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Transcript of
Nathaniel Branden's Honoring the Self
- Side 2


As a human being, the process of self evaluation is inevitable and extremely important to you. From this process, you need to emerge with positive self esteem. Since thinking is involved here, and since thinking is an act of choice, attaining positive self esteem is often a task of heroic proportions. In this section I’m going to talk about the concept of the heroic, and the concept of self esteem by exploring our ability to think, our choice to do so, and the consequences of that choice for our life.

Let’s begin with some basics. For every organism that possesses it, consciousness is the fundamental means of survival. The ability to be aware of the environment and to act appropriately. Here am I using consciousness to mean ‘the state of being conscious or aware of some aspect of reality’. Like every other species that possesses awareness, our survival depends on the guidance of our distinctive form of consciousness. Our conceptual faculty. Our ability to think.

To learn to grow food, to construct a bridge, to grasp the healing possibilities of a drug, to conduct a scientific experiment, all of these require a process of thought. To respond appropriately to the complaints of a child or a spouse, to recognize that we may act in a way that denies our feelings, to learn how to deal with hurt and anger in ways that will heal rather than destroy, all require a process of thought. Even knowing when to allow conscious thinking to stop and when to rely on the subconscious, that too, requires a process of thought. Everything we are that makes us human, every achievement, everything our happiness, well being and survival depends on, entails a process of thought.

The challenge is this: just because thinking is necessary for a successful life, doesn’t mean that we are automatically programmed to think. We can choose to think, or fail to choose to think. We can focus consciousness, or we can suspend consciousness. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the central issue of our life and a central issue of self esteem. Using our consciousness appropriately, using our consciousness as our well being requires, is neither instinctive nor automatic. The design of our nature contains an extraordinary option: to seek awareness, or avoid it. To seek truth, or avoid it. To focus our mind, or unfocus it. In other words, we can choose to undermine our means of survival and well being, and plenty of people do. This is where the issue of honoring the self first arises: to think or not to think.

This freedom to choose is unique to humans. In the rest of the biological world, everything seems to happen by automatic patterns and rhythms. In human beings, both life and consciousness reach their most highly developed form. Of all living systems, we alone have evolved to the conceptual level of consciousness, to the level of abstractions, principles, explicit reasoning, propositional speech and self consciousness. And here we approach the heart of the matter, the self conscious level of mind.

There is one level of conscious awareness that we share with animals. One that is automatic and controlled by natural forces. That is the sensory perceptual level. But at a higher level, a level of conceptions, abstractions, a level of thinking, your mind is controlled by you. It is your responsibility. You have the capacity to activate and direct the process of thinking by setting the goal, the goal that is to say, of awareness, mastering some particular set of facts or task, the goal of understanding - and then that goal acts as a regulator of your mental activity, both at the conscious level and at the subconscious level. But it’s you who has to be conscious by choice. It’s you who has to decide. It’s you who has to say “I want to understand”, “I want to get clear on this”, “I want to master this”, “I want to know what I’m doing”, “I want to understand enough to do the right, the reasonable, thing.” And to say it one more time, nothing in nature will force you to make the right choice.

For example, I wake up in the morning, go to my desk, and I’m confronted with a vast array of papers, notes, and research materials. I sit down, dimly aware, let’s imagine, that my mind is not yet at all really in focus. Let’s assume my attitude is the right one. I look at my work and I think to myself, “Get going!” In other words, I establish the goal of awareness by telling myself, in effect: “grasp this.” See where you left off, recreate your context, grasp what the situation now requires, and proceed. In this way, I activate the appropriate mental state.

A different example, my spouse is talking to me, trying to explain something that’s troubling her or him. I have a choice. Do I tell myself: “try to understand this”, or do I tell myself: “try not to understand this”? The choice of awareness means the choice of a highly focused form of consciousness. Certainly you can be focused to a greater or a lesser degree, but if your intention is contact with, rather than evasion of reality, then I describe that state of mind as “focused consciousness”.

Now, to be in mental focus doesn’t mean that you have to be engaged in problem solving every moment of your life. Not at all. In some contexts, it might mean meditating, to empty your mind of all content. This might be done in order to make yourself available to new ideas, new thoughts, as a form of relaxation, with the intention of rejuvenation, creativity or insight. So, there are circumstances in which mediation can be an entirely appropriate mental activity. And in fact, some cases where it's highly desirable.

