The point of learning psychology is to understand oneself (and therefore 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 continent, it reveals enormous resources, countless opportunities for new understanding, and even more amazing lives.
Ultimately, happiness is our highest moral purpose; Ayn Rand was on the mark. We can best ensure this purpose by achieving authentic self-esteem. We can acquire a set of psychological principles that can guide us and aid in dealing appropriately and beneficially with our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, as well as with our relationships with others, and with reality itself.
Psychology, like philosophy, also deals with examination of human nature. In addition to examining conscious beliefs and convictions, psychology deals with subconscious processes and resultant behaviors. Ethics is the branch of philosophy in which psychology tends to be most intertwined. 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 issues that will be covered. They probably will not be covered in the same order, and they will not likely be given equal time in discussion or debate.
As mentioned, learning subjects such as philosophy and psychology is best done in an interactive way, via conversation and the Socratic method. Any set structure is likely to change when the needs of learners are beneficially attended to. Thus, to the extent that learners and their guides deem it necessary to explore various areas, such areas will be explored. 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 (for example, more balanced, resourceful, insightful, and empathetic) and actualize their full potential—to get the most out of their precious lives.
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 do know as well as those that we discover.
Rather than maintain psychological blocks or defenses to ward off what may be disturbing or what may bring change to us, we can flow with the truths that we encounter. Newfound truth tends to be most scary and painful when we view it with an identity that disregards aspects of reality; such truth thereby becomes an imposition on our tragically isolated emotional and cognitive position.
assertiveness and social skills
Assertiveness and social skills are distinct, yet interdependent, psychological abilities. Assertiveness pertains to the broad sphere of human action. We need to convey our thoughts and desires in order for them to transfer into practical actions. Assertiveness unlocks dormant creativity and expands possibilities for human activity. It also enables us to put more of oneself into reality, to express who we are confidently and courageously.
In the realm of social interaction, asserting our needs and desires, as well as conveying our thoughts and feelings when appropriate, increases the potential for enrichment with others. We can offer each other many 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 alliances rather than conflict and alienation. While some might use such skills inauthentically to 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 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 amazing things happened, most notably an increase in brain size that generated a species able to conceptualize.
Our brain, especially the cortex area, has tripled in size since 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 of how awesome biology is. Our health and well-being ultimately rest on our extent of knowledge about our bodies, which includes their evolution.
conscious mental activity
Conscious mental activity takes place during our waking hours. It is an intimately familiar process for us. We make identifications, we ponder memories and ideas 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. We can attend to any of them or we can concentrate on a present moment external experience perhaps to distract ourselves. Maybe we can even clear the mind to experience nothingness itself (as in deep meditation, or the random “spacing out” that all of us do on occasion).
Yet one may wonder about dreams. Dreams can be classified as quasi-conscious activity, but more subconscious than conscious, because our awareness is not fully activated while we are having them. Misguided philosophical thinkers sometimes ask “How do we know that 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), 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 call into question 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 intelligence. Even if it were true, what would be the motives of such a design, and what practical significance would it have in terms of living on Earth?
Ultimately, the burden of proof rests on simulation proponents, since necessary evidence is lacking, and it greatly opposes a parsimonious view of the world. After all, a base reality needs to exist for any simulation to be devised. Such a claim has the same status as the mystical and arbitrary postulates of a supernatural or unknowable realm, for example forwarded Plato, Augustine, and Kant.
feelings and emotions
Feelings and emotions are often taken to mean the same thing and, indeed, in most cases they are synonymous. However, a feeling can also be used to 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 of 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 important things about ourselves and how we view the world, being 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.
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 preventing 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 doesn’t trigger fear until it spews a toxic chemical onto one’s face (let’s hope we never encounter such a flower!).
The same applies to everyday experiences. Emotions can be tied to the reasoning we have (and have not) 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.
