Many moons ago, I wrote a list of 12 Principles that were the basis of my understanding, both of my life and of my counselling practice. I’ve been thinking about pulling them together into a small book that I could give to new clients.
I’ve decided that I’d, at least for now, tackle each of the topics here, in the blog. We’ll see how it goes.
4. At The Phoenix Centre, we teach our clients to be in charge of their lives through both acceptance and transformative action. We encourage lifelong self-actualization. And the key to that is self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-knowing, deconstruction of the ego, and the reconstruction of a fuller sense of self.
Self actualization is a term made famous by Abraham Maslow, who extensively researched mental health and human potential. You can read more about self actualization.
Maslow saw human beings’ needs arranged like a ladder. The most basic needs, at the bottom, were physical — air, water, food, sleep. Then came safety needs — security, stability — followed by psychological, or social needs — for belonging, love, acceptance. At the top of it all were the self-actualizing needs — the need to fulfill oneself, to become all that one is capable of becoming. Maslow felt that unfulfilled needs lower on the ladder would inhibit the person from climbing to the next step. Someone dying of thirst quickly forgets their thirst when they have no oxygen, as he pointed out. People who dealt in managing the higher needs were what he called self-actualizing people. Benedict and Wertheimer were Maslow’s models of self-actualization, from which he generalized that, among other characteristics, self-actualizing people tend to focus on problems outside of themselves, have a clear sense of what is true and what is phony, are spontaneous and creative, and are not bound too strictly by social conventions.
We proceed from the assumption that people are, at all stages of their development, both OK, and complete. This is what we mean by acceptance, or better, self-acceptance. That this is not the normal belief is obvious””we are trained from birth to judge ourselves as lacking””and also “wrong, bad, and/or evil.”
Clients tend to want symptom removal, which is interesting.
I sometimes ask them what they want in place of the symptom, and they will say something like, “I just don’t want this [pain, depression, faulty relationship, anger, etc.] anymore.” It’s like asking someone, “What do you want for supper?” and hearing, “I don’t want steak.” Negative statements are a problem, because it is impossible to list all of the things we don’t want.
All things clients name, like anger, depression, sadness, being judgemental — these things are actually symptoms of just one thing — a lack of resources for doing things differently.
In other words, situation ‘a’ happens, and you react with anger. Situation ‘b,’ (which is totally different from situation ‘a’,) arises,and you react with anger. And so on.
Unpacking, this means,
“No matter what arises, the only thing I know to do is
to get angry.”
Think about it””the solution is not to eliminate anger. The reason? Well, what will take its place? Rather, one must begin with acceptance. “Here I am, at this stage in my life, and when confronted with a difficult situation, I have trained myself to respond with anger. This is no longer working for me, so I will instead teach myself to [engage in another behaviour.”]
This new behaviour falls under the category of
We call it this to differentiate it from mindless action. In a sense, the way out of the fog of repetition is to engage in thought-ful behaviour (behaviour that has been designed, through reason, to accomplish the end goal.)
Let’s say you have this goal:
to stop fighting with your partner, and then to deepen the relationship through elegant communication.
You could see this as a two step goal.
The first step is to notice both your anger, and when you are beginning to fight.
We call this self-knowing.
What do you mean I’m missing something?
It’s amazing how many clients do not have a clue what they are doing. I once spent 20 minutes in a group listening to a woman accuse the other members of the group of not letting her speak, and how everyone always interrupted her, and kept her from speaking. Now, she was never once interrupted in 20 minutes, other than for the leader to encourage her to keep talking. She was so clearly invested in her belief that she was unaware that she was receiving exactly what she craved.
Once you notice that you have moved down a path you want to stop trodding, you stop yourself. Without judgement. This is the tricky part, as, to say it again, we’ve been trained from birth to criticize ourselves for our supposed failures.
If you think about it, however, criticism is a poor motivator. It’s much better to notice, then stop, the errant behaviour.
Here comes step two:
Not only do I accept that I am who I am, (up to and including the present moment, where I “stopped myself,”) but I am now at the transformative action crossroads. I can stop fighting, and this is a great improvement, but falls short of the second part of the goal: to deepen the relationship through elegant communication. In order to accomplish this part of the goal, I have to now move my lips in another way altogether.
- I notice, and
I stop myself from engaging in non-helpful behaviours.
- I remember my goal and implement it.
The self-responsibility requirement makes the choice to act a solo job.
In other words, I deepen the relationship through elegant communication, regardless of what my partner is doing.
Mostly, people fight this. “How can I improve my relationship if my partner refuses to co-operate?” I want to assure you that, 100% of the time, such a question is a cop out.
It’s a cop out because how you self-actualize is 100% about how you act, and how you choose to define your reality. It does not, and never has, had anything to do with the behaviour of another.
In the end, all we can ever do is what we do as individuals.
And as I often say, anyone can choose to communicate with anyone, and it does not require that the other person communicate back, give permission, or change their behaviour.
Now, granted, it’s easier if both parties are on the same page, but it’s not required.
And waiting for others to co-operate in your self-growth project is setting yourself up for a long, long wait. Great excuse, though. I can’t do this until everyone else behaves. Good luck with that.
Yet, I see this all the time. People annoyed with their partner, parents, kids, bosses, whomever, and stomping their little feetsies up and down, exclaiming, “Why can’t they see how unhappy they are making me, and do it my way?”
It’s as if they never grew up, and are still expecting magic to change the world, so they can stay the same.
We urge self-responsible, transformative action. All the time, no excuses, no waiting, no blaming, judging or criticizing. There is what does not work (stop doing it!) and what does (start doing it!) Plain and simple.