Tag Archives: Personal Growth

Sloppy Thinking, Part 1

Changing your language will change your life!
Changing your language will change your life!

Thinking about the nature of shoulds has prompted me to write also about what I call sloppy language. I have long maintained that if an individual will give meticulous attention to his or her language for six months, that individual will dramatically change his or her life for the better. By meticulous attention, I mean that the individual will listen closely to both his or her spoken and internal language, changing the necessary wording to more accurate statements (examples below). Warning: changing your language will radically change your life.

My relationships with others are based on: 1) being authentic (showing the other who I am), and 2) keeping my commitments (doing what I say I will do). Being attentive to my language allows me to keep these values.

There are seven areas that are especially important. 1) I should, 2) I don’t know, 3) I can’t, 4) I’ll try, 5) maybe, 6) Why? and 7) I wish. Again, I will split the content because of length.

I should: I have dealt with I should in the previous posts.

I don’t know: As applied to the external world, there are many things I don’t know, and there are a lot of things about which I know only a little. However, most of the time when I say “I don’t know,” I am referring to my inner thoughts or experience, and when “I don’t know,” I stop thinking about the subject. If I don’t know what is happening to me, no one else does either! And no one else can determine what is happening to me — it is my responsibility to know myself! If I want power-strength-wisdom-freedom, it is also essential that I know myself! I know of no other way to obtain these, but to find out. So, when you hear yourself answer “I don’t know,” pay attention to the possibly hidden truth of the underlying answer.

I can’t: With rare exceptions, the word “can’t” is a misnomer; what I am really saying is that, if I were to do the action (which I most likely can), then I would … (be afraid, be hurt, be angry, lose money, etc.) and I don’t want this outcome. I “won’t” is a more accurate word for this choice. Sometimes the word “can’t” is accurate. I can’t live on a planet in another star system — we don’t have the technology for me to get there alive. In contrast, I can live on the planet Mars; we do have the technology, but I do not wish to spend my life attempting to make this possible (I won’t).

I’ll try: “I’ll try” is also a misnomer in that it frequently becomes an excuse for ‘not doing,’ of not making a commitment (that I will keep!). If I have never done something before, my attempt is an experiment and still a ‘doing;’ I may not succeed at my expectation, and yet I will still gain valuable feedback in my attempt. If I have done the task before, even without success, I know what to expect (perhaps how difficult the task is). ‘Trying’ (without proper preparation and action) is an excuse. As noted by Yoda in Star Wars: There is no try!

Maybe: Maybe — do I want to? My energy goes to what I want, not what I should (which activates that part of me that says “I don’t want to!”) “Maybe” as applied to my inner world simply means I am too lazy to take the time to know myself! And also I disconnect from my own authentic experience, my truth-testing. If I give attention to my actual experience, I can know myself! Again, pay attention to the hidden truth. “Maybe” as applied to the external world again means I am too lazy, perhaps not willing to take time to know myself, or more commonly not willing to be engaged in commitment. Neither lead to effectiveness in my life.

So — I have choice! I need to choose! I should choose!! Maybe!! I don’t know if I can!! I can’t!! But I’ll try.

Originally posted to Facebook 20160613

To be continued.

“You should,” Part 4 (Management)

You indeed could! Or not.
You indeed could! Or not.

This is the fourth of four posts on the nature and management of shoulds. (Note: because Facebook does not easily allow paragraph markers, I am choosing to begin my paragraphs with … to make it easier to read — at least it is easy for me!)

To recap. Shoulds are the rules of social boundaries. They are an investment in the third limb of an emotional triangle, and are usually dysfunctional. They do however contain information — the rules of the social network.

The management of shoulds is a measure of maturity. To quote a poem I developed years ago:

No one is perfect; we all fall down.

The measure of maturity is how we arise,

And how we help others when they fall down.

So, how do I manage shoulds?

First of all, I attempt to digest them; I attempt to grasp the social rules that are being expressed by the should. By digest, I mean that I explore to what extent this information is of value to me. To what extent do I wish to live by this rule? Under what circumstances would I choose to act according to this rule? Or not?