An major example of this is the emotion of joy. Many people appear to have rendered themselves unable to experience this emotion as an underlying theme in their lives. Some even view life as a truly miserable experience, as religions are prone to do. And some may feel intense fear if they believe their surroundings are occupied by ghosts or strange, invisible monsters (likely this reflects childhood trauma that wasn’t soothed and repaired by caregivers). As we connect with our unmet needs underlying our feelings of distress, we can also check our premises for contradictions. The world need not be seen as a haunted house.
goal setting and achievement
Goal setting and achievement arise from the value we place on purpose in our lives. When we wander through life with few articulated aims, we let our mind slip into a semi-conscious mode that entails hardly any effort. Life may then seem to pass us by, and we might lose confidence in our ability to set goals and achieve them. When we choose to direct our focus and accomplish something meaningful to us, we activate our inner resources, encouraging further achievement. Our feelings will tend to reflect the strategies we choose, reflecting either our unmet or met needs.
Nature has granted us approximately 86 billion neurons to put to use, 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 unlimited ways. Because the mind is our tool of survival, we need to use it in ways that provide abundant opportunities for flourishing and growth, in addition to survival. By developing our skills in the decision-making process, we can extend our health, happiness, and even longevity. The numerous goals we set during this process are milestones in 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 under the rubric 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. They wanted to make it akin to the physical sciences, in which things can be measured with mathematical precision.
Mental processes have two basic descriptions—quality and intensity. Since these cannot be directly observed, many researchers abandoned a rational methodology based on introspection and logical inference and embraced a behaviorial methodology.
Observations of studies done with other animals (e.g., rats, monkeys, dogs, and pigeons) seemingly provided researchers data by which to infer human psychology, which was considered only different in degree of complexity, not different in kind. Ivan Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory and B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theory became mainstream. Variants of these bahavioristic theories continue to this day, even though more cognitive models have also taken hold, in addition to a helpful range of psychotherapeutic models related to attachment theory and trauma research. By separating itself from philosophical ideas, especially those concerning human nature, psychology abandoned its intellectual foundation. It needs to reclaim it.
In a society that entertains the ideas that we should “judge not” or that any form of “discrimination” is bad, we need to look at judgment from another perspective.
Absent any moralizing tone, judgment is important in relation to psychology 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 follow. However, a crucial aspect of judgment deals with 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 process. We need to see our minds as efficacious, as capable of making helpful judgments. 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 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, or an uncertainty about competent mental functioning, or maybe apprehensiveness about possible conflict arising in the process of reaching agreement. As we cultivate trust in the human mind’s ability to make informed, needs-based judgments, we can also learn from our errors.
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 may be 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. Persons can become reflective mirrors to each other’s mental reality. This is the principle of psychological visibility that Nathaniel Branden noted as a being essential to a healthy and energizing intimate relationship. When we feel visible, 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 feel securely attached to another person, which also makes us vulnerable in emotional ways, similar to when we were children. Oftentimes, whether or not we realize it, we seek partners who might be able to repair our early attachment ruptures; 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.
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 alone, as a theme, can lead to deficiencies in well-being. We are social animals, to be sure. We have a need to be intimate with others, 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. 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, for that would render the latter superfluous, which they clearly aren’t. Our subjective experiences of consciousness—ideas, feelings, beliefs, values, images, and memories—are different from neural activity. When we examine the brain via surgery or scan it with MRI or PET machines, for example, we don’t see any thoughts, memories, emotions, or experiences—nor any 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.
Certainly without the brain, we would not have the mind to experience anything, to observe and draw conclusions. And without the mind, we could not even begin to understand the amazing brain and its mental events.
Mortality is a topic of immense import. As we gain an 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 one’s consciousness too, forevermore. Since consciousness arises from brain processes, when the brain goes kaput, so does consciousness. This of course means that our lives are finite, no matter how long we try to extend them. One day they will come to a complete end, with no valid and reliable backups. Regardless of how many precautions we take, accidents will still happen.
Such knowledge encourages us to live in and for present moments as well as hope for the future. In turn we need to cope psychologically with sad realizations about the fate of our loved ones too. To deal successfully with various fears about death (and thus various fears about life) means steering clear of the ill-effects of terror management theory.
Regardless of whether or not we discover a way to give ourselves indefinite lifespans (through advances in genetic engineering, nanomedicine, and AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), we still need to appreciate the most extreme contrast—that between life and death. In doing so, we can realize how fortunate we are to be on this wondrous planet and to experience all that life has to offer.