There are other alternatives to problem solving. Creative day dreaming is one, abandonment to erotic sensation is another. The question is, “Do I choose the state of consciousness appropriate to the task at hand?” In matters of mental functioning, context determines appropriateness. The state of consciousness I need when writing a grocery list is different from the state of consciousness I need when I’m trying to write a book. Different again to the state of consciousness I need making love to my partner. But in all cases I can be conscious, or unconscious. I can generate consciousness appropriate to the task, or I can fail to.

The possibility of choice, the fact that consciousness is volitional, is what generates the need for self esteem. And the kind of choices you make determine the kind of self esteem you have. Now as I’ve said, you can choose to avoid being aware in general, but you might choose to avoid just specific lines of thought that you find upsetting or painful. For example, you might notice qualities in your friends, your spouse, or yourself that clash with your standards. And so, faced with this, you might choose to go blank or switch your mind to some other concern, and refuse to identify the meaning or implication of what you’ve noted.

Or again, finding yourself in an argument, you may realize that you are being affected by unexamined feelings, and are holding your position for different reasons than the ones you are giving, and reasons that you don’t want to look at further. However, you can refuse to think about those reasons, you can refuse to integrate them, you can push them aside and continue to shout with righteous indignation. You may even understand that you are acting illogically and still continue in the same way. So that’s always the choice. To seek to see, or to seek not to see. To be conscious or unconscious, or half conscious.

In cases like this, you may be doing more than just being irresponsible with regard to awareness. You may be actively seeking unawareness as your goal and practicing evasion in situations where awareness clearly is what’s needed. When you do that, you hurt your self esteem.

Sometimes we are hiding from the fact that we are “thinking” but not doing anything. As if to imply that so long as we are just “thinking” we don’t have to do anything. Well, clear thinking can hardly sustain this view point. For example, a woman becomes aware of the fact that she has treated her daughter unfairly and cruelly in some way. She knows that she has left her daughter hurt and bewildered. The woman thinks about her behavior, about her reasons, and about why she should behave differently in the future, but she doesn’t do anything! She doesn’t say anything to correct it. She is dimly aware that she doesn’t find it easy to admit that she’s made a mistake, but that she doesn’t do anything about that either. She just “thinks about it”. And she keeps telling herself that she’s thinking about it. She doesn’t speak to her daughter about what she is aware of, or what she is experiencing. She pretends their situation is normal. She doesn’t confront her daughter and she doesn’t confront her own resistance to confronting her daughter. And all the while, she’s insisting that she’s thinking. This is not thinking. This is a form of evasion masquerading as thinking.

Let me explain what I mean by evasion. I am referring to situations where you know that clear awareness is possible through you, is required by the situation, and yet you decline to peruse clear awareness. Now, if you choose not to think about some issue that doesn’t seem important, doesn’t seem relevant to your interests or needs, that’s not evasion. All of us don’t think about issues we don’t see any reason to think about. If you don’t think about an issue because you don’t know how to start or where to go, or if you think your efforts will be futile, again you might not be practicing evasion. Evasion means you see the need, and you still don’t do it.

The choice to think is truly heroic in some cases. For instance, if you choose to think and come up against facts you can’t handle, what then? If you choose to think and your thinking leads you to conclusions that threaten to disrupt the routine of your life, what then? If you choose to think and your conclusions lead you far from the mainstream beliefs of others, what then? If you choose to think and you begin noticing traits in yourself you don’t admire, what then? If you choose to think and you see what you or others don’t want to see, what then? That’s the challenge. Can we stay conscious even when consciousness isn’t easy?

There are plenty of temptations to avoid thinking. But thinking remains your basic means of survival and the basic need of your well being, and certainly of your self esteem. But to think is an act of choice. You possess freedom of will.

“What about the doctrine of psychological determinism? Doesn’t it deny any freedom in human consciousness? Doesn’t it maintain that whether we think or not, our actions are determined by forces beyond our control?”

The determinist view of mind holds that a person’s method of thinking is an inevitable product of an endless chain of prior events. It holds the belief that we are passive in relation to our actions, decisions, values and conclusions. That we just react to internal and external pressures. That those pressures determine the course of our actions, just as physical forces determine the course of every particle of dust in the universe.

In contrast, free will is the doctrine that holds that people can perform actions based on forces that are within their control. You have to work to achieve your knowledge. The mere presence of an idea inside your mind doesn’t prove that the idea is true. Many false ideas may enter your mind. But you are free to test your belief against reality, and then to accept or reject your belief. If this were not the case, if we didn’t have the freedom to check and test our beliefs against reality, how could we know anything, how could we maintain that anything is true, including the doctrine of psychological determinism? That doctrine, like any other, rests on our ability to think freely. I want to stress that ‘freedom’ does not mean causelessness. A choice to think is not causeless, you caused it.