Having done this, I am in position to choose how I wish to act when I next hear this should, either from someone else or from one of my own sailors. Simply put, I initiate what I call WIWI — Will I or Won’t I? What is the worst that will happen? What is the worst if I do? What is the worst if I don’t? I don’t waste time with all the nuances; they simply clutter my thinking. If I can live with the worst, the nuances don’t matter — life will unfold. If I can live with both ends of the spectrum, I simply choose whichever seems like the most fun.

Suppose I do not like either option — what then? I play. Not only is play fun, but it is the most sophisticated skill set I have (it took me ten years to learn how to play). Imagine someone (or a sailor) has told me I should do something that I do not wish to do. I will then choose to do something that is somehow appropriate to the emotional dynamics, yet is also a weird response, surprising to the other (and often to myself as well). The key is that I must create for myself a state of wonder (“I wonder what they will do with this? . . . Wow! What will they do?”). If I know they will react or be angry or be frustrated, it is not playful! When I am in a state of wonder, I am not anxious about what the other will do, and I am not invested in the third limb of this triangle.

The second thing that being playful does is that it pushes the emotional energy of the should back to the other; they must then deal with their own anxiety, anxiety that lead to the should in the first place. The difficulty here is that the other may not like my response, and may choose to escalate the pressure. So I need to be prepared — how will I respond if they do? So I do not choose to be playful when the danger is quite real! Remember — we will kill to protect the rules.

Note well: I tend not to play in cooperative situations — play jars relationships. Here, I would rather negotiate a resolution with the other, presuming cooperation. Sometimes, I will still play, but only to lighten the relationship.

Ok, enough on shoulds. I trust that you the reader can now grasp how complex the subject is.

Originally posted to Facebook 20160612

Please also see my comments on sloppy language.

“You should,” Part 3 (Emotional Triangles)

You indeed could! Or not.
You indeed could! Or not.

This is the third of four posts on the nature and management of shoulds.

From Ed Friedman I also learned of the incredible importance of emotional triangles — the laws of relationships; this information changed my life. Essentially, shoulds invest energy in the third limb of the triangle, an investment that is generally dysfunctional (unless other people want the investment).

For those who are unfamiliar with my work, an emotional triangle is the triangular relationship between any two people and a third person or issue, e.g., me and you, me and an issue (or person), you and the same issue. Since there are many people in my life, and many issues (sometimes many issues with the same person), there are many (thousands) of emotional triangles in my life (and in the life of every person). I do not live in isolation, and I am always subject to the influence of these triangles! It is the system within which I live, and systems are designed to remain the same — shoulds are one of the ways in which this occurs.


It is also important to recognize emotional triangles can also exist (and frequently do) between the sailors within me. These internal triangles have the same rules, but are not as apparent usually. Management is also the same.

There are three laws associated with emotional triangles, with corollaries, applicable to every triangle. Imagine you and I and an issue (a sample triangle — the laws are the same for every triangle).

  1. I can only change myself. I can change my relationship with you, I can change my relationship with the issue, but I cannot change you and your relationship to the issue. This latter is called my third limb, the limb to which I do not belong; it is a relative term in that your third limb is the relationship between me and the issue. But what happens if I am anxious about you and your relationship, my third limb? These are the corollaries.
    1. When I attempt to change my third limb, the results of my efforts are not predictable. In spite of how much I think I know you, you are not predictable. You will only change when you want to do so, not when I want you to do so (these might be the same, but often not). Much of human activity involves investment in the third limb, but is cooperative and seems as though it is predictable. For example, in work environments, the boss is invariably seeking to change the third limb — but here, the employee is willing to cooperate so as to get paid!
    2. What is predictable is that, when you don’t want to change, the more I insist that you change, the more I will get the opposite of what I want. You will resist me.
    3. Under these circumstances, any pain in the triangle between us will move in my direction. Needless to say, not a recipe for success.
  2. If I change, you must change. We are connected! But, under these circumstances, you may be anxious about my changes. This will be especially true if my change is significant to the system in which I live. Corollaries:
    1. Suppose you are anxious about my change. In your anxiety, you will attempt to change your third limb, me and my relationship to the issue. This is called sabotage. It will occur, and in fact, I can know that my change is effective by the degree to which sabotage occurs. I generally tell people that changing myself is only 30% of the work of change; dealing with the sabotage is 70% of the work.
    2. Sabotage will occur even when my change is ultimately healthy for the system. Expect it; be prepared for it! Systems strive to remain stable, and therefore resist change.
  3. Change requires that I stay connected. Corollary:
    1. It takes about three months for change to work its way through the system. Rats — I have to stay and deal with the sabotage. It would be so nice if I could leave and come back when the change is complete. Tough!

