Sunday, December 27, 2020

Trump and Diana: A Tale of Two Narcissists Part 1


Trump as President
Narcissists crave both attention and recognition. In a sense, being noticed and/or praised tends to fill them up temporarily and may give them a fleeting sense of satisfaction and purpose. Yet as it does not have a solid foundation, it can easily be undermined or swept away and will certainly diminish and fade. No matter how hard the narcissist looks to invalidate him or herself, the contingencies of time will make it necessary to have the next fix or dose of what is commonly referred to as their narcissistic supply. This need or desire for attention is not only what drives them, but it is their basic existential building block, while recognition and praise are their drugs of choice.

Since narcissists lack a core identity or personality, they can change ideology and alliances overnight and without rhyme or reason. They tend to align themselves with people who always say yes to them and who constantly and unconditionally applaud their ideas, no matter how detrimental, half-baked, or implausible they may be. At the same time, narcissists tend to shun and eliminate anyone that opposes their plans and ideas regardless of whether the criticism is constructive and the intentions behind them noble and well-meaning. In fact, for a narcissist, there is no such thing as constructive criticism; they see any criticism as a veiled and ultimately threatening personal attack on their very existence.

A narcissist’s worldview is simple and naïve and consists of black and white palettes only: You are either with them or against them. As they lack imagination and feeling and a sense of humor, they only see and evaluate everything in terms of how it benefits them personally at the moment, while they lack ethics and empathy throughout. Everything needs to be about them, and everybody should hold them up as a shiny role model by sustaining them on a pedestal. Trump sees himself as the king of the world, whereas Princess Diana saw herself as the world’s princess.

Finally, narcissists are highly adept at manipulating and controlling others. They may play the victim or the savior card at will, and occasionally they even put down both at the same time. They are good at making you believe that they are on your side and that they embrace, champion, and fight for your cause, but, in fact, this is far from the truth.

They are not the projected and purported shiny examples nor the voice of the people; in fact, all their actions are void of feeling and resonance and their only purpose is to impress others and earn people’s praise as they want to show the world how allegedly wonderful beings they are. I am still shocked that many still believe that Trump has their backs covered and that many still think that Diana was benevolent and caring, but sadly, both aspects and each tale are far from the truth.


Trump’s Tale of Lies and Manipulation

It is ironic (but not surprising) that from the first day of taking office, Trump has attacked what he deemed and promoted as “fake news” by virulently propagating his own so-called alternative view and version of facts and events. I remember that we all knew we were in for a bumpy ride when the then Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to convince us against facts, evidence and not to say common sense that Trump’s inauguration excelled in attendance and popularity.

Two things that mark narcissists are their competitive streak with others and their desire to be - or rather be perceived as - the all-time best. Unlike people who strive for success and put in the extra hour of work and effort, the narcissist can often not be bothered. They expect everything to come to them quickly, handily, and effortlessly as they have an unusually high sense of personal entitlement. Just like their namesake mythological figure Narcissus, they are utterly and blindly in love with themselves, their image, personality, and their supposed and often imagined talents and accomplishments.

Competition looms large but again it is only driven by their desire to be perceived as the best of the lot. No matter what skill or event you talk about, they think they are always better and a step ahead of the rest of us. The actual accomplishments play only second fiddle. One of the main driving forces for Trump - apart from escaping financial ruin, cementing and fortifying his ailing business endeavors as well as escaping the law for tax evasion and malpractice - was his competitive streak with Obama. 

Trump was utterly envious of the success and popularity of the first African American president. Trump’s blatant and unapologetic racism alongside his espousal of racist ideology, groups and actions were undertaken for his own benefit but to also undermine all and any of Obama’s achievement and endeavors; yet, personal vendetta and agenda aside, Trump appears to feel most comfortable in the white-supremacist mindset and the fascist mold.

Narcissists feel they are in competition with everyone else simply because they want to be perceived as the best at everything that they set their minds on. It does not matter whether they have the necessary skills and qualifications. This is also the main reason why everything is in superlatives when Trump talks about himself, while even the greatest accomplishments of others are denigrated, brushed off, and symbolize nothing to him.

In fact, narcissists are so out of touch with reality and common sense that they could see everyone as potential threats, including their own children and family members. For instance, it is not unusual nor out of place for a narcissistic mother to want to seduce and steal her daughter’s boyfriend. Age, beauty, and simple decency are no hindrance to their unfiltered desires.

Yet as long as you are in their good books and unquestioningly obey, adulate and praise them, harm shall not fall upon you for the time being and you may be even promoted. The moment you criticize them, no matter how minor, reasonable, or constructive the criticism may be, the tables will turn all of a sudden, and in the blink of an eye, you will be given the boot, no matter how loyal, devoted and dedicated you have been to the narcissist. This has been clearly exemplified by uncountable turnovers in his administration.

Why do they handle criticism so badly? It is because they try to delude themselves on a daily basis that they are special, important, and intelligent when in reality, deep inside, they are - albeit dimly and subconsciously - aware that this is simply not true. Hence, instead of facing reality, they build a fortress of lies and make-believe in which facts are alternative and malleable and in which they are always right no matter how wrong they may be. Any potential doubt must be squashed to keep their illusions as real as possible and they do not hesitate to lash out at others.

If others criticize them, they are simply wrong. If the media disagrees with them, the news networks are the enemy of the people and their reports are completely baseless and misguided. People, journalists, and news networks that praise his outlandish and fantastical ideas are embraced, praised, and promoted by Trump. The truth has been thrown under the bus and instead, praise and idolatry are what matter most to Trump. It comes as no surprise that most dictators have been narcissists as they can have their way anyway they wish and can liberally impose punishments and even death upon all the souls that raise their voices in dissent.

One of the main problems of narcissists is that they have no core self. And with that, they are empty and void. Apart from an absence of empathy or any type of healthy feeling, they also lack ideals, values, and originality. Trump has always seen himself as a product to market to others. He is not intelligent but smart and knows how to manipulate and influence people. At some point, he may have contemplated running as a Democrat, but he found it easier and more convenient to run as a Republican.

Soon enough, he found his niche, and he tapped into what it was that the majority of the people responded to and resonated with. He was a product in the making and he would receive immediate feedback through his campaign rallies. If the slogans and chants were well received, he would usurp them and develop and build on them. It could be anywhere from Build the Wall to Lock her up. One of his catchiest and most promising ones, that of draining the swamp was also his emptiest of slogans as he merely filled the so-called swamp with his own brand of corrupt officials. The issues and actions may or may not have resonated with him personally, but they certainly worked charms for him alongside Reagan’s borrowed phrase of making America great again.

This also explains his overall lack of being steadfast and committed to causes. Trump would switch opinions at a whim without remorse or explanation. In his case, it does not help that he is astrologically speaking a Gemini who are, even in the best and healthiest of cases, known for having two faces and two personalities. He may be kind to his friends and family members but harsh and demanding with his staff; yet, in the end, neither part of that persona is his true essence as he lacks any core or essence, to speak of.

Trump is nothing but his own distorted projections, and he has lived in an alternate universe all his life. In his universe, his electoral win was a landslide, but the same number of electoral seats of his opponent suddenly turns into an election too close to call. In fact, since the results are not to his liking, he puts the whole election process and democracy into doubt to serve his own megalomaniacal benefits.

The sad aspect is that his followers have fallen for what they erroneously believe he actually stands for and they are in many ways as lost and deluded as he is. In fact, Trump only cares about himself, and absolutely no one else. For instance, he politicized the virus for his own gains and benefits regardless of the countless lives that have been lost in the process. 

He is the worst type of narcissist, the psychopathic one that thinks of his own benefits at the expense of everything and everyone else. And yet, he still has many followers out there who are voting and rooting for him even though he does not give a damn about them; Trump would sacrifice all of them in a heartbeat. He has built an army of sycophants around himself and has done long-lasting harm and damage to his political group of choice, the Republican party with its constituents. 

