Returning Yourself to Health – A Brief Introduction

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self-construct (self • kon • strukt'), v.i.

to take responsibility for engendering

your unique gifts by completing the job

left unfinished by your parents.



Life is too short

to devote too much of it

to activities that are not at the heart of

what it is to be human.

- Martha Nussbaum


very therapist worth their salt believes utterly that under the pain and confusion that clients brings with them into therapy, there are healthy individuals capable of running their own lives. After ensuring the safety of the client and acquainting him or her with the ethical aspects of entering therapy, a wise and skilled clinician starts the process of clearing away the dross that has accumulated in the client’s life rendering that person unable to access their inborn resilience. Oftentimes the clearing away process reveals pockets of naïveté that disrupt the healing process, at which time the clinician either stops the therapy to instruct the client or sends the client to explore the issue using a sound psycho-educational resource. Work then resumes with the clinician encouraging the client to depend more and more on her or his own savvy and verve. At therapy’s end we have a human being who is once again their natural, adaptable self and very likely capable of rebounding on their own from the next crappy conundrum that fate drops into their life.

The overarching goal of this website is to simulate that therapeutic process for people who would like to give self-directed healing a try or for people who are relatively free from distress but would like to develop an even stronger relationship with themselves. Derived from the model of self-construction, all the articles herein will guide you through a kind, careful and thorough evaluation of how life has been treating you, how you have been coping to this point and what you don’t know that you don’t know. By taking the steps outlined by the model, you can sweep away much of the detritus that has been burdening your life and gumming up your gears. You can also come to understand what to do now that will allow you to self-construct a more potent and fruitful personal narrative – and do so on a daily basis not just when life forces you to rise to a challenging occasion. If you and I are successful, from this point forward your life will be both better provisioned and more intentionally designed. What a resourced and coherent way to be!

I’ll admit it won’t be quick or easy. Depending on what kind of upbringing fate had in store for you, you may need to spend some considerable time studying each of the 50 plus articles on this website. For others of you, there may be only a dozen or so psychological constructs to be learned before your life rights itself again. But it may help to look at it this way: this next year is going to pass by no matter what you do. Wouldn’t it make sense to spend perhaps an hour a week developing self-construction skills – to take responsibility for engendering your unique gifts by completing the job left unfinished by your parents?

The model of self-construction has been built on the shoulders of the thinkers who spent their lives both studying and living their deepest sense of what it means to be fully human. That is to say, I have gathered here for you the foundational thinking of the existential writers and the attachment expertise of the feminist scholars as well as the most powerful tools from the field of psychology and used all of that to create as complete a curriculum as possible for self-directed healing.

I did this because I believe we are all capable of restoring our natural resilience. I so very strongly agree with philosopher Martha Nussbaum – we are all better off when we devote most of our energy toward being the most complete human being possible – and I hope you concur.

Let’s begin.

 

Each article will contain a FAWOT box where I include both books of nonfiction and fiction that I believe can deepen your understanding of the topic at hand. If you have read something you think can contribute to the article, please let me know and I'll check it out.

 

 

If you send me questions at jan@self-construct.com, I'll answer them!

 

Starting with you

Once upon a time, one man and one woman conceived a child who turned out to be you. How your world received you, respected you and trained you has underwritten your particular biography to date. Now, here are two towering truths that follow directly from that last sentence: Every single child is damaged to some extent by their upbringing; and your life story is not supposed to be a novel written by your parents. When we try to ignore these two existential truths we create the struggles that all of us experience to some extent as we try to move effectively through our one and only life. These truths also underlie every article on this website because, until we can understand specifically how our upbringing has affected us to date, our attempts to self-construct will be continuously sabotaged by our inability to clear the decks on what went wrong in our childhoods. And until we can intellectually backfill those distinct lacunae into which we continue to fall, they will remain in place trying to teach us what we don’t know that we don’t know. While a keen appreciation of these two truths will likely not occur until you have read through several of the initial articles on this website, I want to very briefly introduce you to them here.

Every single child is damaged to some extent by their upbringing. There is no need to imagine villainous parents in order to make the point that no childhood is perfectly designed. (Although it needs to be said here explicitly that too many childhoods are absolute horrors, sending children into the world deeply, deeply wounded.) Normal upbringings are primarily focused on making us socially acceptable – well educated in all the right subjects and capable of flourishing in the world of our birth. But, as unique individuals, none of us is completely compatible with either our particular set of parents or our immediate cultures. Nor are our parents and cultures perfect examples of how to live a wonderful life. Plus, as humanity slogs ever so slowly toward greater enlightenment, the older generation that raises us will probably lag behind to a degree in terms of cutting edge collective wisdom.