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 sensory world. Innumerable receptors relay information about stimuli. Even our sense of self, our basic identity, is linked to an awareness of the various points of presence of our bodies. Our memories and subconscious information, as well as our daily experiences, would not be possible without our central and peripheral nervous systems. What a thing to behold!
These are certainly profound facts. Yet, it is important that we do not reduce our experiences and our knowledge to nothing but elementary processes of neurons. We have ideas, we make choices, we have feelings, we have imaginations. These mental processes emerge from our enormously complex nervous system, offering a different level of understanding and explanation. As more complexity was added to the hominin brain, totally new characteristics appeared—most notably a volitional, reasoning mind with a new realm 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 foundation to extend to 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, happiness, and liberty are definitely not exclusive. They are (or ought to be) shared by everyone.
Given a psychological and neurobiological understanding of ourselves as interpersonal, conceptual and emotional creatures, we can say that our basic nature needs to be grasped and respected. A coherent, noncontradictory philosophical framework serves as a tool to interact with others in a beneficial, win/win fashion. It enables us to see human relationships objectively, rather than from a dysfunctional subjective perspective (such as the miserable characters in many television soap operas).
Even if people do not share the same explicit philosophy, there are typically some shared basic values that remain, and we all have the same spectrum of feelings and needs. Listening to what others have to say contributes to them feeling understood, which is an extremely important aspect of empathy. Respecting the dignity of others and the process by which they come to particular opinions, honors their capacity to acquire new opinions. Using humor when appropriate tends to connect individuals to the broader reality of the situation at hand. 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 tasks of acquiring self-knowledge and healing one’s own 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 the rest of one’s life. Rational guidance and education are two main aspects of parenting, along with lots of 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.
One of the biggest problems for parents these days is the Welfare State, in which governments provides so-called services for “free,” in exchange for taxation, regulations, and continually inflated and devalued fiat currency. Government schooling basically rules the world currently, and it works to strip parents of their responsibility to educate their children or to delegate that responsibility to persons or organizations of their choice in a free marketplace. This commonly leaves parents dissatisfied and teachers frustrated. But more tragically, it truly shortchanges kids. For most children, the idea of learning things based on a real interest in the subject and a sheer joy in learning itself (rather than because teachers assigned it) becomes quite foreign as they progress in school.
The goal of rearing happy, respectful, thoughtful, and creative children of high self-esteem can be achieved by seeing children as individuals with rights too. Parents can meet their children’s need for respect, rather than have them obey out of duty or fear. Children are essentially little people; they have thoughts, feelings, and sensibilities that are just as important as those of adults. As Maria Montessori noted, the future of humankind resides in children—and in how adults treat them.
personal growth and self-actualization
Personal growth and self-actualization are basically about living well. Not to take steps forward in our personal evolution is to jeopardize opportunities to flourish. Indeed, life is a grand learning experience in which self-development can be prioritized.
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, this means attuning to, understanding, and empathizing with our feelings. We need to learn what’s giving rise to them, identifying the underlying met and unmet needs and, in turn, what this means for our strategies. Remaining in a troubled emotional state without such processing tends to prevent seeing the big picture, the real meaning in life.
We need not stand in our own way with various defense mechanisms, what Internal Family Systems therapy calls “protector parts.” We can unburden various traumatized aspects within ourselves that have been prevented from healing due to uncertainty and fear, as well as dissociation. Self-actualization is about extending the perceived limits of what we can achieve and how we can achieve it. 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.
Nurturing relationships with family, friends, parents, 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 that there’s 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 maintain certain levels of distance, superficiality, aloofness, even hostility, with those they may love. Various motivations can be involved in this process, but the themes of avoiding vulnerability, intimacy, and the potential for loss (and therefore deeper potential conflict and pain) are normally present.
Certainly, we choose different levels and types of intimacy 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, agony, or resentment? Are they based on shared values and complimentary differences, or are they constructed out of tradition or sheer convenience?
