Yin and yang. Transcendence of opposites. Integration. Balance. These are terms and phrases that, more or less, mean the same thing. They capture a central idea in addressing an inherently human challenge—inner conflict.
Sometimes it feels like we are being pulled in opposite directions. One week, we exercise, eat right, nurture important relationships, and seem fully committed to life projects. The next week, we’re lazy, eat and drink too much, brush aside important relationships, and resist taking on meaningful challenges. This cycle can become quite vicious, leaving us to wonder, “who am I?”
The ego wants clean categories to organize the self. I am this or that. Black or white. Good or bad. Always one way, not the other. The ego would like things to be simple and easily understood, reducing the need for cognitive effort. Simplicity has its place, but it is the wrong tool for this particular job.
We are a complicated species, which means inner conflicts are bound to unfold. We have a pleasure system and a nervous system that often struggle to connect with our conscious mind. You know, the part that feels like “me” or “I.”
Our conscious mind allows us to construct a higher self that’s built from our deepest values and intentions (who we want to be). Specifically, when we are discordant with our so-called higher self, we might say things like “I wasn’t being me.” Or, if the higher self has become significantly damaged, we might say “maybe I’m just a bad person after all.”
Again, this is a fragmented ego attempting to resolve the conflict by trapping one’s identity into simplistic categories. Not very helpful.
The best I can tell, most humans have a little bit of everything in them. Higher self and lower self, good and bad, masculine and feminine, intellect and emotion, strength and weakness. You name it, we got it. Like I said, we’re complicated, which is kind of cool because it makes us interesting.
But it can also be psychologically painful when we are at war with ourselves. As Edwin Starr might say: War, Huh! What is it good for?
Not much when it comes to mental health.
It also isn’t a good idea to resolve inner conflict by attempting to exercise tyrannical control over aspects of yourself that you might perceive as bad or ugly or less socially acceptable. The side you are trying to inhibit will inevitably rebel, and it will likely do so with immaturity and belligerence.
So, let’s return to the idea mentioned in the opening paragraph. Each of those concepts ultimately encourage us to call forward all dimensions of our personality structure and challenge us to make peace with them. This means we have to let certain parts of our psychology out of mental prison and begin an internal conversation that involves negotiation and compromise.
Easier said than done, right? Here’s an example of how the internal conversation might go. Feel free to alter the language to make it fit whatever inner conflict you might be struggling with.
So-called higher self: Look, I know I’ve been really hard on you before, and I want to say I’m sorry. If berating you was effective, it would have worked by now. I think we need some new strategies.
So-called lower self: Thanks for that. I know sometimes I take things too far, and the responsibility falls on you to clean everything up. I’m sorry too. How can we get along moving forward?
So-called higher self: I think the wisest way forward is some form of balance. What do you think?
So-called lower self: Agreed. How about we are more aware of each other and less disconnected? Let’s stay in touch more often. Maybe you can even help me honor certain needs/wants/desires without the self-destruction part?
So-called higher self: I definitely can do that. Honestly, it’d be nice for you to help me too. Sometimes, I try to control everything way too much. It’d be great to have you around for when I begin to slide too far in that direction…
I think you get the point. It might sound strange, but I have found that the tools of internal conversation, negotiation, and compromise help sooth inner conflicts so that we can work with, not against, contradictory aspects of ourselves. The goals are to honor the various dimensions of our personality structure, give them a voice, and to validate their presence within us. As a result, we can finally begin to set aside psychological resistance and cultivate a path towards (imperfect) inner peace.
Christmas, for complicated reasons, can be a complicated time of the year. You have your reasons, and I have mine. We all have our ways of seeing things, right?
But what if we can simplify a bit? This is an option. Even during the holidays.
Remember, saying “no” doesn’t make you the Grinch. It means you have boundaries. And boundaries are healthy.
Maybe you don’t have to do every single tradition. Maybe you take some moments to sit back and just observe. Maybe you don’t demand of yourself that you be happy every second. Maybe you cut yourself some slack. Maybe you become an imperfectionist.
What is this holiday about for you? This is a good question to ask. Be real. Be honest—at least with yourself.
The pressure of Christmas can be a lot.
Sure, pressure makes diamonds, but it also crushes things. If you thrive under the pressure, be the diamond. If you are being crushed by the pressure, hit the release valve. Paper plates and pizza are wonderful too.
How do you feel during the holiday season?
Whatever it is, don’t try to force yourself into feeling the “Christmas spirit.” We both know this doesn’t really work. Feel what you need to feel. But please consider this friendly reminder… Think before you act. It’s usually not a bad idea.
Sometimes Christmas leads us to reflect on relationships. Some that are still here. Others that have gone.
For those who have passed or moved on, remember them and miss them, if appropriate. Sadness can be a healthy and natural biproduct of having the courage to love another.
For those who are still here, it’s nice to see them—even if it’s once or twice a year. Nothing wrong with that. But maybe, with the pandemic and all, some connections have fallen to the wayside. This could be a good time to pick those back up.
