Last night, I took part in a group conversation as part of an online course I am taking. Over the past two weeks, participants focused on three aspects of the same general process to which humans are subjected. The outcome of this process are behavioral templates that solve fundamental problems—such as how to fit into our social environment with the least friction possible. These three aspects are:
- the mental or thought representation of templates in the form of cognitive biases,
- the depth psychological, narrative, or character representations in the form of shadow and projections,
- and the embodied states that accompany switching to and going through these templates as feelings, i.e. affect representations
How does this matter in my case?
One of the most central templates or patterns which makes life difficult to enjoy for me—unless I become consciously aware of it through noticing and subsequent inquiry—keeps me on a prescribed or scripted path of non-offensiveness. Presumably through a mixture of biological factors and early childhood experiences, I have learned to exhibit the habit of doing my darnedest best not to offend people with my behavior. Intuitively, I would say that given the choice between not saying anything and offering a potentially difficult truth, by default I will habitually remain on a trajectory of silence.
I very much appreciate that adopting this approach indiscriminately is not really conducive to a successful life. It limits, in many ways, how much I can grow and flourish. And it also limits the extent to which others can positively contribute to my wellbeing, given that I often prevent them from knowing precisely how to do so in the first place.
I realized that one way to describe my inner processes takes the form of a conversation. This takes place between yet another three aspects of my self: first, an approach-motivational, opportunity seeking, and highly exploratory aspect, which feels a bit like a curiosity-driven child. Next, I imagine a rational, deliberate, and maturely spacious aspect, which feels like the “adult in the room”. And last but not least, there is a “shadow character”, someone I have dubbed in my mind “Mr. Vise.” This is in reference to how my embodied sense in certain situations seems to create conditions of ever less maneuvering space for decision making.
Here is an example of such a hypothetical inner conversation which could have occurred yesterday. My husband and I were looking at an apartment as a potential purchase candidate, and my experience was something like this…
Child-self: Wow, this space is great in many ways. The layout of the apartment gives me a wonderful experience. I can really imagine enjoying coming home from work to this place!
Adult-self: Hmmm, the state of the apartment suggests however that it would take a lot of renovation effort to make it truly enjoyable. Look for instance at the condition of the floor.
Child-self: Well, yes, the current asking price really seems a bit much, but I can really see it very beautiful in my imagination.
Adult-self: Yeah, to make that happen we probably would have to spend at least $50,000 or more for the apartment to be nice enough to really enjoy living here.
Mr. Vise: So, you’re saying we have to go to the seller and suggest paying much less than they are asking for?
Adult-self: Yeah, well, that could be a bit awkward…
Mr. Vise: You think? If we suggest buying the apartment for a lot less money, how do you think the seller will feel!? And what will the brokers think!?
I could now continue this hypothetical conversation playing out. Truth be told however, I never even got that far. At the first sign of Mr. Vise showing up on the mental scene, my thoughts had committed to a kind of “this apartment is not the right one” position. My shadow character would—without becoming consciously aware of what he represents—not have allowed the thought occur to me that making a much lower offer is even an option.
So, what does this character, Mr. Vise, want? What does this cognitive bias, which might be described as courtesy bias, reflect? How does it feel in my body when I go through such an experience, and where? Can I become more aware of this, and find a way forward that honors the needs expressed by Mr. Vise? And finally, how can I go off-script?
For one, being careful with what I say in an actual conversation—in order to avoid offending the other person—probably has many adaptive benefits. And every time I do say something that I realize (too late) has offended someone, expressed in their reaction to what I say, I receive a virtual gut punch. In short, I believe Mr. Vise really wants to protect me from this moment of pain.
The anticipation of such experiences creates a narrowing of options. It does, somewhere in my body, feel like a closing-in. The joy, i.e. the child-like curiosity, is literally driven out by my expectation of possibly offending someone. How to get over this? I believe that in giving my inner characters my full attention and compassion lies the solution.
I can become fully aware that, yes, sometimes I will say or do something that offends people, and in consequence they may respond in ways I don’t enjoy. And in that moment it will sting. My guess is that, growing up, this feeling was much more consequential. It was a predictor of potentially losing the support of people who otherwise care for me. Now that I am an adult though, I hope I can see that a momentary experience of gray clouds on an otherwise blue sky is no reason to fear an end of my existence.
Knowing this, I can relate to Mr. Vise in a way that communicates something like this: “Yeah, I know. It is very, very unpleasant if people respond to what I say with something like rejection. You would rather experience that everyone likes you. It is however really important that my true and honest feelings and thoughts are not hidden from others. If they do not know what goes on for me, they cannot really make my life better.”
And that is, in short, what I hope I can practice over the coming weeks: noticing whenever Mr. Vise enters the stage, bringing with him thoughts of insoluble complexity, feelings of caution and hesitation, and a bodily sensation of tension and lack of space. And then asking myself, “am I thinking and feeling this way because I sense I could be offending someone?” together with the follow-up question, “how can I be honest in this situation and still signal that I am interested in a positive relationship?”