You can find Part 2 here: Diana's Tale of the World's Most Photographed Woman 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Thinking Systematically and Empathically: How to build and thrive on Innovation

Ursula Oesterle
One of the most successful approaches to success and innovation is the ability to think in a systematic fashion. It does not matter what the endeavor or business enterprise may be, it would benefit from approaching it as a systems thinker. Such a perspective and approach will ensure that there is a lack of emotional drama (we could all do with less drama in these overdramatic times of ours), and we are better able at filtering out noise (it feels like everyone is shouting nowadays whether outside, on television or on SOCIAL MEDIA).

It is a perspective that tends to enhance and underscore focus; one can then pinpoint one’s attention on essential and vital information without being sidetracked by unnecessary or irrelevant details. It is generally analytical, poised, and task-oriented, which would be most beneficial for most plans, projects, and undertakings. A systems thinker would preferentially focus on one issue at a time and not get bungled up in multitasking scenarios, which usually - notwithstanding anecdotal evidence or popular folklore - often lead to haphazard and unwanted outcomes, results, and by-products.

It was some time ago I had the pleasure to attend an ETH talk by Ursula Oesterle on Innovation and Global Citizenry in which she explained her own perspective and approach as a systems thinker. Ursula Oesterle currently works for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and is the Vice-President for Innovation and has head years of experience in Silicon Valley. She considers herself (as I would myself) a global citizen; she is a Swiss citizen who grew up in the Philippines.

It is interesting to note that she projected and embodied both cultures. Her analytic way of seeing and interpreting the world was influenced by genetics and her family but her mannerisms and behaviors, a personal nervousness as well as jittery awareness and consciousness of the other, pointed towards her cultural environment and upbringing of the Philippines. In a somewhat similar fashion, my passion, drive, and dedication are in and from my blood, the Persian land I was born on, whereas my thinking has been shaped by my German upbringing and my mannerisms and behavior are mainly a hybrid between German and Canadian values with a dash of Iranian sentiment.

But we are not only formed by our genetics and our childhood and immediate environment, but we also define and refine ourselves through our choices and education, as well as the lack thereof, and this has significant impacts on her thoughts and behavior. In Ursula’s case, her decision to study for a physics degree first, helped her become even more systematic in her thinking and in interpreting the data as well as the world, including the world of business, the field that she entered at a later stage.

In fact, Ursula Oesterle has a progressive forward-oriented outlook as she sees the future as part and parcel of a fiction that we write and create. The past may have given us some tools and materials, yet the future is not set in stone and there is a significant amount of leeway and agency but also personal responsibility that comes with it. Through personal responsibility and concrete actions, we can achieve a potential variety of subsequent results and outcomes. For our goals to materialize and to become a reality down the misty lane of time, we need to always check and obtain feedback on specific data points.

What that means is that we need to have clear and clearly stated outcomes and then have a progress metric to assess and evaluate each of them. This feedback should be based on scientific and demonstratable standards, but, at the same time, they should not be limited nor limiting in scope and extent. Put simply, we need to set our goals and then evaluate over time if and to what extent we have reached them and establish the length of time it took us to get to that point.

Throughout, it is best to have a dynamic outlook. This reinforces the fact that our goals and plans should be not only clearly set and established but they should also be fluid enough and hence not be set in stone; we ought to allow for necessary and productive fluctuations and adjustments. In other words, one needs to have a learner’s mind and approach when it comes to evaluating one’s own level of success and progress. To have a clear plan and a goal for the future is good and beneficial, but at the same time, one must be flexible enough to upgrade and adapt to changes, whenever necessary or advisable.

This is often difficult as many will stubbornly move and plow ahead until they reach their set goals. But this will come at a cost to one’s business and often to one’s pocket as well, so it is the best strategy to learn to reduce as well as to accept and live with a certain level of uncertainty in life and in one’s endeavors. This can be done with the combination of an open mind and a defined system. The information or data points will then give us tangible information about whether the measures in place are fruitful and productive or whether they are misguided or harmful and need to be modified, or even dropped.

For instance, one thing that Covid-19 has taught us is that the digital era is a moment of opportunity instead of a hindrance or obstacle. Many transitions and changes are necessary now in the face and in light of these new circumstances and situations. In many cases, it is about either adapting to or perishing under the new reality. This also gives us the unique opportunity and excuse, if you will, to do something radically different. It is not so much about patching upgrades or repairing parts but rather about building brand-new operating systems. Grander and bolder changes in direction of technology will offer more benefits than ever for those who dare to take the digital leap and accept the risks and dangers associated with such dramatic change and adjustment.

This switch has been seen and felt in the teaching environment. The traditional classroom - the known and familiar source of comfort and pain - has disappeared for the time being. The new reality for many instructors is to conduct and teach virtual and online courses. Those schools and universities who had previously experimented and flirted with such initiatives as well as those who are ready to jump ship and embrace the new horizon of possibilities with its load of challenges and difficulties will be the ones to succeed and thrive in the future.

Yet those who desperately hold onto old-fashioned and inadequate means and forms of education will not be able to survive. It was surprising for me to find out how ill-prepared many, if not most Western teachers as well as elementary and high school institutions have been in the face of this pandemic, whereas, ironically, developing economies and countries, such as the Philippines and Mexico, have been better suited and more willing to deal with and adapt to the changes. As Ursula herself pointed out, this was due to the already used and trodden path and the prevalent infrastructure of televised teaching methods in poorer and rural areas and it did not require nor represent a fundamental nor a substantial existential shift for them.

Another important and relevant switch is the one from manager to leader. We need to put aside the need to micromanage, steadily and constantly telling others what to do and be seen and perceived as the boss, the always vigilant parent. This is an outdated, and might I add, inadequate and counterproductive way of thinking and of managing personnel. Instead, the boss needs to realize and acknowledge that they do not know everything, and instead, they should ask questions instead of giving orders and be willing and ready to give support whenever needed or required.

This kind of openness will invite others not only to participate in work matters but they will also feel validated in the process. This will make a leader out of the previous boss and manager. A leader is someone who does not give orders but manages to motivate and inspire their workers and employees to do their bidding without expressly having to tell them. There is then no need for vigilant presence to ensure that work is done and accomplished as they will do so on their own accord.

People may follow bosses with a grudge or even against their will, but they will follow a leader not by and via force but through their own desire and volition. Put differently, they will come to do what the leader wants them to do and sometimes be inspired to go the extra mile, as the action or undertaking is considered in both of their interests; a content employee is an important and often neglected and overlooked asset to the success of the business and enterprise.

Finally, a combination of both a learner process and a data-driven process is the best path to take for innovation. It is akin to pinging for immediate data and receiving feedback. Sometimes it is confirmation that one is in the right and has chosen and embarked upon the correct path, while on other occasions the data will counter and go against one’s plans and intentions. The best attitude to adopt is one of mindfulness and of letting go. One’s goal should be not about being in the right but taking and continuing the best direction for one’s business. That often means adjusting to reality and the facts and going with the flow.

But thinking systematically will only get you so far. It is best to combine it with empathy. If you are the founder and manager, it is in your best interest to ensure that all those who work for you are not only treated with respect but also with empathy. This will go both ways. Once you take care of the physical and emotional needs of your employees, they will return you the favor by doing their best to make your business succeed further. It is another win-win situation, and it does not entail much of a sacrifice. In fact, as a business leader, it will make you feel even better, both personally as well as professionally.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Zen and the Art of Health and Leadership: A Personal Interview with Ginny Whitelaw

Ginny Whitelaw
During my youth and young adulthood, I developed a keen interest in Zen Buddhism. Ever since I found out about this mindful and philosophical approach to life during my high school years, it has stuck with me, sometimes right in front of my eyes, at other times in the back of my mind. I was attracted by the idyllic and harmonious beauty of the Zen monastic life that was ruled by stern discipline and devout dedication in the form of a daily regimen. 

When I found out that there was a Zen Institute of Leadership, I immediately knew that I had to talk to the founder and find out more about the organization and its approach to life and leadership.

