Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Pride: vice or virtue?

Our ego is like Houdini
One of my chooks is named Harriet, in honour of Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. It's quite extraordinary. She and her mate Jellybean have a fabulous coop and quite a large run around the perimeter of our property. Yet if there's the slightest opening in the wire fence, she's outta that run! .

It struck me recently that our egos are a bit like Harriet. If there's the slightest opening for them to get out into the yard for a feed, they are there! By ego I mean that part of us that wants to stand on the podium in the bright lights and be admired. The part that puffs itself up like a pigeon trying to impress a potential mate.

This part of us is not bad. It's the expression of a very natural human instinct - the desire to belong. Under the surface, the rationale is that if we are admired then people will want to be with us. In evolutionary terms this was linked to survival and that need is still very much wired into our DNA. It's part of our genetic heritage and we need to own it and care for it.

The dangers
However there are two insidious dangers that lurk in our egos' shadows. The first is that the desire for power and privilege can ride in with the cavalry. Rather than simply wanting to belong we can get seduced by the 'worldly wind' of gain that tempts us when we sense that others are open to our influence. Secondly, we can get so infatuated with the pleasure of acceptance and admiration, that these things take on a life of their own. It stops being about the very natural need to belong and quietly slips into obsession with our selves - into narcissism.

An instance of this has been intriguing me for some time - that of pride. Religious traditions often speak of pride as a vice - even a deadly sin. Yet in day to day use, pride is often spoken of as a positive thing. I've long sensed that it's our ego riding in on the coat-tails of something virtuous. But then I'd also experienced it as quite a selfless and beautiful thing.

I've had quite a striking experience with this. In my mid twenties, as I began to show promise in the corporate world, a curious thing began to happen. Periodically my father would tell me he was proud of me. That had never happened before.

For the first few years I actually felt anger, sometimes even a bit of disdain when this happened. This was because, for the first couple of decades of my life, as I was emerging as a human being, I never received this kind of positivity. At that time of my life, when I wasn't convinced of my own worth, it would have really helped to have Dad reinforce it by indicating he was proud to be my Dad. That never happened - in fact the message I got more often was that he was indifferent about it. So I had to find self worth on my own - a longer and more painful journey than it might have been otherwise. Then as I began to achieve, it felt like he was taking some kind of compliment or kudos from the fact that I was achieving and that puffed his feathers.

To give some context, I'd spent most of my time at university living below the poverty line because Dad earnt too much for me to receive any governement assistance. Yet my parents gave me nothing. To be fair, they still had three children at home and school, so it's not like they were reclining in luxury but even a small amount of assistance would have helped and they gave me none. However, as they say, success has many parents. I was rather stunned when years later, in his speech at my wedding, Dad took some responsibility for my career success. It was an act of great restraint on my part that I let that go through to the keeper.

So as I saw it, when I was younger and hadn't yet proved that I was capable or worthy, when I needed to hear that he was proud of me, there was no such thing forth-coming. Once I'd proved beyond doubt that I was competent and an achiever, lo and behold, there he was lining up to have some of the glow shine his way. That's where the anger and disdain came from.

As the years went by and I started facing some of my own 'stuff', the anger subsided and was replaced by.... well.... nothing. The statements of pride continued into my thirties as my career success continued but more and more I just felt indifferent. By that time I certainly didn't need to hear such things - I'd earned my self worth the hard way but the upside was, it wasn't dependent on parental approval.

I could see that Dad got something for himself by having a successful daughter (by this time my sister was also studying medicine so there was pride flying everywhere) and that was okay. But it was a confusing experience. Part of me saw a person that was now reinforcing his own self worth with his daughters' achievements. However I'd dropped the judgment of it and could see that this might benefit him in the way that it might have benefitted me when I was younger. What I sensed though was that his pride was not really about me. It was about what my achievements said to the world about him.

What is pride?
So what is this pride thing? Is it an act of narcissism or is it a healthy process? To explore this I started by listing down as many common uses of the term as I could. Here's my list:
  1. they are a proud people
  2. I'm proud of you
  3. she takes pride in her work
  4. I'm proud of myself
  5. pride got in the way
  6. he's too proud to admit it
  7. a pride of lions
When I reflected on this I could see a theme. At its heart, pride has a feeling of being impressed by someone. However there are two quite distinct shades of this. One shade, let's call it narcissistic pride, is concerned with trying to impress others - trying to gain social kudos. The other, let's call it appreciative pride, is concerned with the appreciation of beauty or virtue. One is pigeon puffing, the other is beholding beauty. When I checked the dictionary definitions, the same themes came through.

