Almost thirty years ago, I had a group of very young students seated in the dining area as I spread out supplies for them to assemble their own treats. Bowls, spoons, syrups, toppings and ice cream- what could be better? There were literally pounds of various things for them to choose from and my goal was to break up the sweaty monotony of an infernally hot Texas summer day . Most of them transformed into wee chefs and got to work on assembling their sundaes without issue. But one participant mourned that her sister was going to take “all the eM-ee-eMs!”.
Now, perhaps you should know that I have a “thing” about supplies for entertaining generally and about serving sizes specifically. Let’s just say that you’ll never leave my table hungry unless you don’t care for the cuisine on offer. But this angelic, cooperative and intelligent sprite was certain that letting her younger sister free-pour a few candies on her sundae would translate into there being none left for her. Big Sister Syndrome, I guess. Faced with abundance, she was nonetheless fearful of missing out and focused on one small aspect of the overall outcome. (Spoiler- there were indeed candies leftover for her sundae.)
Most of the kids were experiencing the joy of getting to customize their own ice cream bowls with some candy condiments. There were some exclamations of “ooh!”, “ah!” and “wow!”. But one small person robbed herself of a little joy in the moment and I was left to wonder: what caused her to try and police things a bit when it was so obviously unnecessary? Had she been made to give in to Little Sister once too often? Or was her temperament shaped more towards analysis and noticing what might not be working in the moment?
As her teacher, I should have taken note of what was unfolding in her life and in her mind and helped her to explore it. Regrettably, I let the opportunity slip through my fingers. How many opportunities to explore life-enhancing, life-giving or life-transforming contexts have we sabotaged? How many experiences, ideas and relationships have we avoided, damaged or destroyed? Apathy, depression, pessimism and unwarranted vigilance come from places within us that are shaped both by experience and by the natural bent of our temperament.
Somehow, the idea had gotten into my pupil’s head that she needed to be worried about having enough, even with plenty of evidence to the contrary. At least, that was the conclusion that I drew from having heard her remark. Multiply that instant of Jessica’s experience times the number of moments in her lifetime to date. That’s the number of meanings that she has made. Add these meanings all together and you have the totality of her unique felt experience. Who we were inevitably shapes who we are.
But- we get to determine who we will be in any given instant by mediating the meanings that we make through Mindful Refocus. By paying a little bit of attention and using a form of self-inquiry that is accepting, compassionate and curious, we encourage the surfacing of parts of our own psyche. Some of these need reparenting or reprogramming. Before we can engage with the self in this way, we first need to take a survey of the landscape as it emerges from the subconscious to the conscious awareness. And- we need to reckon with the present in light of our felt experience to date before we can reckon with the future in light of the felt experience that we hope to shape. How?
Each of us has a past, present and future of connections to places, people and processes. These collections of circumstance and context are parsed by the self and sorted into systems that make sense to each of us. These systems are aggregators of our felt experience to date. They also generate this felt experience by providing a filter through which our sensory input with its visceral impacts and consequent collective meaning with its psychic impacts must pass. The sum of all of these systems forms the meta-system or the individual filter through which we experience, process and view the world.
Back to my pupil from thirty years ago- Jessica had a few things that could potentially influence the conclusion that she drew. In her eyes, however, the Candy Famine was imminent and could trigger a Sundae-pocalypse, physical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. A few kids, a LOT of supplies and plenty of access for all. Somehow, the ability of Little Sister Sarah to take over a part of the project moved Jessica into a feeling of lost opportunity, maybe even scarcity. Such a small story in the scheme of things! But most of us have had the experience of making Very Large Meanings out of the small stories of our early years.
Parents working with the necessarily finite self and the limited resources of their own humanity sometimes bring undesired and unintended impact to their small children. Time, sleep, money, focus and energy can all be in shorter supply when the demands of any role increase. Another child, a longer work day, any situation that brings the prospect of scarcity adds more stress to everyday life. These stressors act as a raw catalyst for the parental felt experience. The conclusions drawn by their psyche under some duress will be either reactive and unconscious or responsive and mediated.
