Psychology | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Long Live Peter Pan

I left my psychology graduate program a little over a week ago.  It was a decision I’d agonized over for months, mostly because of how much I care about and enjoy my fellow students.

I eventually recognized I had to cross at least one or two items off my agenda.  I’d been working on my show, doing solo law work, going to grad school at night, and organizing events for my men’s organization, and I started to notice I was spending a lot of my non-music-oriented time wishing I were working on music.

At a deeper level, I saw that, if I was going to be honest with myself, I had to admit I didn’t like the notion of choosing a path in life.  I was “keeping my options open” because I loved the exhilarating feeling of contemplating my limitless potential (a/k/a not growing up).

And Now, Ironically, For Some Psychology

On the “psychology tip,” I think Jung would have called the part of me that wanted to simultaneously pursue everything the puer aeternus, which is a fancy Latin term for “eternal boy.”  The eternal boy, like Peter Pan, wants to stay constantly in flight, never settling for too long on any perch.

On the surface, the eternal boy part of me might seem like a liability — after all, if I keep chasing every new idea that strikes my fancy, aren’t I likely to end up regretting, thirty years later, that I didn’t pursue one thing hard enough to really make a go of it?

But if we look deeper, there are amazing things about that Peter Pan energy.  The eternal boy is the source of my creativity — he thrills in flitting around between ideas and finding cool ways to put them together.

This Might Actually Help Me “Not Grow Up”

What I realized, when I thought about it, was that being clearer about my path can actually serve the eternal boy.  After all, the eternal boy doesn’t thrive under lots of structure — he doesn’t like anybody plotting his flight path — and dropping some of my recurring to-dos fed his need for freedom.

The creative part, I think, needs time to forget about time — to let go of the linear and the predictable (the “grown up”), and play around with possibilities.  With a schedule that’s too full, that doesn’t work so well.

The challenge for me now will be to let go, during the time I’ve gifted to myself, and really allow the eternal boy to play, rather than fretting that I should be doing chores or something else more “responsible.”

Seeing how much fun I’ve been having creatively over the past few years, I think I can handle it.

Why I’ve Been Talking About Myself

I recently noticed that, over the years (and it has been years) that I’ve been blogging, I’ve become less interested in giving advice to other people about what they should do, and more interested in just sharing my own experience of living.

I thought it would be interesting to take a moment and ask why I’ve moved in this direction.  I mean, let’s face it — the most popular posts in the blogosphere seem to be lists of the best ways to pitch your business, the best iPhone apps to buy, and so on.  Why would I shy away from this “prescriptive” approach people seem to like and just start talking about myself?

“Prescription” Ignites My Inner Two-Year-Old

The most obvious reason is that I simply don’t like being told what to do.  When someone tells me something like “here’s how you should introduce yourself to people,” my first instinct is to resist and perhaps even do the exact opposite of what I’m being told.

I may be unique in this sense — maybe, for some reason, I never fully grew out of the “Terrible Twos” stage of psychological development.  But my sense is that a lot of other people also instinctively dislike being told what to do, whether by their mothers or some random dude on the internet.

My Rejection of Projection

At a deeper level, though, what I’ve come to realize is that, when I’m writing about what someone else “should do,” I’m usually, in reality, talking to myself.  If I’m telling someone how to organize their living space, for example, my own (physical or emotional) space is probably somewhat of a wreck, and I can likely stand to take my own advice.

Psychologists call what’s happening here “projection.”  Because we don’t want to acknowledge what we’re feeling and what’s going on in our lives, we pretend as if someone else is having the experience we’re having.  If I say “you sound really angry,” it’s likely that I’m projecting my own anger onto you because I don’t want to admit that I feel it.

It feels riskier, but more honest, to drop the façade of telling you what to do, and acknowledge what’s going on for me and what I want to do.  If I tell you that I want to be more organized, I take a risk, because I admit that I’m disorganized and therefore imperfect.  Still, it feels liberating to be able to simply speak my truth, without trying to look good or avoid criticism.

It also feels great to me when someone else tells me what’s going on for them, and what they want and need.  It gives me a sense of permission to let down my own guard, and helps me to feel a connection with the person I’m talking to.

So that, in a nutshell, is why I’ve taken to navel-gazing lately, and why you should do it too (just kidding).

