is a reason that monarchs out in the actual world are given an abundance of pomp and circumstance – because the role is difficult to the point of impossibility. To rule is to make choice after choice after choice all the while knowing you are actually making guess after guess after guess. With every guess comes the horrible possibility of being horribly wrong. Only major stipulations like glittering jewels or a big old fancy airplane can keep any ruler with any level of self-loyalty from abdicating. It is easy to see, therefore, how unpleasant it can be to face a daily life of relentless regal challenges with few perks.

And when we whine to ourselves about the burden responsibility places on our tiny little shoulders, we often whip out pious, self-flagellating internal comments like: “What’s the matter with you? You are so privileged. You should be grateful that you have so many choices, so many opportunities, so many resources.” It’s true. We often have an abundance of those things. But the degree of difficulty in designing a life more often boils down to the need for us to discover and then take complicated, risky routes toward distal goals rather than simply following clear road signs of a generous culture. To wit: the fact that something like 85% of Americans are employed in work they are not designed to enjoy is less a function of opportunity than existential naïveté. We are encouraged to trustingly default into a career that fills our day with paid work rather than struggle to figure out what particular steps taken today would lead us down an interesting professional road of our own choosing.

Being misemployed or otherwise bamboozled into spending our days doing things we are not well suited for adds to the burden of trying to get through the day with integrity. We end up piously using our limited amount of willpower to motor us forward rather than the more powerful will. When we run out of willpower, petulance will make an appearance with seductive alternatives to grinding out one more hour of this awful day. Off we go into behaviors that may comfort us in the short run, but don’t advance us down any road leading to a better alternative.

This need not happen. Some suggested strategies to combat this are described in the final section below.

Petulance, piety and meaninglessness/future

Within every human is a god.

Notice that that’s a lowercase god, meaning that we are what could be called amateur gods. Humans have spectacular creativity allowing them to imagine stunning things. Plus we can, in sooth, bring many of these things into existence. But, beyond that, our god arsenal is greatly limited. We are not omnipotent, all powerful, wise, just, beneficent and so on. This reality creates within us constant tension between what we can envision and what we can accomplish. Every single one of us has at least glimpses of future memories that beckon us into a delightful new world of our own making. Few of us, however, seriously attend to these beguiling prospects. And fewer still achieve even a portion of our dreams. What a bummer to be such a hamstrung god. And what phenomenal courage it takes for us to face each day knowing that what we can imagine and what we can produce are most often lamentably far apart.

But internally rejecting the truth of our god-like role only creates a dangerous gap between each of us and our responsibility for seeking a custom-made future. Existentially speaking, we simply have to decide everything for ourselves – what is not meaningful to us and reject it if at all possible, what is meaningful to us and seek it. And we have to decide why things are meaningful. Finally, we have to fight for our future, even though the significance of it is, in its entirety, created by us. What an act of faith! Meaningful work, meaningful play, meaningful relationships, meaningful communities, meaningful environments, meaningful values, meaningful healthiness, and on and on.

When something is meaningful to us, however, we want it – badly. When we want something so much, it kills a part of us each time we don’t get it. Ergo the sweep of all the broken-hearted love songs. Too many such losses and we lose faith in the interaction between ourselves and the world. Beleaguered by poor dream fulfillment, we alternately pick up and reject our godlike role in our personal lives, creating life blueprints that are incomplete and coffee stained. These setbacks can leave us jaded, and a jaded god is a useless god.

Sometimes we react to the setbacks by shrouding ourselves in such pious behavior we appear to be, if not gods, at least saintly. We all know how that ends.

And while petulance should be no match for even a lowercase god, when our meaning systems go offline and no happy futures beckon us, we tend to sink into some form of despair. Despair activates our heroic little petulant side to try to rescue us once again. In it sweeps with little oases of comfort, allowing us to rest and reset.

But if we try to live permanently in one of these oases, we need to activate one of the exit strategies described in this article.

Petulance, piety and fate/death

Within every human is a metaphysical mammal.

There will be times when that mammal will feel the rage of impotence when faced with the dehumanizing indifference of fate. The aftermath of that rage can be despair and unutterable fatigue, causing us to surrender to the notion that our only power in the face of this irreducible existential truth is to not care. In this state of existential dehydration, petty wants flood in, eager to cheer us up – at least enough to keep us alive. To reiterate the metanarrative of this article, losing ourselves in small decadent behaviors isn’t a bad defense against the terror of squaring off against fate, but it can quickly lead to overindulgence which can leave us with a raging existential hangover.

