I thought I’d talk about some insights that I have learned into improving interpersonal relations and yourself. I’m just riffing here, so apologies if I get a bit ranty about prevailing social trends.
One of the best things I learned in counselling training was how not to give advice. It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?! But learning to really listen to another person and develop a therapeutic relationship is all about getting beneath the surface of expected social interaction. Have you ever noticed when you tell someone about a problem you’re having that they immediately suggest solutions? Even if you didn’t ask for them? And then you find yourself explaining all the reasons why that wouldn’t work or maybe you’ve already tried what they suggest?
Because usually, don’t you find?, you aren’t looking for advice, you just want to get it off your chest, share your troubles so they’re less of a burden (as you should, because it helps!). And everyone wants to help each other. That’s nice! But the solutions offered are not about you; only you know what works for you in your particular situation. The person giving advice is talking about what they might do, how they might try and solve this (to them) very theoretical and imaginary problem if it were them. [Insert subjunctive here.]
A good counsellor breaks the expected pattern of interaction, by not offering a step-by-step guide on what to do, but rather allowing the person to explore possibilities and come to their own conclusions. It’s quite arresting when someone diverts from the usual social rules like that! So I am trained in refraining from this automatic response of offering a solution. Plus, I’m naturally disinclined to tell you what to do, instead giving you an example from my own experience and hoping that you’ll find that useful.
On a broader scale, it seems these days that everyone is constantly telling everyone else how they should live. And everyone else is constantly looking for advice on how life should be lived. What’s the best way??? Get up at 5am, drink a freshly made detox juice, tell your reflection some affirmations, and plan your list of achievements for the day? 101 Ways to Live Your Life to the Fullest*.
It’s good that we share experience and necessary to learn from others, but my advice for a life well lived would be [oh the irony!]:
- Be open but cynical.
- Know yourself (©400 BC).
- Be kind to others.
That’s it. Does anything more need to be said? Your life is insignificant and meaningless, but you’re here so you may as well make it pleasant for you and the people around you, because that is all that matters.
What is personal development for? I keep coming across people talking about growth: what is growth anyway? Is it just increased knowledge and skills? Dynamic Skill Theory notes the cognitive stages of learning, where over time and repetition bits of information become complex systems. The growth here is literal; new connections are made in the brain. This is clearly an excellent aim, but I’m not sure it’s what people really mean when they talk about growing as a person. Rather, I think they mean maturing – developing resilience, self-knowledge and wisdom. But for me, this is a by-product of living, not an aim in itself. Put yourself in challenging situations and/or cope with some of the shit life throws at you and you will grow. But it’s not the primary motivation to do something.
Humanistic psychology puts self-actualisation as the highest need (see Maslow’s 1943/1954 hierarchy of needs below), fulfilling one’s potential, and I guess this is what we are striving for. This is what would ultimately make us fulfilled.
But to what end? As interpreted by the modern personal growth industry, it all feels a bit solipsistic. A bit individualistic. A bit shallow. Improve yourself so you can be great, as an end in itself. It’s like all the efforts some people put into extreme longevity, to have a longer life so they can spend more time doing what they do, which is trying to prolong their life. The snake eats its own tail. What is the point?
My view is that absolutely you should mature. If you get to 60 and you still feel like you did when you were 18, something’s gone wrong! Improve yourself so you can be a better friend/partner/parent/child/sibling/citizen/member of the community. I think this is where my fulfillment lies, but perhaps that’s just me. Although in 1970, Maslow did add a new apex of transcendence to his pyramid, where the individual is motivated by values that go beyond the self.
This video looks so outdated now, huh?! It’s only 10 years old.
This is not what Britney is on about, but I’ve noticed talk recently about shedding ‘toxic people’ from your life. Or rather, to put it in a much more zen way, ‘letting go of relationships that do not serve you’. It’s certainly good for your self-esteem to be surrounded by people who inspire you, have confidence in you, and boost your self-belief. But it’s not all about you, or maybe it is and actually you need to spend some time on introspection rather than blaming people around you for how you feel.
If you are going to drop a relationship because you find it to be damaging, perhaps having the courage to raise the subject and encourage a frank discussion would be more valuable. Perhaps the person doesn’t realise they’re making you feel bad. If they’re critical or negative, wonder why. Maybe they need your help to become aware of their weaknesses, and would be pleased for some support to change. Maybe it would be a humbling experience to be around others very different to how you see yourself. Maybe you’re toxic to them and it’s a reaction. Maybe I’m getting the wrong end of the stick.
And finally, I want to discuss the way productivity has become the most valued aspect of our existence. Society, through popular media, tells us just ‘being’ is not enough: we need to do, to create, to be going somewhere and have ambition to be ‘successful’, whatever that means. There is so much pressure to seize the day, spend every moment fruitfully, and not ‘waste time’ because time is short.
I feel this very keenly and get needlessly frustrated by time I spend idling and procrastinating (though these things are essential for creativity). It must be the capitalist culture in which we live, by which worth is measured by productive output. Time is money, indeed, and it must be spent purposefully.
But is this True? We have totally internalised this, so it feels like the way things should be. The system pervades our very values and beliefs. Contrary to times past when the rich were idle and only the poor and unfortunate always had to be doing stuff, being busy is a virtue. It’s not even just about working. Experiencing is allowed, but it has to be an amazing experience, something on your bucket list.
It’s not wrong, I think there’s just excessive social pressure (not helped by – ‘toxic’ – social media) to live a fantastic and fulfilled life. To be your best you, like just being your everyday you is not enough. And some (most) people don’t have a choice, constrained as they are by circumstances. So life can feel like a failure because expectations are unrealistic.
I’m sure I could go on, but damn this post is long! And it’s the weekend so I need to do some lazing around…
*Although I live by a lot of these values, for some reason stuff like this makes my skin crawl. “Aren’t I great? You should live your life like me, and if you buy my 30-day self-coaching program (only $40!) you can!”. The advice should be, Stop Reading Lists Like This and Spend More Time Navel-Gazing. But that won’t bring in the $$. If it helps you, then fine, but it just makes me want to swear loudly and stomp on the daisies.