Creativity and What Our Parents Really Want

I recently realized that, whenever I’m doing something creative, whether it’s writing a song or a blog post or something else, one question I’m usually, and unconsciously, asking myself is:  “would my parents be okay with this?”

Not surprisingly, this concern is particularly strong when I’m writing a piece where some of the characters are parents.  In Steve’s Quest, for instance, Steve’s Mom is overbearing, maybe to the point of being tyrannical, and I fretted over whether I should play the songs she sings to my mother (in the end, I did).

But even if I’m not writing something that’s specifically about parents, the same worry is usually there on a subtle level.  If I’m writing a song with a sad or angry mood, for example, sometimes I’ll wonder if my parents will hear the song and think I must be in that mood.  What’s more, maybe they’ll interpret the song as my way of blaming them for making me feel that way, and then feel guilty or get defensive.

But What Would They Want?

There’s probably some truth to all this.  After all, the songs I write, as well as all of my thoughts and feelings in any given moment, probably are deeply shaped by my experiences with my family.

And it’s not impossible to imagine that, if I wrote a song that expressed anguish, and my parents heard it, they might hold themselves responsible for the feeling conveyed in the song, or see the song as an attack on them.

But when thinking about this issue a few days ago, I had an important realization:  even if my parents felt hurt by a song I wrote, that doesn’t mean they’d want me to scrap the song.  They wouldn’t want me to stifle my creativity to spare their feelings.  I’m fortunate enough to have parents who have, by and large, encouraged me to write.

Who’s the Parent Here?

Seeing this has helped me put my concerns about “hurting my parents with my writing” in perspective.  But this realization might not be as helpful to some people.  Some of us, I suspect, do have parents who would want us to repress our creativity to keep them comfortable.

For people in this situation, I think a useful question is:  if you stifled your expression to keep the peace with your parents, would you really be helping them?

In other words, if you kept your parents from hearing difficult truths about your relationship with them, would you be acting in their best interests?  Or would you be treating them like children, and depriving them of opportunities to grow?

Sometimes I suspect that creative expression is really about communicating things we don’t feel able to directly say to people.  A lot of psychologist Alice Miller’s writings (definitely check her out if you haven’t already) are on this subject.

As so many of us find honest communication with our parents one of the hardest things to do, I think, our creativity can be one route to building the connections we want with them, or at least feeling like we’ve said what we need to say.

Why I Like Vulnerable Writing

In a few months, I’m starting a graduate program in psychology.  I’m thrilled that this is finally coming together, and that I’m going to build new skills that will help me do my work.

When I considered writing about this, I noticed both a desire to share my excitement with the world, and a bit of anxiety about announcing my plans.

This didn’t make sense at first.  Why would I feel reluctant to tell people about big news in my life?

After a little pondering, the reason became clear.  If I told you I’m going to grad school, wouldn’t I be admitting that I still have more to learn?  That I don’t “have all the answers”?  And if I don’t have all the answers, why should people want to read what I write about personal development?

Do You Like “Answers” or Authenticity?

But then, a question occurred to me:   what kind of writing do I like to read?  Do I like articles that give me a list of 100 things I should do to succeed, be happy, or something else?  Or do I prefer writers who are willing to let down their guard with me, and tell me what’s really going on with them?

It didn’t take a lot of reflection to answer this one.  When another human being lets me really see them, in all their perfect imperfection, that’s a greater gift to me than all the “tips and tricks” out there put together.

And doesn’t it stand to reason, I thought, that if I like honest, vulnerable writing, other people might appreciate that too?  I mean, I’m an unusual guy and all, but doesn’t it make sense that you and I might share some of the same tastes?

Giving Ourselves Permission To Be Human

At a deeper level, I’ve found that, when someone genuinely shares with me — particularly if what they share involves a “negative emotion,” an insecurity, or something like that — that actually helps me do my own “inner work.”

This is because, when they tell me about one of their foibles, quirks, or hangups, I feel a sense of permission to have my own hangups as well.  I feel my own worries about looking imperfect melting away, and more compassion for myself and others.

This is why, recently, I’ve tended toward exploring issues that feel embarrassing or difficult in my writing.  I’ve been doing this in the hope that, the more of my own truth I share, the more others will start feeling free to share their truth.  (Not that I find going to grad school embarrassing — I think it’s pretty cool.)