I was thrilled but also a bit nervous to talk to Dr. Ginny Whitelaw over Zoom. My slightly apprehensive feeling was due to my Zen conception of the stern overlooking master with a stick who would not hesitate to discipline the ones who lack or falter in terms of discipline. Dr. Whitelaw to whom I shall respectfully refer to as Ginny from now on, looked like the embodiment of Zen: she has that stern focused no-nonsense look about her but the moment she spoke, I was immediately put at ease because she oozed warmth, sympathy, passion, and kindness in a measured and controlled fashion emanating from the other side of the Zoom screen.

It is not only in terms of Eastern and Western upbringing, outlook, and experience that she is the perfect combination and embodiment of Zen, but this is also reflected in her own educational and professional formation.

Ginny started off with the dream of exploring outer space. As a child, she wished to become an astronaut, so her parents cleared the kitchen broom closet and used a vacuum cleaner to recreate the environment of a capsule floating in outer space. Space flight to her represented a potential way of bringing peace on Earth and of uniting everyone for a common and universal purpose. In fact, she ended up landing an executive position at NASA for over a decade before she decided to fully explore and dedicate herself to the inner space via Zen Buddhism.

She is no stranger to philosophy either as she has studied it but, more importantly, she has always been curious about life and its purpose and meaning. In addition, she holds a doctorate in biophysics, and she is a Zen Master. Moreover, apart from having a 5th-degree black belt in Aikido, she also has psychology under her belt as she has studied the nervous system and neuroscience in graduate school, and it must certainly help to have a husband who is a psychologist.

All things considered, the interview was very pleasant and went extremely well as we were from the get-go in perfect alignment regarding values and philosophical outlook. The difference lies in the details on how we approach it and the different paths we have taken – her focus is more on the physical aspects, the body, while I tend to put more emphasis on the mind; notwithstanding, the end result is the same: a holistic quest and aim for uncovering and finding one’s true essence as well as reaching a sense of peace and bliss that vibrates through every fiber of one’s being.

I will not attempt to explain Zen, a feat that is deemed not only fallible and impossible but also futile and pointless as well as beyond the point. Put simply, Zen is both a view on life as well as a manual on how to live it. When Ginny talks about energy that needs to be balanced and to flow harmoniously, an inner sense of movement in lieu of stagnation that is reigned by chaos and rigidity in body and mind, I feel comforted by the fact that she is not merely uttering buzz words or providing empty jargon but that she intuitively as well as scientifically is aware of the connotations and the meanings and the implications of those processes.

But science - hand in hand with the Western conception and understanding of the body and of personhood - is severely restrained and limited. Trying to understand human motivation by using logical concepts will lead us nowhere in particular except have us do pirouettes while we anxiously and desperately are trying to chase our own tail. Zen inherently knows about the limitations of both language and rational thinking and this has been its most startling and astounding asset. Our thinking can only get us so far; we need to tap into a world beyond it to fully grasp and experience the world.

This can perhaps be best expressed and understood by the practice of koans. They are riddles that do not have logical answers and I sometimes doubt they have any answer at all. To solve this riddle or at least to come close to a possible solution, we need to put aside the brain, rationality, and language and instead delve into pure intuition and insight.

As Ginny herself puts it, during Zen practice and training, we start off with mountains being mountains, then we reach a point when we see them no more as mountains, while finally, we return to our first understanding of mountains being mountains but this second time around, we see and perceive them through significantly different eyes with a transformed and transcended point of view and outlook.

Language is an immensely useful tool; it has given us science, literature, civilization, culture as well as philosophy and religion but it has its inherent limitations and imperfections. Science can explain many things and it is most useful in understanding processes in and of the world, but at the same time, it cannot touch and reach everything and this is why no one has ever succeeded in the Holy Grail of science: the Theory of Everything.

In addition, our bodies, our “meat suits” according to Ginny, are imperfect in and of themselves; yet it is through this living and breathing device that cosmic energy can flow and which helps us connect and adapt to eternal flow if we manage to set and tune it wisely and mindfully. Put differently, the body is an instrument, which is often out of tune and we need to tune it to resonate with life; we need to free it up from stuck trauma so that it can synchronize with the natural rhythm of life and with the flow of energy.

How can we do this and what does it all have to do with leadership? Although there is a difference in our respective methodology, Ginny’s and mine, I use a mindful existential version of psychoanalysis, while she uses Zen meditation and physical training and activities, it is all about connecting with your true self.

The true self is not the same as the ego, which is a term that is used in both approaches but with slightly different connotations. Generally speaking, in psychoanalysis we want to fortify the ego, which is sandwiched between forces that often seem out of its grasp and control (unconscious processes of the id and the superego), whereas, in Zen, we want to see through its sham and disguise and “battle with the ego armed to the teeth” (it is not surprising that Zen and martial arts are natural allies in that respect) and steal its apparent show and arrogant glamour or more positively to notice that it is merely a mask and often an impostor but not the true authentic self or being. The ego is, according to Ginny, stealing our identity and making us think that we know who we are, but we need to see through it instead of being spun around by it.

This has everything to do with living one’s life and gaining ownership regarding the direction our life will be taking from this moment on. Once we feel connected to powerful energies flowing through and within us, we can gain a sense of peace and a feeling of well-being and happiness. In its activated sense, this is what Zen monks mean when they claim to have their feet half a foot above the ground throughout the whole day.

It is like experiencing a natural and constant high but without using drugs, chemicals, or other types of stimulants. It is the feeling of being both free as well as in control of one’s life to the humble extent that we do indeed and in fact have control over those aspects. It is breaking free from the bonds of earth and gravity and breaking free psychologically from the prison of self. It is finding one’s calling and living it from fleeting moment to moment. It is about figuring out the most personal and satisfactory dance moves while the music of the spheres is resonating through us so long as we are blessed with the breath of life.

At one point through my own exploration of psychoanalysis, there was a moment where I gained this momentary awareness and experience of bliss and I was immediately reminded of Zen Buddhism. It came to me as not too surprising that such a link had already been explored and established to a degree with the work of Erich Fromm and his book Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.

It comes then as little surprise that a person who feels satisfaction, meaning, and purpose will be not only a more effective leader but will also feel healthier and also have a sound and healthy effect on their surroundings and their fellow beings. Ginny explained to me the approach they take at her institute and it is a manner of switching to the appropriate leadership style of the given situation.

For this purpose, Ginny engages in what is called FEBI during which they test and determine the personal characteristics of each individual joining the program. The result is not only a clearer understanding of the psychological underpinnings and preferences of the individual but also the best way of guiding and managing their progress. As this is not merely a psychological measure but also provides the groundwork for physical and spiritual path and guidance, it will address the person as a whole.

As such, it is holistic and mindful in nature. The goal of this type of training is to provide a different sense of the self in which we are able to see the whole picture and not just mere fragments or distortions of the self. We cannot get rid of the ego, but we can use it as a tool in service of the whole picture. We must keep in mind that the ego has a job to do, that is, to keep us safe and alive but its perception of life and death is immensely distorted and its point of view and method of judging things and events as either thumbs up or thumbs down are limited, naïve and inherently selfish in nature.

In fact, the ego is generally a narrative device, a piece of fiction that merely exists in reference to other parts of one’s being but it tries to freeze-frame our lives and hold us hostage with experiences and stories from the past. But instead of just reacting to the ego and letting it keep us in the confines of what it deems as innocuous comfort zones, we ought to step up and step out and face the world inside and outside of us. We can gain control of this rudderless ship and not just react but guide the light and energy to serve the world. During the messy and confusing time as we are grasping for light and understanding, it is often good to work with a master, whether it is in Zen and through psychoanalysis.

Here, we may disagree slightly. She believes that a master is indispensable for such growth and mindset; I have a more solitary self-made lone wolf approach and think that in some cases it can be done without actual guidance and presence of a master. Yet I do not doubt that the presence of living - and more often nonliving - masters are essential for learning about oneself and for getting set on one’s unique path. Nothing valuable can be achieved in isolation but like the Buddha himself, we must do the work ourselves to achieve insight and to alight the true eternal and ineffable spark within us.

