Part 4: Frames of Reference-Exploring our Differences
“When we are born our peephole opens. When we die our peephole closes.” Kurt Vonnegut
At the end of my last chapter, I talked about exploring the role the ego plays in thwarting intimacy and good communication. Here my method will be to explore the importance of the development of our personal point of view, i.e. our perspective on ourselves, other people, and life in the world. I will also attempt to explicate how our point of view can cause us to discount or devalue experiences, conversations, and situations that we take part in. I will then attempt to show how the frame of reference through which we view the world can cause us to redefine our experience when we communicate about ourselves to others. I hope to show how this can lead to confusion, obfuscation, and conflict in our communication. These matters all fall under the aegis of how what we believe, value, and prefer tends to create and structure our experience. As this construction of our experiences occurs, the defining vortexes and junctures of this process are just barely in our conscious awareness.
I remember very well sitting in my Epistemology class at the University of Wisconsin listening to Professor Hayes talking about an experiment Bertrand Russell would do in his beginning Philosophy classes. He would hold up an ordinary tea cup and show it to the class from a number of different angles. He would then ask his students to write a fairly detailed description of this cup, which they would then read to the class. To everyone’s amazement, no two descriptions of the cup were alike. I remember feeling doubtful that this was the case. After all, this was a very ordinary tea cup that Dr. Russell used for his experiment. This was my introduction to the complex matter of human perception, frame of reference, and point of view.
Many years later, when I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “peephole quote” I flashed back to my philosophy class, and realized what I had not understood fully then. No two people experience the world in the same way. But not only that, we are also only getting a glimpse of what actually exists. In two simple sentences Vonnegut reminds us that it is impossible for us to corner the market on reality. We are looking at the world through a “peephole,” which creates a particular perception that is actually our own formulation. We think that we know the truth about something from our perception of it. We believe that we are seeing, hearing, and thinking correctly, but what we are not aware of in any given moment is what is influencing our perceptions. This is the “bad news” that Quantum Physicists have been delivering for years. All of our perceptions are subjective. As much as we strive for an objective point of view, we cannot attain it. We are stuck to some important degree with our peephole view.
If we consider the kinds of conflicts that we have with other people, our relationship partners, our friends, our colleagues, our clients and customers, more often than not they are over who is right and who is wrong, who’s been good and who’s been bad. These categories are the product of the socialization that growing up in our families, our schools, our religious institutions, and our social clubs teaches us. From the Ten Commandments, to the Golden Rule, to the qualities of a good Scout, we have all been taught lists of virtues and qualities of character that make up a good person. As adults we all have formulated particular ideas about how someone in a loving relationship is supposed to act, how a good mate behaves, the qualities we admire in a person, etc. Some of these maps of how to be and how not to be have gone unconscious in us and are out of our awareness, while others are very easy to access.
For example, I still remember the qualities of a good Boy Scout, who is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. These all seem like good qualities for a young boy to learn and develop, but in reality these virtues are skewed towards paying much more attention to other people than to oneself. These qualities of character could be seen as part of the map of co-dependency, where what other people need or require is more important than my own needs and desires. So, if I expect that the people I meet as an adult will behave towards me like a good scout would, I am going to be disappointed or frustrated with any number of people. The truth is that when it comes to matters of good and bad and right and wrong, of how we should behave in the world, and who we are supposed to become, we each have been given a different map by the people who raised us. We have added to and subtracted from that map in a variety of ways over the years of experience that we have accumulated. So by the time we reach adulthood, we each have our own unique set of values, beliefs, and opinions that inform our actions, our thoughts, our feelings, and our communication. These values, beliefs, and opinions are actually the preferences that make up our frame of reference. They are the constituents of the point of view that partially creates our experience. If you throw our unique genetic makeup into the mixture of what makes us who we are, it’s easy to see why the truth is that no two people are alike. Dr. Milton Erickson would say to his patients, “You are as unique as your fingerprints. There will never be another person exactly like you.” This fact is both a blessing and a curse. The implication of our uniqueness is very challenging. In order to have relationships that are healthy and loving, we are going to have to get to know both ourselves and each other very well. Any assumptions that we make about each other over the course of our relationship, will be tested in the fires of our real experience of one another.
