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The Difficulty in Making Better Choices (or: What We’re Each Up Against—What’s Worst in Ourselves)


Only the best in us talks about the worst in us, because the worst in us lies about its own existence.” – David Schnarch

(Or, as I prefer to paraphrase it: “Only the best in us can talk about what’s worst in us; what’s worst in us lies about itself and its own existence.”)

From “A General Theory of Love” “The Difficulty of Making Better Choices and Breaking Our Habitual Ways of Reacting”

Whenever an emotional chord is struck, it stirs to life past memories of the same feeling. While sifting through the sensory present, the brain triggers prior knowledge patterns, whose suddenly reanimated vigor ricochets throughout the network. Old information comes alive; the person then knows again what he used to know. A depressed person effortlessly recalls incidents of loss, desertion, and despair. Anxious people dwell on past threats. Paranoia instills a retrospective preoccupation with situations of persecution.

If an emotion is sufficiently powerful, it can quash opposing neural networks so completely that their content becomes inaccessible—blotting out incongruent and disconfirming incidents and even whole sections of the past. Within the confines of that person’s own subjective inner experience or virtuality, it’s as if those incongruent events never even happened. But to an outside observer, the person seems oblivious to the whole of his own history.

For example, severely depressed people can “forget” their former, happier lives, and may even vigorously deny them when prompted by well-meaning people trying to inform the situation with greater context and accuracy.

And momentary anger and rage afford hatred an upper hand that is likewise obtuse, sometimes allowing a person to attack with internal impunity and self-righteous justification those he has temporarily forgotten that he actually loves.

The consequences of painful emotional reverberation in the brain’s networks reach beyond selective amnesia during a dominant mood.

A childhood replete with suffering lingers in the mind as bitter encoded traces of pain and a free-floating seemingly ever-present sense of anxiousness and alertness.

Even a tangential reminder of that suffering can spur the outbreak of an overwhelming onslaught of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, anticipations. As if he had accidentally bumped a sleeping guard dog, the adult who repeatedly suffered abuse as a child may feel the fearsome jaws of those negative memories close in all around him after he glimpses the merest possible intimation of his former circumstance. In sad empirical confirmation, maltreated children flipping through pictures of faces exhibit a hugely amplified brain wave when they encounter even the slightest angry expression.

Other people are troubled by emotional-memory networks that are simply too ready to pass around the signals that comprise negative feelings. Such a person finds that he or she can’t shake an unpleasant emotion once it gets going. Instead of dwindling and winding down within minutes as they should, an emotion and its associated repercussions may drown out the person’s entire mind for days or weeks.

That kind of limbic sensitivity makes the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is naturally heir to well-near unbearable for some people.

Remedies do exist for those whose networks engage in excessive emotional reverberation: some psychopharmacologic agents act as the damper pedal on a piano does, applying gentle, restraining influence on buzzing strands. Emotional chords are quieted and fade sooner.

For those whose limbic networks are high-strung, the relief can be life saving and positively life-altering.

For instance, one person related how every minor setback made her ruminate for days. “I know it doesn’t make any sense,” she said, “but my boss corrected my spelling on a report the other day, and I before I knew it, I spun out; my mind just wouldn’t let up and stop: he thinks I’m incompetent, I’m not good enough, my work isn’t good enough, I’ll lose my job. And all of that is ridiculous, I know—at some level I realize this—but it’s not enough to change my feelings. I know I’m the best manager he’s got. But whenever anything goes wrong, I just can’t shake the awful feeling.”

And so prominent was her sensitivity to emotional slights that she even retreated from intimacy. No matter how cautious her partner was, he was bound to do or say something that inadvertently hurt her feelings, and then she’d be so hurt that she’d feel terrible for weeks. Being in a relationship, she said, was like “trying to dance barefoot”—eventually her toes would get stepped on or bruised and she would flee.

However, a touch of the right medication diminished her emotional twanging to a normative range. For the first time in her life, she was able to feel and experience a minor pang as a just a minor pang. She could be upset for half an hour or so, and then get on with her day. “Is this what life is like for everyone else?” she asked. “No wonder they can all be in relationships!” With her vulnerability and excessive sensitivities reduced to more manageable and livable levels, she was much readier for love. As she said, now she was dancing with shoes on.

If the early experiences of a limbic network exemplifies healthy emotional interaction, it will serve as a more or less reliable guide to a world of workable relationships in adulthood.

But if a diseased love is presented to a child, his limbic system will encode it and force his adult relationships into that same Procrustean bed. Even if the world around a person dramatically changes, a person’s emotional experience of the world may not budge. He or she may remain trapped, as so many are, within a virtuality of thoughts and feelings constructed decades ago—and, as Twain observed, a person can no longer depend on the eyes when the imagination is out of focus.

Limbic networks spawn a vexing and fascinating aspect of human emotional life—“transference,” Freud’s terms for the universal human tendency to respond emotionally to certain others as if they were actually figures from one’s past. Transference exists because the brain remembers with neurons.