As simple as these laws are, they are incredibly subtle in their usage. They also provide an active way by which to live the Serenity Prayer. The third limb refers to what I cannot change, the second law to what I can, and the boundary to the difference between these two areas. I first learned of the Serenity Prayer when I was 30; I did not learn how to use it until I learned of Emotional Triangles.


A major aspect of the management of shoulds is, thus, to really grasp the significance of these laws.

Originally posted to Facebook 20160611

To be continued.

“You should,” Part 2 (The Crab Trap)

You indeed could! Or not.
You indeed could! Or not.

This is the second of four posts on the nature and management of shoulds.

Ed Friedman (as noted in the previous post, Ed was one of my primary mentors) used to tell a story about how to catch crabs in the ocean; he claimed it was true, although I have never been able to verify it from independent sources (hints, yes, but verification, no). Anyway, imagine a big box, maybe 6’*6’*3′, with a chicken wire bottom and no top. Attach some ropes and a float. The fisherman rows it out to where he thinks there will be crabs, puts a lot of bait in it, and pushes it over the side to sit on the floor of the ocean in maybe 10-12’ depth of water; then he (or she) comes back the next day. Crabs smell the bait, climb in, and soon there are 20 or so crabs munching away. When the bait is all gone, they are trapped.


But how? There is no top, and they climbed in without difficulty, so why can they not simply climb back out. Because they will not let each other leave. Crabs are social animals. When they are in the box, they somehow recognize themselves as a group, and will not let others leave (on the ocean floor, there are normally no walls, and hence no confinement to leaving). If a crab attempts to leave, the others will pull it back into the box; if a crab insists on leaving, the others will kill it — they will tear off its claws. So when the fisherman comes back 24 hours later, here are 20 crabs, 2 dead, 18 alive. Off to market!

Human beings are social animals also. The word should, and its euphemisms, is our crab trap. And we will kill to protect this word, to keep others in line. You only need remember the wars of the 20th century to recognize how much we will kill!

We should so as to protect the rules. But what are the rules? Here it gets a bit crazy. There are essentially two major rules that we protect. The first is “Don’t think about the rules.” And the second is “Everybody has the same rules.” Weird.

We likely learn both rules before the age of three or four, in the stage of “Why, why, mummy/daddy, why.” Baby is attempting to understand the world, and its rule base. So when baby asks ‘why,’ and mummy/daddy are in good moods, they answer (baby of course then asks ‘why’ again!). Great; baby is happy.

However, when mummy/daddy are not in a good mood, baby will likely be criticized, sometimes severely, but at least with an answer like “because!” with a harsh voice tone. Baby know then that it is not safe to ask — and baby has a very high need for safety. So baby eventually stops asking. But baby also has a high need for energetic experience. This internal conflict between safety and experience eventually means that baby must repress the need to ask ‘why,’ especially when it is not safe (harsh voice tone) to the point of not even thinking about the rules (rule #1: Don’t think about the rules). Otherwise baby would ask about the rules.

But baby is now stuck — can’t ask about the rules, but must figure out the rules in order not to be criticized. The only way to do that is to guess the rule, and assume that everybody follows the same rules (rule #2). This is fine in the family, because likely everybody does follow the same rules, but when baby is older, and finds that perfect partner, the partner of course “has the same rules.” Maybe! But you can’t ask about the rules — that breaks rule #1.

As you can imagine, it gets complicated. Sometimes this is a source of major conflict in the new relationships. And sometimes it is very dangerous, because we will kill to protect the rules (note the frequency of family violations).

