The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 2

Welcome back!  This week, more musings inspired by Jordan Peterson. If you haven’t already, I recommend starting with last week’s post which discusses how our perception is developed and how it can shift depending on our goals, expectations, and beliefs.

Returning to Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to chaos, he makes the profound claims that we are all corrupt and capable of doing damage to others. He explains that where we fall in that spectrum is a direct result of our beliefs and experiences which in turn impact our perception.

He argues that people all have the same potential; that things like nice and mean are dependent on the situations that we find ourselves.

“The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they’re capable of being.”

Peterson, with a flair for impact and drama, also makes the provocative suggestion that we should all get in touch with our “inner psychopaths”, putting a big exclamation point next to the suggestion that we are all capable of horrendous things.

I find this idea compelling because it underlines the need for compassion and understanding, both for the self and others but it also lends itself to other strategies we’ve discussed (such as the suggestion that everyone is doing the best they can, see that post here).

It is also relevant to this discussion because it has interesting implications to extreme theories involving law of attraction, like those suggested in Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book “the Secret” which claims that anything can be manifested with the right mindset.

While I do believe there is some truth to the power of thought and that being a decent and mindful person will ultimately give you a more satisfying life, I don’t think that this is the whole story. Frankly, if that was the case, there would be no hardship in the world and we would all be living in a minimalist off-grid cabin with a Jason Momoa lookalike (insert your fantasy life here).  Unfortunately, being nice and doing good deeds does not mean that you will be without suffering, and being a tyrant won’t necessarily bring you bad fortune.

Peterson explains how this idea plays into building a life around happiness as a goal, and how that can be a problem:

“Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

In the last chapter of the book, Peterson talks about his family’s struggles following his daughter’s diagnosis with a rare bone disease. For years, the family fought through surgeries, recovery, and adapting to the necessary changes that had to be made to their lives and expectations for the future. It is clear that this and the subsequent events were a great source of darkness for Peterson and his family.

Peterson also talks about how emotions like grief are a product of challenges to our perception and expectations. In his own experience, thinking that he would have a happy and healthy child only to come face to face with the reality of the uncertainty of his daughter’s health.

Imagine that you have built your life on a frozen lake. While you have a fundamental awareness of the dangers of ice, falling into the frigid water is an abstract risk and something you easily ignore. You have confidence that the lake is frozen and you can go about your life in relative security. Now, imagine that tiny fractures in the ice have been spreading under your feet for some time until suddenly it cracks and you are submerged. Not only do you need to deal with the consequences of falling through the ice, you have the shocking realization that the solid grasp you had on your situation was not so solid. The fundamental belief you had in the reliability of your situation is gone. The ice was not safe, and there was nothing you could have done to make it so.

It is no wonder that the process of grief is so challenging and cyclical. It is layered, including not only grief for the surface loss but also requires the underlying beliefs system to be overhauled.

The interesting thing I’ve found in talking to people who have navigated through these fundamental shifts in perception, done the work to process the events, and survived the ice cracking under their feet is that they appear much more calm. The acceptance of uncertainty, pain, and the temporary nature of most things comes with freedom. Through embracing the darkness there is an understanding that happiness comes and goes; it cannot be held and there are no guarantees for the future. This understanding liberates us to enjoy happiness as it presents itself and remain optimistic that it will return because we know it’s possible, we’ve seen it before.

Happiness is not a destination, but some of the scenery we get to see along the way.

The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 1

I recently finished one of Jordan Peterson‘s volumous books. For those of you not familiar with Peterson, he’s a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He has a number of credits to his name but received widespread notoriety over the last few years for his controversial views on political correctness.

While I admit that I find some of Peterson’s views antiquated and not up my alley, I admire his tenacity and willingness to argue and support his viewpoints. His second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was not an easy read. It’s full of abstract principles supported by concepts borrowed from theology, psychology, philosophy and literature. It took me much longer to get through than most books I pick up, both because it is written in a heavy academic style (each chapter represents a rule and is an essay in its own right) and because I was trying to absorb as much as possible.