We must be guided not by our tiny and puny ego who thinks it has all the answers (when it clearly does not) but by real and genuine wisdom. And the caveat is that this light and wisdom will not reveal itself nor open up to us unless we are ready for it to occur. Zen is not for everyone but rather for people who are stable; they will have doubts about life and existence but they want to know more and gain knowledge and are willing to work hard.

As mentioned earlier, the end result, whether we embark upon the path of Zen or psychoanalysis is essentially the same. Whether we use inspection, reflection, or meditation, it provides and supplies us with a better way to be and breathe in the world. Our life is then filled with resonance and purpose. We vibrate with ourselves and the world around us and as a system, we interact with the energy and field in our environment. It is not something that can be solved in the head; it is not a purpose or mission statement nor repetitive thinking and behavior. It is about what truly resonates within us, what calls us; a call for action, and a call for transformation, for becoming and for being.

How we resonate with the world is our choice. As Ginny says, we must breathe anyway, so why not get it right and breathe more slowly and more deeply. Why not be a little more grounded and centered and more caring and connected? But resonating with the world means accepting its struggles and its fair share of suffering. We are not immune to that and pain and suffering come as part of the deal with life. And yet, it is suffering that can teach us the most valuable and most life-changing lessons in life. As one of her Zen teachers once told her, there are two great teachers in life, suffering, and meditation, but he prefers the latter when given a choice.

A true leader is someone who acts on behalf of themselves as well as others. A good leader is a person that knows when to focus but is flexible enough to adapt to circumstances and reframe their viewpoints and actions. There are times and situations when we need a narrow focus and other times, where we need to expand our view and look at the big picture. The framework and training that Ginny proposes are learning to use and harness these different styles although we may have certain personal preferences for one or the other. Most importantly, we would learn to reframe and flip from coping with life and surviving to use the energy around us and effectively working with paradoxes and ambiguities.

The leader and the conscious and mindful person would be able to connect the inner with the outer world and work with their fears and self-limiting beliefs. They would bring the future into the present, and this will go beyond being successful but more about realizing and fulfilling one’s purpose in life. And that is also where healing resides as sickness and disease occur when life becomes lopsided, that is, when the energy becomes stuck and there is an overall lack of wellness and balance in one’s life.

For more detailed information, you can check out Ginny Whitelaw’s recently published book Resonate: Zen and the Way of Making a Difference as well as visit the website Embodied Facilitator and you can watch the entire interview on YouTube 

If you prefer to listen to the interview, here is the link to my podcast: Arash's World Podcast

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Spotting and Overcoming a Narcissist: From Victim to Victor Book Review

What should you do if your partner is a narcissist? The short answer: You would need to cut your losses, break all contact and communication with them and run away. You should refrain from engaging in a push-and-pull on-and-off hot-and-cold relationship with a narcissist, which is not only their favorite game but they will come out of it victorious due to their abundant experience in manipulation and deceit combined with a characteristic lack of scruples.

But if you cannot escape or choose to remain and stick it out or if you have grown up with years of accumulated narcissistic abuse, then you would greatly benefit from reading Mariette Jansen’s book From Victim to Victor: Narcissism Survival Guide. Dr. Jansen has not only studied narcissism extensively but, more importantly, she has experienced it herself.

What is narcissism? It is a type of personality disorder that is exemplified by an obsession about oneself combined with a lack of empathy. Narcissists may be different from sociopaths but their disregard of and lack of concern for the health and safety of others put them in the same boat and ballpark.

Although there are different shades and levels of and to narcissism and it is a sliding scale from on the spectrum to full-blown (we can have healthy and normal ranges too), narcissists can be pathological and malignant. In fact, they tend to manifest the following behaviors and attitudes: they have a grandiose self-opinion with a sense of entitlement (they belong on the center stage and in the limelight, while others merely exist to serve them and propel their goals and ambitions), they will attempt to control and manipulate (and they are extremely successful at that with rumor, gossip and blatant lies), they cannot handle any form of criticism (they are perfect and it is never their fault) and they lack empathy and emotional awareness (they are cold and incredibly cruel and feel they are above the law).

And yes, the 45th US president is a narcissist. Yet often, it is much harder to spot them as they are very good at manipulating and falsifying information in addition to controlling others, and they are perfectly adept at gaslighting, which they indeed may have invented in the first place! If you can, it is best not to confront them as they can spin information and even facts to such a degree that they make your head spin and make you even doubt and question your own reality and version of events.

To keep your sanity, Mariette suggests you take pictures or gather evidence in any form you can. This is not done to convince the narcissist (sorry, you will not succeed there) but rather to remind yourself of your sanity and to keep a physical keepsake of the truth. In fact, to avoid falling into the narcissistic trap, it is best not to become jaded, that is not to fall into the temptation to JADE – to justify, to argue, to defend, or even to explain yourself to them.

Not only would this be a waste of your time, but in the process, you might open yourself up and become vulnerable to further and more vicious attacks from the narcissist. In fact, keep in mind that they will not accept or own up to mistakes but they will always blame you, others, or the circumstances, and they might as well call you or claim your reaction to be overblown, oversensitive, hysterical, and unreasonable. Hence, you shall never be validated, no matter how hard you may try and how reasonable and convincing you may be.

No matter how much we would like to help or change them, narcissists cannot be helped. Even in the best but highly improbable case of fortuitous circumstances that they should be pushed to look for professional help (they will not because they think they are perfect and that they will not need to change, while they will easily point the finger back at you claiming it is you who needs psychological support), even then, this condition cannot be successfully treated. However, what can be treated and remedied is the lasting and traumatic effect and legacy they have on their victims.

It took Mariette various decades to recognize, realize, and free herself from narcissistic abuse. She has grown up under the tutelage of a narcissistic mother and the amount and extent of damage one receives as a child is immense, profound, and long-lasting. Growing up in a narcissistic household will leave you with many deep emotional scars.

You will be anxious and insecure and in a constant state of hypervigilance, where you are always both consciously and unconsciously alert to potential threats and dangers around you. This state not only erodes and undermines your self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth, but it also leads to the production of high levels of stress hormones that become lodged in our body and mind.

It is a vicious cycle during which you have not received love nor established trust in yourself; in fact, you have been fed and filled with doubts and confusion, which puts you in an ideal state for narcissistic parents as you can be easily controlled by them.

It certainly does not help that other people, including friends and family members, often come to the rescue of the narcissist and defend their abuses against you. They will say empty platitudes like you have only one mother and wait until you are a parent yourself, or that nobody is perfect and that they have suffered in their lifetime etc. while you ask yourself what exactly did I do wrong to deserve this kind of treatment and abuse?

In reality, you are not to blame in this situation and have done nothing wrong. You are not difficult, demanding nor significant, but this is what the narcissist wants you to think and believe. As Mariette herself explains, narcissists are cruel, manipulative, and clever, and they have subtle means and skillful manners of distorting the truth and of confusing, brainwashing, and controlling you and others. 

The good news is that with the right tools and mindset, you can overcome those deep-seated traumas and this book provides essential and vital coping skills. It takes a substantial amount of effort and perseverance to undo the wrongs that have accumulated in your psyche. It is best not to cast blame but to try to deal with the pain and suffering so that you can come out on the other side unscathed, healed, and renewed with your authentic loving self re-instated and intact.

But first, we would need to spot them. Spotting them is not always easy and clear-cut but there are certain things that they say and do that can provide us with hints. I have recently watched the series Dirty John based on real-life experiences with a narcissistic seducer and con artist and whose wife suffered many relapses until she was able to free herself from him indefinitely.

Like many unsuspecting victims, she fell for him, his charm, his ruse, and lies, and it is indeed easy to fall prey to their manipulative ways. Recently after watching the documentary Diana in her own Words, I have come to suspect that Princess Diana may have been a narcissist as well; if this turns out to be true, then she has managed to take us for a ride for such a long time by projecting a shy, noble and caring person via the media. The same can be said about other potential and suspected narcissists like Madonna and Steve Jobs as well as various other celebrities and entrepreneurs.