When, on the other hand, fate seems to be suggesting to us that we are, indeed, a chosen one by showering us with material and interpersonal rewards, we may superstitiously swing toward piety as we convince ourselves that our excellent behavior has been noticed by the cosmos and we should therefore endeavor to follow our current path even more perfectly. Again, piety per se can be empowering, but dedication to it reduces our authenticity.

So the poor metaphysical mammal wastes some serious resources in either rage or perfectionism in a simpleminded attempt to deal with fate.

This lack of sophistication regarding fate is partially due to the fact that fate is both randomly and statistically driven. It’s random in that there is absolutely no correlation between goodness of soul and goodness of fortune. We all see the good things that repeatedly happen to people committed to behaving badly. But there is a correlation between effort and success. Diligence puts us on the path that opportunity often takes.

This duality with respect to the nature of fate leaves us understandably confused, and when we humans are confused we work to create clarity. We do this vis à vis fate by projecting an anthropomorphic character onto it. Fate becomes an intentional, mean-spirited being, a person to tilt with rather than a mechanistic and faceless windmill. Unfortunately, in addition to misleading us about the true nature of fate, this incarnation of fate becomes a dangerous distraction.

This next part is tricky: We know that if we bootstrapped ourselves through the several tasks that sit in front of us or if we tackle a significant new challenge, we will likely feel good. We would “win” one afternoon’s battle with inertia and be briefly happy. But, twisted though it may be, we also believe that fate will also win if we are diligent with our time today. We believe that fate wins when we are conscientious because it has set up the game and, by agreeing to play a game we cannot ever win, we play the fool. We can never win because fate can trump us at any time. (Fate also sets in motion the dismantling of each of our gains the minute we achieve it.)

So, since we hate Mr. Fate right now, the idea of making this enemy happy by playing his stupid game is beyond anathema to us. In this juvenile state of mind, we can easily forego the tasks that might bring us satisfaction in exchange for the great and petulant gratification of growling, “Fuck you!” to fate.

This cut-off-your-nose reasoning coupled with the sad-but-true understanding that no matter what we do we’re all going to die anyway, makes fate the most fearsome of enemies. Very few of us can manage more than guerilla warfare against this unbeatable foe, so we dart in and out with small flurries of courageously implemented acts of will. Every strategy addressed on this website is a tactic to support our battle with fate. We cannot win the war against fate, true, but neither can we give up the fight.

Petulance, piety and isolation/energy

Within every human is a combustion engine.

Keeping that psychological engine fueled and running smoothly is the job of our head engineer – aka the attachment provider. We get energy when we attach to things that matter to us – people, places and things. That energy allows us to be a disciplined adult when it comes to attending to the repair and maintenance of our bodies and brains and environments. The resulting better health allows us to keep putting energy into the things we have attached to which keeps our attachments healthy and energizing. These strong bonds give us ongoing willpower to stay well provisioned and to have the courage to live a cutting-edge version of our life. Any interruption to this healthy circle of renewable energy can cause our machinery to sputter and slow.

When we start to feel under-resourced and our vigor starts to fade, petulance (always quick to be helpful) hastens in to bring us something restful to do. However. Petulance has no braking system, so it will continue to encourage comfort-seeking behavior until it has created a vicious circle of neglect then depletion then shame to replace the positive circle of energy creation. What needs to happen for ongoing coherence is for us to be able to notice the petulance, appreciate the value of brief episodes of it, and then swiftly send it back into the green room of life. And, we need to do this without activating excessive piety.

And what might that look like?

Existentially sound counter attacks

At its most basic, an existentially sound strategy for mitigating the potential for petulance or piety to derail us requires a willingness to hold dear the existential maxim: existence precedes essence. We must try to remember that, when we make the bulk of our choices from a coherent place, our existence here on earth becomes a more and more stable essence, an essence that authentically and accurately represents who we want to be. When we embrace our human consciousness at this level of gravitas, we develop some serious metaphysical chops that allow us to make music out of whatever notes we have been given. We move beyond tolerance of the fact that we are unique, meaning-seeking creatures who are responsible for keeping our lives running smoothly even as we realize that fate will have its way with us, and into an almost smug attitude of “I can handle this!” When we spend the bulk of our time in this impressive place, our need to be either rescued by petulance or over-parented by piety is minimal.