In regard to parents and family systems, obviously we have no choice in the matter of their constitution. Such a situation offers each of us a challenge to connect with those whom we may or may not have deliberately befriended in unfamiliar circumstances. We have a choice about whether to understand where individuals with different personalities, life stages, and even values are coming from—to in effect build bridges—or to alienate them by disparaging their worth and seeking out disagreements for disagreement’s sake and harboring resentments.
Since the levels of intimacy that families have to offer are unparalleled, they will tend to remain 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, so we can break intergenerational cycles of trauma, fostering a wonderfully healed world for children and adults alike.
Self-concept arises naturally from our awareness of self. We have an idea of who we are and an idea of 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 our own personal biases. In actuality, we can recognize the way people interact with us. People can convey what they notice about us and what they think and feel about us. Of course, at times others may lack the self-assertiveness to be candid, open and honest about what’s alive in them. This is to the detriment of both parties; one is left in an inauthentic condition, and the other an unaware one.
Nonetheless, everyone has at least a vague image of the ideal person to be. Some people view this image as unattainable or unrealistic. Others go to every end to convince themselves that they have achieved it. They hide the fact that they still have aspects of self to work on. They have yet to genuinely, thoughtfully, and compassionately deal with their “emotional baggage” carried with them from years past, i.e., their developmental trauma.
Various defense mechanisms can arise that prevent full knowledge of the self, knowledge provided either by oneself or by others. Dissociation, denial, repression, projection, displacement, reaction formation, rationalization, evasion, etc. all diminish the search for psychological clarity, understanding, and wholesome integration. At times, it might seem that persons do not want to discover truly who they are (i.e., their real self-concept), perhaps because they feel their character and choices wanting, inadequate, “bad.” Shame can be deeply ingrained in the psyche, so exploring one’s inner world can be daunting, and professional help can remove common blocks to healing and growing.
Yet, no matter the 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 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 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 a vast and complex topic, but it’s a central psychology need that arises from abstract self-awareness. Because we have the ability to reason, to form concepts about reality, about ourselves, and about other concepts, we can formulate a way of understanding this ability that is consistent with our nature and the requirements of living.
First, we need confidence in our mind’s ability to reason and function generally. We need to view ourselves as efficacious organisms, effective in dealing with life’s challenges and coping well with life’s stresses. To lack these beliefs (consciously or subconsciously) or to fake them subverts our capacity to live beneficially and functioning appropriately. Regardless of our intelligence, we can still fully grasp the nature of our abilities as well as our limitations; we can have a realistic view of self.
Second, we need to believe in our fundamental dignity as individual and relational beings. We need to feel worthy of happiness. Subconsciously, we need to assume that we can live wonderful, fulfilling lives, lives worthy of respect. Such self-respect involves understanding that oneself, not others (be they parents, lovers, friends, coworkers, teammates, etc.), is responsible for one’s own happiness and emotional well-being. Such a stance enables us to acquire the skills (including interpersonal skills) necessary to ensure these vital human processes.
Self-exploration is indispensable to understanding our psychology. Until we gain first-hand experience about our subconscious processes, we really haven’t dealt with who we are. While we can agree with numerous true and beneficial ideas and theories, we also need to internalize what they mean for us.
Granted, self-exploration is not something easy to do in a culture that discourages it. Because we are more inclined to take action and to focus on our immediate environment, to pause and look within (i.e., to introspect) can be challenging at times, especially when all sorts of ways to dissociate have been modeled for us. Yet, introspection leads to living with more awareness of what we think, what we feel, and what we need. It is key to living authentically.
An effective strategy to cultivate such a way of life is to engage in psychotherapeutic exercises. Some of course are more useful and appropriate than others in varying contexts. Yet even writing in a journal can aid greatly in becoming more in tune with 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.
Self-image relates to how a person views him or her self, especially in terms of physical appearance and the behaviors connected to it. In this sense, it is a narrower description than self-concept; self-concept subsumes one’s self-image.
Self-image can be assessed by oneself or by others. Sometimes there might not be any congruence between these two. Various defense mechanisms can prevent seeing one’s 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 find that fully admitting the high significance of one’s physical self is too “arrogant” to convey to others. So, in the name of preventing scorn or jealousy from others, he or she may minimize a very 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 accordingly, which fulfills the tragic prophecy. Unprocessed issues of shame are nearly always involved here, many stretch 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 are two different things; they 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.” 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, activity levels, 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, we have trouble seeing the joyous possibilities of life. We also might preclude seeing ourselves in an admirable way, which is vital to positive self-expression.