Narcissistic pride
Looking at the list above some fit obviously into one camp or the other. There are three that seem clearly narcissistic. They are:
  1. they are a proud people - the context in which I've always heard this is that it's a group of people trying to be perceived by others as strong or self sufficient. The key here is that it's usually about trying to convey an image to gain admiration from those outside the group.
  2. pride got in the way - this usually means someone couldn't do the appropriate or helpful thing because the need to uphold a particular image of themself got in the way. Again, it's about wanting to be admired. We can sometimes inflict pain or loss on others in order to avoid the unpleasant feeling of an ego hit. Indeed many Asian cultures have the need to 'save face' built into their norms and there are negative social consequences if you cause someone, especially an elder or more senior person, to 'lose face'.
  3. he's too proud to admit it - this usually means he couldn't bear to own up to the truth, again because it would damage his projected self image. Sometimes this compounds itself when others point out the truth and the fact that we're fooling ourselves. This can damage the desired image even further. We can sometimes get quite aggressive and self delusional when this happens.
Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection
These three seem to be instances of our 'self' - the PR brochure we've constructed about who we are - getting in the way of reality. In my experience, when we're driven by the need to be seen to have certain characteristics, it's usually because we fear deep down that we don't have enough of them. Perhaps the 'proud people' want to appear self sufficient because they fear being dependent. They try to appear strong out of a fear that they might be inferior in some way. 

With the second and third example, the desired image can be anything: clever, always right, strong, funny, friendly, kind, wise, knowledgeable....the list of possibilities is long. However, whatever we have in that brochure about ourselves, we fear that not being seen that way would lead to some kind of loss. It's often the loss of respect, admiration, acceptance or liking by others because of our ancestral need for belonging. 

Ironically, it's often when we share our failures and vulnerabilities that we are more accepted, more admired and more respected than when we hide them. As part of the leadership program I run, I ask one of the past participants to come and address the group on the first day. The person talks about their difficulties, challenges, successes but also importantly, their failures in implementing what they learned from the program. The person I ask to speak is always someone who's courageous enough to share their vulnerability. There is always enthusiastic applause and heartfelt thanks given to this person by the participants. Afterwards I ask them to reflect on how they feel about the speaker. Without fail, they feel more respect, admiration, affection and acceptance toward the speaker than they did before. 

So what about the other instances? Items 2, 3 and 4 (I'm proud of you; she takes pride in her work; I'm proud of myself) seemed to have something in common. On the surface they seem to  be narcissistic pride. As the example of my father shows, 'I'm proud of you' can often mean 'my ego is puffing up by association with you'; that the light of your triumph or virtue is shining on me somehow. Taking pride in our work and being proud of ourselves can be the same process at play. Doing good work can puff the ego because I gain admiration from others; doing something I feel is virtuous can puff the ego because others see it and think well of me. This kind of narcissistic pride is the type I believe is prone to corruption into pursuit of power or self obsession.

Siddhattha Gotama's (the Buddha's) teachings point to this constructed sense of 'me' or 'who I am' or 'self' as one of the major causes of drama and suffering in our lives. Instead of seeing our behaviour honestly, as an ever-changing process that arises out of conditions (both inside and outside of ourselves), we tend to see ourselves as a fixed set of attributes - the ones we've listed in the 'me' brochure (for more on this see the post Bloody not-self). It's this list in the brochure that we're often trying to justify when we engage in narcissistic pride. I'm proud of you because you look smart. Smart's in my 'me' brochure and you're my child therefore it shows that the 'me' brochure's right. If anyone suggests otherwise (let alone points out the evidence that shows I don't always get everything right), they'll live to regret it because they are taking away my sense of worth and cutting me off from belonging. There's a sense that 'they' are depriving me of a deeply felt ancestral need. That hurts, therefore 'they've hurt me', therefore I'm justified in hurting them somehow. And funny enough, once all of this is said and done, I still feel that un-met hunger to belong. It's a painful cycle.

As I thought this through, it occurred to me that we often refer to pride as a positive thing. On the weekend of my father's funeral, one of our few national newspapers, The Australian, published a half page article in which I was featured, photo and all. Many of the people who were gathered for Dad's funeral said to me 'your Dad would have been proud'. I guess in one way they were saying they were impressed but also inherent in those comments was an assumption that Dad's pride would puff my pigeon.

