The Bumpy Journey to Better

Have you always yearned to make the world a better place? Have you always known that would be intimately linked to you striving relentlessly to become a better version of yourself?

Have you struggled to define what better means, or settled on a definition only to question it as your worldview evolves? Have you ever felt perplexed—or even frustrated—at family and friends who think that that’s all very well for you, but are genuinely quite happy with their lives the way they are, thank you very much?

And have you ever felt frustrated at feeling frustrated?

If so, welcome to the club. A quick introduction: I stumbled across Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration just over five years ago, having picked up Living with Intensity1 while searching for resources on gifted adults. As I imagine is true for many of you, I read the book alternating between tears streaming down my face and my brain lighting up with yet another “aha!” moment.

As I read and reflected, I could pinpoint the moment of what must have been my first unilevel disintegrative experience: lying in bed wide awake in the room I shared with my sister growing up and suddenly realising that she probably also thought that the world revolved around her, as did perhaps every other single person—and that that couldn’t possibly be true. Then, quickly moving on through to the multilevel disintegration of Dabrowski’s level III, not being able to sleep at night as I terrified myself (and my sister after crawling into her bed) contemplating the vastness of the universe. What did infinity actually mean across space and time? What were its implications for life and death?

As I gradually pieced together my own ethical framework from the multitude of faiths present in our extended family and the mythologies from the library that I devoured, I developed an awareness of how judgmental I was. I wanted to become more compassionate, but I didn’t see how. And there I’ve been stuck ever since, in the ups and downs of spontaneous multilevel disintegration, continuing to stubbornly take out into the light my deepest fears—all those uncomfortable parts of myself—and to have a good hard look at what I want to change.

From Being Worthy to Simply Being

One of the stories that struck me in Living with Intensity was that of Suzanne, recounted by Patricia Gatto-Walden in Chapter 12:

It became clear that Suzanne was suffering from discomfort and guilt that her life had an abundance of blessings. She did not know how to reconcile her wealth—across all aspects of her life—with the lack, pain, and hardships that other people endured. She felt unworthy of such a blessed life, certain that she was no different from the poorest individual on the street. […] Knowing deep within that she was not more worthy than the next person, she wrestled with the inequality of life. She questioned the meaning of her life, the purpose of her existence, and her relationship with “All That Is.”

Replace Suzanne with Selena and you have my story. From that place of guilt came a persistent inner voice telling me that I have a responsibility to not waste my “privilege,” to always use it in service of making myself a better person and using that to make the world a better place. Yet like Suzanne, until very recently (and I’m not convinced that I’ve completely shaken it) “I was [also] quite attached to being recognized/standing out in some way.” In other words, of being—and being seen as—special.

I’m acutely aware of the need, particularly when I feel so passionately about a subject, to resist the pull towards dogma. To hold an opinion on what better looks like and to head confidently in that direction while remaining humble, keeping an open mind.

It’s not surprising: measurement and comparison is the dominant narrative in the societies that I’ve lived in so far. People are “worth” more or less because of what they have done, or what they can do. And when you come out by most existing measures on top, it’s tempting to hold on to that narrative. The problem with that narrative for me is that there are always winners and losers, which feels fundamentally unjust given the huge part that luck plays in the lives that we live, starting with the genetic material and the environment into which we are born, including, crucially, the emotional nourishment and skills imparted upon us—or not—by our earliest caregivers.

I’ve been gradually nudging my cognitive worldview towards a place that finally feels right: one in which we see every person as a beautifully imperfect human, who simply “is.” Towards a narrative of compassion—of turning people into trees—and of interdependence. Of the world needing each of us, exactly as we are. One of the reasons it feels right is that I don’t currently see a more suitable perspective from which we will collectively achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. That said, I’m acutely aware of the need, particularly when I feel so passionately about a subject, to resist the pull towards dogma. To hold an opinion on what better looks like and to head confidently in that direction while remaining humble, keeping an open mind.

Seems like quite a reasonable place from which to progress on my transcendent journey, does it not? Transforming my own mindset while viewing with understanding and equanimity those who are not so inclined (or at least less so).

Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that integrating that cognitive worldview into all the ways that I actually show up in this world isn’t quite so simple.