If the parents are reactive, their outward response may be angry, controlling, excessively strict or even punitive. They would be acting out against their environment, including their children. Such an attempt to impose order by means of force would be a form of fight response. I recall one pupil’s father as an inordinately angry, legalistic and rigidly authoritarian parent. His capable, intelligent son was tasked with endless attempts to cope with his father’s angry, inflexible parenting. Hitting, shaming and shouting were his parental emotional currency. Mom was knowledgeable, sociable and specific in the tips and insights she shared with the teachers, which made us more effective in our role. This child, however, paid a very high price for his father’s habit of indulging his anger and outrage.
Reactions could also be apathetic, disengaged, emotionally absent or even neglectful. In these situations, parents would be distancing themselves from the felt experience of their environment as a form of emotional or physical flight. One mom I remember was conscientious in her efforts to educate her sons and in the way that she cultivated their innate intelligence. They were advanced for their respective ages in literacy, numeracy and overall reasoning skills. She appeared to be the primary driving force behind these efforts. Dad in this family was much more relaxed and perhaps haphazard in his approach.
The dissonance in parenting styles and personal styles caused some drama. Mom’s reaction to the status quo was to eventually retaliate against her co-parent by permanently ghosting him. She grabbed the boys and left at the end of the school day. She left the father to stumble across this fact by arriving to pick up his sons only to find them gone. It utterly warped the fabric of their felt experience of family life and everyone in this family system paid tremendously for the habit of both parents to indulge in their respective forms of distancing in the face of stressors.
Finally, some parents might be confused, despondent and persistently pessimistic or even subject themselves to self-blame, self-judgement and self-shame. Reacting in this way is a form of acting in against the self. It is an appalling and tragic form of emotional violence. One of my co-teachers suffered a number of severe personal setbacks before I knew her. She went through a divorce, lost her interest in a service business because of her partner changing the terms of a merger after the fact and her personal finances were strained thereafter. She was very accepting of these setbacks and I never saw her advocate for herself with any vigor.
Her athletic, beautiful, intelligent and talented daughter, however, made some questionable choices in her personal and professional life. Some part of her was impacted by mom’s life choices and quiescence in the face of injustice. The daughter made meanings from her felt experience of mom’s reactions. She decided that she wasn’t worthy of any consideration, respect or safeguarding in her personal life.
Ironically, it was the selfish business partner who later tried to convince this young adult of the need for her to have self esteem! The same person who subverted mom’s business interest judged her daughter’s choices and harassed her for them. (Spoiler, no epiphany occurred on either side.) An adolescent violently acted in against herself through shame, depression and blame and paid a tremendous price for it as a young adult through the consequences of her habituation to these states of mind.
Any of these three types of reactions will, of necessity, produce undesirable impacts to the parent-child bond. They will also produce undesirable impacts to the therapeutic bond between clients and professionals serving in caring or supportive roles. Obviously, the same truism holds for any personal or professional context. Reactions are unmediated: more specifically, they are not occurring under the gaze of a fully conscious, engaged executive function. We need a mediated reaction, instead. Basically, we need a volitional response.
So, how do we get to a response? We mindfully engage the meta-system, our filter, from a neutral posture of open curiosity. Notice meanings as they are made and the assumptions, conclusions and emotions that underlie them. Reflect upon clusters of similar, sympathetic and synergistic meanings. These clusters offer clues to their presence which may indicate the presence of a system whose interconnection is highly organized. Further, such a system is operating around a center of gravity formed of a large body of related meanings that the self has made.
The habituation of the self to indulgence in any particular reaction leaves a trail behind. Over time and with repetition, the predilection for a reaction of one kind or another becomes customary. The self resorts to that reaction in any similar circumstance by default. Eventually, the pattern becomes entrenched. Making a conscious choice requires actually shifting the center of gravity in one or more systems of meanings made to date. The conscious self works to do so by remapping and then reconfiguring the interrelationship of its components.
These interrelationships or connections are conduits through which our affections, energies and intentions pass: we effect desired outcomes by means of our conscious choices as we interact with both our internal filter or meta-system and our external circumstances or context. We act to reorder the external world in accordance with guidance provided by our filter. In other words, we externalize the desires of the self through the actions that we take. The actions that we take are mediated by the beliefs that we hold. Whether these are conscious or subconscious in nature is irrelevant. They will produce a result that is aligned.
