How to Self-construct


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

nce 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 is not supposed to be a novel written by your parents. Trying to ignore these two existential truths creates the struggles that all of us experience as we try to move effectively through our one and only life. They 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 thorough understanding of these two truths will likely not occur until you have read through several of the initial articles on this website, I want to 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 some childhoods are absolute horrors, sending children into the world 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. As such, 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.

We naïvely try to live our life as if these holes didn’t exist – until, that is, we fall into one. What happens next is the reason I wrote 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 but resign ourselves to trying to increase our grit using, ironically, that puny character we've been told we have. Rather like attempting to walk off a broken leg.

Your life 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. If we write our autobiography well, we shouldn’t mind living it over and over again.

But who among us has been taught how to write the story of our life? Remember, our training was primarily focused on preparing us to be upright citizens in a technological world rather than existentially savvy individuals.

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 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-construction. It isn’t easy reading, necessarily, 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 as you absolutely already know a great deal of the material presented here for you.

The overarching goal of this website is to provide you with a kind, careful and thorough evaluation of how life has been treating you, how you have been coping to this point and what you can do now that will allow you to self-construct a more potent and fruitful narrative. If you and I are successful, from this point forward your biography will be written such that you wouldn't mind living this life again.

The Process

All of us talk to ourselves. We mutter, we cajole, we yell. We commonly editorialize and critique. We may even crack ourselves up from time to time. What few of us do, though, is calmly discuss. It's important to understand that the hallmark of good parenting is discussion, and this is true for self-construction as well. If we had good enough parents, we instinctively cultivated this skill in ourself by watching our caregivers talk things through to reach a thoughtful decision about what is likely best for us. To the extent our parents provided poor examples of consensus-driven guidance, however, our ability to do so for ourselves will be compromised.

Good parents start preparing us to take over the reins of our lives when we are 10 or 11 years old. They do this by giving us a little less guidance, a little more freedom and an abundance of patient debriefing over dinner. Poor parents are simply unclear on the concept of training their children to self-construct. Cruel parents actively obstruct a youngster’s attempts to manage his or her own life.

One goal of this website is to help you create for yourself a healthy, flexible and affectionate parental unit that will fit neatly inside your head and provide you with unflappable consultation as you take over the job of engendering your unique gifts. There are several theories that underlie the material presented here. First, obviously, is the belief that we need to have wise internal discussions about what is likely best for us. I address that theory here. Next is the notion that those discussions are most potent when the discussants have a dialectic relationship with each other that provides opposing perspectives on the problem at hand. The two most powerful orientations for dialectical parental discussions are voices of expectation and voices of support. The expectant voice used in the model parental unit for this website is an extension of what the existential writers felt was the surest cognitive route to optimal mental health – the ability to judge oneself authentically. The supportive voice builds on the processes for psychological growth that are formed in relation to context, experience, other thinkers and time as described by feminist writers – the ability to provision oneself proactively. To put this in more prosaic terms, I have tended to use the existential writers to flesh out the "father" voice of expectation and the feminist thinkers to embody the "mother" voice of support. Taken together, the luminous writings of these two groups provide us with comprehensive examples of instructive parental voices. It has been my very great pleasure to use this process with clients in my practice for decades. I have found folks completely capable of internalizing this capacity to hold wise internal discussions and have seen them move out into their worlds theoretically well-armed and well-aimed as a result. Please believe that this is a skill you can train into yourself.

The Content

In addition to improving the way you talk to yourself (the process of self-construction), it is also terribly helpful to upgrade the content of those discussions (what it is you say to yourself). To that end, as I mentioned, I have mined the field of psychology for what I consider to be the best and most current thinking in healthful living skills. That rich material underlies the content articles in the skills sections of the website. Additionally, you will notice two boxes in each article – one labeled FAWBOT and one labeled Good Question. The FAWBOT acronym stands for “For A Whole Book On This.” Within this box in each article will be both fiction and nonfiction books that I believe will be helpful to those folks who want more material on a topic. I will also include links to websites that can provide current and robust psychological content. The “Good Question” box is your invitation to help both deepen and clarify the content of this website. Please reach out with any questions, concerns or input.

The sequencing

Over the years of working with clients, I have found that there is a particular order of learning that seems to most effectively correct and augment poor home training. I have mimicked that sequencing in the order of the articles. As you review the material provided on this website, you can skim over the material you already know, review the material you mostly understand and study the material that is new to you.

