Psychology 101: My culture is inside me

Throughout my daily life, I notice parts of me responding to situations, people, and trains of thought. Mostly, these parts respond with judgments. They are not aligned with my “global” or conscious view. And they come from my culture.

I notice them. Flash on where they come from. Notice what’s more true for me. And they are gone.


As mentioned, these thoughts are mostly judgments.

She is fat. (And that’s bad.) He is ugly. (Bad.)

She is young, slim, and attractive. (Good.) He is well dressed. (Good.)

If I eat fast food, I am one of those people. (Bad.)

They are at that restaurant, so they must be sophisticated. (Good.)

He is Muslim. (Dangerous.) She looks unkept. (Not good.)

And so on.


So why does this happen?

It’s because we learn from others. Our mind absorbs whatever is out there in the culture – from family, school, friends, media, movies, books, lyrics, and so on.

And the more often we are exposed to it, and the more charge it has (even if we just see it having charge for the other person), the more likely it is to go in and come up again.

The job of our mind is to absorb it all and then give it back to us whenever it’s relevant. (And sometimes when it’s not obviously relevant!)

It’s natural and essentially innocent.


Although if we join in with these thoughts and act on them, that can be quite harmful to ourselves (psychologically) and others (in life and society).

So it’s good to find a more conscious relationship to these dynamics.

I can notice these thoughts and reactions in me.

And I can find what’s more true for me than the stereotypes these thoughts typically reflect.

I can relate more intentionally to the way different parts of me respond to something.


There is a bigger picture here.

The world is my mirror. Whatever characteristics and dynamics I see “out there” in others and the world are also here in me. They may be expressed in different situations and in different ways. And the essence is the same. (For instance, whenever I react with aversion to someone or something, the essence of that reaction is often the same as what I am reacting to. I am doing the same as what I see out there in that moment.)

And it’s all happening within my sense fields. To me, others and the world happen within and as my mental field and sometimes my other sense fields. It’s happening within and as what I am. It’s happening within and as the consciousness I am. “Out there” is really “here”. “He she it they” is really “me”.


I like to use simple and ordinary language and avoid jargon, but I want to mention a couple of things.

This is often called internalization. We internalize our culture and it lives on in us. It’s how culture is passed on and it’s how we can have a culture in the first place.

And it’s also what Freud called the over-I or – through mistranslation – the superego. The essence of his insights is often valuable, although some of what comes from him are specific to his own culture, and there are simpler and more effective ways to do therapy.

Note: After writing this, a video on this topic popped up on YouTube. From 1-10 how racists are you (Cut). It’s good to see that many these days are aware of unconscious biases that we pick up and learn from the society we live in, and actively seek to be aware of them and counter them.

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Life 101: Playing roles in life

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely Players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,

– From As You Like It by Shakespeare

One of the Life 101 topics is playing roles in life and what happens if we identify with these temporary roles.


We all play many roles in life, and different ones at different times and in different situations. The roles may be of a son, daughter, parent, friend, lover, employee, employer, student, teacher, and so on.

These roles are temporary and we go in and out of them depending on the situation, and this is one way we make society work.


We can also identify with roles. We can create an identity out of a temporary role.

I not only take on the teacher role in the situation where I actually am in a teacher role. (When I work with students.) I take on the teacher role as an identity. It’s who I am, whether or not I am in that situation. I make my life into the stage where I am a teacher.

When this happens, it comes with several downsides. And it’s often a sign of trying to cover up or fulfilling a personal need. We use the identity to feel better about ourselves and feel safer.


I was recently reminded of this. Someone I have known for many years has recently taken on the role of a spiritual teacher, guide, and therapist. And when she is in situations where that’s expected of her, that’s appropriate.

I also get the impression that she has generalized this to other situations. For instance, when we speak these days, she seems to take on the role of a spiritual teacher and guide and place me in the role of a student. She seems to have taken on these temporary and localized roles as a more general identity.

For me, this feels a bit uncomfortable. We have been friends for a long time. We have had very good conversations as equals and fellow explorers. And now, she seems to create a distance by playing the role of a spiritual teacher, placing me in the role of a student, and offering guidance I didn’t ask for.

I don’t have anything against being in the role of a student. If anything, it’s a role I have created a bit of identity out of. I expect to always be a student and learn more. But in this situation, we meet as friends and fellow humans and I prefer to not have other roles on top of it.


The upside of making an identity out of a role is that it can make us feel safer. We know who we are. We know what’s expected of us. (At least, we know what we expect from ourselves.) We can feel better about ourselves, at least if the role is one we like. We can use it to cover up a sense of lack.

Doing this is natural and understandable and we all do it to some extent and in some situations and areas of life. They are also band-aids and come with significant downsides.

