For that to which one lacks access from experience,

one has no ears.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

n the bold world described by feminist and existential thinkers, words and phrases take on fresh and more nuanced meanings. Because my goal here is to promote clear communication about the self-construction process that leads us to create such a world for ourselves, I will attempt to define some of the trickier words here. If these nouveau definitions are too brief to be helpful or if there are other words you would like to have clarified, please let me know ( It is my greatest wish to provide an assist to anyone wishing to understand an existential, feminist perspective on life, ergo you are my single most valuable source of feedback.

Alexithymic – The components of this word define it well. The prefix “a” means no, “lexi” means word and “thymic” means feelings. Reassembled, alexithymic means having no word for what you are feeling. A more precise sense of this word would be that one who is alexithymic has a greatly impoverished vocabulary for feelings, leaving them with an extremely imprecise sense of what is going on inside of themselves.

Aspirational self – The version of ourselves that we dream about becoming and seek to embody. It is the answer to the question: who would you want to be if you knew you could not fail?

Bad faith – This Sartrean term reflects an unwillingness on the part of fully functioning adults to take responsibility for their immediate freedom in determining their route toward their truest self. As such, Sartre referred to bad faith as “an immediate permanent threat to every project of the human being.” It doesn’t take much existential sophistication to recognize the fact that, if we choose to not choose, then by default we are abdicating our role in self-determination. There will be no discovery of our deepest truths about who we think we are. There will be no understanding of our original project. There will be no actual us.

Boundary situation – A boundary situation is a moment in time when we realize that our sense of who we have been before is liable to shift due to contact with the outside world. This can be between us and the concrete world or between us and another person, but we must become aware of our lives touching something or someone. Theoretically, this is every second of every day, but for practical purposes it represents those moments when we feel challenged. Tests of our abilities come in small (pensive monments), medium (neighborhood feuds) and large (moving to a new town) sizes and can be extremely anxiety provoking. They often result in our temporarily regressing into a less developed version of ourselves creating a parastaltic pattern of expansion, retraction, expansion. The trick is to maintain the focus on the aspirational version of the self through the retraction stage.

Brain wash – Our brains have a biochemical reaction to everything we do, a common form of which is a mild rinse of chemicals that bathe part or all of our brain. If we consistently engage in behaviors that wash our brain in the biochemistry of serenity, hope, energy and enthusiasm, our brain will accommodate to this consistency with neurological structures supporting confidence and trust. An internal, organic control of brain chemistry is much preferable to outside, allopathic interventions.

Chronological claustrophobia – When you back yourself into a corner by not leaving enough time to get many important things accomplished, you will feel the awful sense of being trapped. Similar to grief, you will have a strong and seemingly irrational emotional reaction to this. Powerful feelings of rage, despair or apathy may flood your ability to think through what needs to be done next.

Coefficient of adversity – This concept was advanced by Sartre and is one of the most compassionate of the existential beliefs. What it describes is the existence of a very real "luck" factor that appears in a person's life due to the facticity of their existence. The way Fate launched a particular life establishes a starting point that will forever define (but not necessarily limit) a life. On a day-to-day basis, a coefficient of adversity refers to whether or not a particular truth about a person’s life feels advantageous. As an example, a pouring rain can serve as a powerful positive multiplier (it put out a forest fire), a gentle positive multiplier (it watered my yard so I don’t have to today), a powerful negative multiplier (the river by my house is already at the top of the levee) or a small-scale negative one (I waited all week to play golf today.) Existentialism asks that once you acknowledging the effect Fate has on your life, you then acknowledge your responsibility for how you choose to deal with that situation.

Coherent life – When at least half of our decisions are value-driven, our behavior takes on a consistent tone. (That tone can be fairly discordant when the values that are driving the decisions are pathologic. But the WYSIWYG reality of the unpleasant person still reflects coherence. FAWBOT see “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt) What most of us seek, of course, is a coherence driven by thoughtful and mature values that support us when we are in the will-to-power corridor and move us consistently, if slowly, toward the person we wish to be. What we seek, in essence, is a synthesis of thinking and doing.

The complete list of awful – stupid, childish, boring, cowardly, unlovable and lazy. These are horrid words flung at people (most often children) in an attempt to shame them into behaving themselves. It turns out that each epithet on the complete list of awful represents how we are made to feel about our experimentation around the six big existential givens.

Construct – A construct is a unit of thought describing how the thinker believes the world works. These psychological memes provide a structure that people use to understand and explain their world. Constructs then channel the ways in which people anticipate events. (This, of course, sets up the reality of a confirmation bias.) Examples of constructs would be – taxes are a wise and efficient way to pool financial resources within a country; taxes are a form of robbery that governments use to fund themselves; taxes are a necessary evil and are to be avoided whenever possible, and so on.

