Monday, February 16, 2009

Rebel Without A Pause

So a couple nights ago, it's Valentine's Day, and Leslie and I are talking about what -- if anything -- we're going to do that evening.  Eat out, eat in?  Go to a movie?  A show?  What?

And as we're lying there in bed, throwing options back and forth, it's beginning to occur to me that nothing is really going to happen.  Because even though we're talking about possibilities, neither of us is really proposing anything.

Neither of us is saying, "Hey, let's do X."  We're just saying, "Well, what do you think about X?"

And so we get to talking about that, and about how we're actually pretty passive in most of our lives, not just figuring out dates with each other.

So we both did a little mind-hacking, to see what we could do...

To Fix It!

And in my case, I started with a little "installation conflict" test -- a procedure I use to find out what existing mental "software" installed in my head, would conflict with any attempt to install new attitudes and behaviors.

Specifically, I wanted to find out if it would be okay for me to take a more active role in managing my own life -- and at the same time, be more okay with accepting proposals made by other people.  (Like my wife!)

Now, a few weeks ago, when I found and got rid of my superhero complex, I mentioned how I thought an easy life would be boring.  This time, though, thinking about my ideal life came back, not as being boring, but rather as being painful... in some vague and unclear way.

I felt a sense of deep loss, almost as if living the way I wanted to, would in fact be a fate worse than death!  As if I were losing my soul, or my sense of self.

And when I thought about it, I realized I'd had that feeling...

Many Times Before!

But every time I'd encountered it in previous mind-hacking sessions, I'd ended up shying away from it, to deal with less-central issues.  And even when I got rid of my "superhero" ideal, I only skirted the edge of this feeling.

This time, though, I was determined to face -- and understand -- what was causing it.

Now, more than once before, I'd asked myself about it, trying to get what it was I was afraid would happen if I actually became the organized and motivated person I claimed to want to be.  Not just some of the time, or most of the time...

But all of the time.

And always the answer came back, "because then I won't be me anymore."

And every time I'd gotten that answer before, I'd always been stumped by it.  Where, exactly, do you go from there?  I mean, I could hardly claim that I would still be me, could I?

But this time, it occurred to me that there was another angle I could approach the issue from.  And so I shot back, with one of my classic mind-hacking questions:

"What's bad about that?"

Now, if someone were to do a study on what things I do most when I'm helping my clients and students, this question is probably one of the top five things I say or ask.

Because its function is to uncover cached thoughts.  Or more precisely, stale cached thoughts.

You see, the brain, like a computer, uses "cache memory" to store previously-computed answers.  That way, it can get results faster, by looking up old answers, instead of doing all the work of thinking up new ones!

But a key side effect of this caching process is that we end up doing most of our reasoning, on the basis of unthinking prejudice.  Because literally, that's what prejudice is: pre-judgment, or using already-thought-of answers.

And we can then go on to reject entire lines of thinking -- entire pieces of our possible selves, lives, and personalities! -- on the basis of conclusions we jumped to with outdated evidence!

But by asking questions like, "What's bad about that?", we can force our brain into a "cache miss": computer terminology for a situation where the desired answer isn't available in the cache memory.

And as a result,  a cache miss forces the computer to calculate the answer directly, or to at least fetch it from another, slower (but more up-to-date) layer of cache memory.

And on Saturday, the answer came back as:

"That would be giving in!"

Hm.  Interesting.  "So what's bad about that?", I ask, forcing a miss through to the next layer of cache after that one.

And bam! -- just like that -- the entire story starts pouring out, a string of previously-unconnected childhood memories.

And before I can even think to ask one of my other top 5 questions (i.e., "And what does that say about you?"), I already have the answer:

"Giving in" means I'm weak.

A wimp.

Pathetic!

Because I despised myself for not standing up to bullies.  Not just of the schoolyard variety, mind you, but also those adults who shamed, demeaned, or objectified me as a child.

And in compensation, I created an ideal of holding to my beliefs under pressure.  Of emulating the christian martyrs I heard so much about in church, who suffered diverse tortures and death rather than "give in" to their oppressors.

And so I'd decided that, even if parents and teachers and bullies might be able to force my physical compliance, I would never give in to them mentally!  Never would I change my own mind to agree with them, nor would I ever allow their efforts to so much as influence my own values.

Even if they were values that...

Wanted To Develop!

And I saw the insanity that resulted from this decision: decade upon decade of struggling with myself, unable to develop any kind of self-discipline, for the simple reason that I interpreted all my attempts to change as giving in to the enemy!

Because, even if what I sought was not a value that parents or teachers tried to force on me, I still seemed to find the very idea of giving in so distasteful, that even giving in to my own decisions was off-limits for me!

Indeed, for most of my life, the only sure way I'd gotten myself to do things, was to arrange them so that I had to do them, with sufficiently bad consequences that I could obtain my grudging -- and merely physical! -- compliance.

Meanwhile, the idea of actually enjoying working hard (or even on a regular schedule!), was the very height of betrayal, as far as my inner rebel was concerned!

And I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  So many years... so much wasted effort and pain...  for no real benefit whatsoever.

Because it was all just another classic "ideal-belief-reality conflict" -- a fear of weakness, covered up with a compensating ideal of strength.  But fortunately,...

It Also Had A Classic Solution

In his books, Robert Fritz suggests that a simple way to get rid of such a conflict is to just admit whatever it is you're afraid of, and/or to state that you are that thing a few times.  So, I said to myself a few times, "I'm afraid I'm weak"...  and then I also said, "I'm a wimp," a few times.

And around the third or fourth repetition, I felt a sudden easing of the tension and terror that had initially gripped me.

"...And that's okay," I added.

Now, not every conflict like this goes away with just a few short statements, of course.  Both I and my clients have occasionally had situations where stating the fear just makes it worse in that moment.  But, in such cases, we simply use other techniques to break the conditioned link between the statement and the feeling, first.

In my case on Saturday, though, no additional measures were required.  I just felt a remarkable sense of relief, as though I'd just put down a very heavy weight, that I'd been carrying for a very long time!

And I began to see all the ways that this conflict had driven me to passive-aggressive behavior, and other negative patterns.

How it affected my ability to let go of control in some situations, and to go along with the ideas or suggestions of others.

Hell, I could even see how it affected my sexual development!  Because, when I was a teenager, living in the Caribbean, I was aggressively pursued by local girls... to a point we'd call sexual harassment today.  And of course...

I Never "Gave In"!

...no matter how much I wanted to, at times.

(Which means I stayed a virgin for several more years than was strictly necessary.  Oh well!)

Now, I wish I could tell you that after making this change on Saturday, I went on to live happily ever after, with all my "passivity" problems solved.

In reality, it has taken some considerable additional "cleanup" work over the last couple of days, tracking down another half-dozen or so interrelated beliefs and blocks like, "If I fall behind, I can never catch up" and "I'm no good at anyhing that's difficult."

But, even as early as last Saturday night, I found I'd already become much more comfortable going along with my wife's suggestions, now that I lacked the subconscious need to find things wrong with them, in order to justify my knee-jerk objections to them.

And I think Leslie would have to agree...

That it's probably the best Valentine's Day present...

I've ever given her.