Lastly, your needs matter and “self-care” is not cliché. I get it. Christmas is “the season of giving.” Just please don’t forget to give yourself what you need to make the best out of this often complicated and joyful and difficult and merry time of the year.
I probably bit off more than I can chew, but let’s see where this goes…
I have been on a history kick recently—everything from American history to early human civilizations to the history of the cosmos in general. Like most behaviors, it is hard to determine exactly why I’ve been on this kick, but I think it’s fair to say that this is the current manifestation of my all-too-human quest to understand how the hell I got here.
When considering the vastness of the past, it’s common for people to get a strange, disorienting feeling in their mind. Trust me, been there, done that. Our brains aren’t fully equipped to conceptualize time on a scale larger than our lifetime. However, it can surely be humbling to try, which may not be a bad thing. Luckily, we don’t have to stay in that feeling for too long though because learning about the past offers additional perspectives that are not only interesting, but are also applicable to how we approach life.
For example, consider the numerous phases Earth has gone through throughout its history. This might sound obvious to some, but modern humans tend to take the (relatively) stable state of our planet for granted. Think about 4.5 billion years ago during the Hadean Eon where Earth consisted of magmatic seas and was relentlessly bombarded with meteorites. For hundreds of millions of years, Earth was so unstable that single-celled life couldn’t even get started long enough for evolution to take place, which meant these basic lifeforms would briefly pop into existence before being destroyed, then briefly pop into existence again before being destroyed… again. This went on and on until finally things settled down. And thankfully, things settled down.
It’s an honor to be a part of this process called life. I know each of us in isolation is itty bitty and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time, we are all connected to a massive, cosmic process that has allowed the universe to become conscious of itself. I mean, really think about that. We aren’t just in the universe; we are of the universe. Us humans are a biproduct of an evolutionary history that began with those resilient single-celled organisms, which eventually evolved into more complex life and, ultimately, conscious life. Come on, that is pretty cool. Just a casual consideration of the history of our planet, solar system, and the universe as a whole can lead to a deeper appreciation for life, and through that appreciation, perhaps we can live more intentionally. Afterall, this is our only shot, and the likelihood that all the happenings that needed to actually happen in order for you and I to exist right now is virtually zero percent.
It’s almost like a miracle.
Anyway, here’s the perspective: A stable planet, the natural resiliency of life, and the development of consciousness itself is worth our acknowledgement and appreciation. It also may not be a bad idea to regularly call this perspective to mind. The impact could be profound.
Alright. How about we consider another example? Let’s fast forward a several billion years to the latter half of the 1700s. Think about the complexity of events that were happening during the Revolutionary War and then roughly a hundred years later during the Civil War. Not to mention the Reconstruction Era, Westward Expansion, World Wars, Civil Rights Movement, etc. And that’s just the United States. Only ONE country’s history out of 195. Mind boggling, isn’t it?
Sure, the humans that came before us didn’t exactly stick the landing on every challenge, but they found a way to push the needle towards progress in most cases. That deserves our respect and maybe, just maybe, having some faith in humanity—at least a little bit longer. I know it’s tough with everything going on in the world. Hey, my faith waivers too, but even when certain obstacles seem insurmountable, it’s helpful to think about those who came before us and the challenges they faced. This isn’t the first time that our species has been pushed to the brink.
But faith in humanity doesn’t need to be derived solely from a macro-historical perspective. We can look at personal histories too. People are overcoming trauma, poverty, heartbreak, and setbacks every damn day. As a therapist, I have grown to have a deep respect for this dimension of our collective human history. Truly, there is inspiration everywhere.
Sometimes we might have to force ourselves to see it because it’s all too easy to indulge in our cynicism. But as Marsha Linehan (one of the great pioneers of psychotherapy) says, “you have to believe even when you don’t believe” (AKA faith). Maybe that’s the secret psychological weapon our ancestors used to persevere, and maybe faith, in its proper place, is a necessary ingredient for us to live to see a better day.
So, here’s the perspective to keep in mind: Humans, with virtually identical DNA to you and me, have managed to endure and overcome seemingly impossible hardships time and time again—one day, one year, one generation at a time. We too can be a part of this story. Keep the faith.
One more concluding thought and I’ll let you go…
A basic decision we have as human beings is to decide whether or not to go on. No other species has to wake up every morning and, in one way or another, make this choice in the way that we do; it’s just us. So here’s my choice: I choose to go on, man. With the wisdom of history at my back, I believe it’s worth it. Do you?
What are you doing with your life?
This is a question worth asking yourself. It’s also worth asking who is asking this internal question? Is it really you, or does it seem like someone else—an authority figure perhaps? It’s also worth considering the tone in which the question is being asked. Does it feel like WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE!!!? Or is it more like hey friend, just curious, what are you doing with your life? Pondering these questions will tell you something.