In order to attain a different end external goal, we have to change the actions that we take. Before actions can be changed in the external context, beliefs must first be changed in the internal landscape. In the world of coaching, consulting, mentoring, counseling and teaching, people are impatient. Clients seeking solutions to their concerns want access lasting, optimal results in the shortest possible time. Ideally, this is what competent support looks like.
You could also pursue self-help. We’ve all done it. Every time we make a New Year’s Resolution (or two or ten), we’ve done it. You’re supposed to Google the problem and read up on solutions that others have used. Then, you are supposed to “hack” the problem by analyzing the goal and potential obstacles , deconstructing and comparing the solutions tried, abstracting the elements of the most successful ideas, decoding how common denominators apply to your particular situation and finally by implementing a creative, flawless, flexible game plan.
Whether we work with experienced support or with self-help, the initial vision for the path to resolution is optimistic: that view from thirty thousand feet and at the start of the journey is a gorgeous panorama! All of the major elements of the process, potential obstacles to success and pitfalls that might occasion delay have been accounted for. Nonetheless, there is a lack of granularity in the picture.
The promise of gain inherent in this idealized prospect gives us the inspiration to embark on a course of changing our beliefs and consequent actions in order to attain our desire. However, the idealism infecting such visions is uninflected by the day to day. In order to sustain the level of engaged focus needed to generate real progress, resources must be continuously invested. The attitudes and actions that will bring success must be nurtured. In short, embodying a value or a vision requires real work and cycles of iterative experimentation.
Setbacks can arise. A sort of gravity holds each of these older systems of habits and attitudes together. Long use and repetition of a belief and an action lend a heaviness to it, psychically speaking. As they are utilized, the stability, speed and predictability of their collective operation is set to a “norm” or “default”. In terms of effecting change, if one element of a system exerts even marginally greater pull, all elements are impacted.
There is tremendous inherent pulling force in our affections. Our family of origin has a culture of its own and we perpetuate many of its attitudes, habits and rituals as we move from the formative stages of infancy and childhood to the relative independence of adolescence. Some of these associations aren’t volitional or even conscious. My parents both smoked, as did their parents before them. The odors of cigarette tobacco in all of its stages is intensely evocative to me. A freshly lit cigarette literally smelled like the optimistic version of “home” for the first three decades of my life! Stale butts and residue on clothing, furnishings and walls evoked disarray, disappointment and the uncontrollable passage of time.
I envision that the internal psychic impact had the same stages. We begin an association of belief and action in the same way that we light up a cigarette. A freshly lit cigarette emits a plume of smoke. If you don’t stand in the way, or if it’s a clove cigarette or a Gauloise, you notice the plume. But it’s not too bad, yet. The smoker is breathing in something perceived as pleasurable or needed. The smoke pollution and spillover onto their skin, clothing, hair and belongings will accumulate with each cigarette.
Residue on all of these and on walls, furnishings and curtains will grow stale. Sour, rancid and bitter notes are left in the air physically and psychically. There is also a spillover impact onto others. Family will be entreated to interrupt a meal for a “cigarette break” while dining out. Complaints will be lodged of inconvenience on both sides. Health impacts won’t be a pleasant topic of conversation. Nor will the social and financial costs of indulging such a habit over a lifetime be pleasant to contemplate.
My dad shifted his beliefs and actions around the choice to smoke for health reasons. He managed to quit based on the powerful motivation of wanting to live. My mother, on the other hand, continued to smoke, and the last years of her life were shaped by looking for places where she could smoke and dealing with its impacts on her health. Each of them told themselves a story about what they wanted and why. Different stories based on different beliefs produced different results.
Sometimes we need support to shift our beliefs and to maintain those shifts. My dad had the support of family, friends, physicians and a change in the cultural landscape to support him. Seeking a community of support whose culture is aligned with the vision to be achieved is a necessary part of shifting beliefs and actions to achieve the goal. Our histories can be powerful. They pull on us to stay in the pattern of thinking and being that we have today. A coach can help to add to the psychic pull towards the desired pattern of thinking and being. Call us, we can help.