Letting My Purpose Find Me

In my own clock, I spoke metaphorically about learning to listen to my own Self, learning to discern what I want from what I believe I am supposed to want. As this process continues, I am becoming more aware of the distinction between the two. In exploring this distinction, an interesting question arises: what is it that I actually want?

I am realizing that my desire to answer to this question is animated by a force that is much like gravity: subtle, yet unyielding. Like gravity, it manifests whether I want it or not. Like gravity, I can only pretend to ignore it. I’ve come to see it as the fundamental need for Fulfillment, the need to do something more than just surviving and living out my life.

I’ve also begun recognizing that this need for Fulfillment, this force is directed. There’s a definite sense of “more-of-that” and “less-of-that” when I make my own choices. And when there’s a direction, there’s a destination. There is a Purpose, my own sense of meaning that is clearly there, present within me.

I am neither used to looking for it, nor it is easy to see. With other forces pulling in their own directions, it’s easy for me to get distracted and disoriented. Did I act in a certain way because I was stumbling toward my Purpose, or was because I was trying to protect myself in some way?

I’d found that the direction is most easily seen when I sit down at the end of the day and spend a few minutes reflecting on what is happening within me, and how the day felt as a whole. This does not need to take a long time: I usually just set my fingertips to the keyboard and let them go. More often than not, exhaustion and angst of the day gives way to curiosity and wonder. That’s when I start seeing a bit more. I start tracing outlines of what is meaningful to me, what’s important, what’s purposeful.

It’s almost like my Purpose is always there. I am just blocking with the whirlwind of the mundane. In the moments when I can stop and let go, I am able to let it find me.

A Classroom for Humanity

Why is it that some people are unable to see a different perspective? Why is it that when I try to introduce them to that perspective, I get an angry, hateful response, and often, trigger them holding more firmly onto their current perspective? What is happening here?

To gain more insights around these questions, I’ve been looking into the constructive-developmental theories, and they open some very intriguing possibilities.

They posit that we all have a meaning-making device, something that helps us take external inputs from the world and turn it into meaning, constructing a coherent reality in our minds. Through grounded theory methodology, they’ve found that our meaning-making devices are in the process of continuous evolution, rapidly and massively transformative in the young age, eventually slowing down, becoming more rare and far in-between for adults. Unlike children, who upgrade their meaning-making device every few years, we grown-ups are typically stuck with the one we acquired as young adults.

They also identified distinct stages of these transformations, the plateaus where people situate. According to the research, the current center of gravity for adults in our world seems to be in the Socialized Mind stage. (As an aside, different theories assign different names for the stages and I will use the ones from Kegan’s work.) When my meaning-making device is at the Socialized Mind plateau, my sense of rightness and wrongness is defined by those around me. I seek the principles and values from my leaders, and good and bad is what everyone in my “tribe” says it is. I tend to strongly identify with my tribe, and thus experience severe injured identity pain when I perceive that this identity is threatened. When I encounter ideas or perspectives that aren’t aligned with those of my tribe, I unconsciously feel the fear of the abyss and also react to it as a threat.

It is not a huge leap from here to see that the frictionless global interconnectedness of the modern world would leave a Socialized Mind reeling, feeling as if it’s under constant attack from the overwhelming, unbearable threat of the entire meaning to come undone, made incoherent. If I am constructing my reality using a Socialized Mind, I see it as the world coming apart, with The End fast-approaching. I am not having a good time, prone to polarization, further entrenchment in the ideology of my tribe, and blame, pointing fingers at others. And in doing so, along with others in the same state, I am acting out the fulfillment of my own prophecy. Trapped in this vicious cycle, we appear to be doomed.

The constructive-developmentalists suggest that there is another perspective. They reframe the bleak picture as a developmental environment, a classroom of sorts. This struggle of the Socialized Mind is actually a challenge, a tough assignment that is presented to the humanity in that classroom. And the goal of this assignment is transformational learning, the evolution of our meaning-making devices to the next plateau, the Self-authoring Mind. This next plateau offers me the capacity to hold my own perspective, seeing it as one of many, no longer viewing others’ differences as threats to core identity. Thus, the graduation looks like shifting humanity’s center of gravity toward to the Self-authoring Mind.

