The main point of learning psychology is to understand oneself. In doing so, one can also understand others. The mind is a vast continent that many people leave unexplored. They don’t realize that, once one begins to explore this inner realm, it reveals enormous resources, countless opportunities for new understanding, and even more amazing lives.
Ultimately, happiness is our highest moral purpose; once again Ayn Rand was on the mark, in line with a non-sacrificial ethics. We can best ensure this purpose by achieving authentic self-esteem. We can also acquire a set of psychological principles to guide us and aid in beneficially dealing with our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, as well as our relationships with others, and with reality itself. Like philosophy, psychology is rather all-encompassing. Everyone is thus a student of these disciplines, whether they know it or not!
Psychology, like philosophy, examines human nature. In addition to inspecting conscious beliefs, convictions, and intentions, psychology deals with subconscious processes and resultant behaviors. The philosophical branch of ethics is most intertwined with psychology. In general a thorough study of psychology includes (but is not limited to) the subjects listed below; each has a short description.
Naturally, this list (like the philosophy list) is presented in an abbreviated format. It is designed to give an idea of the types of aspects that will be covered, though probably not in the same order, and likely with unequal time in discussion. As mentioned, learning subjects such as philosophy and psychology is best done in an interactive way, via conversation and the Socratic method. The course is structured as the needs of learners are attuned to. No curious stones will be left unturned.
The knowledge acquired and the possibilities for self-exploration and self-understanding provided in this program are ideal for those who desire to become more integrated and actualize their potential—essentially, to get the most out of their precious lives. Dan Siegel BRIE acronym is apropos here: one can become more balanced, resourceful, insightful, and empathetic.
If you have any questions or comments, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pychological Topics (definitely not an exhaustive list)
We acquire and process information most adaptively via an active mind, which seeks to gather all the available facts, discover new ones, and weigh the various pros and cons. This represents an autonomous, inquisitive consciousness in search of truths, both internal and external.
Of course many factors need to be considered in the search for truth. Context of knowledge and the topic at hand are important. Whether on the philosophical, psychological, or scientific level, we need to accept and embrace the facts of reality that we know as well as those that we will discover.
Rather than maintain psychological blocks or defenses to ward off what may be disturbing or what may bring change to us, we can just flow with the truths that we encounter. Every newfound truth invites us to once again re-attune to reality. This process only tends to be scary or painful when viewed from a perspective that’s used to disregarding aspects of reality; truth then becomes seen as an imposition on a tragically isolated emotional and cognitive position. Alignment with truth sets us free from confusion and the burdens of upholding falsehoods.
assertiveness and social skills
Assertiveness and social skills are distinct, yet interdependent, psychological abilities. Assertiveness pertains to the broad spectrum of action, in which we convey our thoughts and desires, transferring them into practical actions. Assertiveness unlocks dormant creativity and expands possibilities for enriching human activity. It also enables us to put more of ourselves into reality, to express who we are confidently and courageously, so that our values become actualized.
In the realm of social interaction, asserting our needs and desires, as well as conveying our thoughts and feelings when appropriate, all increase the potential for enrichment with others. We can offer each other a myriad of wonderful things, but until we communicate them, our relationships and ourselves remain less actualized.
What is commonly referred to as social skills basically entails understanding and empathizing with the cognitive and emotional context of others, which fosters cooperation and builds alliances. Conflict is constructively dealt with, and alienation is minimized. While some troubled persons might misuse such skills from an inauthentic perspective, in order to deceive and manipulate, only sincerity can engender respect and goodwill in the long run.
Biology is of concern to us psychologically because it speaks of our awesome origins. We are extraordinary beings of vastly complex evolutionary processes. For historical context, hominins began branching off from the great ape lineage about 8 to 10 million years ago. Over the course of the last few million years, some beyond amazing things happened, most notably a major increase in brain size that generated our conceptual species.
Our brain, especially the cortex area, tripled in size from our most distant bipedal ancestor, Australopithecus. Currently, we share almost 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, our closest cousin of the great apes (which also include the gorilla and orangutan). Bonobo chimps especially behave much less violently and tend to resolve conflict with sexual expression.
As we map more of our brain structure and better understand its constituents and processes, e.g., http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/, we will grasp more and more of our awesome biology. Our health and well-being ultimately rest on the extent of our knowledge of our bodies, our anatomy and physiology, which includes their evolution. Living in accordance with our ancestral health over thousands of generations of time continues to be most beneficial.
conscious mental activity
Conscious mental activity takes place during our waking hours. It is an intimately familiar process to us. We make identifications and integrate differentiated parts. We ponder sensations, feelings, memories, images, and thoughts, and we share and discuss them with others. We deliberate; we evaluate; we make informed decisions, and so forth.
As we experience what early American psychologist William James called the “stream of consciousness,” we can learn more about how the mind functions and thus more about who we are. Numerous images, impressions, words, and voices (as in “hearing” ourselves think, not hallucinations) form in our consciousness at any given moment. In a culture immersed in domination systems, lots of moralistic judgments can happen internally too, along with enemy images. We can attend to any of these things or we can concentrate on a current external experience. We can do various things to distract ourselves. We can even practice to clear our conscious mind to experience nothingness itself, as in deep meditation (or perhaps the brief and random “spacing out” that all of us easily do on occasion).
Yet, we may wonder about dreams. Dreams can be classified as quasi-conscious activity, but they’re more subconscious than conscious, because our awareness is not fully activated when we are having them. Misguided philosophical thinkers sometimes ask “How do we know if life itself isn’t a dream (or a simulated, computer generated world, like in The Matrix)?”
Those who have spent much time comparing dreams to real-life experience will notice significant differences, to say the least. Noticing these differences can only occur by way of conscious mental activity. Although one might find a particular dream compelling in its realism (for instance, having philosophical discourse with others during one or experiencing exquisite perceptual details), eventually one wakes up and becomes aware of the entire dream context.