I think Peterson makes some really interesting observations and suggestions about how we develop our perception of the world around us as well as our expectations for how that world will behave.

He describes the famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment in which researchers showed test subjects a recording of a basketball game and asked them to count the number of times their team made a pass. During the game, a man dressed as a gorilla walks onto the court, pounds his chest and walks out of frame. Shockingly, more than 50% of subjects did not see the gorilla.

This study, aside from being both funny and disturbing, demonstrates the narrow field of a person’s perception. Peterson explains that perception is adjusted to your goals and reinforcing your beliefs (for more on this, please try my prior post on denial). In this case, most of the study participants are so focused on the goal of counting passes that their perception is narrowed and they are unable to see the unusual scene beyond their task at hand. This is a necessary strategy for all people. Although some of us have more capacity to take in and process external information, we all have a point where that capacity is exhausted. We need to prioritize what we pay attention to in order to be successful.

This (of course) is not a conscious process, but I think we can all think of a situation or two in our own life where perception was coloured by our mental state, beliefs, and goals at the time. For example, I’m not sure that 30 year-old Jess would find 15 year old pothead Kenny as alluring as hormonal teenage Jess did. Although some may argue that my taste of men has not changed drastically enough, with my shifting goal towards building healthier relationships my perception is focused and my tastes are slowly changing. For the first time in my life I am aware that my ideal partner does not include substance use in all their recreational experiences.

Peterson says that we are all born with an instinct towards ethics and a lust for attaching meaning to our experiences, but that it takes great courage and strength to carry the burden of moving towards those things. That is because doing this is a great undertaking that requires us to constantly evaluate and prioritize our goals, beliefs and expectations. This causes discomfort in moving our perception to meet those changes. This is part of what attracts us to underdog stories, they encourage these shifts by confirming that taking the high and long road gives us the hope and possibility of rebirth despite the inevitable suffering.

Peterson makes the point of showing the malevolence that awaits those of us not strong enough to take the torch and the higher path; we are jealous, resentful, and petty. Have you ever had the experience of sharing an off the cuff and out of the box idea with someone who immediately ripped it to shreds? While I like to believe that most of us do these things because we are trying to protect people from hurting themselves, we are effectively squashing growth and innovation as a result of our fear to a challenge to our understanding and perception of the world.

Can you imagine the reception the first guy that ate a lobster got? There is very little about those pinchy characters that look appetizing; but some guy was hungry, brave, and probably desperate enough to eat one and share it with others.

In my mind, I see his friends screaming “UGH! STEVE, DON’T EAT THAT!!” as he defiantly cracks open the shell, eventually pairing the meat with butter and winning people over by challenging their perception of what is acceptable behaviour.

… Thanks, Steve!

ANYWAY.

Approaching ideas by immediately pointing out the flaws and challenges discourages people from taking risks and entertaining change. We are not allowing them to do the work of figuring out if their idea is viable, we are dragging them back down onto the safe and flat ground with us. We are protecting our own perception at the expense of the expansion of theirs.

* * *

Next week is part two in this series inspired by Jordan Peterson.  We will examine how our beliefs, goals, expectations, and perception play into the pursuit of happiness.  I hope you will return!

 

What is “the flow” anyway?

I’ve been pretty open about my constant desire to control things around me, including *embarassingly* other people. I believe this is a reflection of my insecurity, fear of uncertainty, refusal to acknowledge my own faults, and general self-preservation. I hate surprises and find it difficult to go with the flow. My default belief is that everyone would be better off if they just listened to me, dammit!

Recognizing that this is self-aggrandizing hogwash I’ve been making a concerted effort to go with the flow when I catch myself in those micro-managing moments.

A few months ago, a medical appointment was cancelled last minute by my doctors’ office. I was annoyed because it had taken some time to coordinate the time off work. I was not looking forward to another round of juggling to reschedule. On the day that I was supposed to be out of office to attend this appointment, I was approached by my boss to take an extra ticket to an event with some key customers: a limo ride and box seats at a baseball game. In the past, living with an addict, I would have declined fearing what would have happened if I had not been at home, as planned, caretaking. In the past I wouldn’t have been able to alter my plans last minute without an enormous and crushing amount of stress.