If you are alive, you are doing something with your life. Maybe it lacks intentionality or maybe you have strayed away from your values, but you’re doing something. That is a fact. How you feel about what you’re doing will tell you a lot, though. So, whether there are feelings of overwhelm, meaninglessness, uncertainty, fulfillment, accomplishment, or whatever else there is to feel, this is key information that will help you determine if you are on the right track. At times, it might take a little bit of courage, but we must turn towards those feelings in order to see what’s truly there.
Now, I don’t know what you should be doing with your life, but I am quite confident that your current life falls into one of these three categories: 1. Too difficult; 2. Too easy; or 3. About right. Of course, this is all relative to some extent, but let’s not fool ourselves just because there is an element of subjectivity here. Evaluating your life requires serious attention and honest self-reflection, so you should give yourself adequate time to come to a conclusion about where you stand. It’s also important to remember that sometimes “too easy” feels like “too difficult” because the feelings associated with “too easy” may be unpleasant and, therefore, can make life seem “too difficult.” So beware of the mind’s tricks.
A relevant concept to reflect on is responsibility. I’ve been following psychologist and bestselling author Jordan Peterson’s work for several years now, and although I don’t agree with everything he says, I think Dr. Peterson is right when he talks about how “shouldering responsibility” is what gives life meaning. Think about it: what else sustains one’s sense of meaning and purpose more than responsibility?
It seems reasonable to say that the “too easy” life lacks responsibility, which is often associated with feelings of worthlessness, poor self-esteem, and a nihilistic attitude. Again, these are undoubtedly difficult symptoms to deal with, so it might sound counterintuitive to intentionally pursue something inherently difficult like responsibility. But that is precisely what a “too easy” life needs. However, please remember that although it is wise to start with rather simple challenges and gradually move towards greater complexity, don’t sell yourself too short. You are capable of much more than you think.
So what about the “too difficult” life? I know there are some of those out there, for sure. If you have come to this conclusion honestly, you might feel chronically stressed, overwhelmed, and at your wit’s end. For these folks, it is important to consider this fundamental question: What are my options? It could be the case that you need to reel in the ego and ask for help. If help is realistically available, you should not be doing it all on your own. Further, it also could be the case that you need to quit something. Yes, it is okay to be a quitter when necessary. This is your life, and it is your job to advocate for it, which sometimes means telling someone you quit. Lastly, if there truly are no other options (beware: this can be another one of the mind’s tricks), choose your perspective. For example, the principle of impermanence could be a helpful perspective-taking concept. It could be the case that “too difficult” is the biproduct of you entering into a new life phase. So, it might be grounding to remind yourself that this too shall pass, and eventually what was once “too difficult” can become “about right” with experience. The bottom line is this: choosing your perspective will give you options again, and options will give you power.
The final category is the “about right” life. If this is your life, you have it good. You have enough responsibility to give you meaning and purpose, but not so much that you are chronically overwhelmed. Of course, circumstances can and will change, but with proper self-care and clear awareness, you can usually sense when your life is beginning to slip into one of the other categories. I must also note here that “about right” might look different for you compared to others. This point may seem obvious, but we don’t have to look far to realize how easy it is for people to engage in toxic and often cherry-picked comparisons. It’s true. Common wisdom can be so difficult to live by, so please take these famous words (often falsely attributed to Oscar Wilde) to heart: “Just be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
Another walk in the Cold
Another lesson learned
The brisk-winded professor
Gifts a wordless lecture
Unlike human constructed curriculum
In the form of a full breath
Of cool, crisp air
Mine for a moment
Returned for eternity
A simple letting go
The only way it can be
I could have just said, “I like walks in the cold, maybe you should give it a try.” But I thought a small poem might send a stronger message.
Poems are strange things. Sometimes, they come across as corny as hell. Other times, they seem profound. Usually this is dictated by a mind state. So, don’t read poetry when you’re hungover!
I digress, back to walks in the cold. For better or for worse, this “dark winter” (as Joe Biden often says) has limited our options for leisure, which has meant that a lot of people FEEL stuck at home working, eating, drinking, smoking, parenting, sitting, ordering stuff, watching TV, scrolling through their phones, etc. It’s like, everything at home all the time. Home, home, home, and more… home.
On a positive note, you’re getting your money’s worth. That mortgage or rent is not cheap. On a negative note, you might be wondering if the couch is made of superglue. I hope the finish line is near with this pandemic. I really do. But there still might be additional opportunities for us to learn a bit more from this weird time—like the value of taking walks in the cold, perhaps.
It’s February, which means it can be frigidly cold in the Midwest. Don’t let that be a deterrent to getting outside, though. The mind is environment-driven in many respects, so being indoors surrounded by walls can lead to a sense that your life has become restricted against your will. In some ways, maybe it has (damn COVID), but mostly, this is an illusion.
The good news is that there are actually many things you can do to break this illusory spell. That’s reality. When was the last time you climbed a tree, threw a football around, called an old friend, jumped rope, danced to a song, or yes, took a walk in the cold? Life activities don’t have to serve a grand purpose in order for them to add value. And strangely, the most obvious pattern breakers can be the most difficult to see.