You can’t withstand your environment you’re a part of it

I am I plus my circumstances. Jose Ortega y Gasset

While it’s true that the way we perceive and interpret events impacts how we experience them, it’s only part of the story.

Too much emphasis has been placed on our ability to withstand the environment as if it were somehow separate from us.

Instead, we are a continuation of our environment, visible and invisible forces within it profoundly impact how we behave.

The self

Of course, how people see and construe things differs.

We know that perception is influenced by expectations and unconscious biases. Prejudices we may not be aware of profoundly impact what we pay attention to and recall.

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Self-love is overrated 

How many times have you heard that you have to love yourself?

Worse, that you have to learn to love yourself first, as if without this magical substructure, little else is possible.

Some stretch the friendship further, demanding you love yourself unconditionally.

Unconditionally? Is that even possible, desirable?

For example, in the middle of a mess that I’ve made by not acting soon enough, which upends my world but also those who depend on me for whatever reasons (stability, security) – should I love myself? Not necessarily. I can resent myself. I can resent myself and care. I can resent myself and still rebuild.

What about the wo/man who deliberately deliberately setting up a friend? Or the psychopath slowly and deliberately executing a colleague’s fall? Should they love themselves? No. Get thee to a nunnery, they should admonish themselves. Get help. Go.

To those who love themselves I would like to say ‘wow how great’ but I don’t know if it is. I need more information.

I assume that a degree of self like, that includes reproof when needed, allows us to get on with things. But I’ve seen too many people walk away from the ruins without a backward glance, because they’ve convinced themselves it’s okay, they’re okay. And I think this is why self-love is on the nose for me.

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The benefits & limits of attention & evidence

These seemingly contradictory, yet complementary insights may be of value –

  1. Pay no attention to what people say; but pay close attention to what people say.
  2. Focus on evidence; but don’t let evidence narrow your focus.

Attention

Pay no attention to what people say (when it contradicts what they do)

It’s easy to say – I am honest, I am good, I have values. In fact, it’s easy to say anything – just open your mouth. Doing so is a different ballgame but if you want to know who someone is, take a look.

For example –

  1. You can’t say you are loyal but have affairs, unless you have an explicit agreement with your partner that ‘loyalty’ includes having sex with other people. You can’t redefine what sex (or commitment or partnership or marriage for that matter) means for the purpose of squeezing yourself back into the loyal box. A one-night stand is still sex. An intermittent but ongoing romp with an old friend is still sex. Orchestrating a weekend away with a colleague even if both parties are married just for sex, is sex. Sex as a transaction is sex. If there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing in your mind, tell your partner so that they have information and can make an adult choice about whether they’re happy with that in their mind too. Otherwise call it what it is. Is it loyal? No it is disloyal. You can apply this to any quality you ascribe to yourself or others.
  2. You can’t claim to be trustworthy if on Monday you’re lobbying for better treatment of women but on Tuesday diminish working women as selfish and self-centred, argue human rights Wednesday but whip up the troops around anti-Semitism (add in any issue you like here) the next. Who is this person? No one knows. We can change our minds about what we believe over time but that’s not what chameleons are about. What else do they say that has no bearing on the way they live? Look at what you say and ask yourself – do you live by it? If not, why say it at all?

It may seem overly obvious to say these things but it is the primary human instinct to trust other people. Most of us believe what people say about who they are and it’s hard to shake early impressions, positive or negative. This is what makes political leanings or emotional beliefs about the existence of loaded beliefs like climate change so difficult to shift.

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A strong personality is not the same as strength

People often mistake domineering personalities as strong. They can be, but sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes frighteningly opposite if doggedness masks an inability to cope with differences.

When someone disagrees with them – it’s a war.

Domineering personalities are not afraid to express a view – that is refreshing. What is less refreshing is to watch them unyieldingly hammer their point till others cave in or shut down.

They are not interesting in listening, nuance or having a discussion. They have a single goal – emerging triumphant at the other end.

It doesn’t matter if they take an opposite view the next day. It’s about winning, not logic.

These personalities play the wo/man and not the ball. Someone who disagrees with them is not just wrong they’re ‘an idiot’ (put in their preferred insult). There’s no give, no concession that someone might have an insight they don’t or even just a different way into the problem.

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Kindness can be brutal

When you’re on the receiving end of kindness — it’s milk — a honeyed sap with associations of mothering & the cosseted dark womb.

But being kind is an altogether different experience.

It’s rising in the dark to run despite rain & icy winds while the world is sleeping.

Being kind can mean:

  • Suppressing the urge to lash out because you feel momentarily better.
  • Letting it go through to the keeper.
  • Putting your needs second, third or taking them off the table, this time.
  • Not adding fuel to the fire though you’re desperate to do so.
  • Refusing to let someone else’s feelings determine yours.
  • Sometimes, not speaking out.
  • Sometimes, not saying what you really think.
  • Appreciating a person is not just their last encounter with you.
  • Remembering the good when you don’t want to.
  • Knowing that when someone strikes at your sense of self it’s because they desperately need to affirm theirs and feeling compassion, rather than anger, for that humanness.
  • Seeing yourself in the above.
  • Admitting that you too can be unkind.

It’s not for the meek. Kindness demands vigilance, acute self-awareness and internal restraint, for which the rewards are not always obvious.

You also need to know the border at which kindness transmutes into self-abuse and not step over it.

That’s the sharper edge of the practice that means you must also know when to: (more…)

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