What are some of these downsides?

It can be disappointing or annoying to others. They expect to meet us as fellow human beings. And instead, they meet someone who is identified with a role and who places them in a matching role. They meet a role instead of a human, and they get placed in a role they don’t necessarily want in that situation.

We get stuck. If we are identified with a role, we lose flexibility. We are unable to drop it when we are outside of the situation where it’s appropriate. And that means we are also less available to take on other roles when they are appropriate.

It can be distressing when life doesn’t match our expectations. We expect to live out the role we are identified with and find ourselves in a situation where that’s not possible or doesn’t work. We don’t know who we are anymore. We cannot live out the familiar role we are so used to and had learned to rely on. This happens, for instance, when someone is identified as the role of a parent and the children leave home or otherwise cannot or won’t play the matching role.


So what’s the remedy?

The first step is to be aware of some of these dynamics.

Any role we take on is temporary and only relevant in a specific situation.

A role is really a verb. We are teaching. We are parenting. We are guiding. Our culture likes to make roles into nouns which encourages identity-making, and we can choose to not follow that. We can choose to say “I am teaching” and not “I am a teacher”. When we talk about roles as verbs, we are more honest and less likely to make them into identities. It becomes more clear that they are roles we take on for a while and in some specific situations, and then leave.

In general, we can intentionally go against the tendency to make the roles into an identity. We can talk about them as verbs and not something more solid. We can intentionally leave them behind when we leave the situation where we played them. We may even experiment with dropping the roles in situations where we are expected to play them, or we can experiment with playing them in a different and more human way. We can bring our humanity to the forefront and make the role more secondary. (The more comfortable we are with ourselves, the more we tend to do just that.)

If we notice an impulse to make a role into an identity, we can explore what’s going on. What do I hope to get out of it? What lack or need am I trying to fulfill? Does it really work? What are the consequences? What are the downsides? What’s more real?

To support all of this, we can make an inventory. Which roles do I play in life? Which roles would I be more likely to make into an identity? (Parent, work, etc.) And then we can pay extra attention to these roles.

If we want, we can also take this a step further. The roles we play are not only the ones of being a child, parent, student, teacher, plumber, and so on. They are also the roles of being the outgoing one, the peacemaker, the happy one, the sad one, the victim, the fixer, or whatever it may be. These are also roles we can, and often do, make identities out of.

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We sometimes create what we fear

This is a classic from literature and psychology: We sometimes create what we fear.


Here are a few examples:

We fear not being supported, so we push people away before they have a chance to support us. We expect them to not support us, so we get angry and push them away before they can disprove our story.

We fear and expect not to be understood. So we don’t put real effort into being understood, which increases the chances of people not understanding us. We give up sooner than we would have if we didn’t have that issue.

We fear not being accepted so we people-please. This may lead people to keep some distance from us since they notice we are not completely authentic. It makes us question if we are really accepted by others since we present a somewhat fake facade to them. People-pleasing also means we set aside our own needs, which means we won’t feel completely accepted since we don’t fully accept ourselves, we don’t accept and take our own needs seriously.


When these dynamics happen, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We set the stage to prove to ourselves that what the issue is telling us is true. It maintains the issue. And it feels familiar and even safe to us because we stay in the same familiar loop.

We reduce the risk of having life disprove what the issue tells us, and get into unfamiliar identities.


It’s often a circular dynamic. We grew up with certain family dynamics, internalized these, act as if our fearful beliefs are true and our identity around it is who we are, set the stage to get our fears confirmed, and increase our chances for just that happening. We recreate the dynamics we are familiar with, even if they are painful.

Another side of this has to do with motivation and skills. If we are used to not being heard and understood, or not being taken seriously, we may feel hopeless about being heard and understood so we give up early in the process, and we may not develop the necessary skills to be properly heard and understood.


There is a healing impulse in this, and an invitation for healing.

We get to face our fears more often. The invitation here is to get more familiar with it and perhaps see it’s not quite as terrible as our more catastrophic stories about it. We may even learn to navigate this particular terrain a bit better.

More importantly, we get to face our issue and how it plays out in our life. We are invited to identify and explore the issue and what’s behind it, and find a resolution for it. Life shows us what’s going on and we have an opportunity to do something about it.


The self-fulfilling dynamic is just one way these issues can play out.

For instance, we may have a fear of not being understood, so we go to great lengths to be understood. Here, we are setting the stage for another experience. We may still have the issue, but we act against it.

It’s healthier in some ways, although it does come with its own challenges. For instance, the stress of the issue is still there. Also, our behavior tends to have a compulsive quality which can lead to ill-considered actions and pushback from others.


Even here, we are actually living the self-fulfilling prophecy although in a less visible way.