On that day, I said “yes” and relaxed into it. I didn’t worry about the house burning down, people making bad choices without me there to intervene, or that I would be tired for work the next day. I have to tell you, if you ever get the opportunity to have a similar experience, doooo it! There was more swag than I’d ever imagined, amazing food (beyond the regular $13 hot dogs) and I got to spend an interesting evening with people that wouldn’t have normally entered my orbit.  I’d never had such an upscale sporting experience and I have to tell you, I’m now ruined for the cheap seats.

The next day, rising with little sleep, I prepared myself for a meeting that I had been dreading with someone that usually has my blood boiling in seconds and struggling to remain professional. Overtired, I did not struggle with any impatience or anger. I showed up, was professional, and left without the usual fireworks and resentments.

If you’re curious about that appointment, there happened to be an opening when I was in the doctor’s office picking up an unrelated item the following week. I didn’t have to take any additional time off work or go to any inconvenience of rescheduling. It just worked out.

A series of unrelated and unexpected events that in the past would have sent me into an incredible stress spiral and would have made everything more difficult and traumatic. This time, being open, showing up, and going with the flow altered my experience in unexpected and positive ways.

I hear you, those clichés like “everything happens for a reason” and “go with the flow” sound like total crap. I understand it seems impossible sometimes to surrender and trust that everything is going to be ok. I am the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers; but, I do know that as I learn what is “my part” and what isn’t and trust that things will work out life is getting easier.

I’m glad that I’m learning to release my iron grip on my expectations so I can appreciate and experience the things that I could have never imagined and wouldn’t have made space for in the past.

Choices

Recently I had the experience of getting some negative and pointed feedback on something I posted. I’ve taken for granted that my writing has a limited reach. I believe that most of the people who have stumbled across my content have done so mostly by accident and had they chosen to stay or interact it was due to shared strategy towards recovery, or at least something that I said resonated with them in the moment.

The item in question and the person who offered it are not really required for this discussion. I’ve said that I welcome alternate recovery strategies and I do. I also believe that by sharing we can all learn new tricks, which is always a good thing. I don’t think that personal improvement and healing is universal, I believe this process is best as a self-directed and adaptable plan. I accept that what I feel, say, and write is not for everyone and vice versa. It isn’t personal, we just like different things: I’m an autumn and you’re a summer – isn’t that grand?

However, I did find it hard to let go of the delivery of this alternate view point. The implication was that my approach to healing is wrong and they were right. They seemed to take personal offence to my suggestion that self-improvement was required on my part and that codependency is a farce designed to send wounded people on a quest of introspection and self-blame that is totally unnecessary and a waste of their precious time. They berated me for considering any toxicity in my actions which I found interesting considering they surely do not know me well enough to make such a flattering judgment!

I’ve given these comments some thought, and I agree with certain pieces of their argument.

Most of codependency behavior is basic and normal human nature. It is in our nature to want to connect. It is in our nature to want to invest in the growth of our families. It is seen as a good trait in a person to be willing to go to some measure of sacrifice for those they love. It is human to want to help someone you care about who is struggling, we all want to be somebody’s hero. It is normal to be disappointed when our contributions are not recognized. It is human to be upset when people’s actions and words sting us. Most of us also have slivers of narcissism, if only in our belief in our ability to inspire change in others or in our entitlement for recognition of our good deeds.

Much like addiction is to every person’s inclination to numb or require respite from the trials of being human, codependency is also an extreme expression of the human condition. And thus, I agree with the implication that being in a codependent relationship, much like being an addict, doesn’t make you fundamentally broken. We are all vulnerable to these states, and neither should carry the stigma they do. But, I do not agree that there is no room for adaptation and improvement.

Being human is laden with flaws but it also comes with greatness in that we have almost boundless potential for learning and growth. We can reinvent ourselves with enough effort and context. If a person is adequately motivated and determined, they can reprogram themselves in amazing and unimagined ways. That is not to say that everyone should be consumed by personal growth but it seems a shame to not take advantage of one of our greatest gifts.