It can appear that we're giving someone a gift when we say that we or others are proud of them. For people who are short of feedback from the world, maybe we are helping their momentum in a healthy direction. However at some point, when we're fully fledged beings interacting with the world we have the opportunity to earn the belief in our worth for ourselves. At that point, pigeon puffing serves as a temptation to keep relying on others for it which, unless used as an opportunity for practicing mindfulness, can keep us locked in to reactivity. On the helpful side, it becomes a flag to let us know that an opportunity to face our fears is present; an opportunity to disempower the demons that scare us into old unhelpful patterns of behaviour.

It was hard to know how to respond to the comments made at Dad's funeral because there wasn't any pigeon puffing for me, yet I knew that the people commenting were well intentioned. They thought this would feel good for me because we all know what it's like to need affirmation from others and get it - there's a sense of empathy and connection in sharing our vulnerabilities. So I just said 'yeah, I suppose he would have been'. This seemed like an honest thing to say. It didn't feel like the right time to verbalise the thinking in this blog post.

It depends on the motivation
However these three examples are not so black and white. Whether they are narcissistic pride or appreciative pride depends on what drives them. The driving force can indeed be the desire for an ego feed, but it's not necessarily always the case. To say 'I'm proud of you' can also be a way of saying 'I'm really impressed with what you did' or 'I feel admiration for you'. This often co-arises with affection for the person. To take pride in our work can mean we feel an intrinsic sense of satisfaction from doing something well. Indeed 'endogenous satisfaction' as psychologists call it (satisfaction inherent to the task) is a motivating force. Similarly, being proud of myself can mean I feel the sense of satisfaction that comes as an inherent part of behaving in a way that's consistent with my values.

A few years ago I was a dedicated viewer of Australian Idol. One contestant was affectionately known as 'Mutto' (Australians frequently add 'o' or 'ie' to a shortened name for people and things that are familiar or loved e.g. 'servo' for a service station, 'barbie' for a barbecue). Mutto was in his late 20s/early 30s - relatively old compared to the other contestants. He was my favourite because not only was he sexy, he was courageous and had a depth and sensitivity that rarely seems to go with masculine men. The night Mutto was eliminated from the show, he was beaten by a young girl, Lisa, who had sung the same song on about 5 different occasions. She was a one trick pony. She was the cutesie girlie contestant who appealed to other teenage girls because she was like them. I found her annoying. Mutto had shown far greater range of ability, gusto, courage and talent than Lisa, and had done a fantastic performance that evening. Regardless, the teenagers obviously voted more. He was eliminated. She stayed. 

Mutto on Australian Idol
When Mutto was interviewed by the host at the end of the show, he was gracious, accepting and good humoured. It was clearly an un-just result and he was disappointed. However he was incredibly good natured about it and not the slightest bit resentful or acidic. As I watched this, the words came into my mind 'I'm so proud of you!'. This was clearly not narcissistic pride - I don't even know the guy. His virtue was in no way a reflection on me. When I thought about it some more, what I meant by those words was that I was deeply impressed by him. He upheld values of kindness and grace in a deeply disappointing situation. I really felt admiration.

As for the final item in my list (a pride of lions), in some ways it doesn't seem relevant but in one way it is. Why is a group of lions called a 'pride'? Why not a group of geese or a group of mice? Perhaps because lions are strong and powerful and we associate this with pride. In reality, it's highly unlikely lions feel pride as they are unlikely to have a notion of self. We are projecting our own associations of pride with strength and privilege onto them. However they do conform to social rules where the strongest individual receives the greatest power and privilege - things that do tend to go along with narcissistic pride in humans.

Disentangling narcissistic pride from appreciative pride
So how do we bring mindfulness to what's going on for us when we feel something that appears to be pride? How do we know whether we're pigeon puffing or beholding beauty? Whether we're reinforcing our delusion of a fixed, unassailable 'me' as advertised in our PR brochure, or whether we're appreciating virtue or intrinsic satisfaction? It's important to have awareness of this so that we can catch our Houdini-ego in the act - not to criticise ourselves, but to see our own patterns so that we can know the processes that create our unnecessary pain. So that we can stop running from the pain and get to know it. As we see these patterns clearly, they begin to diminish. This is a fundamental part of Gotama's teachings.