By the time we reach our early twenties, most of us have had the experience of falling in love with another person. We may go from having a “crush” on someone, to somehow letting them know of our interest in them, to actually spending time with them. Feelings of attraction and excitement may develop in us that indicate that this person is special and may become very important to us. If the person we are interested in feels the same way about us, a new “relationship” begins to unfold. However, what we do not fully understand is that we are going to arrive in this new relationship fully clad with the ideas, emotions, beliefs, preferences, opinions and prejudices that comprise our frame of reference. Part of the process of getting to know each other is our beginning to reveal this cluster of values that are very near and dear to us. For a healthy relationship to develop, we will need to reveal not only what we think and feel, but what we are invested in, what we value, what we think is best, right and good. If we find that we are in some kind of synchrony with each other as the process of self-disclosure unfolds, we will feel that all is well. Should we find ourselves in disagreement in any important areas, we will begin to feel some kind of discomfort in our bodies that our brains may register as either a problem or a threat. This is where our challenge to be authentic begins.
If the differences in our point of view were the only problem we faced in getting to know someone, the process of getting to know them would be easier. If it was just that I had been taught certain “truths” by my family and you had been taught different “truths” by yours, all we would have to do would be to agree to learn from each other. After all, we have strong feelings for each other, why shouldn’t we agree to be each other’s teacher? The problem is that we have each invested in our point of view and identified with it. “I” am this set of beliefs, values and opinions. I not only believe my beliefs, I value them as right and true. They have become part of my identity, part of my ego.
The notion of the ego that developed from Freud to the present is a very complex one, to say the least. In this chapter, I am interested in pointing to a particular aspect of the ego, the part of the ego that invests in and identifies with various values, traits, accomplishments, preferences, and beliefs. This conglomerate of what our egos invest in is a large part of our sense of who we are. In so far as we are happy with this set of investments we will feel that we have a “healthy ego.” In as far as we are unhappy about these aspects of ourselves, we will feel distressed about who we think we are. Simply put, with regard to relationship building, the better my sense of self, the easier the beginning of revealing myself to another person will be. The worse my sense of self is, the more uncomfortable I will feel about revealing myself to someone who is becoming important to me.
One of the rules of thumb with regard to the ego is that whatever is in synchrony with what I believe and am invested in will feel comfortable to me. Whatever is not in sync with the beliefs, values, opinions, and preferences I have invested in will produce discomfort. Whatever makes me uncomfortable, I am likely to discount, disregard or reject completely. The controversial, but brilliant psychotherapists, Jackie and Mo Schiff recognized that the process of discounting or devaluing a person, their importance, and their capabilities was a key factor in making people crazy. Each of us exists in the world. We are important, capable, and we can solve our problems. Each of us needs to have our existence, our importance, and our capabilities taken into account. In other words we need to be accepted and appreciated for who we are, but so often our experience runs counter to our need for validation and recognition.
Because of the lack of validation, empathy, and appreciation we experience growing up, we become insecure. How good are we? How successful will we become? How intelligent will we appear to be? Is it OK to feel what we feel, to think what we think? Whenever we experience that we are being discounted, devalued, or criticized, we are likely to feel diminished, vulnerable, and even ashamed of ourselves. Our egos are fragile and are therefore hyper-reactive to criticism, discounting, to not being seen for who we are.
This reality points to how the relative health or strength of our egos affects how we communicate about ourselves to our relationship partners. In a sense, the ego is our guide and compass to what is acceptable, what has been approved of, what others will like. Sigmund Freud recognized the ego as a kind of broker or mediator between our drives and desires and the requirements of the important authority figures in our lives. If our desires are in conflict with what is required of us, the ego, Freud says, steps in to broker a deal. You can have a small helping of ice cream, but you must not eat the whole carton! If we have had a relatively amiable relationship with our parents, we will likely accede to the wisdom of the ego. If our caretakers were absent, controlling, or rejecting, we are likely either to rebel and go with our drives, or we are likely to collapse in despair over our failures, whether we eat the whole carton of ice cream, or sadly put it away feeling deprived.