Delay bridging – When there is a mighty temptation within our reach that we resolve to resist, the more ways we can link ourselves to the better-later choice of delayed gratification, the more likely it will be that we will reach it. Delay-bridging cognitive strategies include enhancing both regret memory and success memory, activating distracting thoughts and remembering that patterns of good behavior are the hallmark of a coherent adult. Behavioral strategies include engaging in activities that enhance our mood (elevated moods increase our ability to resist temptation), exercising to reduce the biochemical tension of resistance and reaching out to people who can distract us from the temptation.

Differentiation – the ability to maintain your integrity throughout an encounter by resisting subjugation to either the personality of the other person or the intensity of your feelings. This internalized psychological process allows an individual to determine the ratio of influence between the outside world and intentional self. It doesn’t say, “You don’t matter.” It says, “You matter to me, but not more than my relationship with my evolving self.” It doesn’t preclude having an emotional reaction to a situation, but it stipulates doggedly that emotions reveal important data that need to be respectfully considered.

Dimensions of time – the past, the present, the future, death and energy. Each dimension of time is associated with one of the five givens (challenges) of existence, to wit: uniqueness, responsibility, meaninglessness, fate and isolation.

Dread – appropriate feelings of wariness that accompany us as we approach the challenges that are genuinely important to our aspirational self.

Egosyntonic/egodystonic – These terms refer to the fact that sometimes our behavior fits who we think we are or want to be (egosyntonic) and sometimes our behaviors feel very unlike us (egodystonic). These words represent a deep, internal monitoring system that can help us learn how to think and behave in ways that move us more and more toward integrity.

Emotional intelligence – This rich psychological concept arrived in the field of psychology in the late 1980s, introduced by psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer and popularized by Daniel Goleman. It is the ability to deal deftly with feelings – more explicitly the ability to effectively harness the power available in the affective realm. When we have emotional intelligence we have the ability to integrate how we are feeling and how others are feeling into our thinking, which increases our interpersonal effectiveness significantly.

Empathing – This is a term I coined to represent an enduring and precious type of empathic connection. It is the act of attachment that tethers one person to another across time and distance. The emotional connection is maintained and documented with gestures of empathic attention. Examples would be texting a coworker to tell them their favorite beer is on sale; walking with a best friend on the anniversary of her mother’s death; or not wearing fragrances around a friend who suffers from migraines.

Episteme – This ancient word represents a system of understanding about how the world works as seen through the eyes of the people in charge. As such, an episteme remains vulnerable to the skew of bias present in the people handing out the definitions. A bias, of course, can and most often does render an episteme wholly incorrect.

Essence – The core term of the existential rally cry: Existence precedes essence. You are responsible for creating your essence which is accomplished this way: Your particular gifts set out a number of possible paths for you to follow. Your task is to choose one that makes sense to you, and work your way along it as long as it brings you the joy of flow. And, you need to make this choice for all the important aspects of your life (professional, recreational, interpersonal, and so on). This is your existential project which, to the extent you are in the process of working on it, you are creating your essence.

Eudaemonia – A fun word to say, this philosophical term reflects a state of calm happiness that seems distinct from the satisfaction we get from putting in the effort that our life requires. In other words, when we are eudaemonic, we feel replete and proud of what we have accomplished in terms of designing our original project. While often short-lived, this aspirational state is well worth pursuing.

Existentialism – This word scares many people, but all it is, is a belief that we should pay attention to what it means to be a human being. To that end, people who think existentially are aware that we are each unique creatures who are responsible for designing our own lives no matter what fate throws in our path. What makes this difficult is that we have to do all that while isolated within our human bodies meaning much of what we think we know about our world and other people is just a guess. The good news is that existentialists believe that we don’t need to get it right to be successful in life. We only have to authentically attempt.

Existential experiments – It can be said that every action taken by humans is an experiment in that our every action can teach us something about ourselves. The specific act of creating an existential experiment, however, involves willpower and will to power as we commit to exploring which dreams we ought to pursue seriously next. This scientific endeavor also requires what Walter Kaufmann described as "the good will to accept new evidence and to abandon previous positions, if necessary."

Existential intelligence – EI is the collection of human abilities that enables us to find our unique path to self-actualization. It comprises five major characteristics: the ability to maintain a healthy self-confidence, the strength to make effective choices, the passion to maintain a clear vision of your goals, the resilience to rebound from setbacks and the savvy to generate ample energy to persevere in life. Humans are designed to develop the skill sets that underlie these crucial characteristics naturally over the course of a good enough childhood. An inadequate childhood, however, leaves people with a spotty, underdeveloped existential intelligence and a tendency to back through life.