The term dream has a definite meaning, as does the term conscious. To conflate the basic distinctions between these two concepts of mind would defy both logic and reality. Nevertheless, some contend that our experiences in the real world might be part of the grandest simulation imaginable, generated by a super-advanced general intelligence (super AGI). Even if this were true, what would be the motives of such a design, and what practical significance would it have in terms of us living on Earth, subject to the laws of physics and chemistry and biological systems?
Ultimately, the burden of proof rests on proponents of simulation “theory,” since necessary evidence is sorely lacking, and it greatly opposes a parsimonious view of the world (Occam’s razor). After all, a base reality needs to exist for any simulation to be devised. Such a simulation claim has the same status as the mystical and arbitrary postulates of a supernatural or unknowable realm, such as that forwarded by Plato, Augustine, and Kant.
feelings and emotions
Feelings and emotions are often considered interchangeable and, indeed, in most cases they are synonymous. However, a feeling can also describe the physical or somatic aspect of an emotion—as well as of an illness (e.g., feeling feverish). An emotion is a psychological and physical response to something being beneficial or harmful (or neutral, as in apathy) in relation to oneself and/or one’s values. As a response to either an internal or external stimulus, an emotion doesn’t happen arbitrarily. Emotions tell us very important things about ourselves and how we view the world, as they are signifiers of met and unmet needs. Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s methodology called Nonviolent Communication (NVC) has very instructive needs inventory for understanding the foundation from which emotions and feelings arise.
Psychological researchers tell us that the only innate fear in humans is the fear of falling. (This obviously does not include the startle response, a near universal mammalian trait.) Infants stop short of venturing off a ledge presented to them, even with a pane of glass bridging the gap to prevent a fall. One might argue that such infants have experienced previous falls in their brief existence, and unless researchers have monitored them from birth, learning might be a factor. Nevertheless, before we can judge something to be dangerous or whatever else, we identify the nature of the thing being judged. For example, a particular beautiful flower wouldn’t trigger any fear unless it spewed a toxic chemical onto one’s face (let’s hope we never encounter one!).
The same applies to our everyday experiences. Emotions can be tied to the reasoning we’ve done and haven’t done. If we haven’t correctly identified aspects of reality that prove important—which is actually a sizable amount of ideas, relationships, and experiences—we may end up having emotions that are inconsistent with what is warranted given the facts. Superstitious beliefs lend themselves to such misaligned emotions.
Consider the grand emotion of joy, which can manifest simply by virtue of being alive and healthy. Many people appear to have rendered themselves unable to experience this feeling as an underlying theme in their lives. Some even view life on Earth as a miserable experience, as many religions are prone to do. And many likely feel intense fear when they believe their surroundings are occupied by ghosts or strange, invisible monsters, which commonly reflects childhood trauma that wasn’t soothed and repaired by caregivers. As we connect with the unmet needs underlying our feelings of distress, we can also check our premises for contradictions. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t live in a haunted-house universe.
goal setting and achievement
Goal setting and achievement arise from the great value we place on purpose in our lives. If one decides to just wander through life with few articulated aims, his or her mind will tend to shift into a semi-conscious mode that entails hardly any effort. Life may then seem to pass one by, and then one might lose confidence in one’s ability to set goals and achieve them. However, when we choose to direct our focus and accomplish something meaningful to us, we activate our inner resourcefulness, encouraging further achievement. Our feelings will naturally tend to reflect the strategies we choose, reflecting either our unmet or met needs.
Nature has granted us approximately 86 billion neurons in our craniums to function, about a third of which make up our cerebral cortex and limbic systems (the realms of our thoughts and feelings). The satisfaction derived from using our amazing brains contributes to a cycle of further achievement. We are naturally inquisitive and perceptive creatures, and our faculty of reason enables us to explore and deal with the universe in countless ways. The mind, via reasoning, is actually our tool of survival, and we can use it in ways that provide abundant opportunities for flourishing and growth. By developing our skills in the decision-making process, we can extend our health, happiness, and even longevity (or, at least our healthspans). The numerous goals we set during this process can become cherished milestones on our chosen paths.
history of psychology
The history of psychology is relatively short in comparison to other disciplines, notably philosophy. Psychology established itself as a separate field of study about a hundred years ago. Previously it was just part of philosophy, which goes further back than even ancient Greece.
During the start of psychology per se, research was done mostly by the German psychologists. They tried to ascertain the contents of mind and various mental processes. Introspective and psychophysics experiments were used to understand the workings of consciousness and the relationship between mind and body and the physical world.
In the name of being scientific, however, psychologists soon sought to quantify the entire discipline, as if that were possible. They wanted to make it akin to the physical sciences, in which things can be measured with mathematical precision. Yet, since mental processes have two basic descriptions—quality and intensity, which cannot be directly observed externally, only subjectively—many researchers abandoned a rational methodology based on introspection and logical (and empathetic) inference and instead embraced a behaviorial methodology.
Observations and studies done with other animals (e.g., rats, monkeys, dogs, and pigeons) were thought to provide researchers useful data from which to infer human psychology, which was considered only different in degree of complexity from these other animals, not different in kind. Ivan Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory and B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theory became mainstream dogma. While some variants of these literally mindless bahavioristic theories continue to this day, cognitive models have tended to supplant them; most saw the grave contradictions in discounting the experiences of the human mind. In addition, a helpful range of psychotherapeutic models and methods involving attachment theory, inner “parts” work, and developmental trauma have arisen, along with a growing movement in favor of psychedelic-assisted therapy (fostered by a safe set and setting).