But narcissists do not need the media to broadcast their lies and conceits since they have their own army of flying monkeys. Flying monkeys are the hired and recruited help for smear campaigns; they will spy on you, and if need be, punish you on the narcissist’s behalf. The narcissist uses rumor and gossip, most of them unsubstantiated, some of them partial yet distorted truths, and some of them unabashed fabricated and blatant lies to reach their aims and goals. Narcissists lack emotional awareness and do not have a conscience, so they know no bounds; moreover, the law is for normal people and it does not apply to them since they think they are elevated beings.

For instance, waiting in line is a huge challenge for narcissists as it does not show them to be the special being they think they are, so they might either make up an excuse to move ahead or they have been known to carry and brandish a fake walking cane to get ahead of the line. And yes, the person who refuses to wear a mask and holds a family BBQ without social distancing in the midst of a raging and contagious pandemic is a narcissist at heart.

The flying monkeys are family members and friends that the narcissist wins over by claiming that he or she has been mistreated by certain individuals. Narcissists are very good at victimizing themselves, not accepting any responsibility whatsoever for their own actions, and blaming others. They will shed crocodile tears but do not be fooled; it is just a ruse. They are very skillful at hiding their real nature and at projecting a fake persona.

Narcissists will present themselves as perfect models and examples either as the ideal Prince/Princess charming or as the flawless mother/father. Moreover, narcissists have a very limited range of feelings, and they are of the negative kind, such as anger, fear, envy, and hate. Although they claim to suffer, they do not do so and are in fact incapable of it.

But flying monkeys are either weak, highly insecure, and confused individuals or they are frustrated and filled with envy and anger themselves as they would vicariously relish in causing harm to others. Either way, if family and friends have joined forces with the narcissist, you will have lost them and need to break contact with them as well. You will have to move away and remove them from your life and be cognizant that you will lose a lot of other family members in the process.

Do not trust the narcissist nor the flying monkeys, their chosen diplomats and extension of the narcissist, with any personal information as it can be used against you at unsuspected but strategically important and vulnerable moments of our life. For instance, in the series Dirty John, the titular character had found out that a young man’s mother had been killed by his father, and in a moment of fury and anger at being exposed, he strategically used that stored piece of information to his personal advantage. He snapped that it was a good thing the man’s father had shot his mother so she could not see what a complete loser her son had become. These words were meant to cause a devastating blow and could only come from a person without remorse and conscience, or human feeling for that matter.

Be wary of what information you divulge. One thing that all narcissists need is what Mariette calls narcissistic supply. Narcissists are extremely insecure and they try to hide this via external validation. Like an addict who needs and depends upon their fix, they crave attention and, more importantly, admiration and praise. If you choose to talk to them, stick to safe impersonal topics they are interested in. That way you can give them attention without comprising or endangering yourself.

Yet it is best and most recommended and safest not to have any contact with them whatsoever. Once you have successfully cut the cord with a narcissist and your relationship with them is a closed book, do not resuscitate the relationship but keep the book closed forever.

If you have been a child of a narcissist and have siblings, you will be categorized into three different camps. You are either the golden child who is supported and admired and feels loved, the invisible child who is overlooked and ignored, and the scapegoat who is the black sheep and always gets the blame for everything. These categories are flexible and depend on the extent you are following their orders and pleasing them.

In fact, you can quickly move from golden child to black sheep but that simply means that you have upheld standards of honesty and integrity and have not bowed to pressure or criticism. The previous “honor” and distinction of being in the narcissist’s good books would then go to another sibling who continues to put their mother on the pedestal no matter what she says or does.

In that way, you are disposable and easily replaceable, and the other child will provide them with the narcissistic supply they crave. In our household, my mother has propagated and perhaps even believes herself that she is the perfect embodiment of motherhood, while my younger brothers have always supported her - to their very own detriment.

Moreover, narcissists thrive on control as it gives them a sense of importance and relevance. As a result, they look for an insecure and kind partner and they tend to instill fear and insecurity in their children to keep them bound to them, often for life. The household needs to be dominant-submissive where one parent dictates and everyone follows their order, whereas children are viewed as objects that need to be controlled, used, and manipulated and they are not allowed to grow up as it is then easier to manipulate them.

Narcissist mothers are also the ones who would let their offspring know on a steady and consistent basis how much they have sacrificed for the health and well-being of their children. Mariette recounts those cringeworthy moments where her mother would tell everyone how she did everything for her children. Narcissists are great at victimizing themselves as it frees them of and safeguards them from any responsibility while creating feelings of guilt and remorse in the other.

In our family, we would hear on a constant basis how our mother has sacrificed so much for us and that we supposedly show little respect and appreciation for her. If you dare to speak up or disagree with them on many matter, you will feel their anger by having them either withdraw their love and support or they will shun and avoid you; as an intended form of punishment, they would badmouth you with others and/or by ostracize you from the rest of the family. Narcissists are the ultimate bullies as it gives them a sense of power and control over others, something they relish; yet nowhere is this type of behavior more unethical and cruel than when it comes to parent-child bonds and relationships.

Narcissists are toxic and will infect others with toxic stories about cruelty. The divide-and-conquer strategy that hey use and engage in helps them to stay and remain in power as it negates any type of direct communication, unity, and rebellion against them. Since they can come off as convincing, people often take their words at face value and this creates distance, division, and resentment, which is to the advantage of the narcissist. If you have them as a romantic partner, they will create a rift between you and your friends and family so that they can easily control you and so that they have your undivided and full attention.

They may also use emotional blackmail. As they are masters of deceit and manipulation, they will even have you believe they have serious illnesses and medical conditions. They have known to fake cancers and heart attacks as they will use it to either make you feel guilty for their supposed plight or to make you feel sorry for them or both. Sometimes they would use a member of the flying monkeys to exert pressure on you. In this drama triangle, you will be the guilty party, while the flying monkey will feel validation by being the rescuer, and they will all judge and prosecute you for supposedly hurting the “innocent victim”- the narcissist.

Since narcissists love to be the center of attention, they love themselves a good show and spectacle. Mariette’s mother used to hate funerals and weddings because she would not be the centerpiece, but they love to make scenes as the drama they create puts the focus back on them. My own mother loves family events because they would be the perfect stage for her performance during which she would victimize herself and put the blame on me. Her army of flying monkeys would of course quickly jump and run to her side by fully and blindly supporting and validating her.

Narcissists also will not give expensive gifts in private. They like to show and demonstrate to others how generous and loving they are, and they would display it at family gatherings. As external presentation is important to them, some of them would also dress in extravagant fashion to impress others and might even go to the opera or theatre not because they are cultivated and genuinely interested but because they want you to think and believe they are. The opposite is also true when they wear shabby clothing to instill, arouse and elicit feelings of pity and of compassion as well as commiseration in others.

I particularly love the following quote in Mariette’s book: people who feel the need to control others, don’t have control over themselves” and it summarizes the situation with narcissists. Do not trust them as they will bend the truth to their advantage either by reframing events or by fabricating lies. Do not fall for the "fauxpologies" as they swear to change or be better; they cannot and will not do so and those instances are only meant to deflect or induce guilt.

And more importantly, do not doubt your gut feeling. If you have made a decision including to remove them from your life, do not hesitate nor defend yourself. You do not owe anyone, least of all a narcissist, a reason for your choice and stop wasting mental and emotional energy on trying to please them or keep them satisfied.

Do not give in to attempts of hoovering where they try to suck you back into their miserable life by begging, seducing, guilt-tripping, yelling, shaming, making false accusations and playing the victim only with the aim of eliciting a reaction from you. They will even use kind and loving words to confuse and manipulate you by saying things like ‘I love you so much, how can you think I would hurt you?’ or by making you feel guilty with cringe-worthy statements about how they endured suffering or gave up so much because of as well as for you.