This learning continues. A graduation is just a milestone in this classroom of humanity. The next plateau over, the Self-transforming Mind is even more equipped to thrive in the modern world: with this meaning-making device, I learn to appreciate and cherish the multitude of perspectives, holding mine lightly.

Just like in any effective classroom, the challenge in itself is not sufficient to foster transformational learning. The support, the sense of safety and grounding is a fundamental part of the process. My best teachers weren’t those who took it easy on me. They were those who, while presenting a seemingly impossible challenge, made it clear that they were with me, empathetic and steady, supporting me as I flailed and struggled. They weren’t paternalistic or over-protective, but they coached me, and guided me back to the path when I was going in circles. They created an environment where I learned to thrive.

This framing creates a fairly clear–and frankly, more positive–way to view humanity’s current predicament. Shifting away from apocalyptic lamentations, I can now focus on exploring this question: what would it take to create an effective developmental learning environment for humanity?

Fear of the abyss

I’ve been thinking about how I experience the fear of the unknown in the context of constructive-developmental theory, this fear of what’s beyond the edge of my current capacity to make meaning, the fear of the abyss.

This fear pops up when I am experiencing something that is incongruent with the reality I construct, something that I can’t reconcile and make coherent according to my current understanding of the world. I may experience it as something that is grabbing at me, trying to “get me”, something to be feared.

The subject-object shift in constructive-developmental theory refers to a developmental transformation of how I make meaning, where invisible is made visible. I see this shift as me improving my capacity to make meaning, to see an ever-increasing context. With each jump to a larger context, I start seeing things that were driving me, invisibly influencing me, being part of me, or part of the unknown become things that I see and have the capacity to hold apart, things about which I can reason. 

For example, let’s suppose that I am subject to some principle and value-making device. That is, I accept my principles and values as “things that are”, rather than something I can author. When I see that someone else has different principles and values, I experience the fear of the abyss: how can it be that someone else has different “things that are?”. In that moment, I may also be subject to the fear itself, and thus be subject to cognitive distortions (I am guessing those are an outcome of being subject to fear),  experiencing anxiety, shame, depression, anger, etc.

Once my meaning-making capacity grows to see a principle and value-authoring device in myself, I am no longer seeing principles and values as “things that are”, but rather things that people have. I can see how they can be different across people and the fear of the abyss no longer overcomes me when I encounter someone with a different set of principles and values. With the subject-object shift, the fear of the abyss has moved on to the next frontier of my meaning-making.

On the Riverbank

I am on the riverbank. In front of me, a river of my thoughts, feelings, emotions. Not a peaceful river. It’s loud and turbulent, twisting in its bed, mesmerizing. A moment later — and I am caught by the current. Attracted by a random thought, I become part of the river. I become my emotions and feelings. I am struggling with the rest of the river, fighting. Fighting something. Fruitlessly. Hopelessly. Was there ever a riverbank? Was that just an illusion?

This metaphor of the river and the riverbank is helpful in describing my cognitive processes. I habitually live in the past or in the future, beating myself up about something I’d done or fretting about something that may happen. It takes effort to be in the present.

It took me a while to see that “being in the present” does not mean forcefully ignoring the past or the future. It’s about being apart from them, just on the side, on the riverbank. When I am on the riverbank, I can hold my emotions lightly, without getting entangled in them. I can sense my feelings as reactions to emotions. I can see my thoughts arise and let go of them. An observer, not an actor. There’s so much clarity and crisp understanding in these moments, in such contrast to the murky, unruly river.

I am realizing that I spend most of my life in the river. After a stressful day, I often marvel at the sheer power of the river’s pull and how closely it held me, had me nearly forget about the existence of the riverbank. I can go days and weeks trying, and failing to find it.