By separating itself from philosophical ideas, especially those concerning human nature, the discipline of psychology has tended to abandon its intellectual foundation. So, it seldom offers cogent critiques of our dysfunctional culture and helpful ways to transform it (without using and perpetuating contradictory systems). Comprehensibility and wholeness can be honored and promoted in our culture, and we can transition to a new, self-esteeming and relationally healthy developmental stage that doesn’t uphold systems that sacrifice so many human needs.
In a society that entertains the beliefs that we should “judge not, that ye be not judged” or that any form of discrimination is bad, we need to consider judgment from a quite different, liberating and life-giving perspective.
Moralistic judgment is what we’re tragically used to. Absent a moralizing tone, judgment is psychologically important because it deals with the process of gathering facts, weighing evidence, analyzing arguments, and drawing conclusions. It can also amount to just making a simple decision from a range of available choices, using intuition more than conscious deliberation. In all the variations of these processes, we may—for numerous emotional or generally subconscious reasons—hang on to preconceived notions, maintain irrational biases, omit key facts or factors, not consider particular counterarguments (e.g., proposing straw-man arguments to swiftly knock down, rather than steal-man arguments), and so on.
Of course we need to be mindful of all the potential errors we can make when forming judgments. Sometimes the road to truth in the midst of these mental briar patches may seem hard to stay on, especially in a dysfunctional culture that often doesn’t reflect reasoning from first principles. However, a crucial aspect of judgment involves what could be called meta-judgment—that is, how we judge our process of judgment, which is related to our volitional capacity. This concerns self-esteem, a vital human need.
The needs-based judgments a person makes represent a most crucial function of mind. At root, we need to respect our thinking and choosing processes. We need to see our minds as efficacious, as capable of making helpful judgments to cope with life’s challenges. However, our culture often discourages this way of honoring judgment, and many persons might skip over this issue and proceed to make judgments with dogmatic authority, i.e., moralistic judgments of “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.” They typically state their opinions as if such opinions were well-researched or clearly demonstrated facts. In contrast, some persons state well-researched or clearly demonstrated facts as if they were mere opinions, which perhaps reveals a lack of concern with the discrimination and discernment process too, or an uncertainty about competent mental functioning, or maybe apprehensiveness about possible conflict arising in a disagreement.
So, as we cultivate trust in the human mind’s ability to make informed, needs-based judgments, we can also learn from our errors in most helpful ways. In stark contrast, age-old moralistic judgment involves an ultimately counterproductive process of shaming and blaming (inviting defensiveness and autonomy wars), because it harbors unprocessed distrust in the capacity of oneself and others to learn from errors, come to terms with prior misjudgments, and remedy costly beliefs and behaviors (i.e., those that sacrifice needs). By instilling trust in children and their ability to practice needs-based judgment, a new perspective can be gained and supported for the benefit of everyone.
love and expression of values
Love can take many forms, of course. Ultimately, it’s the deepest expression of what we value and consider profoundly meaningful. Interpersonally and romantically, respect and admiration are central components; without them, one wonders what could sustain it. Caring and concern are expressions too, along with shared values.
Romantic love is a distinctive combining of two (or more) individual lives in a way that expands the possibilities of enrichment for each, allowing greater interpersonal expression and more enriching experiences. Persons can become reflective mirrors to each other’s mental reality. This is the principle of psychological visibility that psychologist Nathaniel Branden noted as essential to a healthy and energizing intimate relationship. When we “feel” visible, or get our need for visibility met, we feel understood and appreciated.
Love, whether or not romantic, enables us to explore many otherwise unrealized aspects of ourselves, to connect more with ourselves, with others, and with reality, cherishing all that life offers. Romantic love can enable us to have a sense of secure attachment with another person, which also makes us vulnerable in emotional ways, similar to when we were children. Oftentimes, whether or not we realize it (i.e., regardless of our level of meta-awareness), we seek partners who might be able to repair our early attachment ruptures and finally enable us to meet those developmentally unmet needs; we might think, “With this person and relationship, I’ll finally get those early-sacrificed needs met.” Accepting this vulnerability involves presence, openness, authenticity, understanding, empathy, and a commitment to growth. Here are two very informative podcast episodes that delve into this:
104: How to Get What You Need – Nonviolent Communication with Max Rivers
The Hidden Power of Conflict – Annie Lalla – Smart Couple 88
Certainly, at various life stages we may be romantically uninvolved by choice or circumstance. Other activities and goals may become priorities, or perhaps we are still searching for an optimal match. Given the wide spectrum of our connection needs, to experience life in a solitary fashion, as a theme, can lead to deficiencies in well-being. We are social animals, after all. We have a need to be intimate with others of our choosing, to share our thoughts, our feelings, our bodies, as well as our concerns, fears, enthusiasms, hopes, and dreams.
mind and brain
Mind is an attribute of the brain. From a psychological viewpoint, mind gives rise to all our efforts to understand anything, including the brain, the very thing that enables the mental world. This sort of exploration process—being aware of our awareness and investigating it—is, simply put, beyond amazing!
We can’t coherently equate brain processes to mental processes, though, for that would render the latter superfluous, which they clearly aren’t. Our subjective experiences of consciousness—sensations, feelings, thoughts (including beliefs and ideas), intentions, desires, values, images, and memories—are different from objectively observable neural activity. And we don’t have any mental experience of our neural activity as such.
When we examine the brain via surgery or scan it with MRI or PET machines, for example, we also don’t see any subjective experiences of consciousness—no thoughts, memories, emotions, wants, values, hopes, and dreams. What we do see are billions of nerve cells, each with thousands of interconnections, amid an untold abundance of excitatory and inhibitory responses (potassium-sodium pump ion transfers down axons) from a variety of neurotransmitters relaying signals to other neurons. The difference between this objective analysis of our nervous system and the mental experience of our vast internal world is known as “the hard problem of consciousness.”
