Friday, August 27, 2010

Self-Awareness and Growth

Most of us consider self-awareness as essential to the life well-lived. Just consider the wisdom of the Hebrew Proverbs:

“The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out” (Proverbs 20:5).

Similarly, Heidi Patalano writes, “Want to improve your life? You can start by taking a long look at the person in the mirror!” ( According to the God of the Bible, that’s good advice. This is the conclusion to which the Psalmist came:

• “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place”
(Psalm 51:6).

To this effect, Patalano quotes Dr. Roya Rad, “an expert in self-actualization and author of ‘Where Is My Place In This World’”…

• “Spend five to ten minutes every day going through the questions: the baggage of anxiety you carry, the fear…When you see the weaknesses, you open the door to the unconscious. You go toward a ‘shadow place.’ Whatever we don’t like about ourselves, we put in this shadow place and close the door to it. When you open that door and start processing it, you will gain more control.”

Whatever we manage well, we must first understand, and we will fail to understand ourselves if we fail to perceive and accept that “shadow place” and the putrid garbage we’ve quarantined therein. How can we even think of doing problem-solving, if we refuse to see the deep-seated problems? Besides, keeping our garbage segregated in the “shadow place” requires a lot of energy and internal strife. How much better to simply accept ourselves the way we are – warts and manure – and to be at peace!

However, I see two serious problems with Rad’s prescription. The reason that we have hidden away our ugliness in the “shadow place” is because we can’t bear to see it. Spending “five to ten minutes every day going through various questions” is not going to make us less reticent about confronting ourselves. We might gain some insight about our triggers – the situations that make us angry or fearful – and learn to avoid them. However, this doesn’t go deep enough. We remain unwilling to see our utterly self-centered script that beckons our angry reaction when we are “wronged.”

Let me try to give an example of our scripts – “If my wife truly loves me, she will not criticize me.” Meanwhile, she has her own script – “If my husband loves me, he will appreciate the wisdom of my words.”

Regarding these scripts or rules, Aaron Beck, MD, writes:

“Such marriage rules are unrepealable, non-negotiable obligations that are often imposed without the spouse’s knowledge of their existence—and certainly without his or her ever having agreed to them. These rules are seen as rights, and then easily evolve into demands.” (“Love is Never Enough,” 76)

Indeed, it goes deeper than rules or scripts. These are undergirded by demands! “I must be respected” or “I must be loved, and you must love me.” And when our demands and requirements are violated, we respond with hatred, bitterness and jealousy. “I’m going to hurt or reject you if you don’t give me the love and respect I deserve!”

It’s not easy to see these things. We don’t want to see them. They’re too infantile, nasty and self-centered. They don’t affirm the image we’ve created for ourselves as generous, giving, and caring people.

Rad claims that “When you open that door and start processing it, you will gain more control.” However, I think that this is a product of wishful thinking. Seeing ourselves as we truly are is strongly associated with depression. It’s just too painful! Yes, there are reams of evidence that depressed people see themselves more accurately than do “normal” people, but a strong dose of self-reality is more than we can handle.

We humans want to build our self-esteem and not see ourselves as we truly are. I think that this is why I’ve never seen a psychologist advertise his/her services by promising, “I will help you to see yourself as you truly are.” Instead, they largely make their money by catering to the demands of the marketplace by building self-esteem and promising reduction of symptomology.

Although I had always thought that I was honest with myself, I now see that I had the same powerful self-righteous denial mechanisms as the rest of humanity. I refused to see myself as I truly was, and I always had to be right. It was always the other person’s fault! When I was criticized, I was sure that I was being victimized, and this was after seeing five highly recommended psychologists and psychiatrists.

It was only the love of Christ over time that enabled me to confront myself. His love finally convinced me that I was safe enough to let down my guard and see the unseeable – my culpability! What a blessing it now is that Anita and I can now freely confess our sins to one another and find hope and restoration! It’s as Jesus promised:

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32).

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