With a year and a half of this journey under my belt, I see personal development and recovery not as an expression of hate for who I am. I see it as the ultimate expression of self-love; I recognize my potential, my resilience, my adaptability, and my strength. I owe it to myself to grow. I owe it to myself to learn when the context of my life changes. I owe it to myself to be open to joy, fulfillment, and opportunities.  I owe it to myself to be available for the moment.

I thank this commenter for the reminder that I am not broken but rather that I am evolving and that is something I am not ashamed to be excited about and share.

While I anticipate that at least some of you will challenge my ideas, and I look forward to that feedback, I request that we all approach each other with an open and respectful mind. I remind myself that every comment, like, critique, and message is from a live person and request that the same consideration is given to me.

I challenge us all to remember that we have choices. We can always pick where we devote our energy. While I hope that you will continue to share your stories, opinions, and experiences as well as considering mine I respect your right to divert your attention elsewhere.

All my best,

J.

Addiction, Recovery, and the Family

Think of your family as a circus troupe with its own mini structure. There is division of labour, responsibilities, and roles that are assigned to each member which determine the success of the overall machine. Like that travelling show, the ease of functioning, success, and longevity of the production depends on a number of factors, including: each member’s expectations, how they all communicate, how conflict is managed, and how all the members interact with the outside world.

Spending extended time on the road, performing and interacting with the public together will shape the personality and behaviour of each member. And likewise, any change in part of the troupe will affect the rest of the show. For example, if the ringmaster is very rigid and controlling, the rest of the members will respond by becoming less responsible to avoid conflict.

Now, consider the ringmaster has an active struggle with addiction. He starts to behave irresponsibly; breaks the promise he made to the acrobats to repair the trapeze because he used that money to support his habit, disappears for periods of time without telling the circus manager when he can anticipate his return, and tells the clowns they are fat and worthless. The whole troupe is affected by his choices and need to adjust themselves accordingly. Because of the nature of addiction, these changes usually happen slowly while the system makes small unconscious adjustments that add up over a long period of time.

Unfortunately, the effects of the addiction likely do not stop there. Overworked and stressed at not having a front man for the night’s performance, the circus manager takes out his anger on his wife and kids who in turn take out their feelings on others. The clowns, suffering from low self-esteem slowly develop their own chemical dependency issues. Lastly, one of the acrobats develops stress-induced insomnia and eventually injures himself on the job. I’ve seen addiction compared more than once to dropping a pebble in a still pond, perhaps you can see why?

Theories on the interaction of social experiences with the psyche form the foundation of psychology as we know it today. Although psychologists are still arguing about the exact way these experiences influence us it is clear that the family system has a profound impact on the subconscious (or the part of the mind which is just out of awareness but drives a person’s actions and feelings).

Living with addiction is living with chaos. It is nonsensical, ruthless, and unpredictable.  It is not unusual for people who live with another person’s addiction to develop their own mental, physical or emotional chronic and long-term health problems. I’m no exception – for most of my life I’ve struggled with a cocktail of painful emotions, not limited to: guilt, shame, anger, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and fear. I’ve also suffered from several chronic health issues with no clear origin. Connecting with others impacted by family addiction has shown me that I come by this honestly; it is startling how many similar stories and challenges I’ve heard.

It has shown me that anyone from any socio-economic, cultural, or spiritual background can be impacted by addiction or by someone else’s addiction.

Like many people who have lived with addiction I didn’t understand why I would need to work on myself. After all, they have the problem, amiright?! I focused on fixing my loved ones because I thought that if they got over it my life would be f-i-n-e.

Sound familiar?

The truth about addiction is this: you didn’t cause their addiction, you can’t control it, but you can unknowingly contribute to it and further suffering. We do this mostly by not having appropriate boundaries and knowledge. The most common example of this is “enabling” which is defined as doing anything for the addict they could be doing for themselves if they were sober. The reason this is bad is that it could prolong the addiction by protecting the addict from the consequences of their actions and thus their incentive to consider a different path. Enabling also inadvertently sends the message that whatever behaviour it is acting on is acceptable. In our circus example, enabling would be making excuses for the ringmaster’s poor behaviour versus a healthy behaviour like supporting him in his recovery effort by helping him look up local support group meetings.