Certainly without the brain, we would not have the mind to experience anything, to make observations and draw conclusions. And without the mind, we could not even begin to understand the amazing brain and its awesome mental events, including meta-awareness, a distinctive attribute of our conceptual faculty. As neuroscience develops more fine-grained instruments to study facets of the brain and the entire neural system, more understanding will be gained about the nature of the neural correlates of consciousness and how exactly they give rise to qualia.
Mortality is a topic of immense import. The entire biological world hinges on it, after all, exhibiting endless cycles of life and death. As we gain understanding of the objective meanings of life and death, we gain a better understanding of what our own mortality implies.
While we can all recognize fairly well what constitutes a living creature versus a dead one, it’s best to rely on science to ascertain the particular instances of life and death. Death is obviously the cessation of the processes of life, metabolic processes such as cellular respiration (for organisms requiring oxygen) and self-maintenance functions.
Few religious belief systems today recognize that death for an organism with consciousness, such as ourselves, means obliteration of consciousness too, forevermore. The soul/body dichotomy still holds sway over the worldview of multitudes of people. Yet, a great deal of neuroscience research informs us that, since mind arises from brain functioning, when the brain goes kaput, so does the mind. This of course means that our lives are precious and finite, no matter how long we try to extend them with technological innovations. One day each of our lives will come to a complete end, with no valid and reliable “backups” to keep us in existence. And, regardless of how many precautions we strive to take, accidents will still happen.
Such profound knowledge encourages us to live within our present moments as well as maintaining hope for the future. In turn we need to cope psychologically with painfully tragic realizations about the fate of our loved ones too. To deal successfully with various fears about death (and thus various fears about life), we need to raise our awareness and embrace challenging truths. In so doing, we can steer clear of the ill-effects of terror management theory, an intriguing line of research indicating that unawareness of the terrifying meaning we ascribe to our mortality is likely to affect our choices adversely, such as engaging in symbol and system worship (anything that can outlive one’s solitary self), escapism, and outright denial of our mortality (e.g., belief in an “afterlife”).
Many futurists and transhumanists are hoping to discover a scientifically validated way to give humans indefinite lifespans—through advances in such things as genetic engineering, nanomedicine, and AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). However, their ongoing research typically fails to take into account the very serious (I’d say devastating) issues of histological entropy, antagonistic pleiotropy, and irreparable nervous system degradation. No matter what, we still need to appreciate the most extreme contrast: that between life and death. By doing so, we can realize how incredibly fortunate we are to be alive on this wondrous planet, able to experience all that life has to offer us. Gratitude will always be key.
The nervous system is ultimately responsible for all our activities. Nerves interconnecting our brain regions and branching into various tracks to the periphery of our bodies (controlling organs, glands, muscles, etc.) enable us to function. They also give rise to our entire sensory world, innumerable receptors relaying information about stimuli. Our basic identity arises from an embodied sense of self, in which neurons provide various points of bodily presence. Our memories and subconscious information, as well as our daily experiences, would not be possible without our central and peripheral nervous systems. What a complex feedback system to behold!
These are certainly profound facts. Yet, it is important that we do not reduce our experiences and our knowledge to just elemental processes of neurons. We have ideas and feelings. We make choices. We have imaginations. These various mental processes emerge from our enormously complex nervous systems, and they require another level of understanding and explanation—the psychological. As evolution added more complexity to the hominin brain, totally new characteristics appeared. Most notable among these was a volitional, reasoning mind. This emerged from a larger neocortex and especially prefrontal cortex, which was connected to a subcortical limbic system, thereby providing new layers of emotional complexity.
Interacting with and understanding others may be the second biggest reason people study psychology. The first reason, of course, is to understand oneself. By doing so, we gain a solid foundation from which to comprehend the social realm. Because we are all reasoning beings who live on the same planet, our needs are remarkably similar, to the point of universal. The values that are objectively in our rational self-interest are also objectively in the rational self-interest of others. Values such as reason, purpose, self-esteem, happiness, and liberty are definitely not exclusive. They are (or can be) shared by everyone.
Given a psychological and neurobiological understanding of ourselves as interpersonal, conceptual and emotional creatures, our basic nature can be comprehended and respected. A coherent, noncontradictory philosophical framework enables us to interact with others in mutually beneficial (win/win) ways. It also enables us to view the psychology of human relationships more objectively, instead of with a subjective perspective fraught with dysfunction (like the miserable characters portrayed in many television soap operas). Our psychological well-being benefits a great deal when our metaphysics represents objective reality, rather than a disconnected and arbitrary (largely unintegrated) social reality.
Even if people do not share the same explicit philosophy, typically some shared basic values remain, because we all have the same spectrum of feelings and needs. Listening to what others have to say contributes to them having a sense of being heard and understood, which is an extremely important aspect of empathy. Respecting the dignity of others, as well as the process by which they form particular opinions, honors their capacity to acquire new opinions. Using humor when appropriate tends to connect individuals to the broader reality of things. These and other social skills are ultimately reflections of how we treat ourselves. The relationship we cultivate with our own self in many ways can be like that of a dear friend.
In addition to the major personal tasks of acquiring self-knowledge and healing one’s developmental trauma, parenting tends to be the greatest responsibility that adults can exercise. Ideally, a lot of thought and long-range planning goes into it—for it affects everyone’s life in the family. Rational guidance and education are two main responsibilities of parenting, in concert with abundant love. By providing a context in which young persons can feel seen, soothed, safe, secure (the 4 Ss, as noted by Daniel Siegel), as well as respected—so that they can flourish both cognitively and emotionally—parents can influence greatly the type of society we live in. Meeting the need for visibility with mindsight remains key. Essentially, this means attuning to and empathetically understanding one’s mental world.