But I’ve felt the beauty and peace of the riverbank. I want to practice, and develop new habits to find my way to it more often. In the harshest tempest of my emotions, I want to learn how to stand on the riverbank and make my choices, rather than having the choices make me.

Archaeology of Self

Every experience I have is a new lesson in life, a new addition to things that I’ve already learned. This process of learning happens whether I am aware of it or not. With every lesson, I also learn how to learn. That is, I continuously increase my capacity to learn.

Depending on the depth of my capacity to learn, the nature of the lesson shifts. When I was a child, my learning capacity was still nascent, and the lessons I learned were simple. Things were high-contrast: bad or good, sad or happy, dangerous or safe.

As I grew up, my capacity to learn deepened. I started seeing a more subtle and complex world and that this growing complexity is not the change in the world itself, but rather a change in how I make meaning of it. As my capacity to learn deepened, new dimensions of complexity opened up, with new opportunities to learn.

Thus far, the learning happened in the context of my previous learning. What I learned in the past shaped how I would learn in the future. The stark nature of the early childhood lessons created sharp edges in the foundation of my continuous construction of meaning.

I am now recognizing that these sharp edges limit the extent of my capacity to learn. They are these unseen forces that collapse my choices, blind me to alternatives, especially in challenging situations. David Burns called them “cognitive distortions”. James Hollis gave them a more dramatic name of “woundings”. Brené Brown talks of armor. All these are different takes on the same thing: the natural outcome of learning when my learning capacity is a work-in-progress itself.

Thus, the deepening of my capacity to learn now includes re-examining the lessons from the past. Through careful archaeology of Self, I am challenged to understand the nature of my assumptions and beliefs, the context of meaning-making in which I learned those lessons, and learning different lessons with my current understanding of the world.

Puzzle Me

Where do I end? Where does the “outside of me” begin? These questions seem simple at first and evoke answers involving epidermis, but I am discovering that my boundary has little to do with molecular structures. Rather, I perceive my boundary in the social context, in relation to others around me. Such boundaries tend to be rather ill-defined and ambiguous. As a result, I often experience the boundary crises: the mismatches in my understanding of where the boundary actually lies. To help me make sense of these crises, I have a fun metaphor.

In this metaphor, I am a puzzle. There are many pieces of feelings, needs, identities, fears and aspirations in me-as-puzzle. This puzzle is quite unusual in that it’s near-infinitely complex and–ever so slightly–constantly changing. No matter how much I work on assembling the puzzle, it always seems like I barely started. But this puzzle is how I define my Self, so am steadily compelled to keep working on it, consciously or not. Some pieces fit just right. Some I still haven’t figured out where they belong. Some look curiously out of place.

Other people are puzzles, too. They have their own bits and pieces that they are fitting together. It’s a lot of puzzles.

Sometimes, I get confused and decide that pieces of other people’s puzzles are mine. In such cases, my imagined design of a puzzle creates a boundary crisis of insufficiency. Because I view these foreign puzzle bits as requirements for completing my Self, I am doomed to suffer: these pieces will never be fully mine, and I will never feel sufficient. I will never feel like I am good enough or at peace with who I am.

My impostor syndrome is a good example here. It’s that underlying belief that my accomplishments define my worthiness. That is, I define my self-worth by how others value what I’d done. I crave that missing puzzle piece of others’ approval. I can’t fathom how my puzzle could be complete without it, and yet I can never own it.

The opposite also happens. I may decide that my puzzle pieces are necessary for completing other people’s puzzles. This creates the boundary crisis of overwhelment. Seeing bits of my Self as critical in others’ lives, I am also doomed to suffer: I will always feel overwhelmed trying to co-assemble multiple puzzles, rather than just focusing on mine.

For example, when I avoid giving a colleague unpleasant feedback because I am overcome with anxiety that they will take it poorly, I assuming responsibility for how they would receive that news. All of the workarounds and clever techniques that follow are me trying to complete their puzzle with my pieces.

Now, I have plenty of cases of both. I have been putting this puzzle together all my life, and doing so mostly unconsciously. I grabbed others’ pieces and tried jamming them in, and I took plenty of responsibility for others’ puzzles. My puzzle is a mess, with tons of opportunities for suffering.

