Maintaining Psychological Gains: Writing Codes of Conclusion

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When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life,

its conclusions seem to vanish,

like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning;

and it is difficult for us to retain even that conviction,

which we had attained with difficulty.

- David Hume

There are times I almost think

I am not sure of what I absolutely know.

Very often find confusion

in conclusion I concluded long ago.

- The King and I


ere are two bits of very good news. Bit One: The best thing about learning how to explicitly self-construct is that you will come to trust yourself more deeply in many, many ways. You will be more confident in the clarity of your thinking, the precision of your data collection and the profundity of your conclusions. Your decision-making process will rarely suffer from a garbage-in-garbage-out contamination that gets created when any poor childhood training is left unexamined within us. Thinking itself will, in fact, become ever more enjoyable. This is the place of delightful thought experimentation and frequent peak experiences of the mind.

Bit Two: Feminist and existentialist theorists have done us a substantial favor. They each gathered within their minds a great deal of philosophical material as well as existing theories and data from numerous academic fields. They spent an inordinate number of years thinking and consulting about that rich material. Finally, as a result of all that effort, they were able to draw valuable and novel conclusions about what it takes to be the best human possible. You and I get to take those conclusions and use them to inform our self-construction projects.

And here’s the not-so-good news that you had a hunch was coming: We humans are terribly poor at encoding into our operating systems the splendid conclusions we draw in the process of self-construction. We reason our way through to a powerful discovery about how we want to evolve but, before our conclusion can become our new way of thinking, it evaporates.

An example

Does the following forgetfulness scenario seem familiar?

There are several men in my neighborhood with whom I find it extremely unpleasant to interact. I experience them as boorish and bloviating. They present to me an ongoing challenge, for I tend to get annoyed when people corner me with unsolicited monologues. What happens then is I start to concoct verbal duels in my head where I school them in appropriate interpersonal behavior. All that ruminating does, of course, is keep me both activated internally and also distanced from being the type of person I am seeking to become. I very badly want to be honorable no matter how others behave. I never want to let someone else’s level of integrity set my own level. As you can imagine from the ire in my description of them, I have been failing miserably.

In consultation with my inner committee, we decided that these men are unfortunate victims of the phallocentric culture within which they were raised and they can’t help being unaware that they are bullying their way through their “conversations” with me. My job is to stop expecting these old grumps to be anything different from what they were raised to be and stop taking their rudeness toward me personally. My conclusion is to remember that the personal is political and, therefore, these men are to be pitied, not vilified. Sound reasonable? I thought so. However. It galls me to admit that I have had one hell of a time calling to mind the reasoning that I had so carefully drawn. I see them walking toward me and their stimulus value alone is enough to make me want to start yanking chains. What I need is something that I can embroider on the sampler hanging in the living room of my mind to guide my behavior when I’m under the duress of listening to them.

 

Ecce Homo

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Human, All-Too-Human

- Friedrich Nietzsche

 

What I need is a more effective way to encode my conclusions to help me remain bile free.

Converting insight

So why is insight alone is rarely enough to create change?

Insight (aka a self-constructed conclusion) only provides a new design feature that we have concluded we would like to have as a new and improved part of our ever-better selves. Sounds good so far. We achieve insight when we have honestly studied one of our foibles, resolutely uncovered how it holds power over us and have figured out how to disempower it. Still sounding good. In the vignette above, my insight was that I was foolish in my hopes that these neighbors would be inspired by my wit and sensibilities to rise above their misogynous upbringing and treat me with respect. My foible was an unfettered just-world hypothesis.

Like a new application downloaded to your computer, there is an important step that needs to happen for insight to become a functional part of your value system: you need to codify your conclusion so that it is readily available to you. Because most of us stop short of encoding our new beliefs, we lack the link between our new thinking and changing our upcoming behavior.

We need a code of conclusion.

What is this?

It is an easily memorized sound bite reminding us that we have predetermined instructions for intentional, chosen and noteworthy behavior already queued up. Like the “Stop, drop and roll!” order that we use to direct a child’s behavior should they catch their clothing on fire (heaven forbid), codes of conclusion connect us efficiently to previous sound thinking. Think of it as a sticky note of wisdom placed on the refrigerator of your mind.

How do we arrive at a good code of conclusion?

A memo from the boss

One way to write an effective conclusion code is to draft a specific type of memo from the boss.

People joke about how inefficient and annoying business meetings are, but there are times when the only thing that works is getting everyone in the same room. You, as boss, need to have both a clear sense of what to write on the memo and a near total buy-in from the parts of you that will be affected. When you have concluded something you want to implement, you simply have to have a meeting.