Freedom of choice of the kind we are discussing here, the freedom possible to a volitional consciousness, entails many issues. Each one is important and all are inter-related. Consider the following alternatives, all implicit in the fact our consciousness is volitional]:

“Focusing versus non focusing, thinking versus non thinking, awareness versus unawareness, clarity versus obscurity, respect for reality versus avoidance of reality, respect for truth versus rejection of truth, perseverance in the attempt to understand versus abandonment of the attempt to understand, loyalty to our convictions versus disloyalty, honesty with self versus dishonesty, self confrontation versus self avoidance, open-mindedness versus close-mindedness.”

From the time that a child can be self aware, he or she becomes increasingly aware of a responsibility to regulate mental activity. The list you just heard covers the issues that regulation concerns. You can see how important the role of reason and rationality is. Reason is the faculty that we use to integrate data in accordance with the law of non-contradiction. By this definition, free will is the choice to be rational or to be irrational. Which ultimately means the choice to respect reality or to defy it.

Your freedom isn’t absolute or unlimited however. There are many factors that can make the appropriate exercise of your consciousness easier or harder. Some of these factors may be genetic. Others are developmental. The environment you find yourself in can support and encourage the healthy assertion of consciousness, or it can oppose and undermine it. We’ll get back to the role of the environment at a later point.

Within your mind itself there may be obstructions to thinking. Subconscious defenses and blocks may make you oblivious even of the need to think about a particular issue. Consciousness is a continuum. It exists on many levels. And unresolved problems on one level may subvert operations at another. For example, if you block your feelings about your parents, if you cut off access to those feelings through denial, disowning or repression, and then try to think about your relationship, you have disconnected yourself from so much important material that you can easily become muddled and discouraged and give up.

Clearly, the desire to be more aware doesn’t guarantee that the results of your efforts will in every case be successful. You are free to try. There is never a guarantee of success. If there were such a guarantee, fewer people probably would avoid the responsibility of thinking. Uncertainty is built into the very essence of our existence and it is uncertainty, and above all freedom, that creates the need for self esteem. Since exercising our minds appropriately isn’t automatic, self esteem is our confidence that we are in fact using our consciousness in the way that our life and well being requires.

Self esteem is the integrated sum of self confidence and self respect. Your need for self esteem is your need to know that the choices you make are appropriate to reality, appropriate to your life and well being. It is your need to know that you have made yourself competent to live. Reality continuously confronts you with alternatives. Since you have to choose your goals and actions, and make decisions concerning your interactions with the environment, your sense of effectiveness and security requires the conviction that you are right in your method of choosing and of making decisions. You need to know that you are right in your characteristic manner of using your consciousness. You need to know that you are right in principle, appropriate to reality.

Self confidence is confidence in the reliability of your mind as a tool. Self confidence has nothing to do with thinking that you can never make an error. It is the conviction that you are able to think, to judge, and know that you are genuinely committed to honoring reality as much as you possibly can. If you doubt the effectiveness of your basic means of survival, you will be interrupted or paralyzed in your efforts to cope with the challenges of life. You will be condemned to feelings of anxiety and helplessness, and sentenced to feelings of being less than fit to live.

Self respect has a different emphasis than self confidence. While self confidence has to do with being capable of effective thought, self respect entails the need to feel that you are good, that you are worthy. As you develop, as you become more and more aware of your power to choose your actions, as you acquire your sense of being a person, you experience the need to feel that you are right as a person, right in your characteristic manner of acting. In a word, that you are good. You’ll learn the concept from adults, but the need is inherent in human nature. That is the need to feel that you are a good human being.

A child may not relate the issue of being right or good to the issue of life or death. A child may be aware of it only in relation to the alternatives of joy or suffering, self delight or self hatred. To be right as a person is to be fit for happiness. To be wrong is to be threatened by pain. To be worthy as a person is to be worthy of joy. To be unworthy as a person is to feel unworthy of joy. The concern with right and wrong arises naturally in the early stages of human development.

Behaviorists have tried to persuade us that this concern is merely a product of social conditioning. But the truth is that a concern with morality or ethics arises naturally in the early stages of our development, much as our other intellectual abilities develop, and progresses in step with the normal course of our growth. You can’t exempt yourself from the realm of your values and value judgments. You may judge yourself with values that are conscious or sub-conscious, rational or irrational, consistent or contradictory, life serving or life threatening - but every one of us judges him or herself by some standards. And to the extent that you fail to satisfy your standards, your self-respect suffers.