Recovery for the family of an addict is focusing on awareness and emphasizing the things you can control: your own thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s using those things to develop a life that is whole, healthy, and fulfilling. It is finding ways to enjoy the life you have that doesn’t depend on validation from the system you have no control over. It’s learning that sometimes you need to go through a certain degree of discomfort and pain to grow. It’s understanding that the best way to break the cycle of addiction is to learn how to prioritize yourself and allow others to make choices and feel their consequences. It’s embracing the importance of healthy connections and what they look like. It’s accepting that the best way to help someone is to support them in taking care of themselves.

 

Fight, Flight, or…

You may stumble across references to the “fight or flight response”. This is the common name for a theory first introduced by the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon who took advantage of the lax animal rights laws of his time to develop several famous theories that scientists still use as the basis for our understanding of the sympathetic nervous system (or crap your body does without you asking).

His theory describes a series of chemical reactions that happen in the body in response to stress; specifically an event which threatens survival. Some of these changes, include: increased blood flow to muscles, increased blood pressure, blood clotting speeding up, and muscle tension increasing. Cognitively, the animal has an increased perception of control (this is not actual control, just the belief that they have it) and distortion of their social processing which leads to two basic emotional states: anxiety or aggression. As the name suggests, these changes occur as the body and mind prepare to fight an attacker or turn tail and run.

Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, it is believed that this response was designed to help the animal respond to acute stress. For example, running the heck away from a hungry lion which presumably will be an intense but short ordeal. This response was not designed to be a steady or constant state and perhaps given the description I’ve provided it’s easy to see how spending a long period of time in an environment which promotes constant stress could impact physical and emotional health.

When I first started researching this theory I thought about dog fighting. In order to prepare a dog for the ring, handlers do not allow them to live normal lives. They chain them in place, often near but out of reach of other dogs. They are forced to exercise, are beaten, starved, traumatized and antagonized. They train them to tear apart bait animals, taunt them with objects to encourage them to bite and yank, and deprive them of affection and healthy socialization. With no trust and affection dogs will either become aggressive to the point that they fight or they are deemed unfit and often neglected or killed. A wall and a hard place.

It’s a totally barbaric and I’m glad an outlawed “sport” in many areas, but it shows us that in the absence of love, support, and socialization and with the addition of trauma and stress the dog develops chronic aggression or anxiety; stuck in fight or flight, 24/7.

I have a rescue mutt. She is of uncertain origin, adopted as an adult. I know very little about her except that she was captured running wild in the backwoods of Ohio. When  she came home with us, it was clear she’d been through some things. When we would walk her through the neighbourhood she would lunge at other dogs snarling and barking. She was also skiddish if anything or anyone was behind her and would attempt to run away.

Nothing we tried stopped her from being a Tasmanian devil of snarling fury or a panicked rabbit darting away from a loud noise.

It was clear that on the leash she felt trapped and threatened, any dog that approached was out to get her. As a last ditch effort, I decided to take her to an off-leash dog park. My local park is not fenced and runs along a highway. It is also popular and almost always packed with dogs. It was sink or swim; I had visions of her running onto the road or getting into a bloody fight with another dog.

Neither of those things happened.

She didn’t revert to fight or flight. She acted like a dog: sniffed butts, played chase and didn’t run off. I trusted her and I guess she decided to trust me back.

Such a small thing, but so significant. Truthfully, she is still not perfect on a leash, she pulls and yanks me around although she is no longer aggressive. She is also still prone to flight if someone she doesn’t trust is behind her.  But, to me, she represents hope of change; that although she is fundamentally altered by her experiences it is possible to evolve beyond basic instinct.

So, what does this have to do with codependency and recovery?

Anxiety and aggression are both responses to fear. Many people with codependent traits grew up in dysfunctional families, some with addiction, abuse or neglect. Living in a constant state of fight or flight has conditioned us to fear (among other things) rejection, criticism, conflict, failure, vulnerability, and lack of control. We live in readiness, anxiety, and/or aggression because that’s our “normal”. We subconsciously expect the attacks and abuse to continue and maybe even believe we deserve it.