Thus, everywhere we mismatch and everywhere our parents and cultures are themselves inept in the gnarly aspects of living, a hole will be created in our childhood curriculum that will leave us unprepared, misdirected or misinformed – or all three.

Troopers that we are, we humans naïvely try to live our life as if these holes didn’t exist – and then we fall into one. What happens next is what motivated me to write this website – when we stumble in life we believe this proves that we are inept rather than poorly taught. I’m sure you can see that if we believe the lie that we have weak characters rather than weak training, there is nothing to be done when we stumble but resign ourselves to trying to recover using, ironically, that puny character we've been told we have. Rather like attempting to walk off a broken leg.

Your life story is not supposed to be a novel written by your parents. It is supposed to be written by you. No surprise here. We are all aware on some level that with our every decision we are laying down another sentence describing who we are. The larger the decision, the longer the text. Soon we have another chapter of our autobiography written in the blood of life. If that sounds serious, it’s because it is. We are what we do. Simple as that. And if we write our autobiography well enough then, as Nietzsche suggested, we shouldn’t mind living it over again.

But who among us has actually been taught how to write the story of our life? Remember, our training was primarily focused on preparing us to be upright and compliant citizens in a technological world rather than existentially intelligent individuals awake to the idea that cultures are ill fitting at best. If you don’t know what you don’t know and if you’re supposed to be in position to write your own story, how can you preemptively fill in the blanks left by your prior curriculum? Enter self-construct.com. It isn’t easy reading as I mentioned, but it will definitely point you toward those pesky gaps in your learning that seem to relentlessly trip you up. (If you get stuck, take the material to a skilled therapist, and she or he can help you figure things out.)

On the other hand, much of the reading will be easy for you absolutely already know a great deal of the material presented here for you.

The destination

We started with you and briefly described how you likely got underserved to some degree by your upbringing. Now let’s look at the destination of our healing journey – regaining our natural level of resilience.

Sprinkled throughout the research in the field of psychology are many clues about how people manage to rebound from adversity. Taken as a whole, these clues suggest two aspects of human resilience that should have been thoroughly described in an owner’s manual delivered right alongside every newborn. First, it appears that there are five specified personality traits that combine to support the rebounding process. And, second, although they are stable elements of our inborn temperaments, these traits are somewhat fragile, meaning they can be disturbed and diminished by a poor upbringing.

The five resiliency traits

The research on these five traits goes back almost one hundred years. Starting with Gordon Allport in the 1930s and continuing through to today, psychologists have had an on-again-off-again relationship with the idea that people are born with a relatively stable personality. Starting in the 1960s the research started to coalesce around five distinct domains that seemed to statistically incorporate all the other recognized personality traits. What is germane to us here is that the following five traits, while they have not been shown to be able to predict behavior, have been shown to be innate and to underlie resilience. There are also some data that suggest that these traits respond to strengthening through excellent parenting and/or therapeutic intervention. So, here they are:

1. Openness to experience. Synonymous with curiosity, this trait allows a person to engage in the healthy questing behavior necessary for self-actualization. Folks who are high in this characteristic will be experienced as creative, adventuresome, enthusiastic, and intense. And while there is nothing wrong with opposing traits such as caution and deliberateness, you can see how they would be less likely to aid in rebounding from a setback.

2. Conscientiousness. Synonymous with responsibility, a fellow with notable levels of this trait is one who reliably thinks about what he is doing and whether or not that is a wise use of his time. Folks like him tend to be industrious and very well prepared. Oddly, opposing tendencies such as spontaneity and a willingness to fly by the seat of one’s pants have been shown to inhibit resilience. It appears that, when problems arise, thoughtful, well-planned, efficient and structured behaviors more often aid in getting your life back on track – especially when combined with the openness-to-experience trait.

3. Extraversion. Synonymous with surgency, this trait describes people who seek fierce emotional states through bold and audacious moves. Euphoria is often their drug of choice. Because this trait describes people who are extremely comfortable having a high level of intense interaction with their environment, they get the majority of their energy from being out in the world trying new and daring things. Again, there is definitely nothing wrong with being on the other end of the scale and being more introverted. But when it comes to resilience, it appears that folks who see the world as an easily accessed resource will simply have more options for institutional assistance and more ideas about how to bounce back.