Because human beings remember with neurons, we are disposed to see more of what we have already seen, hear anew what we have already heard most often, and think just what we have always thought. The sine qua non of a neural network is its penchant for strengthening neuronal patterns in direct proportion to their use. The more often you do or think or imagine a thing, the more probable it is that your mind will revisit its prior stopping point. When the circuits are sufficiently well-worn and repeated that thoughts and emotions fly down them with little friction or resistance or self-observation, then that mental path has become a part of you—it is now a habit of speech, thought, action, attitude, mood.

A good therapist does not merely wish to discern the trajectory of an emotional life, but to actually help determine it and re-steer it. Helping someone escape from a restrictive virtuality means reshaping the bars and walls of a prison into a home where love can bloom and life, happiness, and stability can again flourish. In the service of this goal, two people come together to change one of them into somebody else.

Few agree on how the metamorphosis occurs. “Where id was, there ego shall be,” was Freud’s battle cry. Increasing awareness, bringing light to the darkness, replacing chaos with consciousness, vanquishing the mind’s dark undergrowth with insight and intellect, is indeed an encapsulation of the talking cure and part of the process.

But therapy, as is true of love, is not only a fancy neocortical skill; it also belongs as well to the older realm of the emotional mind, the limbic brain. Indeed, people do come to therapy unable to love and leave with that capacity restored. But love is not only an end for therapy; it is also the means whereby every end is reached. The neocortical brain collects facts quickly. The limbic brain does not. Limbic networks shrug off insight but yield to a different persuasion: the constancy of another person’s limbic patterns reaching through the doorway of a limbic connection. Psychotherapy works because the limbic patterns of one mammal can restructure and alter the limbic brain of another.

Awareness is necessary but ultimately not enough to help people to desire a certain form of relationship. The requisite neural framework for performing these activities is not something that coalesces itself in one fell swoop. Describing healthy relatedness to someone, no matter how precisely or how often, does not inscribe it into the limbic neural networks that allow for or create the capacity to love.

Self-help manuals are at best like car-repair manuals. You can read them all day, but only reading them doesn’t actually fix or change a thing. Working on a car means rolling up your sleeves and getting under the hood, and you have to be willing to get dirt on your hands and grease beneath your fingernails. Overhauling emotional knowledge is no spectator sport; it demands the messy experience of yanking and tinkering that comes from a limbic bond.

If someone’s relationships today bear a troubled imprint, they do so because an influential relationship left its mark on a child’s mind.

When a limbic connection has establish a dissonant neural pattern, it takes a different limbic pattern and connection to revise it.

A determined therapist does not strive to have a good relationship with his patient—it can’t be done. If a patient’s emotional mind would support good relationships, then he or she would be out having them. Instead a therapist loosens the grip on his own world and drifts, eyes open, into whatever relationship pattern the patient has in mind—even a connection so dark that it touches the worst in him.

The therapist has no alternative.

When he stays outside the other person’s world, he cannot understand or affect it. When he steps within its range, he feels the gravitational pull of foreign limbic patterns. The patient’s limbic mind was formed within the highly charged environment of parental and familial dysfunctional limbic patterns and networks. The patient’s time-locked limbic network equip him with the intuition that relationships feel like this, follow this outline or patterns. The dance between the therapist and the patient cannot trace the same path that the latter wants or expects, however, because his new partner moves to a different rhythm. The therapist’s missions is wait for the moment to move the relationship subtly in a different direction, and then to do so again and again, ten thousand times more. Progress in therapy is iterative. And the therapist’s task is to take up temporary residence in other person’s emotional world not just to observe but to alter, and in the end, to overthrow.

Through the intimacy that a limbic exchange affords, therapy becomes the ultimate inside job.

A crucial part of healing involves the patient allowing him or herself to be limbically known. Not everyone can do it. A patient has to stomach the proposition that many of his emotional convictions are but fictions—and that someone else’s might be better. A patient has to have that modicum or trust, courage, or even desperation/exasperation. A person from a childhood with emotionally hazy and inconsistent parents finds trying to know himself like wandering around a museum in the dark: almost anything could exist within its walls. He cannot even be sure of what he senses. But those who begin to succeed in revealing these parts of themselves to another find the dimness to begin receding from their own visions of self. Like people awakening from a dream, they slough off the accumulated ill-fitting trappings of unsuitable lives. The mutual fund manage may suddenly become a sculptor, or vice versa; some friendships lapse into dilapidated irrelevance as new ones deepen and take shape; a city dweller moves to the country, where he finally feels at home, or vice versa. As limbic clarity emerges, a new way of life takes form.

People who need limbic regulation often leave therapy sessions feeling calmer, stronger, safer, more able to handle the world. Often they don’t know why. Nothing obviously helpful happened—after all, telling another person about your pain and the most intimate details of your life doesn’t sound like a recipe for relief. And the feeling inevitably dwindles, sometimes within minutes, taking the warmth and security with it. But the longer and more often a person can talk bravely and honestly and let himself be more and more fully known, the more his stability swells, expanding infinitesimally with every session as length is added to a woven clothe with each pass and contraction of the loom. And after he weaves enough it, the day comes when the person will unfurl his or her independence like a pair of spread wings. A spontaneous capacity germinates and becomes a new and natural part of the self, like knowing how to ride a bike or tie one’s shoes. The effortful and courageous beginnings fade and disappear from memory.