Below are descriptions of psychological body armor that can increase the resilience of our executive functioning apparatus in the face of the dreaded existential givens of life.

1) Go big or go home. All the existential givens trigger self-doubt relative to our ability to handle the truth of just how profoundly difficult life is. The Schopenhauerian choice – live with the grim realities of existence or commit suicide – is the stuff of dark novels. But even though most of us skirt that abyss resolutely, we all are in danger of the small suicide of resignation.

Faith in our ability to maintain existential courage is what allows us to make the kinds of daily choices that create an authentic essence. When petulance and piety become too routine for comfort, then, it behooves us to seek an infusion of faith in ourselves relative to our struggle with the existential truths. Faith in our Tillichian courage to be involves a complicated balancing act that, while powerful, results in a very fragile status quo. The balancing act involves creating an equilibrium between the two attitudes we hold toward our progress on our life project – unyielding expectation and gentle forbearance.

We need to expect ourselves to have the strength of mind to maintain a consistent exploration of the relationship between our life and the universe. That existentialists’ stance is difficult, so I find that it can be extremely helpful to read writings by folks who embodied that stance. Being exposed to brave writing (and brave, coherent people) can inspire us to lift our heads, elevate our perspective and think lofty thoughts. This is why aphorisms tend to be so alluring, they connect us to great minds with reassuringly splendid language. We would all be wise in advance of a petulant binge, to collect books, music, art and movies that can reconnect us to examples of profound human mastery. We all are capable of engaging in noble thinking and are ennobled when we do so.

But because few of us are as gritty as the Schopenhauers of the world, most of us would fail to thrive if served only a diet of unyielding challenge. Therefore we also need to overtly and consistently infuse our lives with gentle forbearance for needed rest and comfort. When intentional oases are routinely integrated into our lives, our vulnerability to petulant binges is greatly lessened because we are reassured that we will be supported in seeking comfort as necessary. And when we do sink into a petulant episode, that forbearance will protect us from getting trapped in self-loathing which, of course, serves only to lengthen our stay in a petulant fugue state.

We lessen both the danger and the duration of petulance when we reinflate our faith in our ability to move somewhat consistently toward an essence both by thinking big thoughts and treating ourselves kindly.

2) Bootleg stipulation. As discussed in the main body of this article, when it comes to facing the existential givens, a common source of weakness is a lack of stipulation. This interpersonal specification is important enough that it bears revisiting here. Stipulation is a soupçon of applause that speaks specifically to our being impressive in our efforts to define our essence. It is the way folks around us endorse our ongoing project. Your environment can be extremely stingy with stipulation if you stray very far from convention or if you are, by your very nature, an outlier. If that is the case for you and your daily strivings are habitually met with silence or disapproval, you may need to temporarily substitute self-compassion for stipulation. Whereas affirmations, tenderness and kind support for ourselves from ourselves falls way short of the nourishment of stipulation, it will help sustain you through lean times.

But, because self-love is not a long-term solution to being understipulated, it is important to monitor your environment for appropriate sources of stipulation. Sometimes we have to broaden our social energy sources by moving into novel environments that are better suited to our unique strengths. In other words, again as mentioned above, you may need to put a little extra effort into finding your peeps – those folks who have the integrity, bandwidth and generosity to give you an occasional yet sincere round of applause.

3) An infusion of earnestness: Once called to action, our existential courage needs a weapon with which to fight the everlasting Siren call of resignation. That weapon is earnestness – the childlike belief that when we decide that something matters, it actually does matter. Earnestness in a coherent adult is a fantastic combination of gravitas, optimism and desire. (Interestingly, these are three of the five components that psychologists Paul Costa and Robert McCrae believe underlie resilience.) It is impossible to be fully engaged in life without it. In fact, we could make the case that earnestness is the life force.