One of the biggest problems for parents has been the Welfare State, in which governments provide so-called schooling services for “free,” in exchange for taxes and regulations, along with a continually inflated and devalued fiat currency. Governmental, “public” schooling has been adversely affecting the modern world for over a century, as it denies parents the responsibility to educate their children or hire reputable persons or organizations of their choice in the marketplace. This commonly leaves parents greatly dissatisfied and public school teachers greatly frustrated and drained. Still more tragically, it shortchanges students in profoundly significant ways. For most children, learning things based on having a genuine interest in the subject is a highly unusual experience. And having a sheer joy in learning itself typically vanishes as they progress in school. Apathy due to teachers’ assignments becomes the norm.
The goal of rearing happy, respectful, thoughtful, and creative children with high self-esteem can be achieved. Children need to be recognized as individuals with rights too. When parents meet their children’s needs for trust, respect, and choice, they foster thoughtful independence and healthy interdependence. Having children obey out of duty or fear only continues cycles of intergenerational trauma. Children, essentially little persons, have thoughts, feelings, and sensibilities that are just as important as those of adults. As famous educator Maria Montessori noted, the future of humankind resides in children—and in how adults treat them. Thus, the major task for adults is to become aware of and effectively process their own developmental trauma, in which many of their needs got sacrificed. In finally honoring their unmet needs from childhood, then can also honor the needs of their children—win/win, once again.
personal growth and self-actualization
Personal growth and self-actualization are basically about living well. To take steps forward in our personal evolution is to seize opportunities to flourish. Indeed, life is a grand learning process in which self-development can be prioritized for our benefit as well as our relationships’ benefit.
Cognitively, we can integrate a set of beliefs and principles (i.e., a philosophy) based on a logical understanding of the facts of reality. By doing so, we can live in accordance with our nature as reasoning beings.
Emotionally, we can attune to, understand, and empathize with our feelings. As we learn what’s giving rise to them, identifying the underlying met and unmet needs, we can implement new strategies. We need not remain in a troubled emotional state without such processing. We can work on seeing the big picture and cultivating real meaning in life.
So, we need not stand in our own way with various defense mechanisms, what Internal Family Systems therapy calls “protector parts.” These aspects of our mental world are typically reluctant to engage in the healing process due to uncertainty, fear, and pain, as well as dissociation. Once they become open to internal change, we can more readily unburden various traumatized aspects within ourselves. We can strive to utilize our inner capacities of self-acceptance, self-empathy, and self-compassion in order to grow, and encourage others to do likewise. Self-actualization is about extending the perceived limits of what we can achieve and how we can achieve it.
Nurturing relationships with parents, family, friends, and others meet a lot of connection needs. The closer we become to others, the more emotional ties can be created. Of course, this also means more enriching connection to potentially lose and, thus, more potential pain of loss. Given this, many people seek to avoid connecting on deeper levels. They might maintain certain levels of distance, superficiality, aloofness, even hostility, with those they otherwise love. Various motivations can be involved in this process, of course, but the themes of avoiding vulnerability, transparency, intimacy, and the potential for loss are normally present.
Certainly, we choose different levels and types of connection with others, such as with family members, friends, mentors, and so on. An important aspect is how we feel about each of these relationships. Do they provide joy and fulfillment, or ambiguity, even agony or resentment? Are they based on shared values and complimentary differences, or are they constructed out of tradition and sheer convenience?
In regard to parents and family systems, obviously their constitution is a given. Such a situation offers each of us a challenge to connect with those we might not have deliberately befriended in unfamiliar circumstances. We have a choice to understand where individuals with different personalities, life stages, and even values are coming from—to in effect build bridges of empathy. An unfortunate amount of people are suffering due to unprocessed developmental trauma, for which no restorative justice or empathy has occurred. No repair of attachment ruptures and unresolved psychological wounds can lead to continued sacrifice of connection needs, alienation and disparagement of people’s worth, perpetuation of conflicts and disagreements, and ongoing resentments. Fortunately, psychotherapeutic methods exist to help remedy such suffering.
While the levels of intimacy that family systems offer can vary greatly, they nonetheless tend to be the context in which we initially learn (or fail to learn) the process of nurturing relationships. Developing a sense of both secure attachment and inner resourcefulness after difficult or harmful developmental experiences continues to be a vital psychological task for every member of our species. We can break the intergenerational cycles of trauma, thereby fostering a wonderfully healed world for children and adults alike.
Self-concept arises naturally from our awareness of self, the identity we ascribe to that which thinks, feels, acts, and relates to other selves. We have an idea of who we are and what is possible for us. Much of this personal conception is formed by way of interacting with others early in life. The statement “If only we could see ourselves as others see us” implies that an objective view of oneself is hindered by personal biases, usually resulting from how we learned to cope with difficult interactions in life. In actuality, we can recognize the ways that people view us as they interact with us. People can be invited to genuinely convey what they notice about us and what they think and feel about us. Of course, at times people might lack the self-assertiveness to be candid, open, and honest about what’s alive in them. This is usually to the detriment of everyone, because one side is left in an inauthentic condition, and the other an unaware condition. The practice of authentic relating is a growing movement trying to remedy this.
Nonetheless, everyone has at least a vague image of the ideal person they want to be. Some people view this image as unattainable or unrealistic (hence, “ideal”). Others might try to convince themselves that they have achieved it, before they fully have (i..e, “fake it till you make it”). Unfortunately, hiding the fact that one still has aspects of self to work on seems like an international pastime. So, to genuinely, thoughtfully, and compassionately deal with one’s “emotional baggage” carried from years or decades ago is basically the hero’s and heroine’s journey.
Various defense mechanisms can arise that prevent full knowledge of the self (provided by oneself, along with the aid of others). Dissociation, denial, repression, projection, displacement, reaction formation, rationalization, evasion, etc. can diminish the search for psychological clarity, understanding, and wholesome integration. But they had survival value when they were formed, since we did survive those challenging times. This survival-value impact can discourage persons to set aside their defenses and discover who they truly are (i.e., their actual self-concept). They might believe their character and choices will be found wanting, inadequate, or “bad.” Shame can be deeply ingrained in the psyche, which can make exploring one’s inner world seem daunting. Yet, such common blocks to healing and growing can be effectively dealt with via psychotherapeutic methods, such as somatic experiencing and even psychedelic-assisted therapy (always within a safe set and setting).
