Self Sabotage versus Sage Wisdom

June 13th, 2012
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Reading many psychology books recently is, surprisingly, changing my behavior for the wiser. Ever a pessimist and cynic, I’ve usually harbored little or no hope. I’ve even seen hope as a curse, and a weapon of self-torture. But as a result of what I’m reading, I’ve begun to explore the ways different parts of the brain affect one another and where wisdom and creativity are generated.

Some of the books are: “Switch”, “Free the Idea Monkey”, business books one of my Master’s degree teachers suggested I read. But I was frustrated at being unable to change for very long. So I re-read “Switch”. The author points to interesting research by Jonathan Haidt and others. So I looked in the bibliography and found “You’re Not So Smart”, and “The Happiness Hypothesis”, both fascinating books.

These books resonated in me very much because of the painful emotional vacuum created by my leaving my church and my religion behind. “The Happiness Hypothesis” mentions the strange (for a scientist) positive effects of right-brain, religious, vertical thoughts. Ironically, Haidt is an atheist.

But even after reading these books, I was back where I started: deep in depression, and avoiding work by endless procrastination. I noticed that I was sabotaging my own potential by sulking and refusing to work, labeling work as unpleasant, being afraid to fail, and feeling a victim of my own mental disarray. I’ve felt this before when under pressure to become independent and succed financially.

When I saw what I was doing to myself, guilt swallowed me whole, and paralyzed me even more. In a moment of desperation, I Googled self-sabotage and found the book I’m reading now: “Positive Intelligence”.

The premise of the book is that humans evolved two mutually exclusive mental patterns, one for survival, and another for thriving. The author, Shirzad Chamine, says that these patterns are localized in very specific brain regions and can be activated and exercised, like muscles.

He says the survivor brain has a series of characters or voices, which we all have in varying degrees: the judge, the most pervasive of them, and 10 others, which depending on our upbringing were the mental strategies that we involuntarily chose during childhood and adolescence in order to survive. They have names like “the stickler”, “the victim”, “the avoider”, “the controller”.

While the survivor brain is useful, it is a remnant of a much more physically challenging time for humans. In our modern, more intellectual society, it gets in the way of growing in wisdom and thriving. The voices become saboteurs.

The reason, according to Chamine, is that the survivor brain processes literally inhibit a completely different and much more productive brain system, which he calls the sage.The sage is our brains’ thrive mode. It sees everything as a potential blessing, is at peace, feels deeply connected.

He mentions 5 superpowers of the sage: empathy, exploration/curiosity, innovation, navigation and action. I used a weird mnemonic to memorize this: the image of a pink monkey with a thinking cap at the helm of a ship, with 6 arms. The pink symbolizes empathy, the monkey, curiosity, the thinking cap, innovation, the helm of the ship, navigation, and the arms, action.

The thought that there are physical brain structures and brain processes for this makes me believe much more fully in what otherwise would read like a business self-help book. I’m very surprised at how effective programming my mind with some of the exercises Chamine teaches has been on improving on my mood and productivity.

I am beginning to see the saboteurs at work in my past even since childhood. I vividly remember saying to myself: “Shut up mind!” when I was still in kindergarten, and was going through involuntary, self-inflicted, psychic torture. I have clear memories of how wished I could escape my own mind back then, and could recognize how it was making what should be pleasant things unpleasant for me. I amused my parents by sighing and saying things like “How painful it is to grow up!”, and horrified my sister by screaming, at 5 years old, that I didn’t want to live (I had a high fever at the time).

As a child I would agonize and stubbornly procrastinate, hoping to avoid anything unpleasant, like certain foods, homework, and studying. I can see the exact same self-sabotage in my life today, except that it is stronger, and more sophisticated. But now I’m self-aware. I was able to recognize some of the motivations of 3 of my saboteurs.

My judge thinks I will fail at any permanent positive change, and works hard at making that come true. It tortures me by showing me evidence of my unreached potential, and plunges me into torrents of guilt. It has past experience as proof of its logic, but I also have contrary evidence to disarm it.

My victim doesn’t want me to get any successful work done, because if I succeed, I can no longer see myself as a victim, and get the emotional soothing self-pity gives me. To disarm the victim, I can empathize with myself and give myself actual positive emotional peace.

My avoider doesn’t want another disappointment. Its worst fear is the guilt of failure, because the judge has beaten it too often with by conflating success with self-worth. I can turn this around by using failure as an opportunity for exploration and learning and removing its poison.

I am working these things through very slowly, but already feel much better. I am currently in the grip of the avoider, but not as strongly as only 2 months ago, when I was in despair about my career, ever understanding myself and growing in wisdom.

Image: Matthew Purdy

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