If you suffer from earnestness fatigue, you will have a dull weapon with which to fight the gnarly givens of existence and their tendency to pull for petulance. Earnestness is sharpened with all the same skills that combat career burnout. Boiled down, burnout is prevented when we diligently attend to the four boundaries within which we can protect our fragile and precious earnestness – from our world at large or from our world of work. The four walls are: psychological/philosophical potency (i.e. the ability to think, to be self aware, to have solid self-esteem, etc.); ethical potency (well defined values and the ability to both titrate and implement them); physical potency (physical health, good provisions and social support); and existential potency (a customized theory about why life matters).

Because petulance and piety are activated by an overwrought dread reaction to existential meaninglessness, they both tend to promote the metanarrative that nothing should uniquely matter to us. Rather than accept this call to resignation, we need to be vigilant in protecting all our resources – most importantly earnestness – in order to be resilient in the face of the five givens. This may mean redefining “the game” as one of perseverance rather than success. The long-form mantra can sound like this: Playing the game designed by fate (creating an essence out of your existence while being preyed upon by an utterly indifferent cosmos) is difficult but it is the game absolutely every human must play. We don’t get to choose to play another game. We play this one or we play none. Choosing to not play the game is still playing the game. Death is the only exit. While we can never win the game, we get beaucoup points for trying.

4) Inventory priorities. As we march through life gathering new skills and new achievements and new possessions, we also accumulate expectations and responsibilities. Houseplants serve as an effective metaphor for this phenomenon in my life. Over the years I have deepened my appreciation for healthy and exotic plants in my home. I attach to each addition to my greenery and try hard to provide each with all that it needs to flourish. It wasn’t, however, until I was explaining to my daughter how to care for the bunch of them when I was going on a trip that I realized how much of a burden they had become. I choose to carry that burden because I value their lush beauty. But it served to remind me how easily we acquire higher and higher expectations and obligations.

All that is to say, if petulance and piety are playing ping pong with your days, it would be wise to take an inventory of the burdens you carry constantly on your back. These stresses include the emotional strains on your life, the habituated tasks that you do almost without thinking, the externally motivated chores that get checked off your mental list, plus all the tasks you want to accomplish that are without external motivation. Check out how you spend your time with an eye to jettisoning anything you don’t sincerely value. Wherever possible, eliminate what you no longer cherish as well as anything that you are supposed to want but don’t actually want.

Also, be vigilant about noticing those “easy little things” that aren’t getting done in a timely manner. They represent a different type of burden – in a healthy person a guilt burden and in a wounded one, a shame burden. I seem to need to remind myself regularly that it is often the case that it takes more energy to ignore these little tasks than to do them.

If you can make a pervasive state of lighter burden your goal rather than happiness, you will find that your route to happiness is, ironically, a little easier to find. Existentially speaking, we experience happiness when we are in pursuit of the next experiment designed to move us toward mastery. We are much better able to engage in this pursuit when we have our bed made and have enough energy to fuel some life-designing and some risk-taking.

So don’t allow items to appear on your to-do list without some frank assessment of their value to you. And beware of making commitments that burden you without providing you with energy in return. Shed the things that aren’t valuable to YOU. These strategies should help make you more comfortable, which, if we think about it, would make us much less susceptible to the offers of comfort from either petulance or piety.

And do the damn chores that, undone, weight you down. Yes, I'm looking in the mirror!

5) Perspective helps. The older we are the more specific our dreams are about what we desire and what we can achieve. This perspective is not resignation based, but wisdom based. Over the years we have learned how to recognize red herrings, to sidestep peer pressure and to trust in our uniqueness. As we age we come to value specificity when it comes to stipulation, goals and rewards. Fame for fame’s sake or money for money’s sake are rarely interesting existential goals. And although death can always be, even for the young, just 20 seconds away, it looms more solidly in our lives as we grow older, reminding us to take life seriously. So, unless you are one of the impressive elder elders, consult with folks who have lived longer than you have. Absorb their perspective and let it inform your priority setting. There are many ways to listen to older voices – novels, biographies, documentaries, podcasts, interviews, visits. They’re all good.

6) Plateaus versus ladders. Petulance and piety are defense mechanisms that thwart our progress toward goals that we want to want. I think it behooves us to understand the construct of goals a bit if we are to be successful in thwarting the thwarting. All goals are not alike. Some have clearly defined ladders provided by a community such as a school, a business, an association or a culture (aka conventional wisdom). Thus, if you want to get a degree, a promotion, a contractor’s license or get in shape, a group of people will tell you exactly what you need to do to take the next step up. Yes, fate can still cut a rung or three out from under you, but the route to success remains clearly marked.