What's on offer here is an invitation to tune in to our motivation when we use the term pride. Here are some questions for reflection and some practical suggestions:

  1. Is there an internal swelling of self or is it an external appreciation of someone or something outside of ourselves? Is there a sense of grasping that wants to drink in more of that feeling if it could get it? Is it really a sense of satisfaction or admiration rather than pride as such? Maybe it's a mixture. How astutely aware of the feelings can we be? 
  2. More accurate language - if we find that what we're feeling is appreciative pride, try using non-pride language. If we said 'I'm so impressed with what you did' rather than 'I'm so proud of you', it would make it that bit harder for our ego to ride in on the coat-tails of appreciative pride. The same would be true if we said 'I feel really good about the results of my project' rather than 'I'm proud of my work', or if we said 'I feel good about the fact that I didn't retaliate when she provoked me' rather than 'I'm proud of myself for not retaliating'.
  3. If we find that some narcissistic pride has crept up on us, can we accept it with empathy? The quality of gentleness is important here. Can we be gentle and non-judgmental knowing that it represents a natural human desire to feed a deeply embedded human need? 
  4. Can you get curious about where it came from? Is there a part of you that is uncertain about your worth or value? See if you can honestly be with that part of yourself rather than just feeding its hunger. Lately when I recognise my ego jumping the chook-run, I think of myself as a child with my little blonde pigtails, vying for attention in a large family led by a father who wasn't terribly interested in children. I see that little girl, I smile at her lovingly, knowing the ancestral need that drives her; the need to be seen and to matter to her caregivers. I give her a hug. It's quite a powerful way to deal with it - accepting her, empathising, letting her know she's loved, attention seeking tendencies and all.
  5. If you discover there's a part of you that's hungry for power or privilege and is using position, accomplishment or reputation to get that, can you find the sense of scarcity that's driving this hunger? Can you be with that fear-of-not-enough without escaping the chook run to feed it? What are the thoughts, narratives or mental movies that play in this pen? Can you hold your seat and be with them, know them, be gentle with them? Can you start to see the effects on yourself and those around you of automatically feeding these hungers? What are the costs?

In the stories that chronicle the teachings of Gotama he is often visited by a demon named Mara. Mara turns up disguised as whatever he thinks will knock Gotama off track. How did Gotama vanquish this demon? With the simple phrase 'I see you Mara!'. When we can see and name and know the demons that lure us into automatic reactivity, they instantly begin to lose their power. It's like playing hide and seek - you find Mara and he has to leave the game. For today anyway.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Seven perils of certainty

I grew up in a family where 'robust' dinner table debate was the traditional sport. The more forcefully you argued, the more certain you sounded, the more likely it was you'd walk away triumphant. It was always stressful, as some measure of your self worth felt like it hung in the balance. But as a young person I thought it was normal.

I remember feeling curious whenever a visitor was present for one of these arguments. They didn't always join in, and if they did, it often wasn't for long. It was an exception to this when my parents had a rip-roaring stoush with my Nanna about religion. My father, Nanna's eldest son and apple of her eye, had converted to Catholocism before marrying my mother. Nanna was Anglican. They all promoted their positions with certainty and vigour. My Puppa, who rarely said anything, sat over by the pot belly stove with tears in his eyes.

Unsurprisingly I left my home of origin with self assured debate as my weapon of choice when I felt threatened. This engendered a certain amount of fear in others, even my friends - it was often experienced as aggression. One of the effects of this was that people were less likely to challenge me. At the time I mistook that as an indicator of my own strength and superiority. It took me a long time to realise the negative impact it had, both for others who felt at risk from it, and for myself as it kept me from learning and distanced me from other people.

In my early twenties I was lucky enough to come across a profound teacher and role model at The University of Queensland, Bob Dick. Bob taught us about process: intrapersonal process (what goes on inside of us); interpersonal process (the dynamics between people and groups); and systems process (the effect that is exerted by the systems you are part of at the time). Not only was Bob an expert in this stuff but he was a wise person and a wonderful role model. He demonstrated something I'd never seen before: confidence amid uncertainty.

What I observed in Bob was an incredible humility from an incredibly knowledgeable, capable, wise person. He'd openly say so if he didn't know something - without any sense that this was an inadequacy. He'd say something like 'I don't know for sure but my guess would be........'. There was never any officiousness or command or authority in his tone. If he knew of some disconfirming evidence, he'd share that too. When sharing his knowledge he'd often attribute it to the source - the researcher or practitioner from who he'd learnt it, rather than stating it as a fact coming from his own wellspring of unquestionable rightness. I found this intriguing.

