Collaborating With Life

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I am interested in whether we choose to reveal certain parts of our experience or parts of our selves. It seems to me that we may choose what to reveal but that we may not have much choice about what is there — our choice is whether we reveal it or not.

A friend of mine is currently doing psychotherapy; we’ll call them ‘Denny’. Denny has had problems explaining what it is like to do psychotherapy — and I think these problems are interesting.

Denny’s friends ask her things like how she decides what to talk about. This is usually not the problem — the talking happens pretty easily.

(I should say that Denny is a very intelligent and articulate person, and she has a pretty sharp therapist that she seems to click with. If Denny didn’t click with her therapist then the talking would be more difficult — the problem would be more that the therapy doesn’t happen, rather than finding something to talk about during the therapy. This means that for Denny and their therapist misunderstandings don’t happen much and so the talking goes pretty smoothly.)

For Denny the idea that she chooses the topic doesn’t feel right. It’s more like the stuff is there and when she gets to the session she starts talking. Denny does have a sense of choice at a couple of points. One is whether they want to go into detail on some topic or stick with the general; the other is whether to not say anything of consequence. I’ll explain a little about what I mean by these two options.

Firstly about going into details or sticking with the general: when we remember something it may be very specific, and a particular emotion can be tied to a specific incidence. We may feel humiliation and remember a very specific incident of humiliation; we may feel in love and remember a particular time with a beloved. When this happens we don’t necessarily need to talk about the specific incident. There are other options, like talking about sensations in our body, the effect the incident had on our lives, the way we respond to this particular emotion or the way that we respond to similar incidents in our life. This is what I mean about sticking with the general.

Secondly is the choice of not saying much. Sometimes we don’t want to engage with someone, or we don’t want to remember vividly a past experience. In this situation we can just say nothing; more usually we change the subject or engage in chit chat.

What I find interesting about this kind of experience is the role choice plays. We aren’t automata without choice, but neither is choice necessarily ‘running the show’. It seems that choice is present but not dominant, or that the talking happens with particular parameters — about topic and depth of engagement.

This leads me to a couple of ideas. The first is that there are different layers or aspects to us. We feel that we have a choice about (some part of) our self. That one part of our self is monitoring how much to reveal of another part. The second idea is that we don’t have a choice about the part we wish to suppress or not articulate or connect with. We have a sense that this part of us or experience is simply ‘there’ — we may articulate it or not, we may engage with it or try not to; but if feels that it is there. The choice seems to be receiving this experience or not.

Talking about ‘receiving our experience’ is something I find very difficult to do. I value our ability to choose and shape our lives very highly; in my observation we underestimate our ability to change our experience rather than overestimate it. It also seems to me that in shaping our experience there are certain relatively permanent ‘givens’ that we need to deal with: our culture has particular mores, we may not be able to change our family’s attitude toward us no matter what we try, or we may not like being in a particular place however hard we try to change our feelings about it. Such things (which will vary from person to person) are relatively fixed parts of our situation that we adapt to.

It seems to me that the process of psychological growth also has a shape or form. It seems to me that life is a structured process, not a random force. It seems to me that we have the choice to collaborate with life and so grow or to block this process (not entirely but in smaller or greater parts of our experience).

I am conscious that I may not be articulating this clearly, and that what I am saying may be controversial. I would like to hear from you whether talking about ‘receiving our experience’ makes sense to you, and whether you have times where you sense that you are collaborating with life or trying to block it in some part of your experience. Please let me know in the comments.

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