In the example above, we don’t fully understand ourselves. We haven’t completely understood the issue and what it’s about, so we are acting on our habitual way of relating to it.

Similarly, if our issue is to not be supported and we make sure we have plenty of support in our life, we are still living the self-fulfilling prophecy. We are not properly supporting ourselves. If we did, we wouldn’t need to compulsively seek support in the world. If we did, we would resolve the issue.

And as mentioned above, if our issue is not feeling seen, heard, and understood, we may make a great deal of effort in being seen, heard, and understood. This helps our life in the world, but we are not really hearing, seeing, and understanding ourselves. To do so would mean thoroughly exploring the issue and through that finding a resolution for it.

We give to ourselves what we are looking for in the world, and that’s the real medicine for healing.

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Psych 101: Feelings don’t tell the truth

Feelings don’t tell the truth.

They ultimately lie.


What we call feelings typically have a sensation and story component.

We feel something.

This feeling has a sensation component. We can feel it in our physical body as sensations.

And there are story elements here too. These include stories telling us the name of the feeling and what it means.


This story about what the feeling means is not true. It can have some validity, in a conventional sense, but is ultimately and in a more real sense out of alignment with reality.

We can identify and examine these stories. We can find the limited validity in them. We can find how they are not true. And we can find what’s more true for us.


When we say “I feel X”, we are only talking about the feeling itself and the story connected with it.

It’s a kind of confession about what’s going on with us. And, other than that, it says nothing about reality.


Emotional reasoning is when we feel something and assume that’s how reality is.

We believe the story component of the feeling without realizing it’s a story and without examining it and checking with reality.


So how can we explore these feelings?

We can learn to differentiate the physical sensations and the stories connected with it. We can rest in noticing the physical sensations. And we can rest in noticing the mental images and words connected with it.

We can identify the meaning of the feeling, the story behind it, and examine it.

We can learn to say “I feel…” and recognize this as only saying something about the feeling itself and nothing else.

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Psych 101: We are more than and different from our labels

Here is another entry in the Psychology 101 (or Life 101) series.

We are more than and different from our labels.


Any label may be more or less accurate in a conventional sense. We can agree, or disagree, about how well any particular label fits a person.

If we look, we can usually find a genuine example of how the label fits us. When I apply a label to myself, there is usually a grain of truth in it, and it’s helpful for me to find it. It helps me see that I am in the same boat as others. It helps me be less defensive in response to the label.

And just like life, we are always more than and different from any label. By exploring what a wide range of labels and stories point to in ourselves, we can taste and get to know some of the immense richenss in all of us. Our richness goes far beyond even that, which we discover when we surprise ourselves and others. Any label is a mental construct and not what it points to. And we are ultimately a mystery even to ourselves.


Since labels are mental constructs, it’s easy for us to mentally focus on a label. To our mind, they appear clear-cut, simple, mentally graspable, and tangible.

And it’s easy to mislead ourselves with labels for the same reason. We may assume a label is accurate when it’s not. We may assume it tells us more about a person than it does. We may assume it’s more or less the whole picture when it’s just a tiny part. We may assume that whatever context we use is the only one, while there are other contexts that make as much or more sense and will completely shift our view.


What’s the remedy for this bias?

One remedy is to remind ourselves of the times others have labeled us and it was not accurate, or they thought it said more about us than it did. If that happened to us, maybe we are doing the same when we label others?

Similarly, what are some examples of when I labeled others or a situation and it turned out to not be accurate, or it completely missed the bigger picture?

When I label myself or others, it’s helpful to remember that it’s a guess, it’s more or less accurate in a conventional sense, the person is more than and different from any label, and I may miss an important context and bigger picture completely.


Someone says I am stupid.

I can find examples of how that’s true.

I can find it in a universal sense. What I know and understand is very limited and only a fraction of all there is to understand. The wisdom and kindness I live from is a drop in the ocean compared to the potential we have. That’s how it is for all of us.

And I can find it specifically for me. (1) Yesterday morning, my wife wanted to talk with me about something important for her, and I didn’t take it seriously and didn’t address her concerns. My response was stupid. I was in an issue, and it’s not how I wish to respond. (2) I have made decisions in life I can call stupid, especially around relationships (not exploring the ones I am drawn to, staying too long in the ones that don’t feel right) and career. (3) When I think someone is stupid (for instance, Putin, conspiracy folks), I am acting in a somewhat stupid way. I make myself more stupid than I am. I know better.

At the same time, I know it’s a somewhat stupid (!) label since it’s not very specific or helpful. There are many times and areas of life where I am not so stupid – for instance when I engage in healing and taking responsibility for my own life and behavior. I am much more than what that label points to. Any label is a mental construct and not what it points to. And ultimately, I am a mystery to myself.