If we extrapolate this simple example into a possible source of major relationship conflict, it would look like this. A new person has come into my life, whom I feel strongly about. She wants to get to know me, and begins to ask questions about my likes and dislikes. What are my favorite things? How do I spend my time? What do I really enjoy about my work? Is there anything about my life to date that I regret? How I answer these questions will be determined by how I feel about who I am and what I have done in my life. If I am ashamed or guilty about my identity or my past, I will feel a strong urge to withhold my truth. I may reveal partial truths about my failures or misdeeds, but I am likely to rewrite my story so that I appear in a better light. My last girlfriend was incredibly demanding and didn’t appreciate me. My boss on my last job was cruel. My teachers resented how intelligent I am and wouldn’t give me the recognition I deserve. In other words I may portray myself as a victim, or as the righteously rebellious, misunderstood hero, in the hopes that I may still gain the approval and understanding of my potential partner.
Many contemporary authors portray the ego as little more than an approval junky, who monitors our every word and deed, inhibiting us from telling the awful truth. We desire love and appreciation from the people we value and we will rewrite our autobiography, and redefine our motivations, so that we have a chance to gain their approval, appreciation, and love. Clearly, this tendency to lie about certain aspects of our experience in the world can be found in any number of us. Radical honesty about ourselves makes many of us cringe and tremble at the possibility of criticism and rejection. So what is to be done about this predicament?
Here is a translation by Brian Browne Walker from the Unknown Teachings of Lau Tzu, the “Hua Hu Ching” to enlighten us about this aspect of the ego:
“The ego is a monkey catapulting through the jungle: Totally fascinated by the realm of the senses, it swings from one desire to the next, one conflict to the next, one self-centered idea to the next. If you threaten it, it actually fears for its life.
Let this monkey go. Let the senses go. Let desires go. Let conflicts go. Let ideas go. Let the fiction of life and death go. Just remain in the center watching. And then forget that you are there.”
Our first challenge, in beginning this process of letting go of the ego’s hold on us, I believe, is to become aware of our point of view. We need to take an inventory of the factors that shape who we are, our values, beliefs, prejudices, and preferences. Where did these aspects of our perspective come from? What role did our parents play, our teachers, our friends, the authority figures that we have had to deal with for most of our lives? Secondly, we need to begin to accept and even appreciate how important the people in our lives have been to the creation of the person we have become. Even if we rejected our parents at a fairly young age, they still had a dramatic impact on us before our rejection of them took place. The reality is that having a strong bond to our parents and family members is so important to our survival in our early years, that we will do almost anything we can to gain their approval. If, in spite of our adaptations, we fail to get the positive affirmation we need from them, we are likely to become depressed or to put all our available energy into winning them over to approving us as good and loveable. The second stage of this process of recovering a healthy sense of who we are is learning to accept and appreciate ourselves. This can be accomplished by allowing ourselves to be open to what we are experiencing and then allowing ourselves to experience whatever it is. (See my earlier article “Experiential Self-Acceptance,” Tools of Transformation: October 2011) Learning to do so will put us in touch little by little with who we really are and will begin to fuel our positive self-esteem. Once we begin to feel this emerging sense of trust and love for ourselves, we can begin to feel loving toward ourselves and others in surprising ways.
What I am suggesting here is not the self-affirmation of Al Franken’s character, Stuart Smalley: “I’m good enough. I’m good looking enough. I’m smart enough, and, gosh darn it, people like me.” Instead, I am recommending the process of fully taking myself into account, warts and all. I am an OK person with problems, just like everyone else on the planet. I can accept my strengths and my weaknesses, utilizing my strengths and working to improve my deficits.
From this point of self-acceptance and self-appreciation, I can feel more comfortable revealing who I actually am to a person that I am building a relationship with. I can affirm to them that I exist in the world as a person with real strengths and weaknesses. I recognize that my strengths are real and that my problems are solvable. I acknowledge that I have the ability to resolve my difficulties, and that if I am uncertain or lose my way; I can seek help from someone who knows better than I.
As the great Jewish philosopher and mystic Martin Buber once wrote: “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you. But if I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you, and we can talk.”
In my next installment, I will explore two contemporary communication methods that address the pitfalls and predicaments of the defenses and the ego that have been raised in my last two blogs.
My heartfelt thanks to Valerie Pierce and Toby Landesman, for their fine “points of view!”
Article written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.