Bridging the Gap Between Mindset and Behaviour

My idealised concept of how I evolve goes something like this:

ingest new information check with existing worldview
if no match, decide whether to discard information or to adjust concerned section of worldview
if concerned section adjusted, check consequences on connected sections
adjust all connected sections appropriately implement

My lived experience is that everything usually goes along rather nicely until I hit the “implement” phase, where it can sometimes feel like trudging through a boggy swamp—without gaiters. Despite the seductive elegance of mindset change being the prerequisite for behavioural change, it’s becoming increasingly clear—whether you look at the bountiful academic or popular literature—that behaviour can shape mindset as much as mindset shapes behaviour. Mindset change is necessary for achieving sustainable behavioural change, but far from sufficient.2

Being originally trained as a theoretical physicist, I can’t resist inserting one “equation” that, for me at least, neatly sums up many of those self-help bestsellers:

B  =  (P , E)

That is, Behaviour is a function of both the Person and its Environment. This was postulated over eighty years ago by Kurt Lewin,3 widely regarded as the founder of modern social psychology. That your environment, especially other people, can have such a strong impact on your behaviour can be counter-intuitive given the emphasis in mainstream Western thinking (as compared to, say, Eastern or oral wisdom traditions) on the individual rather than the relational aspect of being human.4 But most of the evidence points in this direction, from Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment in 19635 to the more recent notion of choice architecture.6

So how do I apply all this to my desire to shift from the narrative of measurement and comparison into the narrative of compassion and interdependence? How do I move away from judgment and towards compassion?

Something that has helped me has been seeing this not as an “end-state” to be achieved, but a daily practice, a way of being. And so I practise, acting my way into the person I want to become—acting “as if.” For example, after several years of dabbling with different mindfulness practices—including a one-week retreat in a monastery—and learning about the science behind them,7 I now have a toolbox of daily exercises that are gradually helping me to be more present, to notice my thoughts. Consider this topical and completely hypothetical (ahem) thought: “How can they only focus on the inconvenience for them being stuck working from home with the kids running around in their house with a garden when there are people so much worse off who need our help?”

Once I’ve acknowledged the impulse, it quiets down. I then have enough mental space to activate curiosity: What might their world look and feel like that it makes complete sense for them to think that way?

When I notice this judgmental thought and the accompanying feeling of indignation arising in me, more often than not, I pause. I take a deep breath. I say to my indignant self: Hello, I see you, thank you for caring so much. Once I’ve acknowledged the impulse, it quiets down. I then have enough mental space to activate curiosity: What might their world look and feel like that it makes complete sense for them to think that way? And from that posture of possibility rather than judgment, it’s easier for me to accord them the benefit of the doubt, to look for the mitigating circumstances (see equation above), to assume as the default that they are doing the best that they can in this moment. To clarify, the objective of this thought experiment is not to find a way to agree with their position. What it does is to generally bring me a little closer to seeing—and feeling—the commonality between us, to the understanding that if I had lived their life, I might also behave in a similar way.

Something else I do is to actively structure my environment to prompt me to practise. This includes being deliberate, within the limits obviously of what is in my control, about the people—physical and virtual—to whom I give my attention. The old saying “choose your friends wisely” has more than a grain of truth to it. In today’s world, we should even expand it: choose your friends/social media feeds/email subscriptions/podcasts/etc. wisely. I try, on balance, to allocate more of my attention to people and programs modelling the world I want to see.8

In all of this, discovering that I’m not alone in judging others and in feeling this indignation—that it’s a trait that often comes with a rainforest mind—has been deeply healing. It’s not that it’s an excuse for the behaviour; rather, it has helped me truly see myself as I am, to accept what is, without judgment (or at least as little as I can manage in the moment).

The Delicate Balance of Acceptance and Change

Accepting what is has been one of my hardest struggles in truly adopting my new worldview of compassion and interdependence. After all, how can you make things better when you’re so accepting of the status quo? How would I ever make myself better if I accepted myself as I am, deftly rationalising all my less desirable characteristics away?

I had inadvertently positioned acceptance and change as independent of each other, rather than seeing them as interdependent.