4. Stability. Synonymous with maturity, a woman who demonstrates this trait is self-sufficient, calm and optimistic. Her high tolerance for stress helps her sidestep the emotional reactivity that often precipitates moodiness or hopelessness. Her confidence serves her well as she networks with others to build a capable pit crew. Again, while the sensitivity of people who are more excitable can be fine in most cases, it may cause them trouble when trying to think their way through upsetting times.

5. Agreeableness. Synonymous with compassion these folks eagerly attach to their world – people, places and things. They are kind, generous and interested in the well-being of the people in their social world. Because they have been empathically connected to significant others, they can easily access both corrective and supportive emotional experiences when under duress. And because they are committed to their job, their hobbies, their pets, their teams, their hometown, their planet and so on, they are terrifically energized by life. If you are a competitive and highly independent person by nature, you may be quite successful day-to-day but less able to access social support when trying to recover from a negative event in your life.

I hope I’ve made it quite clear in this section that there is nothing wrong with you if you were born with higher levels of the opposing traits to resilience. A personality like yours can lead to a remarkable life, but it will likely require you to be more intentionally resourceful when you are set back by fate. If you can remember to rely on others for support and perhaps guidance when the going gets rough, you should be able to regain your natural equilibrium in fairly short order. And don’t forget, those with enviable levels of resilience will rely on you to balance them out a bit with the traits that you have in such abundance!

How these traits get derailed

While some folks are rather lucky to have a naturally resilient personality, everyone, obviously, has some of each of the characteristics listed above. We give these attributes next to no thought until life has dealt us a blow and we need to gather our resources in order to heal. When we go to the cupboards of our minds to take out our resiliency traits, however, we may find some of the jars mostly empty, some mislabeled and some completely dried up. What would cause our supplies of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, stability and agreeableness to dwindle? Two things. First, a harsh upbringing will crush a child’s resilient temperament to the extent it appears to be at cross-purposes with the stern adults. And, second, a lack of training in how to provision our resiliency pantry with well-cured and stable supplies will leave us strapped when we need these supplies most. Let’s look at each trait again briefly to start understanding how poorly some children are raised relative to developing resiliency resources. The enhancement of every aspect of resilience will be covered in great detail in its own section of the website (Sections I-V). What follows is simply a thumbnail introduction to the derailing process.

1. Openness to experience. If you were to ask young parents if they would like to have children who were likely to self-actualize, I would imagine only the most bitter would say “No, not really.” In truth, who wouldn’t work to launch successful and happy adult children? I’ll tell you who – young parents who fail to realize that the necessary traits for seeking self-realization show up early and in extremely annoying (dare I say infuriating?) forms. The most benign manifestation of this first trait might be that relentless perseveration of the word: “Why?” But these madcap behaviors run the gamut from running away from home to blowing up the house with science experiments. Clearly they can be extremely dangerous both physically and socially for children. Due to fear, fatigue or ineptness, parents very often stifle any form of this first resiliency trait and push the child toward safer, conforming behaviors. And these sabotaging parental behaviors run the gamut from failing to listen to the needs of their children to outright lying to them. And, of course, many a parent will invoke that awful authoritarian brutality of shaming that drives healthy questing behavior clear out of the souls of most kids. Only people who take their parenting job very, very seriously will be able to routinely and sufficiently differentiate themselves emotionally from their offspring as their little darlings scrabble to find the trailhead to their life’s journey.

2. Conscientiousness. The childhood damage inflicted on this characteristic tends to be caused by both a lack of knowledge and a lack of integrity on the part of the child’s adult world. The ability to hold oneself accountable develops slowly over our long childhood as a person watches how their elders act. Effective parents can say, “Do as I say and as I do.” In the absence of mature role models, even children with naturally high levels of this trait will struggle to learn all the skills that underlie this ability. Self-discipline is created when many psychological skills are fully in place and psychological sloppiness is minimized. Since few of us have received a thorough education in the components of self-discipline, few of us can offer our offspring a rigorous curriculum on this most critical of subjects. Most people become more conscientious over time, but it sure seems more efficacious to me to help children operationalize then practice this trait early in life.