Yet, no matter what kind of description or evaluation a person has had of his or her self, the journey toward an accurate, enlightened self-concept needs to begin with realizing and accepting one’s present self-concept. Only by acknowledging where we are now (and where we have been), can we begin to move toward where we want to be, as psychologist Nathaniel Branden has noted. Our own self-awareness challenges us to question the assumptions we may be placing on our self-concept. There is always more of our potential to realize.
Self-esteem is central to human psychology, as it’s a vital need that arises from having abstract self-awareness. Because we have the ability to reason—to form concepts about reality, about ourselves, and about other concepts—we need to understand this ability in a way that is consistent with our nature and the requirements for living well.
Psychologist Nathaniel Branden dedicated his career to this subject of how to optimize our sense of self. He identified six pillars: The practice of living consciously; the practice of self-acceptance; the practice self-responsibility; the practice of self-assertiveness; the practice of living purposefully; and, the practice of personal integrity. He noted that self-esteem has two main elements. The first is confidence in one’s ability to reason and function generally, which reflects the conviction that one’s mind is efficacious. Basically, we need to view ourselves as effective organisms, able to handle life’s challenges and cope well with stressors. If one either consciously or subconsciously doesn’t believe this is possible for oneself (perhaps only for others), then living beneficially becomes diminished. Each of us is capable of honoring one’s natural reasoning abilities, which of course includes one’s limitations; we can formulate a realistic view of self.
The second element of self-esteem is feeling worthy of happiness, honoring one’s fundamental dignity as an individual and relational being. Subconsciously, we can embody the process of living wonderful, fulfilling lives, lives worthy of respect. Such self-respect involves understanding that each person, not others (be they parents, lovers, friends, coworkers, teammates, etc.), is responsible for his or her own happiness and emotional well-being. They are within our own power to cultivate throughout our precious moments on this planet, which is an immensely empowering aspect of self-realization. Such an embodied stance of personal needs-fulfillment enables us to hone the skills (including interpersonal skills) that ensure these vital human processes.
Self-exploration is indispensable to understanding our psychology. Comprehending who one really is entails delving into one’s subconscious processes. While we can consciously agree with numerous true and beneficial psychological ideas and theories, we also need to subconsciously integrate them, to internalize what they mean for us.
Granted, self-exploration is not something easy to do in a culture that tends to discourage it with plenty of distractions. Because we are more inclined to take physical action and to focus on our immediate external environment and relations, the internal process of pausing and looking within (i.e., introspecting) can be challenging at times. This is especially the case when all kinds of ways to dissociate have been modeled for us throughout our development. Yet, introspection leads to living with much more awareness of what we think, what we feel, what we want and value, and what we need; in turn, we generate much more of this mindsight with others. One could say that these are keys to living authentically.
An effective strategy to cultivate such a way of life is to engage in psychotherapeutic exercises. Some may be more useful and appropriate than others in varying contexts. Yet even writing in a journal can aid greatly in becoming more attuned to what’s been alive in oneself. When we put our personal thoughts on paper we concretize them; we make them tangible, so we can reflect on them and deal with them beneficially. Branden’s book of sentence completion exercises called The Art of Self-Discovery is my favorite, which is free to download on my other site here (just a bit down the page), among others.
This is how a person views him or her self, especially in terms of physical appearance and the behaviors connected to it. In this sense, it’s a narrower description than self-concept; self-concept subsumes one’s self-image.
While self-image is formulated by oneself, others can certainly have an influence on it. Sometimes there might not be any congruence between these two. Various defense mechanisms in oneself as well as in others can prevent seeing self-image objectively. It may be too painful to admit that one views one’s body and corresponding behaviors in a negative light, steeped in moralistic judgment. Such an assessment would, after all, call for personal changes in order to remedy the conflict between present self-image and desired self-image. On the other hand, a person might believe that placing a high value on one’s physical self will come across to others as “arrogant.” So, in the name of preventing scorn or jealousy from others, he or she may minimize a positive or proud self-image.
Typically, when someone says that another has a poor self-image, we know immediately what is meant by this: The person does not see him or herself as a thoroughly attractive and worthy individual and, hence, behaves in accordance with this assessment, fulfilling the tragic prophecy. Unprocessed issues of shame are nearly always involved here, many stretching back to childhood trauma. In contrast, a person with a healthy self-image fulfills an enriching prophecy. Interestingly, we find that saying and doing in this realm of self-concept may not necessarily be consistent. A prevalent example of this is a fashion model who appears to have a fabulous self-image on camera, but obsesses inside about her physical “flaws,” discounting how she meets the need for beauty. Attaining congruence between actions and internal assessments involves more psychological healing and integrative work.
We can all develop a positive self-image, since happiness is our birthright. Each of us is unique in various ways, and therefore comparison contests are unwarranted. The healthier the image we create of ourselves (taking into account the changes we make in line with this, such as with nutrition, physical fitness, and general self-care) the more integrated and happy we can become. Then, no limited or negative views of self work to inhibit us. We are free to smile and to enjoy our physical beings. =)
Self-worth is the aspect of self-esteem that allows us to live happily. When we disparage or disrespect ourselves (largely due to unprocessed developmental trauma), we have trouble seeing the joyous possibilities of life. Seeing one’s character in an admirable way is vital to positive self-expression.