The View From The High Horse

In keeping with this theme of honesty, I’m going to mount my high horse for a moment, and say I’d like to see the self-development blogosphere move in this direction too.  I think we could all stand to give each other a little less advice, and offer a bit more of our personal experience.  Nobody’s really “got all the answers,” and it would be a relief, at least for me, if we could just admit that to ourselves and each other.

Anyway, this has been my long-winded way of breaking the news that I’m going to grad school.  :)  I’m looking forward to more learning and growth, and to contributing to others’ growth in whatever ways I can.

20 Powerful Self-Awareness Questions

I usually don’t feel drawn to doing “list posts.”  Some of this is because of my unease about doing something “everyone else” seems to be doing.

So, as a personal growth exercise, I’m going to jump right in and do a list post!  I also think this is a pretty cool and valuable list of questions for building awareness about how we limit ourselves with our ways of thinking and being.

Without further ado, here are some questions I’ve gained a lot from asking myself.  Some of them may be uncomfortable to think about, but I think that kind of discomfort is usually a sign of growth:

1.  What quality in other people irritates you most? (For example, is it ambition, shyness, laziness, or something else?)  How do you have this quality in the way you live your own life?

2.  What quality in other people do you envy the most? How do you already have this quality in the way you live your own life?

3.  What emotion do you least want to feel? Is it fear, anger, sadness, or something else?  What do you do in your life to avoid feeling it?

4.  What do you most want people to think about you? What do you do in your life to make sure others think that?  What is that costing you?

5.  What do you least want people to think about you? What do you do in your life to make sure others don’t think that?  What is that costing you?

6.  What have you done that you least want people to know about? What do you do in your life to make sure no one finds out about what you did?

7.  What have you done that you most want people to know about? How do you go out of your way to make sure people know you did it?

8.  If you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the only reason you’re alive is to enjoy every moment, would you change the way you live?  How?

9.  If you knew that, no matter what you did or didn’t do, you would love and respect yourself, how would you live your life?

10.  What would you create if you knew no one would ever see it? In other words, if you were 100% certain that your work would never make you famous or rich, and the only thing you’d ever get out of it was personal satisfaction, what would you choose to do?

11.  Here’s another interesting way to put Question # 10:  How would you live if you knew that no one would ever approve of you? If you knew that nobody would ever be happy with the way you live, and that you might as well do whatever fulfills you, what would you do?

12.  How are you trying to please your parents with the way you live? What is that costing you?

13.  If you knew that you were 100% forgiven for everything you think you’ve done wrong, how would that change the way you live?

14.  If you cried in front of a stranger, how would they react? (Take the first answer that comes to mind.)

15.  If you got angry at a stranger, how would they react? (Same rule as Question # 14.)

16.  In what situations do you try to look happy when you really aren’t?

17.  In what situations do you hold back from speaking the truth to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?

18.  If you’re a man, how do you think a man is supposed to act? How do you make an effort to act that way?

19.  If you’re a woman, how do you think a woman is supposed to act? How do you make an effort to act that way?

20.  How is the “public you” different from the “private you”?

Whew!  And we’re done.  It was an intense experience for me writing and thinking about those questions — I’m curious what it was like for you to read them.  You don’t have to share your answers to the specific questions, but if you want to that’s great too.  Thanks!

In other news: I did an interview with Evita Ochel of EvolvingBeings.com on meditation, how to do it and the benefits it can bring.  I hope you enjoy it.

Each Person Is A Prism, Part 2: Valentine’s Day Edition

Well, as advertisers are helpfully reminding us, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  For me, as for many other people, this can be a time of irritation.

This isn’t because I’m what our culture calls a “single guy.”  I enjoy that, actually.  It’s because this is the time of year when I get to hear people lament how long it’s been since they’ve been “in a relationship,” or since they’ve done whatever other romantic thing they think they should be doing.

One Person’s Romantic Comedy Is Another’s Horror Movie

The most frustrating part, when I listen to these people, is that they don’t seem to be paying attention to what they actually want.  Instead, they’re measuring themselves against what they see as the culture’s expectations, and blaming themselves for falling short.