At all times, stay true to yourself, your inner compass and sense of direction, and stick to integrity and justice. Keep in mind that the road to freedom is arduous, difficult, and cumbersome, but in the end, you will not only lead a more authentic life, but you will be able to find joy and happiness. And if you need help, remember to check out Mariette’s book as well as her blog to guide you along the way to your liberation.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Psychotherapy, Parenting and Millennials: An Interview with Asha Tarry

Asha Tarry
I was in the process of putting together a post on millennials when I heard about Asha Tarry’s book entitled Adulting as aMillennial: A Guide to Everything Your Parents Didn’t Teach You. I was most intrigued to talk to her and she graciously accepted to do so.

Asha is a psychotherapist and life coach. We had a very pleasant chat that covered everything from psychotherapy, philosophy, our respective childhoods and families as well as the intended topic of millennials. Since there is so much to cover here, I have decided to separate my posts and publish at a later date the article that deals with millennials and current political issues. Instead, I will focus here solely on my interview with Asha whose thoughts, work as well as practice I would like to feature and showcase.


Parenting of millennials and our own personal experience

Before we delved fully into the topic and as a kind of icebreaker, I asked Asha, why she had added the subtitle Everything Your Parents Didn’t Teach You and hence put some emphasis on the parents of millennials. She explained how in many ways parenting, alongside wide-scale and rapid social changes, influenced and shaped the mindset and circumstances of the millennials.

This was not necessarily an issue of parents withholding information or refusing to guide their children nor was it intentional, but there were two factors involved. First off, due to economic situations and circumstances, parents would have to work more. This did not only apply to single-parent households but in many families, both parents had to enter the workforce and work longer hours.

This led to the situation that many millennials did not have direct parental access when growing up. Since parents were out of the home, in some cases, they would be raised by their grandparents. Moreover, growing up in a period of fast development, the advent of rapid technological progress with the Internet and Social Media, led many of them to grow up with screens of televisions, computers, and iPads. This robbed and impeded them from actively participating in games as well as outdoor activities.

Moreover, without parents at hand to guide and teach them and even more importantly, to care for and nurture them, these children lacked not only discipline and structure growing up, but they did not have sufficient confidence-building activities. This led them to experience high levels of anxiety and restlessness.

In fact, there were many lessons that millennials missed in their childhood. This impacted and impeded their relationship both with themselves as well as others. There are a lot of things that they have not processed, digested or fully settled into, which is why Asha describes her clients as young and brilliant minds with anxious bodies.

This is mainly because millennials did not learn nor discover important lessons and strategies about themselves. They are not clear about how the world works or how to build relationships, and they lack knowledge about themselves. Moreover, growing up in a fast environment, they tend to look for quick results and solutions.

In their impatience, millennials want to learn lessons quickly while at the same time avoiding, evading, and circumventing difficult and challenging situations. The problem is that it is indeed the hardest lessons that are the best ones: They teach us resilience and strength while putting everything into perspective.

The other issue is that since millennials do not want to suffer, they carry and hold onto the expectation that you can live this life unscathed, which is a myth and is detrimental to psychological and emotional growth and well-being. As Asha put it quite well, you need to allow yourself to fall but not to fall apart. Not everything is a failure, but even failure can be used as fodder and as a means of exploration and understanding of oneself and others.

When it comes to mishaps, we could look at what went wrong in those cases while analyzing the situation and asking ourselves relevant questions. The most important part here is to be curious and to be willing to learn from experience instead of trying to avoid them or to shift blame and responsibility.

Both Asha and I agreed that our own difficult circumstances growing up has in many ways led and shaped us to not only understand ourselves better but to be able to have compassion, empathy, and understanding for others. Nobody wants pain and suffering, but when we encounter and confront them, we can grow much more as a person and that makes them invaluable teachers in and for our lives, something we can then share with others.


Anxiety, Impostor Syndrome and Perfectionism

In the meantime, anxiety is on the rise. It is visible everywhere one goes, and we can see it in people, on the news, and on Social Media, and often, we experience it ourselves. It is manifested in different ways, ranging from apathy to aggression, from violence to silence. Add to that, the political climate, social unrest, and a rapidly growing pandemic that has brought the world to its knees, and you can better understand the reasons for the madness that is happening at this moment.

Anxiety can also be manifested in two other ways, both of which we touched upon in the interview, namely impostor syndrome, and perfectionism. Impostor syndrome or phenomenon is fueled by the feeling or the nagging doubt that one is simply not good enough. It leads you to feel like an impostor, a fraud, and that any success you achieve is due to luck and circumstance and not because of your own efforts or work.

We may have all experienced moments of impostor syndrome at some point in our lives. I myself am guilty as charged but Asha pointed out two things to keep in mind about impostor syndrome. First off, it is a syndrome and not an illness. In fact, when it is a cluster of syndromes that affects our lifestyle, feelings, and beliefs, it becomes maladaptive and can cause harm to our self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth. Over time, and if avoided and unprocessed, it can create trauma.

Although it is a serious issue, it can also have its benefits. In fact, it can drive people to become better or to strive to overcome limitations. It is the inherent motor and drive for self-improvement. Since anxiety is essentially a similar feeling to excitement, we can put this anxious energy to use by using it to our own advantage.

Perfectionism, on the other hand, is the result of trauma. It is often connected to early childhood experiences, which can lead to maladaptive symptoms. It is compulsive behavior as it pushes people to overwork themselves, and it is a form of suffering that is akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The best way to deal with perfectionism is to trust yourself while knowing and being aware of your limits and limitations. It is good to do your best work and to strive for excellence but not for perfection. It is also a matter of honesty and transparency with yourself: You need to be honest about yourself, understand your flaws, and keep reminding yourself that nobody is indeed perfect.


The Role of Psychotherapy

In terms of psychotherapy, we talked about various topics related to the methodology, practice, and perception of it. As someone who loves, practices, talks, and writes about psychology, I was most curious to know her approach. In my experience, some practices are simply better and more effective and productive than others. My concern was that she would be using CBT (Cognitive-behavioral therapy), an approach that I like and appreciate, but one that does not solve traumas as efficiently and deeply as psychoanalysis, for example.

I was most pleased to hear from Asha that she not only tends to have a more eclectic approach but that she is also a supporter of psychoanalysis and its many benefits to health and well-being. Her background included object relations theory, which I find rather fascinating. Over the years, she has come to use and practice a mindfulness-based version of CBT, which sounds quite interesting to me.

What is even more important, encouraging, and promising is that she has used that very same approach on herself for some years now. It has helped her to relax more and to breathe and pause when stressed. She is also aware that it is necessary to dig into one’s past to uncover and reveal past trauma as many of us have a trauma history even if we are not aware of it. This necessary and vital focus is to some extent thanks to her training as an analyst and has been part and parcel of her work for more than two decades of professional experience in the field of mental health.

In Asha’s own case, her experience was also enriched by and through philosophy, another one of my own passions as evidenced in this blog. In fact, philosophy inspired her to question everything. Like many of us, she noticed that curiosity is not always promoted or encouraged, and this resistance would come from those who claim to foster it, such as parents and teachers. It tends to occur in restrictive households and environments that do not allow much room for doubt or for questioning God and religion, while it could also be stifled by parents who do not want to, refuse, or fail to talk about feelings with their children.

Psychotherapy has the potential to give people that space to grow and to know and find themselves. It is a place of confrontation, not in the negative, hostile, or frightening sense but rather as a space of direct, honest talk and conversation. This directness is often missing and lacking in our daily life.

For instance, we are often indirect with ourselves and with other people. We do not want to be asked direct questions but prefer to present an image of a false self and project a fake persona. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Social Media, but we do the same in face-to-face interactions as well when we pretend that things are great and that we have all the answers.

First off, that is untrue. Yet, more importantly, it is counterproductive to self-development. We are blocking and limiting ourselves instead of being open to exploring who we are. This complacent and narcissistic type of person is not at all interested in finding out things that they did not know about themselves but they operate on the false assumption and delusion that they are fully in control of themselves and their life; over time, this can lead to a crisis of identity.