Other goals are better described as being at the end of a long, fog-shrouded plateau. These plateaus offer no signage along the way telling you where to go next, how much progress you have made or how far it is to the end. The footing can also feel more like a horizontal scree slope and less like terra firma. It goes without saying, these plateau-fronted goals are mystifying.

But, both types of goals are draining and require faith in ourselves if we are to avoid being hijacked by petulance or over-driven by piety. The ladder types are often not justly administered, with unequal access, biased mentoring and ceilings of glass. And, even with unfettered access to the whole ladder and excellent provisions, each step will take courage and effort. The higher you climb, the greater the danger because the skills you need to be successful on the lower rungs are often vastly different from the skills needed higher up. This can leave you simultaneously promoted and overextended.

The plateau types of goals are lonely, confusing and disorienting. We never know until we bump into the end if we are making any real progress. We are very often tempted to cut our losses and give up when the lack of positive feedback makes us doubt ourselves and our choices.

It would benefit most of us to be able to identify the type of route we are taking toward each of our goals and then to refine our affirmations accordingly. If we are on a ladder-assisted ascent, smart moves can look like holding on tight, networking, stepping back down, reaching down to help another, stepping off at any level, and so on. It can help to remember that most often we don’t actually have to hurry or commit to getting to the top. If we are on a plateau-fronted ascent, we can be proud of our perseverance, initiative, courage and strength. There is often very little spontaneous stipulation on a plateau, so we may need to seek it out consciously. It can also be valuable to find a buddy or a guide to keep you company and help with the route finding. But the plateau route strategy I still like best is the good old paper calendar with the days crossed off in red – just like in the movies.

7) No, no, no, no, no: For any toddler worth his salt, every thirty minutes occasions a multitude of “no’s” from his parental unit. Each veto denies him something he sincerely wants – that hot cup of coffee, mommy’s phone, summiting the piano. He is not setting out to make the parents miserable, he just wants what he wants. Few toddlers yearn to sit quietly and learn how to behave. So, lots of “no’s.” Even the most easy going tyke will, at some point during his day, express a level of disgruntlement as a result. If the disgruntlement is met with heavy-handed and unsympathetic discipline, it can easily escalate to petulance.

A similar scenario is going on inside each of us at about the same pace. Both our internal parental unit and society at large are constantly telling us what we cannot have. Some prohibitions are trivial – no, you can’t have donuts for breakfast, a 45-minute hot shower, your neighbor’s Beemer. Some are poignant – no, you can’t live next door to your sister, maintain your youth and beauty, make the winning basket in the championship game. Some are disturbing – no, you can’t get that promotion, you lost the house to another buyer, there’s no cure for your insomnia. And some are calamitous – no, you won’t live to see your granddaughter, you can’t stop your parents from fighting, you can’t conceive a child.

As with the toddler, when cumulative red lights create a natural level of disgruntlement and that disgruntlement is met internally with disdain or dismissal, we can easily slip into petulance. We need to imagine that it is suitable for us to be as proactively protective with our own common state of disappointment as we are with that of a two-year-old. It is intensely moving to tally the number of “no’s” we encounter in any given day. (Try it. I guarantee you will be startled at how many times you have to back away from things you desire.) At almost every moment of our day, there will be several things we want that we cannot have. Oddly, the simple acknowledgment of this truth is intensely calming. When we can say to ourselves “Of course you wanted that and of course you’re disappointed!” we clear the way for grief to do its thing. Each episode of “no” is then healed rather than allowed to rankle and accumulate. Again, our best internal parental system is both kind and firm.

A final note in this section – It’s very hard not to go childish when you don’t get what you want. Especially when you see others getting what they want. Few of us whine that we can’t turn invisible, teleport or live forever because nobody can. But we struggle harder with restrictions when we see others – sometimes easily – getting what we want. So when you see others sent to the front of the line and you’re still 25 people back, remember to be extra understanding of your rising ire and impending petulance.

8) A job begun: Why do we see the idea of doing chores through such a golden, confident glow? I find myself consistently picturing the next day awash in that glow – imagining myself proceeding smoothly through the list of the tasks I am eager to have accomplished. My today self is completely confident that my tomorrow self will be that glorious version of me. But too often the next day that glow has vanished, leaving me looking at my day from a surly, unmotivated place. What is it that deflates me when I have a clear shot at the enviable process of accessing task magic?