Anxiety leads to overthinking and drawing away from reality. It can cause us to get caught in those “what ifs”, which causes us to magnify and distort what is actually happening in our lives. And because we are used to bad things happening we probably don’t even realize we are stuck and out of touch. We have learned not to value our feelings and repress them which also helps to increase our anxiety, sticking us more firmly in the loop of fight or flight.

But, like my dog, we can learn to override our basic programming. We don’t have to keep doing those things that we had to do to survive. We can change. It is important to remember that as hopeless and stuck as we feel, there are choices beyond kill and cower. We can choose another path by working a program that helps us relax, restores our confidence, and teaches us to trust and let it go.

Simple, not easy, but priceless and worth the effort.

Karma, For Dummies

Being spiritual is not something that comes easily to me. I don’t remember ever having anything close to what could be described as blind faith or trust in the universe.

When I was in middle school, a Christian family moved in across the street in my very small town. They had a daughter about my age. We had nothing in common, but they were kind and generous people and… well, there weren’t a lot of local playmates for any of us to choose from.

The family held daily bible readings. We would be running wild in the yard and get called inside where the mother would read us a bible passage and a second reading geared more towards children, usually a cute story with biblical morals. I don’t remember this being an unpleasant experience but truthfully I don’t think I got any spiritual substance from the practice.  Even at that age I was incorrigible and my engagement was tied more closely to the post study snack rather than any real appreciation for the divine.

I remember the day we covered Genesis and the creation of the world. I asked about dinosaurs, evolution, UFOs, and how could we possibly be the only life in the universe. To the mother’s credit, she was patient and told me that she believed those 7 days did not flow through time as we experience it today. The world was new, in Beta test. Even an omnipotent being needed time and some test subjects. Maybe all those details were not captured by the mortals who pieced together the Holy scripture.

I didn’t buy her explanations then and continue to resist anything that can’t be explained with logic, reason, and proof.  Needless to say, there is a lot that happens in life that can’t, so I find myself trying to force things into simplistic and ill-fitting boxes or obsessively trying to come up with rationalizations for things that are not rational, logic for things that are in no way logical, and for proof where there isn’t any.

If I can’t neatly sort and explain things, you ask? I dramatically crumble into a depressed existential crisis.

I acknowledge that this is part of why I struggle with letting go. I need (want) to always understand the why; even when it’s not available or knowing doesn’t make me happy either.

In recovery I have been looking for compromise; for ways to help me accept and let go of the unexplained. One concept that has helped me is Karma, or the idea that there is a relationship of cause and effect in people’s action (or inaction). Rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, this idea has also been compared to Newton’s Third Law (thank goodness, some science!) which postulates that every action has an equal or opposite reaction. In other words, the universe is keeping tabs and eventually everything evens out.

I used to think that Karma was a result of justice and judgement, reward and punishment, but now I realize it’s about being accountable for yourself. Karma is supposed to encourage you to own your actions, the way you treat others, and also to trust that others should be left to do the same. Karma teaches us to be calm, emphasizing intelligent, unemotional and logical action. This leads to acceptance of reality as well as peace, calm, and surrender.

Another thing that makes this idea attractive to me is that it is often tied to reincarnation. Although I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife, it does help to justify the idea of suffering. While you may not get to experience the return of energy in this life, you will in the next. Some even teach that lifetimes are like levels in a video game with each life subjected to a new lesson or obstacle to overcome. Failure results in repeating the level while passing leads to harder and harder tests until you finally face off against the big boss and are rewarded with enlightenment, peace, and ethereal rewards.

While I think it’s unlikely that I will ever formally practice religion, I do see the value of spirituality. Belief in the unseen and unexplained makes it easier to let go by suggesting things will be sorted out when I let go. And, more importantly, these ideas can inspire hope, trust, and motivation to continue in this age of uncertainty, distrust, and scarcity. Because really, we could all use that extra bit of inspiration to convince us to continue when it seems like there is no hope.