This is my final paper, submitted for Social Psychology, CIIS, Summer 2021.
Facing the Problem
When something intended as metaphor is believed as literal, it is called ontological confusion, and we see examples of this when people take biblical stories at face value. Similarly, there are some who are convinced that our reality on planet Earth is a computer simulation. This kind of thinking is not as harmless as it may appear; it is a setup for disappointment and failure because even if it were a screen that could be cracked to reveal the ‘real world’, if there were a man behind the curtain, or what not, there is one problem that remains- us. We are still the same person inside the simulation or outside of it, inside the matrix, or not. It might also encourage a nihilistic mentality, as in we’re not really here, so let’s burn it all down. Yet we are here. Our brains, our neuroses, our problems, our monkey minds, jumping from one conclusion to the next. Wherever you go, there you are. Simulation or not, we remain. From an existential perspective, the solution is often contained inside the problem. The answer may not be outside of ourselves at all, but within us.
Last night I received two dreams about facing my shadow, and I believe they speak to this topic at hand. In the first dream it is nighttime, and I am holding a clear plastic bag in my left hand, the kind used for fruit or veggies at the market. The bag is not tied or knotted, just gathered tightly at the top. Inside is an extra-large, other-worldly spider. My grip lessens and the arachnid will soon be released, set free. I can only protect him for so long. His long, limber legs paw gently at the opening. The focus is on this spider—my spider—and he looks scary, but in truth he is a gentle being. It is my perception of my fear that I am most afraid of. I tell myself I have sequestered the spider to protect those around me. But I am the one who holds the bag. I want to embrace the younger me, the girl who holds him. There is nothing to fear, I want to say. My shadow is only scary when it is Othered.
In the second dream, I am in a house. Someone has left me there. Many people coming and going, strangers, chaos. Why is my house not my own? I’ve misplaced my medications, my things are not where they should be. There is discord and disharmony, and I am so tired. Finally, I stand at the mirror, ready to be myself. I remove the false fronts from my teeth, the veneers. They are plates, front-facing coverings, adhered with glue or something to just the fronts of my real teeth. They come off easily. I stack these cover plates on the counter, running my tongue against my original teeth which have been covered up too long. There is nothing wrong with my teeth. It feels good to shed the layers, such relief to be my real self.
This semester in our Social Psychology class at CIIS, we confronted the many ways that humans engage in social behavior, and the resulting dynamics that occur from being the social animals that we are. Conformity, dissonance, relational aggression, propaganda. The research brought to bear in The Social Animal (Aronson & Aronson, 2018) was at times confounding and, in all honesty, depressing. More than a few times, I found myself wondering, are we truly this predictable, this limited…this hopeless? When I examined my own life, I found evidence of these unconscious mechanisms at work in my life, which is exactly what made it so humbling to face. Yet, just as in my dream, to accept my shadow spider, i.e. my dark, disowned parts, I would have to face myself in the mirror, without the veneers, without the false face and just be real.
When we abdicate responsibility, we also abdicate a solution…of course we must accept that there is a problem first. And this brings us to said problem: humans at large, avoid self-inquiry because it is too shocking, too painful, too vulnerable. Looking at ourselves truthfully is not glamorous; without filter, without makeup, without our social masks to hide the many flaws we have deemed unacceptable. This honest self-examination might be one of the most difficult, painful, bottom-of-the-barrel tasks we are ever called to do…which is exactly why we must do it.
According to Aronson & Aronson (2018), the need for belonging is the strongest of the five central social motives of human social behavior humans (the others are understanding and prediction; control; a need to matter; and trust).
What does it mean to belong? The desire to belong drives so much of our behavior that we rarely think about it. Yet, marketers, propaganda, and mass media most definitely do think about it. If fact, they use this central social motive to sell us their wares, get us to see issues a certain way, use their apps and products, and influence us in myriad ways. Most people are unaware of how often we are played on a daily basis, just like puppets in a play. The average person has never thought about how we are being manipulated, how everything that is competing for their attention—billboards, apps, pop up ads, targeted facebook ads, mailing lists, politicians, movies, tv shows—they are all selling something. And they are using our need to belong against us.
Yet, what about belonging to ourselves? What about facing ourselves in the mirror and being honest about our own humanness. Whatever is hurting and eating at us inside, does it not also deserve love and kindness? What are the thoughts going through our head when we engage in our destructive behaviors, our repetitive thoughts that keep us stuck. What are we thinking about when we are binge eating, or drinking ourselves to sleep, or pushing away anyone who tries to loves us, or sabotaging new opportunities, or having a hard time speaking honestly to our partner, or getting defensive every time our partner gets that tone in their voice, or cutting ourselves to feel better, or ignoring sensations of pain, or never allowing ourselves to cry? We are not weak because we engage in these things, although they do harm us. We are made weak only by never examining the backstory of why.