To reduce this suffering, I systematically examine me-as-puzzle, remove foreign pieces, and take back the pieces that are mine. It sounds easy, but given the decades of lodged pieces in this massive, unique collage that is me, it is quite challenging. Remove a piece, and whole swaths of the puzzle suddenly become unmoored, world temporarily seizing to making sense. It’s a high-risk proposition. If I am not that puzzle that I was before, then who am I? Where do others end? Where do I begin?

The Illusion of Injured Identity

Throughout my live, I accumulate identities: a father, a husband, a software engineer, an occasional blogger. These identities are curious constructs, because they link me to other objects or concepts. Each turns two separate things–me and something else–into one, fusing us. Suppose I view myself as a hockey fan. Put differently, a “hockey fan” is one of my identities. Bizarrely, when someone says something disparaging about hockey fans, I have an emotional response. I feel irritated or defensive. What’s happening here?

What I am experiencing is truly a wondrous thing: the link to identity rings the power of the negative comment about hockey fans into me–bzzzt!–like an electrical current, and I feel something akin to physical pain. Sometimes this pain is mild (I am not that big of a hockey fan), and sometimes it’s not. The stronger the link–that is, the stronger I am fused with the object of my identity–the more intense the pain. Back in the Shadow DOM days, I quit Twitter because I simply couldn’t handle the excruciating hurt of comments that I would even remotely perceive as negative toward Web components. The identity link was so strong that in my mind, I was Web components.

In such cases, I am feeling the effect of injured identity. I am acting as the designated receiver of pain of an injury to an object. This injury is not real. Objects can’t feel pain. But through the magic of fused identity, I am here to take on that responsibility.

How did I end up fused with my identities? Best I can tell, it’s a habit that I developed to become a functioning member of society. As I was growing up, I was bombarded with calls to become a “responsible adult”, “good neighbor”, “trustworthy friend” or even a “rebellious, out-of-the-box thinker”. The societal system around me applied its unyielding pressure to adopt the identities that were necessary to be socially accepted. At school, at home, around friends, various identities were held out and incentivized. A “good student” gets goods grades. A “cool kid” gets respect from his buddies. A “weird kid” gets bullied.

At that age, I only knew of one way to adopt an identity: to assume it, to become it, to make it part of myself. So I became a whole web of identities. Some of them I considered desirable and some I desperately did not want.

Though this habit had helped me make sense of my life early on, as the mental demands of the modern life increased, I began to find the effects distracting and counter-productive. When I feel the pain of injured identity, I immediately move to protect myself. My sympathetic system mobilizes to cope with a physical threat. My heart rate goes up. My perspective narrows, zeroed in on the threat. My contrast knob goes to 11. No shades of gray here. I spin the stress response roulette: fight, flight, or freeze.

Since there’s no actual physical threat here, my response is usually directed at another person, whom I perceive to have injured me. Will I be my best self interacting with this person? Nope. Will I regret this interaction later or stew on it for hours/days/months? Yup. Will I have a nagging feeling that I wasted a ton of energy? Definitely. Maybe even have another stress response to feeling terrible about the waste and beat myself up? Oh, I have totally done that. Have I mentioned that I myself could be the target of my threat response?

I want to change this habit.

For me, the change begins with learning to detect an injured identity. After I cringe as someone comments about me not writing any code lately, I take time to reflect on what’s going on. I trace the pain back to the “software engineer” identity and examine my linkage with it. Just being able to observe this process rather than being driven by it has been immensely helpful for me. In doing so, I begin to gently separate myself from from the identity. I start seeing it as something that I have, rather than something that I am.

I am not defined by my identities. They are just tokens of the society’s currency, and though valuable, they–just like coins in my pocket–do not determine my worthiness. My self-worth comes from something deeper. Staying focused on this distinction, patiently struggling to see through the illusion of injured identity is how I gradually turn these random pangs of pain and automatic reactions into a deeper, more centered life.