Thrive to live meaningful lives in health and well-being

Occasionally, as during this past week, important insights of potentially universal interest arise from the work in self-exploration in my psychodynamic groups. What we can learn from the detailed work the group members were involved in, is worth sharing for the benefit of a larger audience. For reasons of confidentiality, no identifying details are mentioned of course.

To understand the profound message from this kind of psychological working through, we need to familiarize ourselves with the notion of an open complex system, however intimidating it may initially appear. So let’s put it simply: Like all living things, human beings are open complex systems. This means many things, but in essence, there are specifically two aspects I want to mention in this context: (1) We are organisms that take different forms of energy from the outside world, process that energy for our survival, and return energy in yet other forms back to the outside world. (2) For the organism to be healthy, this energy has to be self-regulated and processed within what is called the window of tolerance, which could also be referred to as the Goldilocks zone of energy processing. This means that the energy that gets processed has to on one hand be intense or strong enough to be perceived by the organism and impact its internal energy flow, but on the other hand also not too intense or strong so that the organism does not get overwhelmed. Energy processing within this Goldilocks zone ensures that we can thrive and maintain health. In this case, we enjoy what is called integration of energy flow. In other words, when we can regulate our internal energy processing within the Goldilocks zone, we move towards integration of our organism’s energy flow, which is experienced as health and well-being. Now here comes a profound scientific insight: When we are not subjected to excessive energy impacts from the outside world that are outside the Goldilocks zone, our organism spontaneously moves towards integration, health, and well-being without us needing to do anything.

Of course, energy impact from the outside world can sometimes exceed the boundaries of the window of tolerance and be either too weak or too strong. When too weak, we tend to fall into different variations of rigidity; when too strong, into chaos; sometimes even a combination of both. In these cases, the central regulation of energy flow becomes compromised, more primitive systems of regulation like the fight/flight/freeze systems located in the reptilian brainstem take over, and the spontaneous energy regulation towards integration located in higher brain centres becomes either compromised or impossible. As a consequence, we become ill, dysfunctional, and diseased. In fact, we can conceptualize all forms of illness and disease, whether physical or psychological, as various energy states of chaos, rigidity, or a combination of both. For example, anxiety would be a state of chaos, depression a state of rigidity, and OCD a combination of both.

Imagine now tearing a leg ligament at the gym. The energy impact would have obviously been outside the Goldilocks zone and your leg is now in a state of chaos. You are in physical pain and therefore unable to walk properly. You are forced to rest your leg and possibly apply various kinds of treatments, from more conservative ones such as ultrasound and physiotherapy to more invasive ones such as a cast or an operation. The forced immobilization required to let the tissue heal decreases the state of chaos and replaces it with rigidity, which through careful and gentle mobilization then has to eventually be dissolved until the organism is able again to regulate its own energy flow within the window of tolerance of integration towards health and well-being.

Like excessive force causing a torn ligament, many people, unfortunately, grew up in family circumstances, which imposed chronically inadequate or excessive psychological energy influences on the child’s fragile organism. This causes children to have to cope outside the psychological Goldilocks zone in constant mental energy states of fight, flight, or freeze, experienced as stress. Parents may have been inattentive and absent, causing children to fall into avoidance states of rigidity; they may have been overly intrusive and controlling, causing them to fall into ambivalent states of chaos; or they may be outright physically and emotionally abusive, causing in their children complex mixed states of chaos and rigidity called complex trauma. Imagine for a moment being like an orchestra as a metaphor for an open complex system. The orchestra is scheduled to play Beethoven’s fifth, but for unfortunate reasons the second violins are striking (dissociation), the trumpets are fed up with the director and decide to play anything they want (chaos) and the first cellos decide to play the same tune like the second cellos (rigidity). Your musical experience would obviously be severely compromised and the fifth symphony would not sound very good. Such is the experience of young adults emerging from compromised childhoods. Their various brain circuitries are not harmoniously connected, sometimes in conflict, sometimes not well connected to each other. The resonant interaction between all circuitries cannot occur, because the higher brain centres do not have a functioning orchestra (integrated brain) to work with. Children and adults end up not being healthy, displaying various kinds of physical, psychological, and social difficulties or illnesses caused by an organism in constant stress and incapable of regulating its energy flow within the Goldilocks zone of integration.

However, applied to our psyche, the example of the leg ligament tear becomes far more complex. To begin with, the torn leg ligament usually forces you to stop and let it heal; the pain is too great and function gets lost. Psychologically, on the other hand, we can continue to cope despite enormous psychological pain, because the pain can be repressed and compensatory thought, feeling, and action patterns can take over allowing us to function. Granted, we may not function at our full potential, yet well enough to dismiss these problems for a while and survive. Our organism is psychologically unable to fully regulate within the Goldilocks zone of energy flow and we bumble along as best we can. Instead of thriving within the window of tolerance, we survive in various combined states of rigidity, chaos, and partial integration, often displaying various kinds of symptoms, from physical symptoms to symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and more.

Most importantly, years of such survival adaptations become eventually psychologically embedded in our sense of self, our sense of who we are. For example, if a 10-year-old child enjoying a healthy and attuned relationship with her parents behaves inappropriately at the breakfast table and accidentally spills the milk just before it is time to go to school, she will get an admonishment regarding her behaviour, and maybe even an encouragement that accidents happen. She will temporarily feel bad about her behaviour as her organism is in a state of partial chaos, then later apologize, and the whole episode will be forgotten as a mistake that could be corrected and repaired. Her sense of who she is, her sense of self was always loved and respected throughout this incident, and only her behaviour was addressed. The child will feel a sense of accomplishment about having been able to overcome adversity, a sense of connection with her parents she experiences as guiding, supportive, and loving, and possibly a sense of better understanding with regards to her unskillful behaviour at breakfast. She will be back within the window of tolerance of energy flow feeling good about herself.