Belonging to ourselves is not something that is taught, nor are we given examples of what this looks like. Our capacity to be our own protector, our own best friend, it is a superpower we give away when we give into thoughts, emotions, behaviors that have never been examined. We may be told that in order to love another, we must first love ourselves. But how many of us berate ourselves cruelly when we make a mistake, or forget a date, disappoint another, or do something we swore we wouldn’t do again?
If we are to become aware of these social motives that are unconsciously driving us, especially our need to belong, we must learn to love ourselves fiercely, more than we ever have before. This is not selfish; it is the most compassionate, kind thing we can do. As Ghandi said, and I paraphrase, to see a change in the world, we must be that change we wish to see. To love ourselves is a daily experience of opening up to acceptance and then letting go of control. It is about learning what feels right and what does not, what we are okay with and where the line must be drawn, creating boundaries and then being vulnerable, sensitive, honest, and present within that.
While therapy can be incredibly valuable, many people may be skeptical. Or they may feel self-conscious about how they would be perceived if a family member found out; many see therapy as a demeaning, that they are not enough. However, every human on this planet feels some measure of pain if for no other reason than that we are all connected. It is not shameful to ask for help, but it is a tragedy to carry a burden as a point of pride, or a medal of honor. It is no secret that the Earth is in pain and we humans along with her; we are all experiencing some level of dis-ease. We may be struggling right in this moment.
One way to address this problem of self-avoidance is through practicing forgiveness and self-love. Ho’oponopono is a Hawaiian healing prayer which offers a unique opportunity for addressing the pain we carry. The word Ho’oponopono roughly translated means, to put things right, to move back to balance. It is a tool for connecting to self-love, belonging, and forgiveness. Meant to be said in repetition, like a mantra, it can be said to yourself, or direct it outwards to someone whom you seek forgiveness from. The prayer goes like this:
I’m sorry, Please forgive me, Thank you, I love you.”
I’m sorry serves to recognize there was a wrong done (by you, or to you). We can only change that which we acknowledge. Please forgive me is the sincere contrition. Thank you serves as appreciation for the recognition and the apology. I love you completes the circle, offering wholeness and closure.
Ho’oponopono is a balancing practice to facilitate mental and emotional release and connect you to your heart center. Recite the prayer in your head, or speak it aloud, at any time of the day. To do this exercise in front of a mirror is especially healing; this is because a mirror does not lie. For instance, if we say this prayer in our head, but at the same time we are thinking of other things, then the energy of the words are blocked because we are distracted. Yet, in front of a mirror we must gaze into our own eyes and there is nowhere to hide. We might say I’m sorry and wince, or I forgive you and begin crying. This tells us there was something there inside of us that needed recognition, which was tender and hurting.
Love fosters belonging, which in turn allows for understanding and trust. When we trust ourselves we are better equipped to look honestly at the disowned parts of ourself and decide if we want to integrate them or discard them when they no longer fit. It is only when we keep them “safely” contained in a bag, unacknowledged and unexamined, that they do us harm.
Pledging allegiance to ourselves in earnest is not something that has been modeled in our society. We have been a culture that looks outward, avoiding our insides at all costs. We have only recently seen evidence of people on the world stage, like Simone Biles, being courageous enough to honor their inner knowing, trusting their heart and their boundaries.
We do not need to try and change our driving social motives extrinsically; for in truth, there is nothing wrong with these motives in and of themselves. In fact, they often serve good purpose in the social nature of groups and community. What is wrong, however, is to continue to move blindly along in life, remaining in pain, remaining asleep, when we have the tools available to wake up.
Kriss, S. (2016, October 13). Tech billionaires want to destroy the universe. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/10/silicon-valley-is-obsessed-with-a-false-notion-of-reality/503963/
Annie Lowrey. (2020, Sep 15,). The bunker magnates hate to say they told you so. The Atlantic https://global.factiva.com/en/du/article.asp
Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018) The social animal (12th ed.). Worth Publishers. http://public.eblib.com/choice/PublicFullRecord.aspx?p=6418106.
Wisdom Weavers of the World. (2019, January 30). What Does Ho’oponopono, the Hawai’ian Phrase, Mean? [Video] Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3eBAD8KgaM&t=1s