In a nutshell, preparing a mind to hold wise internal discussions involves:

• eliminating the obstacles that prevent you from liking yourself

• exploring the elements of good parenting

• replacing cultural lies with existential, feminist truths about the human struggle

• understanding:

o basic psychological concepts

o complex psychological constructs

o relationship skills

o existential skills

• making the commitment to self-construct utilizing these concepts

It's possible

Completing all these steps won’t happen quickly for there are many of them and they will each need to be reviewed and then practiced until they are “set” into your psychological repertoire. But luckily there is no complexity involved with any skill that would preclude any of us from learning now what we need to know about creating a self-directed life. Brick by brick, as you read through the articles on this website, you can put all the skills in place to help you build a fine life. At the end of the process, you will be in a position to self-construct with a capable, customized parental unit humming away inside your mind.

Here is a more detailed overview of the sequencing:

A Self-Guided Tour of Your Upbringing

In order to be accountable to ourselves for ourselves, we need to know ourselves. But it’s hard to get to know ourselves if we don’t like ourselves. Herein lies a huge psychological kill switch: to the extent our upbringing was characterized by an unsympathetic, harsh or evil tone, getting to know ourselves by looking back over our past will be too uncomfortable to manage.

The articles in this first section will support you through the process of exploring just how unhelpful your particular childhood was and ease you out from under any shame you may feel about your past.

Making Peace With Your Past

We all want to move beyond bemoaning how awful our childhood was. In order to do this, we must understand the specific ways our upbringing left us ill-equipped to handle the art of self-construction. Only then can we correct the inadequacies that have handicapped us thus far.

There are many reasons our childhood contains gaps and distortions – bad parenting, poor parenting and mismatched parenting. This section outlines the particulars of a solid upbringing and provides you with models of effective parenting that you can use to correct any elements of less-than-effective parenting you experienced growing up.

Truths You Need to Know

From an extraordinarily early age children understand that fate is going to affect them on a daily basis. Caterpillars in jars are going to die, games are going to be lost and wishes are not often going to come true. If the adults in our world brush aside our concerns about how hard we are struggling with some of these existential and relational difficulties, we will be misled about our level of competency. This section shines a light on the main categories of misinformation that sabotage our ability to trust our perception of the world and of ourselves.

Basic Psychological Skills

It is very tricky to figure out what you don’t know that you don’t know. Basic psychological constructs are thoroughly described in this section to allow you to scan through them and fill in any blanks you may have as a result of your unique upbringing. You will know most parts of most of these skills, but trust me when I say that all psychological skills work much, much better with all their parts in place.

Complex Psychological Skills

This section is meaty. The skills described here are foundational for a sound life and can take years to master. But each step you take toward mastery will align you with a more authentic version of yourself and thus a more powerful version of your life. Every one of these skills is worth the effort.

Relationship Skills

All people need people, so good relationship skills are nonnegotiable if you seek to have a fine life. If you accept that the ultimate growth into our full-bodied self is possible only through connection with divergent others – and the corollary, that only through egalitarian behavior can attachment truly occur – the tasks of this section will position you to create that necessary interpersonal intimacy. And please be sure to read the article on the architecture of love in the complex psychological skills category above.

Existential Skills

Here’s where the rubber meets the road when it comes to designing a potent life – a life you wouldn’t mind living again. We cannot truly self-construct until we understand what it means to exist as a human. What is true for us now has been true for all humans for all time. This section scours the minds of the great existential thinkers to outline astute strategies for the most rigorous self-construction projects we can imagine.

Finding Work You Love

Since the definition of self-construction is to take responsibility for engendering your unique gifts by completing the job left unfinished by your parents, what you do with those gifts should ideally connect with your world of work. Again, using both existential and feminist thinking, the articles in this section walk you through the process of putting your gifts to work in a manner that brings you joy.

Will One Thing

The article in this section covers the good news – there is an heuristic for remembering how to implement all the skills underlying self-construction – and the bad news – once you have read and absorbed the material on this website it will be your fault if you routinely back away from the task of authentically constructing your self. Luckily, feminist and existential philosophers and novelists offer many inspiring examples of how to tolerate this challenge. With choice, chance, and cheerleading, we can each achieve a solid, self-constructed life.

In Conclusion

Are you ever worried that you’re in the wrong life? Or do you feel your life is too small? Or that everyone but you seems to have things figured out? If you are feeling out of sorts with how your days are unfolding, please believe me when I say – it’s not your fault. Please read on through the self-construct website to help yourself determine what you don’t know that you don’t yet know.

You are the main character in the book that is your life. While none of us is an omniscient narrator of our own story, there are ways to write ourselves as a compelling protagonist living a life with a gripping plot.

Life should be lived in wonder not dismay.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.