So, shoulds are heavy duty words!

Originally posted to Facebook, 20160610

To be continued.

“You should,” Part 1

You indeed could! Or not.
You indeed could! Or not.

A few days ago, I received a request to write about the nature of the word should, must and have to. So . . .

I imagine that this is a very important topic for many people. However, it is such a huge topic that I will split my posting into several, so as to keep the length of each reasonable (likely there will be four posts).

First, the words should, must, and have to all mean roughly the same thing, with different degrees of insistence. They are basically the rules of social boundaries, and as such, are very important for group cohesion. They keep people bonded together. However, as human beings, we are very subject to the pressure of shoulds; they become words of tyranny.

My primary training as a therapist was in Gestalt Therapy, and it is still my basic philosophy. It is from Gestalt that I first was exposed to the concepts of Sailors (for those who do not know me, it is one of the metaphor-concepts that I commonly use — think of as ship where the sailors are in mutiny).

In Gestalt, shoulds are an aspect of the boundary between self and others. If we are to grow effectively as human beings, it is our responsibility to digest them (not just swallow them), so as to become authentic. In Gestalt, there were considered to be four primary disturbances of boundaries: introjection, projection, retroflection, and confluence. Introjection swallows the shoulds of others, but does not digest them — thus, Introjectors (those for whom introjection is the primary defence) live trapped by the rules of others. Projection displaces the shoulds; projectors shift their own internal conflicts onto others, and thus projectors are trapped unaware of their own internal conflicts. Retroflectors turn the rules against themselves, and divert the conflicts into themselves, usually as headaches, gut pain, muscle tension, etc. Those who use confluence fuzz the boundaries and thus are either silly, or somehow unreal, to themselves and others.

Murray Bowen, one of the founders of Family Systems Therapy, developed the concept of self-differentiation, the ability to maintain a sense of self in the presence of others (and thereby resist the pressure of shoulds). He developed a scale (0-100) for this ability, and believed that no individual was consistently able to score higher than 70%. Ed Friedman, one of my major mentors, was an early student of Murray’s; it is from Ed that I learned the concept of emotional triangles (the second metaphor-concept I commonly use — see the third post for triangles — very important in the issue of shoulds).

Originally posted to Facebook, 20160609

To be continued.

A Vision of A Mature Culture

Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid. (Goethe)
Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid. (Goethe)

As I explore the issues of our culture, I start with Vision because it is essential to our being. As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.” Vision is what motivates us: we want to move towards it. (We want to move away from global warming, but where do we want to go?)

If we do survive and eventually thrive, how might a mature culture function? Early in my PhD process, prior to retiring, I presented a workshop called “For Our Children.” I based the title on a statement attributed to the theologian Thomas Berry: while in his 70s, he was apparently asked why he worked so hard. His answer was: “For the children.” Personally, I now work “for the children,” to allow them the privilege of “being human in the 22nd century,” at least one hundred years from now. As simple as it is, “for the children” is the best description of what “wisdom as a way of life” means to me, and my best sense of what I want in the future.

What we need is such a vision for our culture. I don’t know what that is, but I hope that together people can come to such a vision — one that motivates. This is again a tall order, given the complexity of people and our propensity to argue when our small domains are challenged. The following are initial suggestions — I will expand upon them in later posts. As you read them, attempt to step into them as a lived experience, rather than an intellectual concept.

As mentioned in the previous post, an effective vision needs to be multi-sensory and emotionally rich. I must be able to step into it, and say: “Wow. I want this.” For me, I can see, hear, smell, touch “for the children.”

I propose that, in a mature culture, the following six priorities would be honored, and lived, on a daily basis—and would form the basis by which all other decisions are implemented. Principally, we would live into the concept of “Seventh Generation Sustainability” (Wikipedia), as originally proposed by the Iroquois League.

The specifics of what I am suggesting may be only pipedreams, but I propose that, in some fashion, the concepts are essential to mature functioning. Most importantly, the specifics require that we come to terms with the limitations of our humanness, and choose to live within our greatness. Such a culture will honor the sacred — the appreciation of the universe as an interconnected, experiential whole, in humility and awe of its underlying mystery — only then will we be true stewards of this planet.

