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Self-Knowledge Each Day

Learning to Debrief Yourself

Psychologists, psychiatrists, and others in the healing and helping professions have known for years that they must debrief themselves at the end of each day. Otherwise, pressures would build up within themselves that might "psychologically contaminate" their family, friends, and co-workers with the negative experiences they had encountered during the day.

What they have learned and do applies to all of us. Whether one is in the helping professions, is a single parent, in a stressful job, or is dealing with a myriad of other difficult challenges in life, debriefing can relieve stress and increase self knowledge in ways that increase one's resilience and the joys one takes from life.

It is very easy to move through life-even the most service-oriented of lives-in such a compulsive, driven way that we feel out of control. When we take out time to reflect on who we are and what we are doing we often see how "unfree" we have become in so many ways. In his most classic work, physician and Russian spiritual leader, Anthony Bloom puts it in a way that is easy to imagine:

There is a passage in Dickens' Pickwick Papers which is a very good description of my life and probably also of your lives. Pickwick goes to the club. He hires a cab and on the way he asks innumerable questions. Among the questions, he says, "Tell me, how is it possible that such a mean and miserable horse can drive such a big and heavy cab?" The cabbie replies "It's not a question of the horse, Sir, it's a question of the wheels', and Mr. Pickwick says "What do you mean?" The cabbie answers "You see, we have a magnificent pair of wheels which are so well oiled that it is enough for the horse to stir a little for the wheels to begin to turn and then the poor horse must run for its life!"

Bloom then adds by way of commentary on this: "Take the way we live most of the time. We are not the horse that pulls, we are the horse that runs away from the cab in fear of its life." The bottom line is: we can count on losing perspective and deluding ourselves if time is not devoted to reflection on our thoughts, behavior and affects.

Self-awareness is an ongoing, dynamic undertaking that requires daily attention. When we have such a process in place we can become more attuned to the rhythm of our personality and have our "psychological fingers" on the pulse of where we are emotionally with respect to an issue, person, challenge or the general thrust of where our life is moving. It is based on clarity: clarity about our feelings, beliefs, actions, and reactions. The process requires energy and discipline.

To accomplish this, we need to be aware of the ebb and flow of our reactions so we can become more sensitive to the subtle inconsistencies in our affect (i.e. experiences of sadness, depression, happiness, etc.), cognitions (ways of thinking, perceiving and understanding), and actions. This provides us with a link to some of our motivations and mental agendas that lie just beyond awareness-what some would refer to as our "preconscious" or un-examined schemata (beliefs). To be in a position for such an appreciation of ourselves, time must be taken to identify anything in the way we live that is incongruent so we can seek to understand the reasons for the difference and achieve greater clarity.

Clarity is a process by which we must be willing to look at how we too may be denying, minimizing, rationalizing, or hiding things from ourselves. Although we often say that we want to see ourselves and our situation as they truly are, conflict often arises when this happens because the responsibility then falls on us to be aware of all of our own agendas-including the immature ones-and improve our critical thinking.

Thinking that we do things for only one reason is naïve. In most cases there are a number of reasons-some immature, others mature-that we do things. Since the ones we don't like to acknowledge tend to remain beyond our awareness, clarity calls on us to uncover and make creative efforts to embrace all of them. Through this awareness, chances will increase that the defensive motivations will atrophy while the healthy outlook is given the "psychological space" to grow and deepen. However, to accomplish this goal, we must first accept that we are all defensive in some unique way. Such an admission is an excellent beginning because it doesn't put us in the position of asking: "Are we or aren't we?" Instead, it moves it out of the black and white situation and into the gray areas where most of us live psychologically. When we look at all the reasons why we react to situations in the way we do, we can begin to appreciate why people react to us in the way that they do. Otherwise, we will remain puzzled, consider ourselves misunderstood, and project most of the blame outward so as never to learn what the dynamics of our behavior are and how to unravel them in any given situation.

Clarity calls on us to recognize our agendas, face our own fears, understand the games we play with others, lessen our defensiveness, develop new coping skills, and create alternative ways to deal with stressful situations. Yet to do this, we have to be honest. We also have to appreciate that this can have a positive domino effect in our life because by moving through the resistance we have, we create more opportunity for growth and change. Moreover, when we start focusing on understanding individual interactions, larger questions open up as to whether we as clinicians are getting enough rest or leisure, the right balance of time alone and with good friends, and whether we are setting appropriate limits in all aspects of our life. It is important to recognize that the self is a limited entity which can be depleted if we don't involve ourselves seriously in a process of self care that includes self-knowledge.

Through simple, periodic, self-questioning we can better see our motivations, fears, and interpersonal style more clearly. The more this is accomplished, the more we will almost automatically withdraw our projections, take control of our lives and-in the process-reduce unnecessary chronic and acute stress.

The problem is that as aware adults, we take for granted that we do this as a matter of course. Unfortunately, with busy schedules, such time for structured self-awareness often isn't undertaken as often and regularly as it should be. This can develop into a real problem-especially when we are confronted with failures, as we certainly will be, given the intense nature of some of our interactions people who like us, sometimes experience serious emotional, medical, financial, and social difficulties in our stressful, uncertain world.

Critical thinking helps us to not only what is going on around us, but also to recognize our own agendas, negative emotions, attitudes, motivations, talents, and growing edges. This allows us not only have a greater grasp of reality but also stops the drain of psychological energy it takes to be defensive or protect our image. Since critical thinking is not always natural (although we may think it is) it takes discipline, a willingness to face the unpleasant, and a stamina that sustains us when we don't grow or gain insight as quickly as we'd prefer.

As persons with full lives requiring many decisions, the types of questions we must be willing to ask ourselves as critical thinkers are:

Am I willing to avoid seeing things simply in black and white and entertain ambiguity in life?

Can I appreciate that the "answer" or "diagnosis" I now offer for the challenges in my life is always tentative?

Am I able to entertain the possible as well as the probable without undue discomfort?

Do I need to come to a quick solution or take one side of an issue because I lack the intellectual stamina that encourages an open mind?

Am I so uncomfortable with personal rejection, a tarnished image, or failure that I capitulate when others disagree with me?

Am I willing to "unlearn" what I have learned that is not useful anymore and be open to new techniques and approaches?

Do I realize the obvious and less noticeable ways that I resist change? Am I open to seeing my emotions and extreme reactions as red flags that can often indicate that I am holding on because of fear, stubbornness, or some other defensive reason?

The willingness to be a critical thinker (and face questions like the ones above) takes not only motivation but also involves an appreciation of how resistant most of us are much of the time without knowing it. As a result, to face these questions, we must also de facto, face our natural resistance to change as well. However, given the power of true self-knowledge, it is certainly worth the effort.

Dr. Robert Wicks received his doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia, is on the faculty of Loyola University Maryland and the author of BOUNCE: LIVING THE RESILIENT LIFE (Oxford).

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