Meeting in the Forrest of Fulfillment
You may have met Rabbit, Bear, and Fox in previous blogs. We now find them on a pilgrimage in the Forrest of Fulfillment to meet the Tree of Wisdom in their search for the happiness that has eluded them for so long.
Clever Fox engages Scared Rabbit and Angry Bear in small talk amounting to this is the sound of my voice, I’m friendly, let me hear the sound of your voice. The mood suddenly changes when the Fox impulsively says to the Rabbit, “I used to be like you, but I got over it.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Rabbit.
“Fear! You’re obviously a Scared Rabbit.”
“You would be scared too feeding on grass with your back turned to a dangerous world,” said the Rabbit.
“No! I would be alert. I would be vigilant. I would not be afraid,” said the Fox
“What’s the difference,” asked the Rabbit.
“You must learn. You have the advantage of strong legs and can run fast. The fear adds nothing. Vigilance adds everything, and you can’t have both,” said the Fox.
“When my head is down I’m vulnerable. I’m thinking something awful could happen to me. Besides, I can’t control my fear,” said the Rabbit.
“I’ll bet you’re scared when your head is up. If so, that’s all the more reason to control fear. You’ll have to dig deeper,” said the Fox.
Feeling left out, the Bear asked the Fox to say something about his problem.
“You’re demanding and have problems with assertion. It’s always a negative correlation,” said the Fox
“Negative correlation?” responded the Bear
“Yes. When assertion goes down anger goes up and when assertion goes up anger does down. You remind me of the Bear who demands the drunk be sober rather than walking around him. Enough! Fear and anger are garden variety problems that don’t interest me. My problem is deeper and more worthy of consideration by the Tree of Wisdom than yours,” said the Fox.
“Nothing is deeper than fear,” said the Rabbit.
“What could be deeper than anger?” asked the Bear.
“This much I know: I had a dream,” said the Fox
“So?” responded the Bear.
“It told me to ‘think about thinking, and the thinking I do when I don’t think about the thinking I do,” said the Fox
“Is that all?” said the Rabbit.
“What does it mean?” asked the Bear
Enter The Tree of Wisdom:
Shafts of sunlight illuminating the path before them suddenly gave way to a cloud followed by a gust of wind causing the trees to bow. Then a voice said, “the Rabbit loves to be a Rabbit, the Bear loves to be a Bear, and the Fox loves to be a Fox, and when a strong wind blows the tree must bow,” and the trees bowed before the wind...all but the one that spoke.
“Come closer. How may I help you?”
The Rabbit was too scared to respond. The Bear mumbled nervous and inaudible demands. The Fox spoke without the catastrophic thinking of the Rabbit or the demand thinking of the Bear. He praised the Tree of Wisdom in hopes of receiving special attention. He was ignored as the Tree of Wisdom declared his intension to help the three of them with one healing.
“Surely you don’t mean…are you suggesting my problem is their problem and their problem is my problem,” asked the Fox.
Common Ground Revealed:
The Tree of Wisdom responded, “Now that I have your attention, I must adjust your expectations. I cannot help you today, this week, or this month; but I will give you powerful new ideas to live by that will help you when they come alive within you.”
“How do I make that happen,” asked the Rabbit.
“Practice, Practice, Practice: See me as your coach. See yourself as players in the game of life with high stakes, including happiness. My time with you is brief, and you’re with you forever. Take what I have to offer, and make the most of it. In the meantime, I hold you responsible to correct me if I’m wrong concerning the details of your individuality and uniqueness; since my time with you is limited to sharing the outline of tomorrow’s healing today.
“First, to basics: In spite of what the Fox might think, what I have to say applies to all of you. The happiness you seek doesn’t exist out there for the taking. It is a byproduct of being and becoming, which is to say living and flourishing. If you make happiness your goal, it will be lost in the mist of past, present and future. Avoid the attitude problem of needing happiness. This loses happiness. Wanting happiness finds happiness. This distinction rules. Don’t allow your hand to freeze on the throttle of determination. Wanting is winning. Needing is defeat. Before I return to values, remember that you don’t have values, you are your values and you are prisoners of those values. What do you think are the most important values or valuations?
Rabbit, Bear and Box said nothing. Pausing for what seemed like minutes, the Tree of Wisdom continued:
“Existential values or values concerning self or personhood are organized around three centers of valuation dedicated to feeling, doing and thinking. These centers are so powerful they become imprinted on all behavior including personality such that you end up with the Feeler-Self, Doer-Self and Thinker-Self coming together to form the ego of identity and personhood. These centers of cognitive processing vary as to sensitivity, balance, order of influence, and plasticity; all of which have existential consequences (i.e., involve self, identity, personhood, being and becoming). They are studied by axiological science and psychology and they enable and shape important behaviors such as making-work, making-love, and the pursuit of vital, absorbing interests.
“Because you’re fallible creatures, remember problems don’t ‘kill’ happiness; it is how you handle problems that can ‘kill’ happiness. Remember also that there is always more right with you than wrong with you, and that all that is right with you can heal all that is wrong with you.
