We are encumbered by a cultural imperative to value clarity and to have the correct answer. The need to distance ourselves from confusion is mandated by the judgment that confusion, a close relative of uncertainty, is weak and to be shunned. Many people disguise their confusion, as they are embarrassed by it and may even feign certainty. Our educational system is founded upon a learning style that mediates toward certainty and evokes a discomfort with confusion. The confused student is offered after class help or advised to see a tutor. The confused worker may feel ashamed and hide their confusion in fear, limiting the opportunity to resolve their struggle to understand.
How we experience our lives is very much informed by how we see reality operating. The prevailing mindset of most, still believe in a fixed, static and material universe. From that vantage, we construct a reality comprised of objects and see ourselves as things as well, albeit human things. As such we are beings. Human beings, perhaps somewhat stuck in our identity of being. This mindscape sees change as the exception and at times as undesirable; undesired change is something to be controlled if not warded off, yet not surprisingly we become mired in failure in our own attempts to change. Predictability and determinism still reign sovereign.
Beginning a new year often brings forth a review of our expectations and I thought it might be a good idea to briefly examine this topic. As with many concepts in our culture, we tend to fall well short of fully appreciating what these terms truly suggest and at times, the apparent contradictions that they may evoke. This is certainly the case with the word expectations. Are they to be valued and embraced or do they impede us and distort our life experiences? The answer depends on a host of things. One size doesn’t typically fit all and we need to look at how we employ the word expectations. From the perspective of some spiritual traditions we should be disinclined to attach to expectations as they may block our direct experience of life and impose a bondage of belief upon us. Traditional western values that inculcate and reward achievement honor high expectations, for they drive our culture and our economy.
A young woman in her mid-twenties recently came in for her first visit with me. Three months earlier she had experienced her first bout of anxiety and it had become more acute thereafter. She went on to explain that she had been seeing a psychiatrist who had prescribed four different psychotropic medications, simultaneously. Complaining of a blurred and disconnected feeling, she offered that she was uncertain as to whether the cause was physical, emotional and psychological—or a symptom of the gross invasion of this massive drugging.
Our struggle with growth is very much about the dramas we engage in trying to come out of our comfort zone. In fact, we’d be better advised to call it our familiar zone, since these areas of habitual thinking and experience, may actually not be comfortable, but they are certainly very familiar. Picture the familiar zone as a circle that circumscribes the known boundaries of your thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
The words, order and chaos, are particularly value laden. We tend to embrace order and avoid chaos at all costs. I’ve come to wonder why that is so. And more to the point, what do we mean by order or chaos? Let’s start by examining what these terms suggest.
The notion of order is equivalent to a sense of predictability. Predictability in this form lets us know what we can expect. It speaks almost of a range of motion. A pendulum, unaffected by friction, will follow its predetermined path. We know just how far it will travel to either point in its arc before beginning its return. Predictability relies upon certainty and measurable outcomes. It has been a major tenet of our culture and our science since Newton introduced the motif of determinism in the 17th century. This range of predictable order is known as equilibrium.
A Recent New York Times science article informed that if concrete is kept vibrating, it won’t become set and retains a liquid form. This concept intrigued me and I considered that perhaps the same might occur with our thinking. Keeping our thinking in the process of vibrating would suggest, metaphorically that we wouldn’t fall prey to dogma or “concretizing” our beliefs. Moreover, our learning would be in a perpetual condition of evolving.
In my work as a psychotherapist I often see individuals who are plagued by a relentless measuring of themselves. These people carry on an internal dialogue whereby their critical voice is enslaving; judging and measuring most aspects of their lives. In such circumstances, these people rarely get to be present. Even when in conversation with others, they are only partly there; for a more private aspect is carrying on a self-critique at the same time.
The passing of Tim Russert inspired a very unqiue and extraordinary response in so many of us. He truly integrated so many core features of a life well lived. His balance, expressed through his passion, incorporated his zeal for his profession, his friends and of course, his family. One aspect didn’t suffer for his attention to another. This is a gift well worth emulating. And a lesson, perhaps, in the art of living well. The word, integrity is often used to describe Mr. Russert. Integrity suggests a quality of wholeness, or a lack of splintering or fragmenting. His life was devoted to such qualities of wholeness.
What we refer to as our comfort zone becomes at times not quite so comfortable, as it is familiar. Old habits and behaviors that we struggle to transcend become impeded by the barriers of this comfort zone; which I now more aptly refer to as the familiar zone.
Typically, moving out of the familiar zone causes us disquiet if not outright distress or anxiety.When asked why we don’t engage the changes that we claim we seek, a common response that I encounter is, “It makes me anxious,” or “I feel uncomfortable doing that.” From this perspective we might consider that we need to shift our relationship with the discomfort.
• Mel Schwartz Psychotherapy & Marriage Counseling • 246 Post Road East, Suite 275 Westport, CT 06880
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