A mini-breakthrough came in August last year, during a month-long online workshop9 in which I was intensely exercising my empathy and generosity muscles along with a hundred other people from around the world, each drawn in a different way to making change happen. I suddenly realised that I had done exactly what I had been increasingly rejecting all around me: constructing false dichotomies, apparent paradoxes, either/or’s. I had inadvertently positioned acceptance and change as independent of each other, rather than seeing them as interdependent. I finally saw acceptance not as a cop-out to make myself feel better, but as a means of moving beyond the paradigm of right and wrong, towards what is and isn’t at any given moment. By seeing what actually is and isn’t without bearing judgment, I don’t have to waste energy on trying to silence my inner critic;10 I can instead focus wholeheartedly on getting on with the change I want to create. And I reach that state by acknowledging my inner critic, just as I did for my indignation, thanking it for speaking up to protect me and telling it that I’ve got this.

That’s all very well for my own journey towards inner peace. But how can I impact others while adopting this stance?

What I’ve learned is that the most effective way to ignite sustainable change in others is through my presence, in the way that I show up for them.

I’ve always seen the potential in people and in situations. And I’ve always felt driven to transform that potential into reality, because, well, who wouldn’t want potential to be realised? It has taken me such a long time—years of failed attempts, frustration, and challenging conversations with my long-suffering sister—to see that what’s better for me isn’t necessarily better for someone else. That, as they say, it takes all sorts to make a world. And it goes hand in hand with holding an opinion on what better looks like without succumbing to dogma.
Just as when the focus is on myself, though, accepting a person or a situation exactly where they’re at doesn’t have to mean giving up on changing them. But it does require seeing that the only person you can ever really change is yourself. It took me years to see this, too. It took even more years to work out how I’m supposed to make the world a better place if the only change I can make is in myself. What I’ve learned is that the most effective way to ignite sustainable change in others is through my presence, in the way that I show up for them. This means understanding that most people find change more unsettling than I do—that they lean away rather than towards their discomfort. It means creating a safe space that meets them where they are, not where I want them to be, and that invites them to step into that discomfort. It means believing in their wisdom: that it is always, as it should be, their choice to accept that invitation. And it means trusting in the exponential power of the ripple effect.

Recently I’ve been feeling like I can finally see the organized disintegration of level IV clearly on the horizon. For so long, it had been merely a blurry dot, fading in and out as I took what still often feels like two strokes forward, two strokes back, on my bumpy journey towards becoming the person I want to be. I’ll leave you with these simple yet profound words of advice from one of my favourite cartoonists, Michael Leunig.11 They’ve sustained me throughout the years and I hope they might inspire you too.

Image courtesy Michael Leunig

Footnotes & References

1 Daniels, S., & Piechowski, M. M. (Eds) (2009) Living with Intensity

2 A recent study focusing specifically on changing personality traits is: Hudson, N. W., Briley, D. A., Chopik, W. J., & Derringer, J. (2019). You have to follow through: Attaining behavioral change goals predicts volitional personality change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(4), 839–857.

3 Lewin, Kurt; Heider, Fritz (Trans); Heider, Grace M. (Trans). (1936). Principles of topological psychology, p.12

4 For an excellent survey of this, I recommend reading How the world thinks by philosopher Julian Baggini (2018), especially Part 3.

5 If you’re already familiar with the experiment, this episode of NPR’s wonderful Hidden Brain podcast provides a fascinating new insight (there’s also a link on the webpage to Milgram’s original paper).

6 For example, making organ donation opt-out rather than opt-in to increase the number of organs donated. Choice architecture was first attributed to economist (and 2017 Nobel Prize winner) Richard Thaler and legal academic Cass Sunstein and popularised in their 2008 book Nudge.

7 A Liberated Mind by clinical psychologist Steven Hayes (2019) is one of the more useful books I’ve come across recently.

8 One of my long-time favourites is On Being.

9 Seth Godin’s altMBA. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to become more effective at making things better.

10 Different authors give this different names. Here’s a sample: Lizard Brain or Imposter (Seth Godin), Resistance (Steven Pressfield), Dictator Within (Steven Hayes), Social Survival Mammoth (Tim Urban).

11 You can find more of his work here.

Selena is an Antipodean happily lost in Europe who has dabbled in string theory and the nuclear power industry. She's currently experimenting with how to morph our world into one where we all earn enough, doing work that matters, living undivided lives.