“Besides the values involved with self-evaluation, there are the values behind conclusions. These are important because a conclusion is where thinking stops...and you act as if. This is not always safe or desirable. In Addition, values and valuations are distorted by culturally conditioned habits of black-and-white thinking (i.e., two-valued logic) called the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle.
“I need an example,” said the Fox
“If I were to say you’re not a good Fox, you might immediately conclude you’re a bad Fox. If I think you’re not successful, you might jump to the conclusion you’re a failure. This 'bipolar reasoning' is a an example of linguistic determinism that distorts values, valuations, and thinking. Given the tendency of the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle to corrupt our value-vision and thinking, we need to cultivate an awareness of it. Making matters worse, is the interaction of the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle with the Fallacy of Contingent Worth producing what clinicians commonly call "low self-esteem." The rest of the story is revealed by asking 'must you be a self-evaluator?'
“What are you worth? What is the value of a creature like you? Whenever you succeed or fail, aren’t you inclined to judge yourself good and bad respectively? This is self-evaluation in action and it is the unfinished business of everyone, including collectives like cultures, communities, nations, and the profession of psychology which has failed to rigorously explore the frontier of self-evaluation from a scientific rather than purely clinical perspective. This points to the importance of the science of values being developed and applied at centers in the U.S., Germany, and Mexico.
I will comment on self-esteem when I discuss the third choice to judging yourself as interinsically good or bad based on extrinsic successes and failures. Have you any idea what the third choice might be? Do you suppose it could involve 'killing' ego?
“It must involve fear,” said the Rabbit.
“It’s got to involve anger,” said the Bear.
“Neither. It’s deeper and involves thinking if my dream is right,” said the Fox
“Self-esteem is the "ultimate selfie.” It is an ‘axiological-selfie’ rather than a ‘photo-selfie’ having existential (i.e., life and death) consequences that prop-us-up one minute and tear-us-down the next. Such is the fragility and danger of the self-esteem selfie as it is commonly understood and practiced. The self-acceptance selfie is much safer. Values also function as the building blocks of thought-styles and conclusions involved with the maintenance of the sense of the adequate, competent, and familiar self (i.e., the mind's psychostasis analogous to the body's homeostasis).
"In the case of the Rabbit, we see catastrophic-thinking producing fear. In the case of the Bear, we see demand-thinking producing anger...in the absence of assertion skills (secondary to the presence of assertophobia (i.e., fear of assertion), and intimacyphobia (i.e., fear of emotional intimacy). In these examples, valuational-styles produce self-defeating emotions like primary anxiety and anger as well as secondary anxiety and anger (i.e., getting anxious over being anxious; getting angry over being angry).
"This emotional escalation or inflation can trigger excesses and confusion around doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, the right thing for the wrong reasons, and the right thing for the right reasons. Heightened anxiety and fear also results in the interesting calculus of fear where one impulsively chooses the lesser of two fears rather than engage in critical thinking and problem solving. The many forms of anti-self, anti-social behaviors that result can be made worse by the presence of molecular brain disease ineracting with the axiological mind disease we're discussing.
"The core values of identity and self-evaluation are influenced by the "forces" of cultural conditioning that encourages you to give yourself a 'report card' based on your successes and failures.The result is some level of enhanced or diminished self-esteem struck by the ego processing conditional self-esteem. The fragility of this contingent, self-esteem ego is the dark side of many personalities.
“Why view self-esteem so negatively,” asked the Fox.
“The short answer is because it is the product of the Fallacy of Contingent Worth that builds 'heavens' out of successes and 'hells' out of failures, and consigns you to anticipatory anxiety over how long the success can last.
“My dream told me I would end up thinking about thinking. I see how thinking with values builds a sense of self...for better or worse. Thinking about thinking is the source of cleverness among Foxes, but I never imagined it had anything to do with happiness. I’m ready to listen to you when you say the three of us share a problem," said the Fox.
“The proper handling of your ‘existential selfie," or "axiological selfie,’ is your ticket to the good life with happiness, but it can just as well fail you. Let me explan. As for the question ‘must you be a self-evaluator,’ my answer is yes and no. Yes, because of the strong influences of nature (i.e., biological evolution), and nurture (i.e., cultural conditioning). No because there is a third, best choice, beyond giving yourself a report card based on some sort of success or failure. The choice of 'killing ego,' (i.e., the self-esteem ego) is a theoretical possibility; but isn't realistic. This leaves you with having to manage troublesome self-esteem as best you can, while strengthening the alternative to self-esteem; namely self-acceptance.
Self-Esteem vs. Self-Acceptance:
“Your task, and you would better work at it, is to build up the good ego of self-acceptance and marginalize, minimize, and weaken the bad ego of self-esteem. Ironically, weakening ego strengthens ego in this case. This makes sense when you consider the learned self-acceptance ego is the alternative to your culturally conditioned self-esteem ego. The ego of self-esteem is the ego of contingent or conditional worth. Most muddle through life with this primitive ego; but would do far better without it. It works best for the very strong without flaws and that eliminates most everyone.