Existential stance – the willingness to stand mindfully in the present time while simultaneously being alert to your particular past, your hoped-for future, your current level of psychological and physical energy, and your limited time left on earth.

Existential time – understanding that human existence involves relating to our past, our present, our future, our death and our energy levels simultaneously. Further, we must recognize that we are only able to stand in the will-to-power corridor by using this existential stance.

Flow – the blissful state of total engagement humans find when they are either in the process of acquiring mastery or working in a masterful way.

Future memory – a fully articulated vision of a goal state that can serve as a magnet to lure you purposefully into taking the steps you need to take toward that goal state.

Gaslight – to use fakery and dishonesty to convince someone that he or she is going crazy. This is done to disempower a person in order to make them pliable to your will.

Givens – the unavoidable truths that underlie every human life. They state that: we are each unique, we each have to make our choices moment by moment, we have to decide for ourselves what is important in life, we have to learn how to tolerate our individual luck, we must endure the truth that we each spend much of our lives alone or misunderstood, and we each have an unknown amount of time allotted to us. Think of them in shorthand as: uniqueness, responsibility, meaning, fate, isolation and time.

Grok – This little grunt of a word was coined by Robert A. Heinlein in the early 1960s and quickly became popular slang. It has come to mean a thoughtful level of understanding, one that has been formed by taking the time to intuit a deep, empathic connection with someone else.

Guilt – an uncomfortable feeling that occurs when we have broken one of our own rules. In other words, it is the dismay we experience when we act in a way that doesn’t represent who we want to be. Guilty feelings are proof that we are good people with good intentions who sometimes make mistakes.

Hope blind – When a person has been so shamed that their ability to feel entitled to a lovely future has been corrupted, they will be unable to visualize an escape from the pit into which shame has flung them. As you can imagine, without any future memory it can be almost impossible to keep hope alive. Hopelessness leads to disengagement which leads to existential depression – a terribly stuck place. Often therapy is the only antidote.

I-Thou – Although originally a complex philosophical construct devised by Martin Buber, the concept of an I-Thou relationship (as opposed to an I-It relationship) has migrated into the field of existential psychotherapy and changed definition somewhat. An I-Thou connection occurs when two people are willing to encounter each other, however briefly, in an authentic and unguarded manner. Because they are both available to the other in a deeply subjective form, both tend to be affected by the encounter. The goal of an I-Thou encounter is to establish genuine communication, again, even if fleeting.

Integrity – the degree of integration between the reality of who you are and the aspiration of who you want to become. The higher your level of integrity, then, the more fully you are holding on to the psychological gains you have made through facing your life with existential intelligence.

Introject – to internalize a psychological construct by, hopefully, chewing on it, digesting it and then integrating it into your value system. If interjecting is done unconsciously, one could say it was more accurately "swallowed whole."

Mastery – Mastery is the point when you’re past the point of wanting to have done and you just want to do. You reach this enviable state when you have put in the practice necessary to hone one of your gifts.

Mental health vector – The theory of self-construction links the five dimensions of ontological time (past, present, future, death and energy) to the five existential givens of existence (uniqueness, responsibility, meaninglessness, Fate and isolation). When that linkage has an appropriate strength and clarity within a person, it directs the individual toward self-actualization. If that linkage has not been established through the attachment process of a good enough childhood, a person’s natural resilience is damaged. The repair process involves three components: a secure attachment to at least one other human; an understanding of the existential givens of human life; and deliberate and effective psychological practice of the act of connecting to ontological time.

Narcissism – the ability to clear enough space around you on the stage of life to allow you to practice your signature strengths. Narcissism is a vital strategy that healthy humans use when they seek to implement a sound life for themselves. If it is out of balance with empathy, narcissism will present in an individual as either malignant (no empathy) or underdeveloped (too much empathy).To be accurately understood, this noun must be modified with adjectives that designate the level of accompanying empathy.

Ontology – I think this word is well worth adding to everyone’s vocabulary. From a philosophical position, it means the study of being. But from a personal standpoint it means a study of you. So, when we speak of ontological energy, for example, we are speaking of how much verve you are putting into thinking about being you. Capiche?

Original project – This term, to Sartre, reflected his most sacred view of authenticity. He believed that all humans are both capable of and required to embody their freedom by constantly “thrusting oneself” toward who they dream of being. While he acknowledged that some lives are more constrained than others (see coefficient of adversity above), he urged everyone to seek out what possibilities do exist in their lives and act upon them.