When people choose psychotherapy, they are often expecting quick results, which is also something that is not feasible or helpful. Years of trauma cannot be undone within a few sessions and this can certainly not be achieved via medication only. Many also do not want to do the necessary legwork and soul-searching and do not want to find answers; instead, they want to be given solutions. The aim of psychotherapy is to give you the tools and understanding but you would have to apply them to yourself for it to work.

One should always discover things and be open to learning. One of the most startling realizations is that there is not a fixed self nor a real you to speak of. When you talk about yourself, you are having an idea of yourself that is fixed in time and space alongside fixed and frozen ideas about the world. But, in reality, everything is in flux, and we constantly change through our feelings and experiences.

This is an important, essential, and necessary insight for the millennials that Asha works with. It is a process, a kind of unraveling of who they thought to be as well as the person others wanted them to be. They wish to feel stable and understood, but first, they would have to become open to experiences and respond to life more authentically, that is, by being more honest and spontaneous without overthinking things.


Social Media and Overcoming Groupthink and Intolerance 

Social Media is not the solution but part of the problem itself. In Social Media, everything has to be loud, big, and critical. It is like a room of people who are all shouting at the same time, each of whom craves and wants your attention. It is also a place that feeds intolerance and tends to deplete and undermine critical thinking and open dialogue.

The moment someone disappoints you or says something that you disagree with, you want to cancel them. But you are not aware that this is harmful to people’s psychological health as you are essentially debasing others when they disappoint you. At the same time, your action is often based on distorted, fragmented, or incomplete information and facts.

No matter what the goal and intention, it is harmful to tell people what to think instead of allowing and encouraging people to be critical thinkers themselves. This is apart from the fact that people choose to offend and personalize others instead of showing compassion, empathy, and understanding, traits that are most important and lacking in today’s society.

On various occasions, Asha herself has refused to jump on the bandwagon to debase others. Instead of making quick, righteous, and self-important judgments about others and instead of being pushed or triggered to cancel those individuals, the focus should be on more important goals and issues, such as canceling poverty, racism, sexism, and ageism. Unfortunately, many have lost sight of those goals and use Social Media to elevate themselves and to debase others while shutting down the conversation or the opportunity for any dialogue or discussion to take place.

We also want to avoid prematurely and naively seeing and expecting others to solve all our problems. This was the case with Obama who many believed would solve racial tension and problems and, in a way, it is also occurring with Kamala Harris. First, one needs to be aware that she has not been elected yet, but also that she will not be able to fix racial problems by herself and on her own. It is an important and historical event, but it should not lead one to a sense of false security. We would need to remind ourselves and be aware that she will have her own agenda, and like all of us, her own share of flaws and missteps along the way.

This trauma response, over-attaching oneself to something quickly without giving it time or reflection, is exacerbated by a lack of patience and tolerance among millennials and tends to foster groupthink. This is contradictory to freedom due to its lack of exchange of ideas and it would only lead to more division and segregation. Unfortunately, it is tied to and connected with propaganda and it could lead to dangerous, divisive, and hateful political and social unrest.

For healing to occur, we need to think and work as a community. We would need to take action and be responsible and accountable for our actions. At the same time, the goal should not be to attack others but rather to protect them. For instance, burning others for a perceived lack or an insufficient amount of activism especially while a pandemic is raging and ongoing is not in the best interest of one’s fellow beings.

Whether this is achieved through mindful activism, such as using safe measures like phone calls, writing letters and emails, signing online petitions, or by following social distancing measures and wearing a mask, we want to show that we care for each other. In fact, healing is two-fold and interdependent: When you help others heal themselves, you will also heal yourself.

You can find the podcast here: "Anxiety, Impostor Syndrome and Perfectionism: Parenting and its Effects on Millennials with Life Coach Asha Tarry"

And here's the YouTube video of this interview: "Arash's World Interview with Psychotherapist & Life Coach Asha Tarry on Social Media and Millennials

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Seligman’s Positive Psychology: Agency throughout History and Time

Martin Seligman
Through the magic of Zoom and other fortuitous circumstances, I was able to attend legendary psychologist Martin Seligman’s Keynote Lecture on Agency and Positive Psychology organized by The Shipley School and part their annual Positive Education Conference. This summer, I have had the fortune to follow more than thirty webinars and online lectures (apart from a number of personal interviews that I have had the privilege to conduct myself) but before this event, one of my highpoints had been seeing Don Cheadle speak live on Zoom. Now it is Martin Seligman who has managed to take over the top spot (sorry, Don).

What made this event even more amazing was that Seligman was talking about his upcoming book and it was his first open lecture. Put differently, I had the opportunity and privilege of assisting a world premiere of some sorts where this great psychologist was presenting new ideas and sharing his reflections with the world.

Two things immediately impressed me here before I even got to the content and details of his talk: One, that he is still a tireless researcher wishing not only to gift humanity more knowledge and insight by bringing about the potential for greater happiness, but also that he himself was surprisingly open and down-to-earth about it all. There was an unmistaken modesty and a sly sense of humor that you do not see that often with successful intellectuals. It speaks volumes for his endeavors since this is exactly how you would want and imagine the founder of positive psychology to be.

I must add here, and better now than later, that I am not a great fan of positive psychology and if it had not been Seligman, I most likely would not have followed the lecture. But I am so glad that I did because although it did not change my mind on the methodology, I learned a lot in the process and gained much more admiration and respect for, not to mention a better understanding of this field. Like any movement, it has undergone changes, adjustments, and modifications, yet its current approach is much closer to and much more aligned with what I believe in and practice.

The lecture was about the importance of agency, not merely in the sense of locus of control but also the influence and power one has in relation to oneself and with the outside world. Agency is composed of the triad of efficacy, optimism, and imagination. For agency to occur, all three aspects need to be involved and active, which then determines whether we are progressing or stagnating when it comes to issues in our lives and in the world.

What causes human progress was the question that Seligman asked, and he gave us a brief but fascinating overview of human history in about half an hour, not a simple or negligible feat at all. Yet the initial answer to the question of the perceived cause of progress was that it depends. It depends on what field or discipline we are talking about as each discipline has its own lens through which they define, observe as well as measure and evaluate progress.

Hence, there are some who see ecology as a potential cause. Nature would be considered as the determining cause of human agency. Proponents of this discipline would then see global warming in our past lending itself to the practice of agriculture. There are also studies claiming that climate could have been responsible for the decline of the Roman empire, and of course, ecology plays a very significant role in today’s reality, society as well as politics.

Then there are those who see economy as the driving force for human progress. It was the acquisition and distribution of money and wealth that eventually led to and caused the Industrial Revolution. We could pinpoint the move from barter trade to the profit-oriented economy that led and brought us to this precise point in our history, for better and for worse.

Others do not see the economy as a determinant cause but rather focus on society itself; the human organization and class warfare are the points of focus in fields like sociology. Accordingly, these social movements and forces shape our perspective, worldview, and politics at any given period, and we are seeing and witnessing many of these shifts and changes occurring in our current world.

Moreover, history often tends to focus on these social forces of the past that determine outcomes in the present and beyond. Unlike biographers who single out extraordinary decisions and actions taken by unique and great leaders, the historian does not focus on individual or single events but sees them as an expression and articulation of fighting for freedom. They often embody a struggle for recognition, equality, and justice, and they are happening and reproduced time and time again in human history.

Yet the approach that Seligman has taken is regarding the psychological state of agency. Although all these causes are valid and important, they are still remote causes. They all must have been propelled by the belief that one can change the world. Without that belief, we would have been stagnant and not been able to make progress in our history.

We must keep in mind that there are always two opposing forces at play here: we can either progress or stagnate. The choice is within the individual that becomes part of the whole and could lead towards social and political change on a global scale. Agency is essentially a mental state that is propelled and driven by the belief that one can make a positive difference in the world.