What was also intriguing was that Bob had a long and ever-growing line of people who attested to learning more, and more meaningful lessons from him than all of their other university lecturers put together. In fact he had a reputation as a bit of a 'guru' within the university. He was not terribly comfortable with this, I guess because it inferred that he was the source of all knowledge whereas his whole method of teaching used self directed learning principles. He knew the most powerful source of learning was self discovery and he loved nothing more than his students discovering for themselves the material he taught. To this day, in the Australian business community I bump into people who've been taught by Bob and still see him as one of the most important teachers they've ever had.

Peril #1 - less learning
Over the course of the next decade as I was building my career in the corporate world, I noticed that I tended to learn in isolation. I did a learning tactics inventory once and it showed that I was off the scale on 'action' as my learning tactic which meant I jump in and have a go and learn my way through things by doing them. That's helpful. What was less helpful was that I was at the bottom of the scale on 'accessing others'.
(It's a monkey in the asteroid bunker)

That rang true with my experience. I almost never asked others for their experiences or views because, essentially, I was certain that mine were better. I became aware of a lot of learning that I left on the table because of this. I was over-certain about the superiority of my own thinking. 

This is common among people who are good problem solvers. They've had a lot of reinforcement that their way of thinking and problem solving is effective, so they become impervious to input or learning from others. When we think we know best, we can miss out on learning. In hindsight, like Bob, the most knowledgeable and wise people I've ever known are the opposite of this: humble, open to new input, believing that wisdom can come from anyone. Their egos and identities don't get in the way of learning.

Peril #2 - unnecessary conflict
My finishing school for some of Bob's lessons came from my husband Matt. For the first few years we were together I'd sometimes find myself confused about why we wound up in an argument. When we got to the bottom of it, we discovered a pattern. I'd be 'thinking out aloud' about an issue that affected both of us. I didn't say that I was thinking out aloud but that was my intention. In my mind I hadn't decided whether what I was saying was true, I was just 'putting it out there' to test it and see if it held up.

However the tone of that 'thinking-out-loud' was very much a tone of certainty - as if I was sure of what I was saying and not open to being questioned. If it was something Matt disagreed with he felt that in order to have his view considered, he had to put forward an equally certain case. I honestly didn't realise that this is what I was doing. My history had left me with a habit of speaking with certainty - it was just the way my thoughts came out when I wasn't paying attention to the way I was communicating.

Peril #3 - less trust
Ironically, in the past decade, as I've worked on being more truthful about my levels of certainty, Matt has shown a tendency to speak more certainly about things than is warranted. As with all things, there are particular conditions that bring this out. I've noticed that it's when he's feeling overwhelmed with work or lacking in headspace. I suspect the payoff for him is that it might ward off further demands on his headspace by having to consider or articulate multiple possibilities rather than the 'one right opinion' he's expressed. Faux certainty removes the need to consider alternatives. It's less cognitively demanding.

However the down side is, I feel less trust in him when he does this because in these instances I know he's not really certain. I feel disconnected from him. The loss of trust is proportional to the size of the issue, and it does come back when his willingness to acknowledge uncertainty returns. However in essence, it increases my uncertainty about him, which is unhelpful in an intimate relationship.

Peril #4 - inferior problem solving
In addition to creating relationship problems, speaking with certainty is also a cause of poor problem solving in teams. Over the past decade I've been teaching leadership and as part of this we do team problem solving simulations. Without fail, the groups that have one or more individuals who express their thinking with certain, authoritative tones and body language, make relatively poor decisions.

If someone expresses a view with authority one of three things tends to happen:
  1. people can assume that the 'certain person' is an authority, so they defer to them and don't question their thinking 
  2. it can feel like confrontation is needed in order to question the 'certain person'. Most people avoid confrontation so once again, people are less likely to question their thinking. These two tendencies mean that the diversity of ideas in the group goes untapped. 
  3. someone who doesn't mind a scrap 'takes on' the certain-sounding person and a competitive war of egos ensues where being seen as right is more important than finding the best solution. 
A tragic instance of faux-certainty comes from the crash of Air Florida Flight 90. Here is an excerpt from the dialogue between pilot and copilot that lead to them crashing into a bridge and then falling into the icy Potomac River near Washington DC in 1982 killing 74 people including the pilots:

CAM 2: God, look at that thing. that don't seem right does it? Uh, that's not right.
CAM 1: Yes it is, there's eighty.
CAM 2: Naw, I don't think that's right. Ah, maybe it is.
CAM 1: Hundred and twenty
CAM 2: I dont' know
...a minute or so later....
CAM 2: This is it! We're going down Larry....
CAM 1: I know!