Consider this. It will help you to grasp the magnitude of the problem. We are the one species that is able to form a judgment about what is best for us to do, and then do the opposite. We are the one species free to disregard our own knowledge or betray our own values. The concept of hypocrisy does not apply to lower animals. Neither does the value of integrity. In order for you to understand your need for the experience of personal worth, you have to grasp this fact: your dog or cat can’t exhibit hypocrisy. Neither can they exhibit integrity. The problem doesn’t arise for them, but it does for you.

As I’ll talk about later, parents and the family environment play a significant role in the development of a child’s values, self concept and self esteem. Although it’s false to say that the child’s self esteem is merely a reflection of other people’s appraisals, I don’t want to deny that those appraisals are an important part of the child’s life experience, with consequences for the child’s psychology.

A human being needs self respect. Needs the experience of worthiness. Just as much as he or she needs self confidence. You must act to achieve your goals and in order to act, you must believe that you deserve to be the beneficiary of your actions. To fight for your happiness, you must consider yourself worthy of happiness. If you lack that sense of worthiness, you will fail in the self assertion that your well being requires. In key areas of life, you will be interrupted or paralyzed, condemned to feelings of being inappropriate to life.

In my practice of psychotherapy, I work with many people who are unhappy because secretly believing that they do not deserve to be happy, they sabotage their own chances for happiness. You make yourself worthy of living by making yourself competent to live. You can’t retain a sense of worthiness if you default on the responsibility of thought and reason. If you turn your back on reality and facts - if you are irresponsible toward truth, reason, reality and existence. This is the way you can undercut your competence to live. If you betray your integrity, if you betray your moral convictions, if you turn your back on your own standards, you undercut your sense of worthiness. You do so by evasion. By the refusal to see what you see and know what you know. You commit treason to your own correct or mistaken judgment, and you undermine your sense of competence.

The judgment passed on your mental behavior is typically experienced by you as an assessment of your essence. Behavior at this level of intimacy - internal mental behavior - is experienced by you typically as “who I am”. It is almost inseparable from your sense of self. It is easier to perceive external behavior as an expression of self that is not identical with self. But internal behavior, like choices and mental operations, are intrinsic to your experience of self. It is possible to dis-identify from self particular choices. For example, if you said, “I’m sorry I chose to be so irresponsible in that matter and I am determined to act differently in the future.” That would be a very good case of not identifying your particular choices with your essential self. And it’s very important when we’re thinking about the self, not to identify every particular choice, or decision, or reaction with our core self.

The self continually evolves, continually shapes itself, continually affects the way it is experienced by the continuing stream of choices and decisions we make in the course of living. That is why change and growth are possible. You don’t have to remain a prisoner or yesterday’s mistakes, or yesterday’s defaults on the responsibility of appropriate consciousness. Your choices do of course have psychological consequences. The way you chose to deal with reality, truth, facts, and your choice to honor or dishonor your own perceptions does register in your mind, for good or for bad, and either confirms and strengthens your self esteem, or undermines and weakens it.

Self esteem is the reputation you acquire with yourself over time in consequence of your choices and decisions and actions. I hope it is apparent by now that the ‘self’ you are holding in esteem is your mind - your mind, and its characteristic manner of operation. I want to stress this, because ‘self’ is a term that acquires somewhat different meanings according to context. Sometimes, when you speak of ‘myself,’ you mean, ‘my person’, the totality of my being, including my body. In a psychological context, ‘self’ is used most often to mean the sum of those mental characteristics, abilities, processes, beliefs, values and attitudes that you may or may not consciously recognize as yours. Much of the territory of the self may be subconscious.

The Mind.

The concept of mind is narrower than that of consciousness. ‘Mind’ is associated specifically with the ability to represent and manipulate reality symbolically. To form and use concepts, to reason and to construct propositional [?] speech. ‘Mind’ is what distinguishes human consciousness from the forms of consciousness of lower animals.

SH - I don't agree with Branden about the "ego". I agree with Wayne Payne who says it is an unnecessary word and concept.

The Ego.

Ego, the Latin word for “I”, xx? is the unifying center of consciousness – the core of self awareness. Ego generates and sustains a sense of self and personal identity. Your ego is not your thoughts, but the thinker. Not your judgments, but the judge. Not your feelings, but that which recognizes feelings. It is the ultimate context within. The ultimate context in which all our narrower selves or sub-personalities exist. Self esteem might better have been termed “ego-esteem”.

xx - unfinished - Tape has a problem.

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