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Psych 101: Differentiating feelings and thoughts

One of the basics of practical daily-life psychology is to differentiate feelings and thoughts.


In our culture, we tend to differentiate emotions into sadness, anger, joy, grief, and so on. And there may be variations of these like frustration which can be seen as a form of anger.

Anything beyond that is a story. It may be a story about why we feel the way we do, what it means, and so on.


If we say “I feel you don’t love me anymore” or “I feel you did this to damage our relationship”, then we mix up feelings and stories. Yes, there is probably a feeling there. And no, we don’t feel this. We have a story saying this.

By mixing them up, we muddle the situation. And by learning to differentiate the two, we can more easily deal with what’s happening. We may notice a thought that the other person doesn’t love us anymore. We may notice sadness and fear coming from that thought. We may notice it’s more of a question than a statement. We may realize there may be other things going on. (For instance, the other may react to their own fearful stories, or it may be they don’t love some of our words and actions and it’s not that they don’t love us.) And we can more easily explore what’s going on with the other.

It’s more helpful to differentiate emotions and stories. We can say “I feel sad and I have a story that…”. It’s more close to reality, and it opens our mind up to hold the stories a little more lightly and explore them with more receptivity.


This is closely related to emotional reasoning.

We feel something, it’s mixed up with a story, and the emotions make the story seem more true.

I feel it’s true so it must be true.

What we overlook here is that an emotion in itself is simple and doesn’t mean anything. It’s the stories we attach to it that gives it meaning. And these stories may not be true in the way we take them to be.


We may notice that what goes into the emotion category is somewhat arbitrary. We can differentiate five or ten or fifty different emotions.

From here, we may look a bit more closely and find that even conventional emotion labels like sadness, anger, joy, and so on have a story component. They are sensations that our thoughts put a label and story on.


Personally, I find parts language helpful.

If I say “I am sad”, there is a tendency to identify with the emotions. I take myself to be the emotion, at least for a while. This comes with a tendency to act on or react to the emotion. (And, really, I identify with certain stories connected to the emotion and the way these stories view the world.)

If I instead say “a part of me feels sad” there is a bit more space around it and it’s easier for me to see it as something that happens in my experience and is passing through. It’s not what I am. It’s something I experience. It’s a guest. It’s easier to relate to it more intentionally.


We may also find that stories we hold as true create emotions.

If we hold a stressful story as true, it tends to create corresponding emotions. And our mind may then take these emotions as a confirmation that the story is true. I feel that it’s true so it must be true.

Here, it’s helpful to take a step back, identify with story or stories behind the emotion, and examine these to see how they fit with what’s more honestly true for us.


All of this is about differentiating emotions and thoughts, and exploring their relationship.

We can differentiate basic emotions and any stories we have related to what they are about, what they mean, and so on.

We can explore how our stories, when held as true, create certain emotions.

We can explore the story component of even basic emotions. What do we find? Physical sensations with a label attached to it calling it anger, sadness, or something else?

We can use parts language to help us relate to emotions more intentionally.

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Psych 101: Assigning unconscious motivation to others

I thought I would write a few posts on more practical daily-life psychology. In this case, about assigning unconscious motivations to others.


If we know a little about psychology, it may be tempting to sometimes assign unconscious motivations to others. You did Y, and it’s because you subconsciously want to X.

As usual, a little knowledge can be dangerous. And there are some inherent problems in this no matter how experienced we are with exploring the human psyche.


In rare situations, guessing about unconscious motivations can be helpful.

Especially, if we ask for it, and it’s framed as a gently held question.

For instance, in a therapy session, there is a chance these guesses can read to useful explorations and insights. And sometimes, the insight may be that we cannot know, or that something else seems more plausible.


But if we don’t ask for it. If there are far more obvious and simple explanations. And if it’s framed as a statement and not a question. Then it’s not very helpful.

It’s typically not helpful any time we are outside of a therapy session, and sometimes it’s not even helpful within a therapy setting.

Why? Because we cannot know for certain. We are guessing and our guess is colored by our worldview, how we see humans, and whatever psychological tradition we are familiar with. It can often distract from a more simple, pragmatic, and effective approach. And it can bring people to doubt and second-guess themselves in a way that’s not so helpful.


There is one way these assumptions can be made helpful, and that is to see what’s going on and use it as a mirror for ourselves.

We can recognize it as a guess, a story, and something that happens in our mental field. It’s here to help us orient and explore something. It may have limited validity and reality is always more and different. What our story tells us is not inherent in reality or the other person.

We can use it as a mirror. If I turn this story to myself, what do I find? Can I find specific examples of when and how it was true?

We can notice how we are capacity for this story, as we are capacity for any experience. And how it happens within and as what we are, as every experience of anything does.

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