“My friends are all married,” I hear (and I’m sure you’ve heard) people complain.  When I hear this from someone, I try to respond compassionately.  But I have to admit, sometimes I just want to caustically remark:  “that makes perfect sense — after all, the rule is that you have to do whatever your friends do!”

And, of course, there are people (mostly men, but not exclusively) who will be able to tell me, to the month, day and hour, how long it’s been since they “got laid.”  Hearing this, it’s all I can do to keep my inner Captain Sarcastic from spitting out:  “true, if you don’t ‘get some’ soon, you’ll lose your place at the ‘jock’ table in the high school cafeteria!”

The saddest part of this, in my experience, is that many people stay dissatisfied even if they do find what they say they’re looking for.  Trying to live into somebody else’s vision of how romance or intimacy should be, I think, is a recipe for suffering.

What Do You Really Want?

If someone is griping to me about their “singlehood” (at least, I think that’s the right word), and they’re really willing to explore the issue, what we’ll often discover is that they don’t even want to be married, “in a relationship,” or whatever else, right now.  They are hurting because they’re telling themselves it’s wrong not to want those things, and beating themselves up.

In my experience, when people become willing to admit that lack of desire, often it’s as if a weight lifts from their shoulders, and their bodies feel lighter.  What’s more, amazingly enough, sometimes acknowledging they don’t want intimacy actually opens the way for them to want it again.

Why?  I think it goes back to what I talked about in my post on “finding compassion through selfishness.”  We’re all made up of a bunch of different parts, or, as some put it, “selves” or “energies” — the aggressive part, the solitary part, the outgoing part, and so on.

Calling Out Our Doubts

As I put it earlier, the way I see it, each person is like a prism — something that breaks up a beam of light into the colors of the rainbow.  Sometimes, we don’t like one of the colors — the anger, the hurt, or something else — and so we cover up the prism.  The trouble is, when we do that, no light can get through.

We all, I think, have a part that wants connection with others.  But we also have parts that are cautious, hurt, untrusting, and so on.  When we tell ourselves it’s not okay to feel afraid or unready about intimacy, and we push the hesitant parts of ourselves down, we can cause ourselves a lot of pain.

I’ve found, both in myself and in talking to people, that it can be so liberating when we acknowledge the areas where we’re uncertain, and it can actually help create the connection with others that we’re looking for.

Being Angry and “Being Spiritual”

In the past, when someone said something to me that I found insulting or disrespectful, I tried to avoid reacting angrily.  I told myself I was probably just being thin-skinned, and that the other person probably didn’t intend to hurt me.

Besides, I said to myself in “spiritual” jargon, the anger I feel comes from my ego — my identification with my body, my accomplishments, my possessions, and so on.  In reality, I am all that is, I am consciousness itself, I am Atman.  How could pure spirit take offense at anything?  By letting myself get upset, I dishonor my true nature.

On one level, I think some of this “spiritual talk” is valid.  There have been moments when, in meditation, I’ve ceased identifying with the body and history that people arbitrarily label “Chris,” and experienced myself as limitless consciousness.

And yet, I can’t deny that, from time to time, I get pissed off.  I feel a tension in my shoulders and a dull heat in my lower back.  In moments like these, I can remind myself of my spiritual nature until the proverbial cows come home, but that won’t change how I feel.

Is It “Spiritual” To Deny Our Anger?

A little while back, it occurred to me:  is it really “spiritual” to tell myself I shouldn’t feel angry, even though I do?  If I, in my true nature, am perfect and complete, why isn’t my anger perfect and complete too?  If I’m really a “spiritual being having a human experience,” why isn’t it okay for that experience to include getting mad sometimes?

What’s more, I used to tell myself that, in my true nature as spirit, I am infinitely loving.  Thus, when I tell someone I’m angry, I’m acting inconsistently with my deepest self.  But does this make sense?

In fact, I find my relationships with people most loving when I can tell them what’s really going on for me, and hear the same from them.  How can I really connect with, and love, another person if I’m not willing to reveal my anger to them?  Doesn’t that render our relationship kind of a farce, or at least superficial and businesslike?

Anger and Intimacy

Acknowledging all this was painful, as I think most growth is.  But these realizations have led me to start dealing with people in a way that’s a lot more satisfying for me — and, I think, for them as well.