Our worth as human beings stems from the essential fact that we are alive—the amazingly complex result of millions of years of evolution. Other living things are not faced with the issue of their worth, because they are unable to conceptualize and reflect on their lives; they lack an abstract awareness of self and the world (no meta-awareness). So, we are unique in this regard. Happiness can be quite challenging for us amidst many detrimental factors in our development and culture, especially domination systems—from dysfunctional families, schools, and religions, to governments—which use power-over strategies, threats and punishments, instead of respect and trust. So, other people and their institutions might discount our value, in opposition to happiness.
Yet, rather than conforming to a dire cultural status quo, acting in ways that prevent a full embrace of self-worth, one can choose to honor oneself, work to subconsciously integrate it, and embody it. It’s everyone’s birthright to have a sense of respect for one’s life and well-being. Self-worth is perhaps the most important facet in psychology. It would be hard to imagine strife or misery in a world in which everyone understood their inherent worth and honored it with each other.
sensation and perception
Sensation and perception are key to our knowledge. Everything we experience and have come to know is built upon a neural system that senses and responds to the external world (and internal world). Pure sensations are the most elementary feedback. On their own, they tell us little about the world; we need more information with which to compare and contrast, to identify, differentiate, and integrate. This comes by way of percepts, or integrations of sensations that offer us more to analyze and understand.
On an everyday basis, we judge a wide array of things from the standpoint of our percepts. What we do with them depends on many factors—for instance, our amount of attention, motivation, cognitive set, and emotional context. We form various overall perceptions based on these factors. In this sense, perception blends into the process of reason, the process of forming and using concepts, making assumptions and inferences, etc.
The term perception is commonly used to imply a purely subjective experience. However, percepts provide us with information about the world, objective reality, which means our perceptions can be analyzed rationally, when appropriate. The method of logic and thinking objectively (taking into account all the available facts and perspectives) are indispensable when our perceptions appear to be playing tricks on us. A simple example would be a stick that appears bent when submerged in water. Feeling the stick of course tells us that nothing actually has changed it. Science informs us that the perceived “bending” is a result of light rays traveling through a different medium (air vs. water), thus changing the stick’s appearance. A more complex example would be the perception that someone is not meeting the need for honesty, perhaps noticing such things as slightly different eye movements, facial expressions, even voice irregularities, as well as statements that contradict facts or prior statements. Unfortunately, until solid evidence is attained, dishonesty can only be guessed (no lie detectors exist), since humans can be just as adept at telling lies as truths in an unenlightened society.
Most of what people call “perception” already contains quite a bit of subconscious processing and interpretation. So, we can search out and understand any biases that may be involved in the perceptual process, as the scientific method instructs, trying to falsify rather than confirm our hypotheses. In this way our perceptions will not be at odds with what objective reality ultimately reveals to be the case.
sense of life
Ayn Rand explained this concept thusly: “A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. It sets the nature of a man’s emotional responses and the essence of his character.”
So, sense of life pertains to how a person sees the whole experience of his or her life in relation to reality and other people. How do we interact psychologically with ourselves and with the world? What (explicit or implicit) philosophical premises do we maintain and express psychologically as ways to cope with various life situations? Answers to such questions reflect a sense of life.
Personality is tied intimately to sense of life. How one acts, thinks, and feels about oneself, other people, and situations evidences whether he or she views life as something to be enjoyed, something to be explored, something to be understood—or as something to fear, something to doubt, something to cause problems and conflict, something to be disparaged or resented. Needless to say, to enjoy, explore, and understand life make a world of difference!
The artistic tastes of a person oftentimes reveal his or her sense of life too, although people can have different reasons for liking the same types of art, or even liking art that expresses different senses of life in different contexts. In esthetic matters motivations can be complex.
Nevertheless, by having a “can-do” spirit (in accordance with the self-esteem pillars of self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, and living purposefully) and a brilliant sense of life, we are most able to make the most of our lives, adapt to changes, overcome difficulties, and express ourselves with delight, authenticity, and equanimity. We thus see the world as a place of wonder where we self-actualize and share our cherished values with others.
Sexuality is part of our nature as sentient, sensual beings. We have powerful capacities for physical pleasure and expression of feelings. Many beliefs exist in religions and cultures throughout the world about what sexuality means for males and females, which may or may not accord with the biological drive to reproduce. Often, humans are encouraged (or even coerced) to take on certain roles and follow various social guidelines, whether or not they are desired or rationally justified. Of course, any society that’s filled with domination systems will have many beliefs and behaviors that defy common sense and what’s reasonable. So, like most aspects of life, it’s useful to question and think independently, especially when one’s emotions and experiences run counter to what we are being told.
At various times throughout history (as well as prehistory), children’s mental and physical boundaries were not respected; tragically, adverse childhood experiences were likely the norm, and we are still afflicted by them in today’s “advanced” society. Age of consent for sexual expression between persons tends to align with puberty, when procreation can happen, although developmental factors and disparities in knowledge and power always need to be considered. Across the modern world prohibitions on sex vary, similar to other activities that are considered vices.
Choosing to be sexual ideally entails connecting one’s capacity for pleasure to one’s values and standards for long-term fulfillment, that which serves one’s life and well-being. Not to do so is to risk creating mental conflict, confusion, and anguish, as well as defenses in reaction to these emotions, basically an array of protector parts. Turns out, meaningless sex can be just as emotionally debilitating as taking a vow of chastity. Many religious doctrines unfortunately foster participation in such a dichotomy. For example, many hold a belief that women are to be viewed either as vestal virgins or as a base sluts (moralistically framed as “good” or “bad” girls)—rather than as persons who naturally seek to express values with those they hold dear, in order to experience all the pleasures that their bodies provide. Such a problematic belief no doubt arises from mental conflict over the physical pleasure derived from sex alongside values that diminish or repudiate such pleasure. Yet another common belief is that men, by nature, are primarily interested in sex, usually at the expense of other values. They tend to be excused from promiscuous behaviors based on this biological drive, or “nature.” Clearly, this is yet another example of what happens when the pleasures of sex are separated from the wider context of enduring values and standards of health.