Our worth as human beings stems from the fact that we are alive. Other living things are not faced with the issue of their worth because they are unable to conceptualize it; they lack an abstract awareness of self and the world. So, we are unique in this regard. Happiness might not come automatically for us, given the many factors in our development and culture, such as domination systems—from dysfunctional families, schools, and religions, to governments. Other people and their institutions might discount our value, in opposition to happiness. As a result, we may end up doing all sorts of troubling things and acting in ways that prevent an embrace of our self-worth.
Self-worth is perhaps the most important issue in psychology. It would be hard to imagine strife or misery in a world in which everyone understood their inherent worth and granted this to 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 with 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 and differentiate. 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 these percepts depends on many factors—for instance, our amount of attention, motivation, cognitive set, and emotional situation. We form various overall perceptions based on these factors. In this sense, perception blends into the process of reason, the process of forming concepts, making assumptions, forming inferences, and so forth.
The term perception is commonly used to imply a purely subjective experience. However, percepts provide us with information about the world, the objective reality that continually faces us.
So, our perceptions can be analyzed rationally, when appropriate. The method of logic and thinking objectively (taking into account all the facts) are indispensable when our senses 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 to the stick itself. Science tells us that the “bending” is a result of light rays traveling through a different medium (air vs. water), thus changing the image. A more complex example would be the perception that someone is not meeting the need for honesty (noticing such things as unusual eye movements, facial expressions, and voice irregularities, as well as statements that contradict facts or prior statements).
Most of what people call “perception,” then, already contains quite a bit of subconscious processing and interpretation. We can search out and understand any biases that may be involved in the perceptual process, as the scientific method instructs. This way our perceptions will not be at odds with what objective reality ultimately reveals.
sense of life
Sense of life is a phrase that pertains to how a person sees the whole experience of his or her life in relation to reality and other people. How does a person interact psychologically with him or herself and with the world? What philosophical premises does a person maintain and express as ways to cope with various life situations? Answers to such questions reflect a person’s sense of life.
The artistic tastes of a person sometimes reveal his or her sense of life, although people can have different reasons for liking the same types of art. Caution is thus advised in these esthetic matters, because motivations can be complex.
Personality is tied intimately to sense of life. How a person acts, thinks, and feels about him or herself, 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 be fearful of, something to be uncertain about, something to cause problems and conflict, something to be dominated, something to be disparaged, something to be resented. Needless to say, to enjoy, explore, and understand life all need to be high on our list.
By developing a brilliant sense of life, we are most able to adapt to changes, overcome difficulties, and express ourselves with authenticity and equanimity. We thus see the world as a place of wonder in which to actualize our potential and share our 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 cultures throughout the world about what sexuality means for males and females. Often, we are encouraged (or even coerced) to take on certain roles and follow various social guidelines, whether or not they are desired or rationally justified. Many things in a culture that’s filled with domination systems defy common sense, defy what is reasonable. It is important, then, that we question what our culture tells us. It is important that we think independently, especially when our emotions and experiences run counter to what we are being told.
Regardless of whom we choose to be sexual with, it is helpful to connect our capacity for pleasure to our basic values and standards for long-term fulfillment, which serves our lives and well-being. Not to do so is to risk creating mental conflict, confusion, and anguish, and defenses in response to these emotions, an array of protector parts.
So, 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 an implicit (or even explicit) 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 seek to express values with those they hold dear, experiencing all the pleasures that their bodies provide. Such a belief no doubt arises from mental conflict over the physical pleasure derived from sex and the holding of values that diminish or repudiate such pleasure. Yet another widespread belief is that men, by nature, are primarily interested in sex, usually at the expense of other values. They are supposedly excused from their promiscuous behaviors based on their “nature.” Clearly, this is yet another example of what happens when the pleasures of sex are divorced from the wider context of enduring values and standards of health.