Over the past year, when someone has talked to me in a way I’ve found disrespectful, I’ve taken to telling them “I don’t like what you just said to me.”  I don’t call them names or otherwise attack them — I just share, matter-of-factly, how I feel.

Instead of destroying my relationships, doing this has actually led to deeper intimacy.  I’ve found that, when I tell someone what’s really going on for me, they tend to feel freer to reveal their own emotions to me.  Even if what they share is their own anger, that gives me a better sense of who they are.

This doesn’t always happen, of course.  As I’m sure you know, there certainly are people out there who just want to say something hurtful and leave, feeling like they “won” or became superior as a result.  But by and large, letting people know when I’m upset has actually brought me closer to them, and fostered a more genuine connection.

Excerpt From My Fiction Foray

For a change of pace today, I want to share an excerpt from a story/novel I’ve been working on.  I don’t have a title yet, although I’ve jokingly been calling it “The Last Yuga.”

By the way, as the title of this post suggests, this is a work 0f fiction, so please don’t sue me if your name happens to be Dr. Joseph or Nameless Protagonist.  :)

*                          *                         *

It’s hard to believe, but it all started with eye contact.

“I notice you aren’t meeting my eyes,” Dr. Joseph said in almost a whisper.

I don’t know whether he intended it or not, but when he spoke I peeked out from under my brow and into his pink-tinged gaze.  Our eyes locked for several minutes of anxious silence.

No therapist I saw before had noticed my lack of eye contact — at least, not in the first session — because they weren’t looking at me.  They were too busy filling their yellow pads with facts about my background, following rules they learned in school about what information to glean from a patient and how to take it down.  Within ten to twenty minutes, they mentally plugged those facts into tried-and-true diagnostic formulas.  After thirty or forty, they considered themselves able to tell me what was wrong with me — and, if they were psychiatrists, what drugs I ought to take.

But Dr. Joseph never took notes.  There was no paper on his lap, or anywhere else in the room.  In fact, Dr. Joseph kept almost nothing in his office — no books or diplomas to convince me of his credentials, no paintings to fill the blankness of the wall, no Buddha statues or other Eastern baubles to give his work a “spiritual” veneer.  Instead of lying on a couch, I sat in a nondescript office chair.  Nothing about the place suggested it belonged to a therapist.

Nor did Dr. Joseph act like a therapist.  Not a word of psychological jargon passed his lips — not even something as commonplace as depression or anxiety.  I don’t think he ever asked about my Mom and Dad, unless I brought them up.  And, at least in our first session, he didn’t go out of his way to sound kind or understanding.

“Why are you looking at me?” Dr. Joseph said.

I gave a nervous chuckle.  “I thought you wanted me to look at you.”

“You’re doing it because you think I want you to?”

“Yeah.”

“What, you’re just figuring out what I want and doing it?”

“Well, I thought it might be helpful to the therapy—”

“Shut up.”

“What?”  My heart was suddenly pounding.

“You said you’d do whatever I want, and now I want you to shut up.”

“O — okay.”

The pink in his eyes turned scarlet, and he stared me down for what seemed like an hour.  Finally, he said “this is what you do all the time, isn’t it?  Trying to read people’s minds and figure out how to please them.”

I smiled and shrunk a little more inside.  “Yeah, sometimes I guess I do.”

“Oh, and now you’ve got that cute little grin.  What is that supposed to do, calm me down?”

I now felt almost shrunken to the point of nonexistence.  I tried to speak, but my lungs were compressed to the size of a particle.  Somehow, I survived by drawing rapid, microscopic breaths.

He stared me down for another minute, and then his eyes and tone abruptly softened.  “Relax your body.”

With his gentle command, I noticed that my shoulders felt like two heavy rocks, and the rest of my body felt like soft gelatin.  But the force of gravity remained unchanged, and so it seemed as if my shoulders plummeted about three feet downward, until I became a face grotesquely staring out of a stomach.

“We’re done for today.  Get some sleep this week, and pay attention to your dreams.”

I silently shuffled out — or, more accurately, oozed out in my new amoeba-like form.  We never arranged a date for the next appointment, but there was no need — we both knew I’d be back.