“The ‘bad guy’ of self-esteem is cognitive processing based on the logic of ‘a good deed is a good me and a bad deed is a bad me.’ The ‘good guy of ‘self-acceptance’ is cognitive processing based on the logic of ‘you are good and worthwhile because you are you, you are alive, and you exist’
Self-esteem is dependent on behavioral outcomes. Self-acceptance is independent of behavioral outcomes. This existential correction is needed in today's complex world of many moving parts that change very rapidly. Self-acceptance amounts to the unconditional acceptance of self and the independent valuation of one's traits and behaviors. This means redirecting values and valuations away from self, identity or personhood to traits and behavior. This nullifies the Fallacy of Contingent Worth and the impact of the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle upon self-evaluation.
“I don’t get it,” said the Bear
“Again, simply think of self-esteem as creating a false ‘heaven’ out of success and a false ‘hell’ out of failure; dooming the self to bouncing back and forth between the 'horns' of self-evaluation. The belief system of contingent worth can render the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ unbearable to the point of unleashing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (i.e., Conquest, War, Famine, and Death) upon individuals and collectives. Committing the Fallacy of Contingent Worth predisposes individuals and nations to levels of humiliation capable of triggering mental illness and war.
Thus, the alternative to historically conditional self-esteem is learned, unconditional self-acceptance. This is far from splitting hairs. Self-acceptance resets or redirects valuation away from self to behavior. This action translates as ‘I’m not my traits or behavior. They are not me, but I am responsible for them because I chose life over death, sanity over insanity, health over sickness, and happiness over suffering.’
“Atavistic and perverse self-esteem is often seen as a good thing reflecting the ignorance of many and the failure of psychology to properly and more deeply explore its meaning, I suggest you train yourself to practice self-acceptance and remain on guard against the dangers of recurring, “misplaced and misdirected self-evaluation.” Practice the belief that you are “good and worthwhile because you are you, you are alive, and you exist’ until it begins to come alive within you. Make this your mantra for life knowing it will take time for this 'emotional re-education' to take hold of you, and even longer to reach the wider world.
“Values are important to your survival and this existential correction concerning the presence and exercise of the values of self-evaluation is long overdue. Finding happiness is favored by practicing unconditional ‘intrinsic goodness’ without resorting to the "crutch" of conditional ‘extrinsic goodness’ (i.e., Compensatory Doer-Goodness), or conditional ‘systemic goodness’ (i.e., Compensatory Thinker-Goodness).
"The self of personhood nested within the "Feeler-Self" (i.e., intrinsic self) cannot be valued. This "Feeler," "Intrinsic," or "Existential Self" must be seen as having no-value or infinite-value because it is a part of nature or the cosmos. They are what they are! The self is beyond valuation even as it interacts with Doer and Thinker dimensions of value without becoming them.
"Under the influence of self-esteem, when the Feeler-Self is threatened it looks to the Doer and Thinker values for compensation and validation. Sadly, Doer and Thinker values contribute to the construction of the self-esteem ego within the Feeler-Self. If the Feeler-Self is based on the alternative ego of self-acceptance, it remains more alert and vigilant as a problem solver. This is the goal, but in the real world distancing the Feeler-Self from Doer (i.e., extrinsic) and Thinker (i.e., systemic) values and behaviors is hard to achieve. It is difficult, short of killing the self-esteem ego which is based on Doer and Thinker values and valuations and embracing the self-acceptance ego. The struggle (i.e., cognitive tension) between the stronger ego of self-esteem and the weaker ego of self-acceptnce makes it a game of inches. Yet, existential progress in this respect helps to clear a path to happiness. With practice, this enables the Rabbits of the world to be alert and vigilant without being afraid and the Bears of the world to be assertive without anger.
I hope I've encouraged you to think about self-evaluation, and leave you with the Zen-Thought that goes “where the self-rating Ego was there shall the Person be,” which is one psychologist’s revision of Freud’s “where Id was, there shall Ego be.”
© Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.
Historical Note: The concept of self-esteem is historically associated with Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D. The concept of self-acceptance is historically associated with Albert Ellis, Ph.D. In the interests of full disclosure, Dr. Nathaniel Branden is a friend of mine, and my clincial post-doctoral internship was under Dr. Albert Ellis. My interest in the concepts of self-esteem and self-acceptance developed during the course of my research testing the validity of philosopher Robert S. Hartman's contributions to the study of values...contributions that speak to the concerns of clinical psychologists treating patients.
Drawing an Analogy: Attempting to understand ego in relation to self-evaluation is difficult because there is no Theory of Self. In this regard, I find the comments of Professor Chris Chyba (Princeton University) concerning life in "outer space" revealing. Professor Chyba believes it is difficult to discuss extraterrestrial life because there is no Theory of Life. He compares the situation to Leonardo da Vinci's attempt to understand water five hundred years ago when there was no Theory of Atoms and Molecules. Our effort to discuss ego and self-evaluation, without a Theory Self and Ego, is like that. Yet, we are better off theoretically speaking: we have philosopher Hartman's Theory of Value, supported by psychologist and biologist Pomeroy's values research, axiological psychology and clinical experience to work with.