This is what I think happens: At the threshold of every task is a sentry who cries "Halt!" and then asks, “Why is this worth doing?” That question is what creates the threshold energy – that minimum level of mojo we need to initiate a task. There are two ways to overcome this barrier to a task or an activity: either we have enough momentum to just leap over the barrier or we need to climb over it using our willpower.

If we have outside pressure to get on with things (bills must be paid, snow must be shoveled and groceries must be purchased), the answer to the threshold question is provided for us. The “should” training we have had growing up helps us just ride that culturally derived momentum over the threshold. Deadlines, of course, heighten this push from behind.

If we have internal momentum it’s because we have either gotten into the habit of doing the activity (i.e. Monday is laundry day or running is just something we believe in doing) or we have pre-validated the expenditure of our willpower for this activity (i.e. I am eager to try this new recipe today or I have cleared my day in order to get on with cleaning out the gutters.)

Absent external motivation or predetermined internal momentum, however, we must be able to convince ourselves that the task has value to us right now. To use an economic term, the utility function of having this task accomplished must justify the use of our precious willpower. This assessment can be difficult. Especially when we are rarely even aware that the sentry has questioned our motivation. And here's the thing – if we hesitate even one little bit before we answer and proceed with forward movement, our petulance can squeeze right into that space and take us in another direction.

Plus, and this is a critical plus, when we are at the threshold of a task and about to say “yes” to doing it, we are also face-to-face with the reality that we will simultaneously be saying “no” to everything else that could occupy our next unit of time. Some of the things we will be saying “no” to are desirable to us, like having another cup of coffee or starting the next novel in the series.

This is, of course, the classic avoid-approach dilemma. We may value having the activity behind us but not enough more than we dislike committing our time to the task.

There seems to be a cumulative effect of the threshold energies represented by the more complex chores on a list. Rather than doing the psychological math that assesses our ability to begin the next thing, our brains substitute the calculation of what it would take to accomplish the whole thing. The whole of a task involves a phalanx of sentries, all questioning our allocation of resources. All efficiency experts expound on the adage: Don’t tackle the whole thing, just tackle the next thing.

Plus, I suspect, my brain adds a weighted score that incudes a substantial increase for those chores that do not stay done or that do not get noticed by anyone. Noncumulative and nonstipulated chores weigh me down. No amount of good internal parenting can convince the surly mathematician inside of the existential truth that most of life is noncumulative and unstipulated.

There are other issues that compound the difficulty of assessing and gathering the energy needed to start a task.

Our level of confidence in our ability to complete a task effectively will affect our willingness to get started. You can see stark examples of this when a professional shows up at your house to do a job. He or she shakes your hand, sets out his or her tools and gets to it. Confidence is a form of energy.

Then there is the physical exertion of doing the tasks that need to be done – with some undertakings (cleaning the gutters, babysitting the grandkids or running a 10K) taking more physical energy than others (making a spreadsheet, baking a quiche or writing an article). Your mind and your body need to share in the decision making around scheduling.

Budgeting energy is as complicated as budgeting money. But, economically speaking, it turns out that old adage “A job begun’s half done.” is more vital to understand than we might, at first, realize.

9) Gentle reminder: It helps to remember that petulance does not work as an actual solution to the relentlessness of the existential givens. It merely provides a resting spot that can allow us to catch our existential breath. What kind of rest are we talking about here? Petulance releases us from our contact with the press of the givens. And this press is in the thinking part of our day. The trick to doing petulance well is to not lose sight of the fact that you’re not thinking. Which, you wisely say, you can only do by thinking. So, like a little mental night light, it helps to have a gentle reminder thought that can guide us back to our thinking ways in a timely manner. This may take a little scripting and rehearsing. You could learn to say to yourself when you feel petulance coming on: “Lookout! Your brain is about to turn off for a reset. Please remember to check the time and prepare to do a manual restart.”

Petulance is both restful and expensive – it gives you a break from thinking but it wastes time. Piety is both effective and dangerous – it gets things done but often thoughtlessly. With both of these very human tendencies, let’s try to optimize the former characteristics of each tendency and minimize the latter.

The end.


© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.