……………….

C.S. Lewis on “Choice & Self-Development

We shall never get a Christian society until most of us become Christian individuals.

Which will not happen until the majority of us begin the task of seeing how “Do as you would be done by” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” can be applied in detail to modern society, and until the majority of us also simultaneously begin the task of becoming the sort of people who would actually apply it if we saw how.

Christian morality claims to be a technique for doing this—for putting the human machine right and making it capable on both accounts.

Another technique makes a similar claim—namely, psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis itself—its medical theories and technique, separate from all of the philosophic additions that Freud and others have made to it—is not in the least bit contradictory to Christianity. Its technique overlaps with Christian morality at some points, and it would not be a bad thing if every parson, priest, or minister, knew something about it.

But it does not run the same course all the way, for the two techniques are doing rather different things.

When a person makes a choice—a moral or significant life choice—two things are involved.

One is the actual act of choosing.

The other is the various feelings, impulses and so on which his psychological outfit presents him with, and which are the “raw material” of his choice.

Now this raw material may be of two kinds.

Either it may be what we would call normal: it may consist of the sorts of thoughts and feelings and impulses that are more or less common to all men.

Or else it may consist of quite unnatural feelings and impulses and thought patterns due to things that have gone wrong in his upbringing or his subconscious.

A fear of things that are really dangerous would be an example of the first kind of raw material.

An irrational fear of kittens or spiders would be an example of the second kind.

The carnal desire of a man for a woman would be of the first kind.

The perverted desire of a man for an animal would be of the second kind.

What psychoanalysis undertakes to do is to remove the abnormal feelings, impulses, and thought patterns and reactions; that is, to give the person better raw material for his acts of choice.

Morality is concerned with the acts of choice themselves.

Now suppose a psychoanalyst gets involved and cures a person of his irrational, exaggerated fears, and puts the person back into the position of having only the ordinary natural range of fears of danger that any average person has.

Well it is just then that the psychoanalytic problem is over and moral problem begins—of subduing natural fears and urges and temptations by moral efforts in order to become a braver and better person.

Because however much you improve a person’s raw material, you have still got something else remaining: the real, free choice of the person on the material presented to him to either put his own advantage first, last, or on even regard with others.

And this free choice is the only thing that morality is concerned with.

Bad raw psychological material is not a sin but is a disease or a deformity; it does not need to be repented of, but cured or healed.

And this, by the way, is very important to understand.

Human beings judge one another by their external actions.

God judges them by their moral choices.

When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of kittens forces himself to pick one up for some good reason, it is quite possible in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy person may have shown in overcoming his ordinary fear of some legitimate danger.

When a person who has been abused from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny kindness, or refrains from some cruelty or lashing out that he might have committed, and thereby risks being vulnerable or feeling foolish, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you or I would if we gave up our very life for a friend.

It is well to put this another way.

Some of us who seem to be quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of our own good heredity and good fortune and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends.

Can we be quite certain of how we would have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit and bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler?

That is why Christians are told not to judge until they have accounted for and removed the wooden beam or self-bias and blindness to self from their own eyes.

We see only the results which a person’s choices make out of his raw material.

But God does not judge a person on the raw material at all, only on what he has done with it.

Most of a person’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body. When his body dies, all of that will fall off of him, and the real central person, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will finally be revealed and stand naked and alone.

All sorts of nice things which we took to be part of ourselves, but were really just due to good digestion, good heredity, good upbringing, will fall off of us. And all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health or bad upbringing will fall off others.

We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he or she really was.

And there will be surprises.

People often mistakenly think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.”

But I do not think that that is the best way of looking at it.

I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.

And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.

To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

All of which explains to me something that always used to puzzle me about Christian thinkers and writers: they seemed to be so very strict at one moment and so free and easy at another. On the one hand they talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important, and then on the other hand they talk about the most frightful treacheries and murders as if you have only got to repent and all would be forgiven.

I have come to see that they are right.

What they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to either endure—or enjoy—for ever.

One person may be positioned such in life that his anger sheds the blood of thousands. And another positioned such that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at.

But the little mark upon the soul may be very much the same in both. Because each has done something to himself which, unless he slows down, faces it, admits to it, and repents of it, will make it even harder for him to keep out of anger and rage the next time he is tempted or triggered, and will only make the anger and rage worse when he does fall into it.

Each of these persons, if he or she seriously turns to God and the Holy Spirit, can have that kink in the core of their person straightened out again.

And each is doomed in the long run if he or she will not.

The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.

One last point. Remember, the right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a person is getting better he or she understands all the more clearly the evil that is still left in him or her.

When a person is getting worse, he understand his own badness less and less. Pride and denial and self-protectiveness form more and more of impenetrable, irredeemable wall around him.

This is common sense, really.

Good people know about both good and evil, cowardice and bravery, virtue and vice; bad people do not know about or acknowledge any of these.

(abridged and adapted from “Mere Christianity,” pp. 84-88.)

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