Adults can help educate children in these matters with values that are self-affirming, other-affirming, and life-affirming (instead of ones that are dogmatic, shaming, and self-destructive). While today’s amount of mindless eroticism, vulgarity, fetishes, sadomasochism, and abuse has probably plagued societies for untold centuries (only now being more visible via the Web), people who are educated in self-esteem and connection needs are much less prone to such rebellious and provocative expressions as well as various Puritanical responses to them. We can consider sexuality a natural and wonderfully important component of a happy life, which has enabled the perpetuation of our species.
Since spirituality has different meanings in religious and secular contexts, explicating an objective meaning poses a challenge. Some may view spirituality strictly as that which pertains to the “soul,” which the Bible tells us to take for granted. Such a view immediately raises the question of what “soul” means. If we define soul as a mental aspect of ourselves that transcends the body and the material realm (which means it is essentially indestructible given its ethereal nature), then we need to ask the following: Is there any evidence for this?
Science informs us that there is none. Both conceptually and physiologically, imagining the mind disconnected from the nervous system is akin to imagining heartbeats disconnected from the heart; the former features require the latter ones (and healthy, functioning ones at that!). So, in order to make spirituality comprehensible, while questioning the validity of claims based on hearsay, dogma, and wishful thinking, we can view soul simply as synonymous with mind. Mind is consistent with what we know about human beings, their nervous system, and reality. Because it’s an attribute of the brain, it’s caused by and dependent on the body. And, given the mind’s generation by the brain, it also causes the body to do a plethora of things. Additionally, it fosters sundry connections with others (including memories and emotions) and instantiates aspects of itself into other aspects of the world (including computers, and pages like this!).
Similar to other topics, spirituality is something that we can choose to focus on or choose to avoid (or render less important). When we see that the mind is at the heart of this term, we can then realize the profound importance of cultivating a spiritual life—as a process or method by which we develop more and more awareness of our experiences and our existential context—for instance, our place in the vast cosmos. Such a practice helps to make our lives much more meaningful and more enriched, especially as we connect with and relate to others. We can become more cognizant of what we are doing and why we are doing it, recognizing formally unnoticed aspects of existence, which can foster more wonder, as with a beginner’s mind. Ultimately, such spirituality connects us to our deepest essence, our inner-most self, as well as with our most moving emotions. So, here’s to cultivating and enjoying a spiritual (or meta-aware)—and crucially embodied—life on this exceptionally habitable planet, in the mind-bogglingly vast universe!
Subconscious mental activity is much more difficult to isolate and understand most of the time than conscious mental activity (which sometimes isn’t easy either—just look at the unclear condition of philosophy in the intellectual world!). Consciousness, being a finite faculty, can only handle so much input at any given time, so the subconscious, operating on the periphery of awareness, processes input too, as does the unconscious (mentally opaque elements from other parts of the brain). Talk about complexity! Nonetheless, the subconscious reflects a vast reservoir of our past experiences, such as memories, beliefs, and judgments, which is a huge mental world, to be sure.
Conscious mental awareness is like a projector and screen featuring only part of a huge archive of film. The subconscious at any given moment adds to what is being shown, or rather, experienced. For example, as we talk to someone, we may have a subtle feeling of discomfort as the conversation progresses. This feeling may be the result of subconscious processing of, for instance, an incident earlier in the day; we may now be reflecting on something that’s been in the back of our mind and having an emotion related to it. Because we want to have a coherent conversation about the topic at hand, we typically don’t stop and isolate the feeling. But we do notice it. We can bookmark it for future reference, maybe that night when we write in a journal or talk with a friend.
Such an experience represents part of who we are, the subconscious aspect. Such activity has been called super-rapid appraisals (or assessments) by Cognitive Behavioral therapy, and it happens much of the time on its own. It’s also an aspect of what Buddhist meditators might call “the monkey mind.” Explicit focus and contemplation is usually needed to discern this activity with more clarity. Given its personal import and potential for psychological meaning, we can pay respect to this realm by attuning to noticeable patterns, developing insights, and integrating their meaning. We can usually gain in self-esteem as a result of this mindsight, honoring a major aspect of our inner world. After all, parts of one’s mind that evidence being in conflict with each other need to be recognized and understood, which accords with compassionately processing past traumatic experiences.
Values are the things, be they physical or abstract, that we seek to gain and/or keep, which can give us such experiences as vitality, enrichment, a sense of achievement, peace, and satisfaction. As Ayn Rand noted, before we can determine what values to embrace, we need to determine why we even need them. Since we are living on this planet rooted in biological systems, clearly problematic values would be ones that lead to our own destruction, or the destruction of others, or the ecosystem in which we exist. How about values claimed to be beneficial yet require sacrificing one’s own well-being and happiness or what really mattered to oneself? Indeed, this is the nature of self-sacrifice.
Interestingly, for many years during the development of his method of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Marshall Rosenberg used values to describe the basis of human well-being and effective functioning. However, he eventually shifted to using needs as foundational and settled there with NVC. He noted that both physical and psychological needs enable life for us biological beings, in which getting our needs met means optimal flourishing. Given that we are highly relational, social animals, connection needs are especially vital to grok.
Whether or not we view values and needs as synonymous, the question is always whether they are in service of our lives and well-being. Thus, they need to honor our distinctive tool of survival, the mind, and all that enables it to function harmoniously with ourselves and in win/win ways with others. With our minds we can attend to facts, plan and make decisions, have experiences and assess them, and attune to feelings and needs—as well as interact with many others doing similarly. Oftentimes, we might not be fully cognizant of the values we are espousing or pursuing until we examine our ideas and behaviors both logically and empathetically in terms of our needs. Such introspection will help us determine what is actually valuable for us, and what respects the rights of others to pursue their values as well.