3. Extraversion. Whereas surgency is a fabulous word, it is a difficult trait to enjoy in your child(ren). It appears as a relentless hunger for ever more novel and intense experiences. Very often it also appears in fantasy form that can send many a reasonable adult into rebuttal mode. “No, honey, we aren’t going to let you join a band and go on tour. You’re only eleven.” And you can imagine how well this trait goes over with adults who are trying to herd children into compliant and quiet behaviors. Further, this characteristic very often gets squished when the plans a young adult has for her or his life doesn’t match with the plans of the parent. Few rents can maintain their delight in the face of offspring who want to fling themselves toward a future that makes absolutely no sense to the adults. Finally, grownups who themselves prefer a low-stimulation lifestyle will likely struggle to endure the energy and stimulation created by a child high in surgency.

4. Stability. Similar to conscientiousness, this trait needs to be well fostered through patient teaching and modeling by the adult world. High levels of self-esteem are required as a foundation for this trait, and a thorough curriculum for developing solid self-esteem involves beaucoup mini-lessons. Few adults understand that, and without all the components in place for complex psychological constructs like this one, the child will continue to be plagued by a lack of self-confidence. Also, while it can be very clear early in a child’s life that she is an optimistic and relaxed kind of kid, if too much stress happens too soon and without clear adult support and debriefing, even these cheerful kids can develop chronically high levels of unhelpful anxiety. It takes grownups who have put much serious thought into how authentically they are managing their lives to serve as the models necessary to inspire kids to do likewise.

5. Agreeableness. This trait tends to be nurtured in young females and ignored or ridiculed in young males. And because behaviors typically associated with males – in this case competition, independence and confrontation – are more greatly valued by American culture, the characteristics that underlie agreeableness are not in themselves greatly respected. If you want to be taken seriously, in other words, you won’t want to lead with helpfulness, kindness or concern for others. Thus even female children can start to distance themselves from compassionate behaviors. Parents may give lip service to the position that one should be considerate of others, but the conscious construction energy of much of parenting goes into teaching kids how to compete successfully out in the world. If, on the other hand, children are able to observe their folks putting energy into gaining and maintaining friendships, they will likely do so also.

Picture parents faced with a fearless, bossy, rambunctious, vain and chatty three-year-old for twenty-four hours a day. Can’t you just imagine that many, many of these beleaguered folks would gladly trade that child in on one who is cautious, easygoing, restrained, modest and hardworking? Even the best parents will frequently stifle the difficult-to-tolerate resiliency traits and reinforce their opposite. Again, it’s not that the opposing traits are problematic. It’s that, when combined with the stifling behaviors of parents, reinforcing the less resilient traits will also reinforce the child’s belief that their resiliency traits are undesirable. When you add to that unfortunate truth the fact that most cultures systematically punish those adventurous, bossy, rambunctious, vain and chatty three-year-olds, you can see how so many of us end up entering adulthood with our resiliency cupboard bare.

Restoring your natural levels of the five resiliency traits

It may appear daunting to try to figure out how to tackle the process of restoring your natural levels of these five major traits. Luckily, hidden away in the existential literature is a little map that can help us plan out our journey. It’s an odd little map, but I have found it to be completely reliable as I guide myself and my clients along toward better and better mental health.

If we understand that the most elemental aspect of being a human being is that we understand the concept of time, we can use that reality to serve as our guide. To wit: if we realize that there are five aspects of time that we must all learn to navigate, we can use each of these five aspects to benchmark a matching resiliency trait.

The five components of time are: past, present, future, death and energy. I would imagine the first three dimensions are obvious to you. We are all comfortable with moving our perspective among our past, our present and our future. The other two dimensions will take a little explaining.

Death, if you think about it, is a quintessentially human dimension of time in that only humans understand these two critical truths about death: it is coming for each and every one of us, and it could be here later this afternoon. To the extent we can tolerate the fact that death is an ever-present, unpredictable threat to our time allotment, we can make the best use of that time by turning the resulting uncertainty into urgency rather than panic. The wise use of our death awareness and how that ability enhances resilience is a huge topic and, as I mentioned above, it has its own section on this website: Facing the Truth About Fate.

And energy, as you can imagine, is that component of time that actually allows us to make use of our time. If we arrive at a day with insufficient physical and emotional resources to enact our choices, can it be said we actually have a day? What often happens when this happens is we either have to take a “sick day” to refuel or we limp through the time period at less than half speed meaning we’ve lost half our productivity. We power our lives through our attachment behaviors – connections to ourselves as well as people, places and things. Put another way, our vitality is a function of our engagement with what is meaningful in our world. Our attachment to our world defines why our lives matter to us and why our lives matter to our world. If nothing about our situation matters, our lives will have no energy for maintaining our physical and psychological health and we will fail to thrive. The section of the website dedicated to exploring this dimension of time is called “Building Connections to Energize Your World.”

