Self Censoring

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We have experiences where we become aware of different ‘parts’ of ourselves. This means that there is another part as well: a part that is aware of the other (conflicting) parts. This is sometimes called the ‘observer’.

It seems to me that there are different ‘parts’ to us. By this I mean these kinds of experiences: not doing something we want to do, or being drawn in different directions, or delaying a gratification while we focus on something else.

These kinds of experiences can be judged as good or bad.

I have sympathy with those who judge them as bad. What are regarded as good experiences are times of flow and unity, moving smoothly and easily toward what we desire. This is pleasurable. My experience of myself and others is that experiences of flow and ease are available to all of us and that (with some work), we can have these experiences a good deal more often than we usually do. I’ll call this “Attitude R” (‘R’ for romantic).

What of those who judge these experiences of delay, not doing what we want to and being drawn to different things as good? Surely they too experience flow and unity as pleasurable?

My guess is that they do. However, pleasure is not the only value. And it is possible to delay a momentary or small pleasure for a greater one. To expect flow and unity to be our normal experience may be seen as unrealistic. (How may people really enjoy this kind of life? If it is rare perhaps it will just add to people’s frustration to load them with this as an expectation.) It is also possible to value triumphing over ourselves — self-discipline and the willingness to forgo pleasure. I’ll call this “Attitude S” (‘S’ for self-discipline).

I think these two sets of judgements embody quite different views of the world and ourselves. My hope is not to choose between them but to highlight the different attitude toward self-censorship which is contained in each.

Censoring ourselves, according to attitude R, is frustrating our selves, diminishing our life energy and reinforcing the death-promoting tendencies of our culture. For attitude S, censoring ourselves is the very basis of civilised life — all cultures have codes that people abide by at some cost to themselves, sometimes very considerable cost — and the way that we mature. (The demand that we feel good all the time is simply childish.)

I think one of the disagreements between these two attitudes is about what people are like. For attitude R there is the sense that our good experiences are achieved through relaxation (‘go with the flow’); for attitude S our good experiences are hard won achievements (‘any dead fish can go with the flow‘).

I wanted to lay out these two sets of judgements as a way of clearing the decks. I want to come back to those experiences (forcing ourselves, being in conflict, delaying gratification) and just begin by acknowledging that they happen. I want to point out that we have these experiences where we become aware of different ‘parts’ of ourselves.

This means that there is another part as well: a part that is aware of the other (conflicting) parts. This is sometimes called the ‘observer’. This brings the possibility of varying responses to these parts: letting them take turns (e.g., driven one day and relaxed the next), preferring one to the other (e.g., lazy is good and driven is bad), or achieving an integration (e.g., quietness in movement and a dynamic stillness).

[Theoretical note: I don’t see this experience of different parts as a threat to our psychic unity any more than having different physical parts (heart, liver, eyes, skin) is a threat to our physical unity.]

Now, I’d like to come back to self-censoring. It seems to me that this is used in different ways.

Firstly there is the censoring of our awareness. We can be encouraged to censor our bodily awareness (how food tastes, how buildings feel, even physical pain), our emotions (you shouldn’t feel angry, sad, lustful), or our thoughts (“don’t think about that”).

It seems to me that censoring our awareness is usually unhelpful. Not knowing what our bodies are telling us will likely lead to more pain. Not knowing what our emotions are will probably lead to more superficial relationships. Not knowing our thoughts will leave us less discerning I think.

Secondly there is censoring our actions. There are times when it is probably wise and helpful not to hit out or speak out. To not just “do what we like” or “say what we think” may be to our longer-term benefit, and the “longer-term” here may be quite soon. Thinking about the best way to act or say something can mean not only considering others but also considering ourselves.

Those experiences of different ‘parts’ of us mean that responding immediately may mean that we do or say something from one part and not all of us. I have had the experience of doing or saying something and then regretting it. Usually the regret is because I acted from one part of me rather than with all of me. For me, waiting, listening to the different ‘parts’ of me, and then acting has rarely been wasted time. It has led me to be better acquainted with my own preferences and desires and enabled me to be more skilful and intimate in my relationships.

I would like to hear from you about your experiences of self-censoring. Do you find them pleasurable or frustrating? Do you view them as beneficial or an inconvenience? Have you found a way to work with them that is beneficial, or do you find they just get in the way of living?

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