The attendees should be all those parts of you that are affected by the conclusion. For me relative to my neighborhood dilemma, I needed to be sure that, in addition to my parental unit and my executive functioning identity, my mouthy side and my earnest side were also represented.

This is no New Age hooey.

All the parts of your personality that are capable of exerting influence – and thus sabotage – on the way you behave have to sign off on the code. In order for them to do that, they have help craft the memo.

An effective memo needs to operationalize your insight in ways that can serve as exemplars of appropriate implementation of the new conclusion. The committee members must anticipate situations that can arise and script acceptable responses. A sample memo would be:

To: Jan

Fr: Jan’s Committee

Re: Problematic Neighborhood Men

While we can appreciate that the feisty and earnest parts of your personality are precious to you and are perhaps useful in other situations, we feel that they are absolutely not helpful here. You simply cannot expect to exist in a just world, meaning you have to know how to behave with integrity when the world is unjust. Your neighborhood situation that has been brought to our attention reflects the oppressed status of women and the heightened entitlement of white men. We understand that this is unjust and we urge you to work to correct this imbalance in other circumstances. Relative to your neighborhood Neanderthals, however, we suggest that you remember that they are not going to like you no matter what you say or do, nor are they going to change their behavior toward women in general or you in particular. It is up to you to set limits with them concerning their behavior toward you.

We advise that you act in the following way: due to the hyper-authoritarian behavior of these men, you would be most effective if you use the communication style of militant males when talking with them. Specifically, you can give them fairly brusque pushback when they over-speak you, patronize you or act in dismissive ways toward you. Further, remember that you do not have to stop what you are doing when they wander by nor provide them with an audience for their lectures.

We want to help you remember these behavioral suggestions in the face of their provocation, so please rehearse the following code of conclusion until it becomes fixed in your operating system: Channel a four-star general.

Please check back with us in one week. Good luck.

Writing the code

An effective code of conclusion should accomplish the following:

• Describe how to behave as a result of your insight

• Follow naturally from the body of the memo

• Use language that is clear, honest and simple

• Provide an image that is salient to you personally

• Encapsulate instructions to be accessed nearly without thought

Once you have an image that captures your conclusion in code form, you test it out.

If it just disappears, it’s probably not sexy enough to you to capture your imagination. If this is the case, it’s back to the drawing board. I genuinely liked the four-star general concept, so it would pop obligingly into my mind when I would see one of the men approaching.

If you remember it but it doesn’t take hold, you probably want to want it but don’t really want it. If you try to implement behavior that you don’t actually want, you will overburden your will power. You will be much more successful if you engage your will and convert your “I want to want” into “I will.” This turned out to be the problem for me – several parts of me truly like to be angry with these men. The aspects of me that crave a just world, that grieve over the loss of innocence, that passionately believe that there is no excuse in the 21st century for men to continue to act like conquerers, that thrive on drama and that enjoy the surgical incisiveness of anger – all these parts were reluctant to buy into the new perspective. I had to have another meeting or two before I could convince all of myself to try the new code. The argument I used was: Above all else, I want to become wise. Being well defended with respect to these hurtful men is wise. Therefore, I want to effectively defend myself around them.

You will also want to be alert to an internal narrative that agrees with the code but continually has reasons to delay implementation of it. If you hear inner excuses like “I had a hard day today. I’ll try that new behavior tomorrow.” or "That situation was just too hard." or "It happened so fast!" recognize the need for greater self-honesty. With gentleness, check to see what the resistance is about. (Here is some help with petulance, here is some help with procrastination and here is some help increasing your respect for seeking the truth within your self.)

If you remember the code, it takes hold in your physical behavior but isn’t effective in your mental realm, there is still some work to be done. (As described in the article on behavior change, you have to align your internal thinking with your outward behavior before true change occurs.) Apparently my four-star general wasn’t effective in stopping my fantasies about providing these men with brilliant and erudite feminist consciousness-raising. I was still wasting my time by imagining that just world I so craved relative to these fossilized fellows. If my hot temper and my drama queen overpowered my WW-II officer in my internal world, using him in the outside world started to feel a bit hypocritical. Another meeting about wanting to be wise. We decided that the general now had jurisdiction over the aspects of my personality that were doing the internal sabotage but ONLY with respect to the bothersome men. That decision seems to be holding. I’ll keep you posted.

Say what you want about committee meetings, sometimes they work.

Two tips

Be watchful to ensure that you are encoding a distinct conclusion. Like a compliment, codes need to be concrete and extremely specific. So, for example, if you have just finished reading an inspiring book about how to de-clutter your life, don’t try to encompass the entire de-clutter program described in the book with one code of conclusion. Rather, pick the next thing you need to learn along the route to de-cluttering and code that. Once, obviously, that has been incorporated into your operating system, code the next skill in that program that you want to master. I have made this mistake too many times to count – felt the inspiration to make a huge change and then, wishing with all my might, hoped for the best. Very few of us have been taught that change takes so much more discipline around scheduling than we can imagine. But, also, very few of us have been taught that change is inevitable if done correctly.