Orthogonal – When two psychological constructs have no underlying factors in common, they can exist independently of one another. This distinction can be represented graphically by having the two traits configured at a 90°(orthogonal) relative angle. What this suggests is that the two traits can exist in one of four relationships to each other, as represented by the four quadrants of the graph. The quadrant of interest to us is the upper-right-hand one which represents a high level of both traits. Because having two strengths to chose between is better than one, we will want to develop each characteristic as completely as possible. This can be surprisingly difficult due to the fact that the attribute we develop first will tend to preempt the engagement of, and therefore the practice of, the second characteristic. Care must be taken to deliberately practice the weaker skill until it can compete effectively with the “first born” skill. There is a more complete explanation of orthogonality here.

Pejorative – Many words in our culture have come to have a negative taint which is an inaccurate translation of the word. For example, slow, fat and narcissism all evoke a negative image when they can mean lovely things like relaxation, ice cream and movie star.

Peristaltic – This word means progress due to in and out movement that creates action – like the way our intestines take food through our system. Most psychological growing processes proceed in this manner, which feels like a “two steps forward, one step back” rate of progress.

Phenomenology – the examination of an individual’s consciousness with respect to her or his particular existence. Phenomenology assumes that people customize their sense of the world, meaning you cannot understand another without understanding their unique ontological viewpoint. A phenomenological stance, then, reflects a distinct effort on the part of a listener to close the existential gap between them and another person by trying to understand the other’s subjective sense of the world.

Power – the ability to do. Not to be confused with the word “control” which is the ability to make others behave in the way you wish.

Self-reference – the predisposition to not seek outside input. It occurs when we falsely believe we have all the data we need for our current project. I have always pictured the human brain as having it’s own little library of books upstairs that we have collected over the years and I have come to recognize that this little library is always missing critical resource material. When we self-reference, we shrink our thinking by using only our limited collection of books. The way to correct this tendency is to think out loud around people whom you respect in order to allow them to contribute their resources to your thinking process.

Shame – external feedback that attacks not your behavior but your personhood. Shame on you. Those who originally shamed you weren’t suggesting that you made a mistake and your actions were bad. They were stating that you were a bad, bad person. Shame is toxic to the psyche and should be completely eliminated.

Social construct – Often what we belief to be reality is actually a social construct, a model of how something works that has been culturally determined. The workweek, the rules of baseball and the express lane at the grocery store are all social constructs. These are not bad things, per se. They help us navigate our social environment in an effective and efficient way. It is wise, however, to be aware of the fact that much of our behavior is determined by social constructs, and sometimes we need to be able to step outside of this mode to design our own reality.

Surgency – Almost an onomatopoeia, the word surgency hisses as us to get a move on. One of the five components of a healthy resilience, it reflects the willingness to expand out into our world rather than wait passively for Fate to invite us in. Surgency is a type of extraversion that calls for participation energy in experimental rather than social terms. In other words, we need to surge out into the world to try things rather than to be the life of the party.

Three Day Rule – This is a concept I have observed in clients over the years which I think has a legitimate neurological explanation that, once understood, can preempt negative judgment. When the human animal is threatened on an ontological level, the brain will react as though it faces a physical threat. With a cascade of biochemistry, it will prepare the being to flee, freeze or fight and – absolutely not – to reason. It can take three days for this sense of threat to subside. This is what I picture going on in the brain during the three days. Day One, the two amygdalae continue to send out warnings of threat. Day Two, competing data start to register with the amygdalae (e.g. nothing to see here folks…we’re just having a regular day) and they revert back to normal. Reactive hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine subside. Day Three the neo-cortex is ready to sort through what just happened emotionally and begins to consider carefully and calmly what to do now. So, when someone we are attached to seems frozen, it makes sense to think Three Day Rule first rather than think they are deliberately forestalling us.

Time binding – The first step in willpower, this vital human ability requires that we remember to push the pause button on our life in order to bind up a bit of our future to create a present moment. Within the moment, we indulge in the very healthy process of thinking.

Titrate – This word describes a controlled, steady increase in something. For example, we need to learn to titrate our new existential skills to enhance our ability to maintain our gains and not overburden our defense systems. If we bring in new behaviors too quickly, the stress of being in a constant boundary state can be too overwhelming – activating one of the less helpful defensive stances.

Trust – Trust is a sinewy, gristly bond that is built between two people who are both willing and capable of enduring the life trials that determine whether or not it is plausible for them to rely on each other. Each episode of duress that is successfully – if lurchingly – navigated builds trust. When well constructed and carefully maintained, this bond is strong, flexible and resilient.

Uniqueing – taking those steps, minute by minute, that will lead you toward your signature strengths and allow you to develop into the special person you were born to be.

Will-to-power corridor – a theoretical line drawn at a 45° angle splitting the upper-right-hand quadrant of the orthogonal relationship between willpower and will. Traversing this vector will move you more and more surely toward your essence.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.