*                          *                         *

What do you think? If you’re interested, I’d love to share more (in between more posts about productivity, mindfulness, and stuff of that nature, of course).

The story will follow Nameless Protagonist’s adventures in, among other things, both the waking and dream states, and take us deep into the crucible of his psychological and spiritual transformation.  It’ll be cool.  :)

Finding Compassion Through Selfishness

There’s a part of me that doesn’t care about you.  It’s not here to solve your problems, lend you an ear, or serve you in any other way.  It looks out for me and me alone.

Isn’t that a terrible thing? Actually, I don’t think so.  In fact, I think acknowledging I have a “selfish” part — and, sometimes, doing what that part wants — is key to experiencing, and expressing, real compassion for people.

I Used To Be Such A Sweet, Sweet Thing

I used to act really nurturing and giving, all the time.  Whenever someone had a request or a problem, I was the first to volunteer my time and energy.  I can practically hear Alice Cooper now:  “I opened doors for little old ladies,” and so on.

But I eventually had a couple of disturbing realizations.  The first was that I expected praise for service I did, and felt upset when I didn’t get it.  Why would I care about receiving praise, I wondered, if I genuinely liked helping others?

Second, if someone — heaven forbid — criticized me in a way that suggested I was selfish, I got even angrier.  I couldn’t help but ask:  if I’m really such a 24-7 generous guy, why does it bother me when someone says I’m not?

Acting Caring Vs. Being Caring

Finally, it dawned on me that, at least sometimes, I wasn’t helping people because I enjoyed service.  Instead, I was doing it because I wanted to show people I wasn’t self-centered.  In other words, I did it because I didn’t want to experience the shame I felt when someone called me selfish.

I started wondering:  what if, on some level, I actually am selfish?  What would happen if I learned that there is, in fact, a part of me that thinks only of my wants?  Would I explode, implode, or be annihilated in some other messy way?  Probably not.

I noticed my body relaxed, and I sighed with relief, when I asked questions like these.  It was as if, to put on a benevolent mask for the world, I had to tighten some part of my body, and use up energy keeping that part tense.  Dropping the mask freed up that energy, and was a big relief.

I also saw that, the more relaxed I felt, the more I experienced real gratitude.  Life, I found, is more fun when I’m not trying to appease someone or protect myself from criticism.  From that genuinely grateful place, compassion for others comes more naturally.

In other words, interestingly enough, admitting there’s a part of me that doesn’t care actually releases and nourishes the part that does.

Everybody Is Everything

Why?  I think about it this way:  each person is like a prism – an object that breaks up a beam of light into the colors of the rainbow.  The colors represent every human character trait:  compassion, selfishness, love, anger, sadness, and so on.

Often, we decide we don’t like one of the colors — perhaps we’d rather not be blue (sad), red (angry), or something else.  So, we cover up the prism to keep others from seeing that color.  The trouble is that, when we block the prism, none of the colors can be seen — no part of us can be fully expressed in the world.

When I try to hide my “self-centered” part, it’s like I’m covering up my prism — “hiding my light under a bushel,” as the saying goes.  The result is that I can’t really bring my generous part into the world either.  If I want my compassion to fully show up, I need to let my selfishness make an appearance too.

With That, Some Gratitude

I want to thank two generous and, undoubtedly, totally unselfish souls for the gifts they gave me.  :)  Evita Ochel and Patricia Hamilton recently wrote warm and wonderful reviews of my audio course.  I hope you’ll check out their sites and enjoy what they bring to the world.

Guest Post At The Change Blog: Productivity And Owning Our Shadow

I’ve just published a guest post at The Change Blog called “Productivity and Owning Our Shadow.”  It’s about how we’ll often put off working on a project when making progress requires us to tap into part of ourselves we aren’t fully okay with — maybe the part that’s ambitious, sentimental, childlike, or something else.

I sometimes notice this in myself when I’m writing fiction, which I’ve been trying my hand at lately.  For some time, I had trouble making progress on writing a scene where one character is darkly, primally angry — because, of course, writing it brought up the part of me that can feel that way.

But as I wrote the scene, I got this interesting sense that I was making peace with that part, and integrating it more deeply into who I am, instead of treating it as a weird, dangerous outsider.

Anyway, enjoy the piece!