As we seek to educate children in these matters—especially in values that are self-affirming, other-affirming, and life-affirming, rather than dogmatic or self-destructive—we will tend to no longer see the vulgarity, the sundry fetishes, the sadistic and masochistic beliefs and behaviors, the mindless eroticism, and so on that have plagued society for untold centuries. We also will tend to see much less of the inappropriate displays of sexuality (for either rebellious or provocative purposes) and the various Puritanical responses to it. Instead, people can then view sexuality as a wonderfully important component in living a happy life.
Spirituality is a term that has different meanings in religious and secular contexts, so it is important to explicate an objective one. Some may view spirituality strictly as that which pertains to the soul. Such a view immediately raises the question of what the soul is. Many of us were told to take it for granted that we have a soul. Of course, if the term has only a vague definition, open to wide interpretation, then who could disagree? However, if we define soul as an 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: Is there any evidence for this?
Science tells us there is none. So, in order for spirituality to be comprehensible, we need to explain the soul in understandable, empirical terms; we ought not base our claims on hearsay or dogma. When we define soul in terminology that is consistent with what we know about human beings and reality, we discover that it’s really a synonym for mind. And where does the mind come from? It is an attribute of the brain and therefore is dependent on the body; it is caused by the body. Given this, it cannot naturally detach itself from its causality and drift into another realm (such as a “supernatural” one).
Similar to other topics, spirituality is something that we can choose to focus on or choose to avoid (or render less important). Yet, when we see the mind as key to understanding the term—and the mind is our tool of survival—we then realize that cultivation of a spiritual life is important.
Spirituality ought to be viewed as the process or method by which we develop a heightened awareness of our experiences and a broader understanding of our life context—for instance, our place in the vast cosmos. Such a viewpoint helps to make our lives profoundly meaningful; we can become more cognizant of what we are doing and why we are doing it. It also opens the door to recognizing the formally unnoticed aspects of existence, for they are myriad. Moreover, it connects us to our deepest essence, our most inner self, as well as with our genuine emotions. So, the spiritual life is to be cultivated and enjoyed on this planet, in this universe—for this universe is all that we will ever have!
Subconscious mental activity is more difficult to isolate and understand much of the time than conscious mental activity (which sometimes isn’t easy either—just look at the unclear state of philosophy among intellectuals!). Consciousness, being a finite faculty, can only entertain so much input at any given time, so the subconscious operates on the periphery of our awareness. Nonetheless, it serves as the vast reservoir for all our past experiences, our memories, our beliefs, our judgments of ourselves and others, and so on. It’s a huge mental world, to be sure.
Conscious mental awareness is like a projector and screen conveying only part of a huge archive of film. The subconscious at any given time adds to what is being projected, or rather, experienced. For example, as we talk to a person, we may feel a subtle uncomfortable emotion as the conversation moves along. The feeling may be the result of subconscious processing of, for instance, an incident earlier in the day; that is, we may be thinking about something in the back of our mind and having an emotion tied to it. Because we want to have a coherent conversation about the topic at hand, we 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 to a friend.
Such an experience is part of the subconscious aspect of who we are. It is thus important to pay a great deal of respect to this realm of us. We will invariably gain in self-esteem as a result. Parts of our mind in conflict with each other need to be understood and processed, in line with integrating past traumatic experiences.
Values are the things (be they physical or abstract) that we embrace or seek, which give us vitality, a sense of achievement, peace, and satisfaction in life. The phrase “in life” from the last sentence is key: Before we can determine what values to adopt, Ayn Rand stated, we need to determine why we even need them.
Would something be a value if it led to our own destruction? How about the destruction of others? Or the ecosystem in which we exist? What if alleged values led to us sacrificing our own well-being and happiness or what really mattered to us? Indeed, this is the nature of self-sacrifice.
Values need to be in service of our lives and well-being. Thus, they need to honor our distinctive tool of survival, the mind. It is by use of our minds that we are able to function—to make decisions, to plan, to assess experiences and attune to feelings, as well as to attend to facts. Oftentimes, we might not be cognizant of what values we are espousing or pursuing until we examine our ideas and behaviors both logically and in terms of our needs. Such inspection will help us determine if what we have been doing is actually valuable for us (and if it respects the rights of others to pursue values as well).