Now imagine the same scenario with a child whose parents are not attuned or even abusive. She will be told that she is useless and stupid as usual, that all she does is disrupt breakfast for everybody else, and she will be punished because she is bad. In this case, her behaviour is confused with who she is, and her very sense of self is being attacked and undermined. The punishment has the effect of subduing and controlling the person as opposed to being a natural consequence that raises awareness about behaviour and strengthens the sense of self. In this case, the child rarely manages to live within the window of tolerance of psychological energy flow, emotional repair is not possible, and she consistently feels stressed and bad about herself. Over the years of such parenting interactions, the child eventually internalizes a sense of self that is deficient and grows into an insecure adult with low self-esteem and various kinds of symptoms of a nonintegrated psyche. In short, it just feels bad to be who one is and all kinds of symptoms appear. But because the person has no external reference point to relate to, she does not know how having a healthy sense of self feels, and the nonintegrated state feels normal. In addition, differentiating between behavior and who one is becomes impossible, and there is no way of recognizing the causal connection between a damaged sense of self and symptoms. The person is at a loss as to what to do about it.

This is where psychotherapy and mindfulness meditation come in. Both being processes, in which healthy relationships are cultivated, and internal psychological distortions are examined, understood in their detailed intricacies, and corrected, people can start to differentiate between their sense of self and behaviour, between who they are and what they do. This paves the way to our capacity to strengthen the fundamental goodness of who we are while improving how we do what we do. The process of working through such long-standing psychological pain moves through four phases that Marlene Van Esch, my co-therapist, helped conceptualize during one of those sessions. When we first start psychotherapy, we suffer and don’t know why, the stage of being unconsciously unskilled. As we begin the process of working through, we become aware of our many distortions, the stage of being consciously unskilled. During this phase of psychotherapy symptoms often seem much worse, even though the person is making progress, and at the same time feels a new, unfamiliar sense of liberation within the pain. With time, as the defensive distortions are being undone and the capacity for skillful action improves, the person enters the stage of being consciously skilled and feels much better. Finally, when this state of well-being becomes a habit, the person enters the last stage of being unconsciously skilled, because it takes no effort anymore to be healthy.

You might remember me mentioning at the end of the second paragraph of this blog, that ‘… when we are not subjected to energy impacts from the outside world that are outside the Goldilocks zone, our organism spontaneously moves towards integration, health, and well-being without us needing to do anything’. In other words, within normal nontraumatic circumstances, integration, health, and well-being is our fundamentally natural state. Although pain and suffering are ubiquitous, the spontaneously most natural process our organism follows is the one towards integration, health, and well-being. This is an interesting scientific finding with profound consequences on our view of what it means to be human.

Because suffering is so ubiquitous, and probably a minority of people enjoy the kind of attuned and resonant psychological environment that strengthens self-esteem and causes them to be the best they can be, and because the psyche is so difficult to examine and therefore for many people remains an elusive reality they dismiss or don’t know how to deal with, suffering is often seen as primary, fundamental, and intractable. Suffering is a prison of our own making when we don’t skillfully deal with pain. In the Catholic Church for example this state of affairs is conceptualized as original sin. The idea is that human beings are fundamentally bad and need to be shaped through punishment and coercion into good soldiers of God. The implications are profound: Not only is the disruption, or even violence, which caused suffering in the first place, overlooked, but more disruption and violence are inflicted in the erroneous belief that this is how one shapes a strong human being into goodness.

Today we can say that from the scientific perspective of open complex systems this view is questionable, even untenable. The notion of original blessing espoused by the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and many Buddhist schools much more aptly describes human nature. When through healthy parenting as children or later examination of our minds as adults we manage to deeply understand who we really are, and relinquish the many ways we get in our own way by unconsciously fighting old wars that don’t exist anymore in our present environment, our organism will spontaneously move towards integration, well-being, and health. Ease, goodness, and love are primary. The truth about ourselves literally sets us free, not because we have to do things to be better, but because gaining clarity about who we really are, allows us to undo unnecessary defenses and get out of our own way, as our open complex system always spontaneously tries to move towards integration, health, and well-being. Thus the notion of non-doing at the core of these psychological disciplines. Once a clear and strong sense of self has been allowed to emerge through the integrative movement of our open complex system, it becomes much easier and more powerful to practice skillful actions for the benefit of both others and ourselves. Our fundamental nature is to be found in the freedom to be, which in turn is based on the foundations of truth. The truth about who we are sets us free, and freedom is love (freedom in Sanskrit means love).

Fundamentally, every child, no matter how he or she behaves, is an open complex system in need of parental help for the development of its own capacity to regulate towards integration, health, and well-being. The last thing a child needs is punishment to learn to obey. That only creates subservient robots with no creativity to live meaningful lives. On the contrary, what children need is an emotional connection with their caregivers, parental guidance in the form of support and natural consequences to their actions, as well as parental help in learning how to examine who they are and make sense of reality. With that in place, they can develop a strong and healthy sense of self at their core that allows them to make their own skillful decisions, and if necessary correct and repair behaviour to improve the ability to be skilfully active and loving in their lives.

Keen curiosity, spacious openness, gracious acceptance, wise guidance, and love – these are the principles that ensure the possibility of seeing truth and find the freedom to be by getting out of our own way. Then, the immeasurably greater wisdom of the complex organism that we are can take over, and we can thrive to live meaningful lives in health and well-being.

Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

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