My reservation with presenting a list is this: it is difficult to get a lived experience from a list — possible, but difficult. My best lived experience is to see my grand-child playing with others, including myself, thinking of how I want this to continue, flipping between this and assisting in the teaching of a group of interested students. Then the rest falls in place.

    • First, the care of children would be our highest priority. The presence of children would no longer be considered as “interruptions”; we would support each other to attend to children, to facilitate individual adults to take care of ongoing tasks and business. Children would be a choice, and would be raised by the village, in cooperation with the parents.
    • Next on the list would be the development and the living of a cultural story that honors the pursuit of wisdom as a life-long study. We need a story. A dominant characteristic of human beings is that we are motivated by stories. We are story-makers; myth and metaphor are strong motivators of our growth. If we lived wisdom, most of our current dilemmas would be resolved.
    • The third priority would be the living of the skills necessary for dealing with diversity — and resolving conflict. Our propensity to viciousness needs to be managed — it arises from our lack of clarity, in lacking effective choices.
    • Fourth, a mature culture would balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group, not by imposition, but because the educational system would provide the deep support for members of the culture to want to balance these needs. A mature culture would train its members to live in ways that emphasize both the powerfulness (to create self) and the powerlessness (to change other) inherent in relationship. Such a culture would educate its members that each member is truly accountable for whatever he or she thinks, feels, and does, without shame or coercion of self or other—that the truly unacceptable is that of violation (restriction of freedom without permission, beyond public safety).
    • Fifth, a mature culture would develop governance based on wisdom, on statesperson-ship. I propose that a mature culture would actually be a no-party democracy, with individuals elected on the basis of perceived wisdom, and with interlocking regional governments, up to a world government. Individuals would be elected on the basis of perceived wisdom by appropriate regional groups to form a regional level of government, that government deciding within itself who would be the proposers of legislation and who would be the devil’s advocates. Higher levels of government would depend on input both from lower regional governments, and from polling of the general population.
    • Finally, the judiciary system of such a culture would function at all levels in the fashion of justice circles, the intention being that any discordance is to be resolved in ways that support the rights of both individuals and the groups concerned. In such a culture, there will arise occasions where individuals repeatedly act contrary to the needs and desires of the group. I suggest that, here, more senior groups (groups to which earlier decisions might be appealed) would have the power to ostracize such individuals from the culture, perhaps to live in enclaves not subject to the standards of the general culture. These alternate cultures would be free to develop their own standards, but would not be permitted to impose their standards on the main culture. If desired, individuals in these substitute cultures could transfer back to the main culture, but a requirement would be they demonstrate they have sufficient intention and maturity to live within the main culture.

What would such a culture actually look like? I suggest the following: The total population of the world would be one to two billion people. I do not believe we can sustain seven to nine billion people on this planet. How we would reduce our population to this level is unclear, but it does not need to be draconian, if the above priorities are in place. In addition, even at two billion people, the human footprint would need to be reduced—this would require that we come to terms with living in community. Communities would be relatively small and self-sustaining. Citizens would understand, be committed to, and share, a set of purposes and moral and ecological principles. These purposes and principles would be developed through intensive participative processes — they cannot be handed down from above. This requires dialogue-rich groups, focused on action shaped by reflection, and such that local groups have the power and authority to create change directly. People would be rewarded with active immediate feedback based on success, and leaders would be committed to their own learning.

Is this type of mature culture possible? I do not know. Is it necessary? I maintain the answer is: Yes — we have to come to terms with a zero-growth sustainable culture, one that honors all species on the planet. Need it have the characteristics I am suggesting? No, but likely something like this would be necessary. We need to live in peace with our world; we need to live in peace with each other, especially our differences. It will be difficult to achieve. Our current civilization is in a state where all of the forces that oppose our maturity are disparaged, and thus, conversion to a more mature state will require much time and effort.

I believe that we are capable of such conversion, once we decide to do so. However, whether we will do so in time to save our species in not yet clear.

In the next post, I am going to look at the problems of having a vision.