In other words, agency causes progress but a lack of it results in stagnation and that is the veritable source of these ups and downs in history. It might explain to an extent how the French Revolution, a liberating and idealistic movement, could possibly give way to the tyranny and bloodshed that followed afterward.

But let us re-examine the different stages of history with agency in mind, agency being a combination of the three factors of efficacy, optimism, and imagination. For progress to occur and to be effective, all three need to be at play and in motion.

We start with the hunters-gatherers-fishers. They had limited agency. They may have had specific but not general efficacy. They depended in many ways on nature and circumstance for their survival. But they did have imagination as is evidenced by astounding cave paintings. There was also a sense of optimism as they would bury the dead, denoting and demonstrating a kind of belief in an afterlife.

Then the age of agriculture entered the scene about 14,000 years ago. Here we can see more efficacy, particularly over plants and animals. There was also optimism at hand since they needed to plant seeds and wait around for them to grow and take shape. Yet their imagination was limited because of the gods and idols they depended on to have rich and fruitful harvests and to whom they would attribute their success or lack thereof. At the same time, they also showed the beginnings of architecture, and with it, the first signs of human initiative.

Then came the Bronze Age around 5000 years ago. Here we have the written word. As an exemplar, we can hold up and analyze Homer’s Illiad. Achilles did not have much efficacy, nor did he have belief as his actions were reflected and determined by what gods would tell him to do. He was neither future-minded nor imaginative, whereas we can see a clear difference here between the Illiad and the Odyssey, with the latter revealing, in Seligman’s words, a “huge blossoming of agency” in comparison.

The Greco-Roman period gave us Western civilization with the Socrates/Plato duo. Not only did they, alongside their distinguished cohort, set the basis and groundwork of philosophy, psychology, religion, politics, and various other disciplines, but they also demonstrated belief in mind and soul. This also gave humanity the means and manners of attaining harmony and justice and the keys to improving and expanding oneself and the understanding of oneself.

It may have seemed that we were set on a clear path of steady progress, but it all came to a standstill and to a period of stagnation, if not regression thereafter. Judaism and Christianity take hold of humanity and take away, limit, or manipulate and control human agency. In fact, according to Augustine, there was no human endeavor to speak of as it all depended on God’s grace.

We see this reflected in the Old Testament, which is overall non-agentic. Abraham just follows God’s command. There is not a lot of choice, agency, or efficacy as he merely complies and follows orders, the same way, followers were ordered to blindly obey the Ten Commandments. It would be Kierkegaard who much later would add existential depth and dimensions to Abraham’s struggle, but in the end, Abraham’s actions were limited and not undertaken by his own volition. The New Testament had somewhat more agency, but that was quashed by Augustine.

This led us to the Renaissance in which we returned not only to the height of the Greco-Roman period again, but it was rapidly promoted, expanded, and elaborated through the invention of the printing press. There was even breakthrough in Christianity since humans had been endowed with agency and willpower, courtesy of free will.

It was in 1524 that Erasmus wrote about the freedom of the will and the power to move oneself as well as others in the process. Reformation, on the other hand, was not about human agency but rather the bondage of the will as exemplified by Luther and Calvin. Although they encouraged personal readings of the Bible, they were anti-agentic in nature because they believed that grace was laid down by God and was not and could not be swayed or influenced by human actions and endeavors.

Yet this was challenged by the Industrial Revolution and its subsequent period of the Age of Progress, which started in the beginning of the nineteenth century and continues to this very day and onward. Agency has been up and down, but it seems that people are taking control and power again and starting to become more conscious and aware of not only their power but also the potential possibilities inherent in it.

When we feel helpless at any period for that matter, we become passive and stagnant, but it is the belief in agency that causes and brings forth innovation and resilience. We have seen how important and vital agency is and has been throughout history, and we would want to continue to build on that positive momentum.

Whether a person has and shows efficacy is often reflected in the choice of words. This method of inquiry has been used by Seligman to evaluate the level of agency across time and history. This would come down to the choice of words that either reflect choice, such as choose and select or that demonstrate duty and obligation, such as must or have to. In comparison, Seligman notes that the Old Testament has many fewer efficacy words as compared to the New Testament, which gives and offers individuals more choice and freedom.

Optimism is determined by analyzing to what degree our outlook is influenced by the past or the future. If we keep looking back to the past or feel that we are constrained and limited by our past, then we tend to feel less optimistic about our future, and vice versa. This is also why people who are not satisfied with the status quo actively seek and ask for change as they want to uproot stagnant structures. In fact, they are often referred to as progressive as opposed to reactionary.

When it comes to imagination, we would be positing our thoughts of the possible versus the impossible. Whenever you think that something is out of reach, you are limiting and restraining your imagination. The Renaissance man par excellence Leonardo Da Vinci was not bound by the reality and conditions of his times as his imagination flew and soared past and beyond those constraints. What DaVinci believed in ended up becoming a tangible reality in later times.

Yet we are often bound by our own negative and limiting beliefs. Most of those beliefs are bound by false information and are fueled by doubt and fear. While Seligman was talking about how we have progressed and improved in most areas of our existence, I was reminded of the excellent book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World and Why Things are Better than You Think by Swedish statistician Hans Rosling. Evolutionary speaking, we are programmed and hard-wired to focus on the negative, but this view and perspective are often not based on facts and do not reflect them.

This pertains to various parts and aspects of our existence, and here are a few examples of the overall improvements we tend to either disregard or not be fully aware of: Literacy has increased from 10% in 1800 to 86% in 2016. Women can vote in 193 countries - with the exception of two countries where they are still not allowed to vote: the two countries are Saudi Arabia and the Vatican. There are many other examples, such as poverty, war, sickness, and disease that we tend to have false impressions and limited knowledge about, which, in turn, makes us feel less hopeful and less positive and powerful about the future.

The problem is that our belief in human progress is often undermined and sabotaged by media and politics. Yet we need to be aware that things are not as bad as they may seem at first sight. In Seligman’s words, what we need most - and most desperately - is a politics of optimism. This is something that we can practice and train ourselves for. Instead of engaging in deduction or induction, we should use abduction, which means to leap to the best possible explanation.

Especially in our current times and climate, be it of political and social nature or even weather-wise - we must overcome present barriers in terms of racial warfare, climate catastrophe, nuclear war or the current threat and restrictions posed by the existence and reality of Covid-19. Our helplessness in the face of adversity is the default reaction to bad events, but we must and certainly can override this.

For this, efficacy is required. We must act and try harder and be more persistent, resilient, and innovative. We should also ensure that we are healthier in body and mind. These negative events that we are facing and confronting, we ought to see them as temporary and not permanent, local, and not global or general, as well as controllable instead of outside of our locus of control. When it comes to COVID, we may feel that we are out of control, but that is when we need to be more responsive to and proactive in safety measures and protocols - until we have a vaccine that promises and guarantees us safety and security.

This is important and vital for our overall health and wellbeing. Those who are positive in their outlook, that is those who have efficiency, optimism, and imagination, are also much healthier than those who are not. They have stronger immune systems with fewer infections, their bodies heal faster, and they have less inflammation. In fact, they also live longer by an average of eight years!

In terms of productivity, they have not only better social relationships, tend to be more creative and resilient, they also get depressed less than those who do not believe or practice positive psychology. With all this in mind, it seems mindboggling why anyone would not embrace this philosophy.

And I very much support these ideas, but my disagreement is not in the goals, principles, and aspirations but in the method itself. For instance, it is difficult to overcome trauma that is deeply ingrained. For that, it is best to use depth psychology to get to the root of the problem, but that is beyond the scope here and needs to be discussed in another post altogether.

What is important to note and looks most promising to me is the multi-dimensional expansion of positive psychology to what Seligman refers to as PERMA, where positive emotion is only the tip of the iceberg followed by engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. As a whole, this new approach falls more in line with my interest in and shows similarities to Existential Analysis.

To say that Seligman’s ideas are inspiring would be the least. We can see here how important and relevant his ideas are and I am most excited to read his next book TomorrowMind whenever it comes out. I hope you are inspired as well.