Monday, October 25, 2010

Overriding the Desire for Social Acceptance

There is a strong desire running through most of us to both appear happy and healthy to others, and to actually be happy and healthy ourselves. When the latter is absent, often the pressure to put on appearances is heightened. Others worry, and you don't want others to worry. So you try to manage yourself and also others by sweeping all the shit under the rug. Pretty damned screwy.

It's vitally important to explore the rough edges that appear in your life. To not automatically default into a view that says feeling depressed or sad or upset means you're faulty, in need of therapy, or some other such story. It's true that some of us fall too deeply into despair or rage, for example, and need to go for intensive help of some sort. However, I believe in this modern world littered with psychologists and spiritual programs emphasizing psychology, it's really easy to embrace the story that you're in trouble, and need to "do therapy."

One of the symptoms of all of this is over-emphasizing "positive thinking and acting." I found two recent posts addressing this issue, which are worth a look.

The Dalai Grandma has been writing, among other things, about her experience with needing a kidney transplant. One of the reasons I'd recommend her blog is that she presents the whole situation honesty, and in detail. Sometimes, she's living in hopefulness and joy. Other times, she's cloudy and disconnected. And still other times, it's crankiness and frustration. In other words: reality.

I don't like to be told to look on the bright side, though of course there's a reason I undertook this kidney transplant, to live much better, much longer, once we're through this. But as for putting a spin on my experience, there is this experience, what it is, in total, though it's only that - experience. Today it's been unpleasant. Much of the day in bed trying to be warm, cold sweats, blurred vision, inability to concentrate, nose running. Immunosuppressants are very strong. My nurse told me to eat when I take them (3 times a day) and that cut down on stomach pain and belching. At least I'm not nauseated. (I know, that's thinking positive. And at least I haven't come down sick in some other way, and there are many ways. And I'm not "in rejection." In other words, this is working fine. A good recovery.)

It seems to me it's best when whatever one might call "positive" thinking comes out naturally, manifesting through one's experience, and not out of an attempt to please or pacify or avoid. And we don't need to be dangerously ill in order to experience a shift in perspective about something that we've suffered over in the past. But obviously, when such things come, the intensity is hard to ignore.

Emma over at the Chronic Meditator has some similar reflections in her latest post.

Here's what I'm exploring...

If I have a day when I feel miserable, bitter, and very ungrateful about being sick...should I feel a preference that this day not be that way? Should I feel a preference that I feel at ease and peaceful being sick? Or should I have no preferences ?

For me, this exploration is very rich. I'm suddenly allowing all these really difficult feelings to flow through my body - boredom, frustration, anxiety about the future, terror, emptiness, and despair. I know this all sounds really miserable, and not like 'good news' at all, but I have this strong feeling that allowing these feelings to flow is really my path.

I resonate with this sense of flow, and letting go of claiming or privileging one set of experiences over another. One of the challenges I have experienced with allowing this kind of flow, or paying attention to the flow, is that it shows you the instability of "yourself" and your identities. People ask you how you're doing and you aren't quite sure what to say. Who am I? becomes more central of a question, which probably means you're pointed in the right direction, but it also shifts how you interact with others - to the point, where some of the significant people in your life might struggle to relate to you, and you to them.

When faced with this awkward, unstable ground, I often, you often, all of us often choose some sort of bypass. Positive thinking is just one form. But the point is that instead of feeling awkward, unstable, and not terribly in knowing, we opt to do something that plugs us back into the socially accepted field. In other words, we opt to maintain social acceptance over discovering who we truly are.

This shouldn't be something we "get down" about. It's pretty hardwired into humans to do what we can to maintain some level of social acceptance. But I think awakening in this life requires some bucking of that, some willingness to override that collective impulse that drives us to turn away, disown, and even hate part of our experience.

p.s. The image is a nod to my sister, who loves Napoleon Dynamite. I didn't care for it much to be honest.


Algernon said...

Right on, nothing to add.

Anonymous said...

Your getting there, now just stop looking back.

Dean Crabb said...

Once again Nathan, nice post. You are making a habit of this. ;-)

My wife started at a new job last week after being off for a year and half with our new born baby. The office is in chaos and so she is really emotionally overwhelmed by anything and everything having not been back to work for so long. Everything is new and confronting.

I noticed my urge to want to say to her "just be positive" about it but I knew this really would only help in a minor way and wasn't sustainable. While positive affirmation has been proven to work it's like a band-aid for a cut, it's only mildly affective. I had to remind her to rest into the negative feelings and be comfortable with them, to breath into them and to feel them. In essence I reminded her that being confident wasn't just an appearance that some people put on, real confidence comes from knowing yourself and therefore being comfortable with any negativeness or the emotions that do arise. We are all human and do feel these negative emotions, the difference is in how we respond and react to the emotion. It's like the sun being obscured by clouds. Confidence is something that is apparent when we cease reacting to negative emotions that arise, much like silence is something apparent when we cease being noisy. Inherently we start a cycle of negativity or thoughts about a lack of self confidence when we feel unsure, we therefore aren't comfortable with the unknown. I actually wrote a post about this back in August called "The Challenge of Feelings and Emotions".

Really nice stuff. Thanks again for some good contemplations.


BuddhaPublicist said...

Hi Nathan,

Have you read Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided? She talks about the positivity machine, in particular the pressure she experienced when she got breast cancer and everyone wanted her to have a good attitude about it, when she just wanted to scream "this sucks!"

Why bother asking people how they are doing if no one is going to answer you honestly?

Good post (and examples.)

Be well,


Nathan said...

I've heard about Ehrenrich's book; haven't read it yet. I think it's beneficial to discover the "bright side" in any situation, but it has to come through the experience. And sometimes, you never see it, or it comes much later on, and people have to be ok with that as well. Forcing positivity is really about trying to please others, and avoid yourself. Not the best plan.