A word here about aphorisms and bumper stickers. These pithy catchphrases are codes of conclusions, true, but they are not your code of conclusion. What I mean by that is, while they may feel like they would inspire you to make a positive change in your life, because they are not connected to your thought process around your personal life situation, they will rarely reflect the next step you need to take. This mismatch between your desires and your instructions sets you at very high risk for failure, which will unnecessarily undermine both your resolve and your confidence. If an aphorism captures your imagination, I recommend reverse-engineering it carefully relative to your own state of affairs until two things are true: the aphorism is deeply connected to your interest in willing this one thing, and it does not create a gap between where you are now in your personal growth process and where you are hoping to go.

Let me provide a couple more examples:

Sadly, a frequent target of therapy is a client’s self-loathing. This heartbreaking state is always the result of an inherited set of lies implanted in the minds of youngsters by very damaged adults. I cannot tell you how many therapy sessions I have spent working with a client to conclude that the indictments heaped on their little heads were drawn from a twisted belief in the complete list of awful or the seven deadly sins; or the erroneous belief that shame is an appropriate parental tool; or any of the other seventeen poor parenting strategies that haunt all of us to some extent. (And some folks to a very grave extent.) At the end of the hour, most often the self-loathing has been lifted a bit and the client is open to the idea that, at the very, very least, they are to be admired for having survived their toxic childhood. Unfortunately, this new insight is too nebulous to survive out in the client’s daily world. With a clear and acceptable code of conclusion, however, the client will have something available to practice that can lead to their ability to maintain a modicum of self-respect with which to replace the self-loathing. These conclusion codes often take the form of: “At least _____________ thinks I’m impressive.” We fill in the blank with the most powerful person in the client’s life who has routinely stipulated that the client is doing a fine job navigating their difficult life.

Here is an example of a less entrenched need for a code of conclusion: A very bright woman has found out that, for the second time in their marriage, her neurosurgeon husband is having an affair with a nurse. Her initial impulse is to confront him and blow the relationship apart, but after some thought and therapy, she decides she would rather navigate carefully through this horrible situation to see if the relationship can be salvaged. This decision requires her to first get over the agonizing belief she has that he has done this to her intentionally due to her shortcomings in the marriage. She takes a few weeks to work this through in therapy and can finally and fully conclude that, while there are undoubtedly myriad ways she could improve her participation in this marriage, his decision to violate the contract of their marriage vows has nothing to do with her and everything to do with his stage of moral development. Using the, albeit sexist, Kohlberg model of moral development, she was able to pinpoint his extremely primitive ethical position. The code of conclusion she used to maintain her clarity of thought during the next stage of therapy was this: The doctor can be found on stage two. The juxtaposition of his impressive professional title with his unimpressive ethical stance captured her very healthy sense of humor, making it an extremely effective conclusion code. (It also, ironically, served as a powerful antidote to her previous belief that he was “the perfect man.”)

Will one thing

People who have learned to access then embody their conclusions will have a certain recognizable thereness to their personalities. A stability and reliability that is both enviable and reassuring. To borrow a phrase from Kierkegaard, people like this have learned to will one thing. Through careful internal conversations, they think through an aspect of their life that they wish to improve; arrive at a particular insight about how that might work; encode that conclusion into a pithy directive; and then pledge to memorize and uphold that code. That’s what it means to will one thing. For me, to will one thing in this example is to use a prototypical masculine behavior to protect my feminist energy so that I can use it in more fruitful situations. General Jan Patton.

But folks who routinely find no confusion in conclusion they concluded long ago also have the wisdom to plant their code of conclusion in the correct location in their growth process. They know themselves well enough and are patient enough with the self-actualization process to trust that baby steps are the way to go. They use a code of conclusion to bridge where they are right now in life with the next place they wish to be. In other words, we might update Kierkegaard a bit to say will the next important thing.

Insight is a wonderful thing to experience but it is just the signage at the trailhead for change. It tells you where to start to go up the mountain, but you still have to go up the mountain. If you find yourself often thinking about being a newer version of yourself but never doing it, spend some time giving this article a think. Fight the tendency we humans have that psychologist Abraham Maslow captured in this quote: “We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments.”

You have a great human brain. It has thought something through and, as a result, now you believe something new. Make the commitment to believe in what you believe. Put that commitment into an easily accessed code that will allow you to will one thing until you become an habitual new you.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.