“I’m afraid you’re losing me!” I hear you exclaim. “How is this an easy little map?”

Let’s back up a bit. Let’s say there are 55 skills that underlie the five resiliency traits. Rather than simply providing those skills for you in alphabetical order, I’ve organized them according to how a gifted therapist would group them as she goes about her work helping you restore your emotional health. Because humans are very familiar with orienting themselves relative to time, if we can broaden our picture of time to include death and energy, we can easily see the five points of the compass.

Each compass point will guide you toward the work that will help you heal a particular resiliency trait.

If we want to heal our openness to experience, we will want to improve our relationship with our past, for a discomfort with who we think we’ve been up until now will surely affect our willingness to trust our natural curiosity and verve. This is covered in Section I of the website.

If we want to heal our ability to be conscientious, we will want to focus our attention on our relationship with our use of the present for if we believe we lack the self-discipline to make wise choices, we will be relentlessly whipsawed by behaviors such as impulsivity, procrastination and petulance. This is covered in Section II of the website.

If we want to heal our natural level of surgency, we will want to ensure that our sense of the future is colored by delight not doom, for if we experience no pull from what lies ahead for us, it will be nearly impossible to engage our derring-do. This is covered in Section III.

If we want to heal our ability to be emotionally stable in our daily lives, we will want to strengthen our ability to handle difficult truths. One way to do that is to learn to make good use of the fact that death – indeed fate itself – is out there somewhere urging us to take risks and step bravely into our next choice. If we shrink from understanding how difficult it is to be a human, we will find ourselves being a little less human. This is covered in Section IV.

If we want to heal our ability to stay connected to the people, places and things that matter to us, we will want to learn to monitor our levels of energy and intervene as necessary to vivify our lives with ardent interdependence. For if we get sloppy in the maintenance of our relationships, the equity we need to have in them will not be there when needed. This is covered in Section V.

The five strategies based on our conception of time that our hypothetical therapist will use are not without significant overlap, but, when made artificially distinct, they can serve as a reliable point of reference to keep the healing work on track and efficient. And as you learn about the five resiliency traits and their connections to the dimensions of time, it will be much easier to keep track of what you are working on by remembering the easier past, present, future, death and energy compass than the more cumbersome openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, stability and agreeableness. We’re used to navigating through time. We are not so surefooted when it comes to resilience.

To summarize

The self-construct website is organized to help you fill your psychological cupboards with high-grade resiliency traits by helping you unearth these five characteristics and return them to their original, unsullied strength. And because openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, stability and agreeableness all have a rather short shelf life, you will also be developing the skills to ensure that you will always have a fresh supply of these vital characteristics.

You can either read through the material in the order presented or start with the dimension of time that seems to give you the most trouble. If you are choosing the latter, take a minute to scroll through the five dimensions of time. Look for the bruised parts of your psyche and connect it to a point on our little existential map.

• If your childhood haunts you and you often feel stupid, start back in your past.

• If you feel like you are letting too many days go by without making wise choices and you wonder about this childish behavior, start with the present.

• If you feel that you life is just not meaningful and your days are boring, look first at the future dimension.

• If you fear you are spending too much time looking for easy answers or short cuts, you might look first at the section on fate to see if you can up your level of authenticity.

• Finally, if you are just too low on energy to put good things in motion for yourself or too lonely to even imagine moving out into your world, start with the energy dimension.

If it is still ambiguous to you in terms of where to start, you can also read the short introductory article for each of the five sections to get a clearer sense of each time-trait relationship and see what lights your fire.

Now, restoring your resilience to its natural state won’t make you dog happy, but it will enable you to consistently accommodate what fate throws at you in a way that allows you to maintain steady progress toward mastery of the domains that mean the most to you. Mastery, of course, will take you into the state of flow, which is as close to dog happy as humans get.

And, of course, the effort is always sublime. As Nietzsche put it:

In the mountains of truth you never climb in vain. Either you already reach a higher point to-day, or you exercise your strength in order to be able to climb higher to-morrow.

Welcome to Human School – the homeschooling model. Here we go!

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.