CAM-2 was the co-pilot. He was right to express uncertainty but the pilot spoke with confidence that things were right, quite literally to their peril. We know that in almost 90% of cases well facilitated group decisions are better than the best individual's decision in the group. So ultimately, groups that are seduced by individuals' certainty make worse decisions.

Peril #5 - inferior leadership
Interestingly, one of the two competencies that is most strongly linked with performance, promotion and potential as a leader, is called 'learning agility' which is the willingness and ability to learn new competencies in order to perform in tough, novel or new conditions. One of the key behaviours that shows this competency is the willingness to experiment. Another is the willingness to be wrong - to look and feel silly because you didn't get it right. 

When we start to see ourselves as an 'expert' we lose the humility and curiosity that comes with 'beginner's mind'. This often happens when we feel we've got enough experience to know what we're talking about. Despite the importance of learning agility, it's one of the competencies that's in short supply. Unsurprisingly, leadership research shows that as we become more senior in our careers, we learn less and this impacts negatively on the quality of leadership.

Peril #6 - more judgment, less compassion
One of the more damaging effects of faux-certainty is that it increases judgment and decreases compassion. This makes for an angry and harsh world. I've come to see judgment as the arch enemy of compassion. Judgment says: you're different to me, you're wrong, that wrongness is bad and I'm justified in bringing you down. It's a way of simplifying the world into the good guys and the bad guys; the right and the wrong; the black and the white; the in and the out. It sees the world in terms of stereotypes and finds it hard to just let people be without labelling them or summing them up. It's often used as an excuse for harsh behaviour.

These are delusions but the payoff is that it helps us feel in control. People who see the world this way can't bear the idea of non-judment. It's tantamount to sitting on the fence which to their mind is uncertainty on steroids. They often describe this tendency as weak - as if non-judgment is a lack of strength or courage to take a stand. The reality is they are so afraid of the discomfort of uncertainty that non-judgment makes them feel vulnerable. Ironically, fleeing into the comfort of certitude might appear decisive, like we've 'got the guts' to take sides in a fight.

However what's going on beneath the surface is a form of cowardice - an unwillingness to hold our seats in discomfort. Taking sides or judging actually brings relief from this discomfort. It gives us a sense of belonging (to a side), certainty (who and what is 'right'), and clarity of solution (it's much easier to find one that satisfies only our needs). It gives us a direction and outlet for the anxious energy, a sense of self righteousness and an opportunity to be a hero which appeals to the ego.

In contrast, compassion says: I understand, it's difficult and I feel for you. Sometimes it acknowledges that there's no right answer, only a choice among imperfect options. Compassion can still say 'that behaviour is unacceptable' when it creates harm and it can even use force to restrain unacceptable behaviour. But it does so from a place of understanding all parties in the situation rather than casting them as the good guys or the bad guys. It's motivated by minimising harm to everyone. It sees clearly the truth that experience is a dynamic thing and that we all have the capacity for all types of behaviour depending on the circumstances. It's willing to stand alone, withstand criticism from those in judging mode, and accept that things might be and remain, imperfect. It takes a good helping of courage to be with the unpleasantness of this uncertainty.

This peril is extremely profound. Imagine for a moment that everyone on the planet was willing to sit with the discomfort of this uncertainty. Rather than seeing my in-group as right and virtuous, and all outgroups as wrong and in need of correction or punishment, what if everyone could see the common struggle that lies at the heart of all behaviour? What if we allowed ourselves to feel connected with all beings because of this shared challenge? How much harmful behaviour would evaporate from our world? This expanded sense of commonality with other beings; an expanded circle of compassion, is one of the key changes that defines more advanced levels of human consciousness.

Pitfall #7 - a contracted experience of life
Recently another pervasive pitfall of speaking with certainty was crystallised for me. One of my favourite TED Talks is Brene Brown on the power of allowing ourselves to feel our vulnerability. She began her research looking at shame and that led her to find the differences between what she calls the 'whole-hearted' people who experience life fully and those who numb themselves to their experience of life.

As Brene says, you can't selectively numb your feelings. If you numb yourself to your vulnerable feelings, you numb yourself to the lot. She mentions drugs, shopping and alcohol as obvious ways we numb ourselves but interestingly, she also listed blame (a way of discharging difficult feelings) and.... certainty. She highlights religious self righteousness as one common example in the U.S. I see other ways too such as constant stimulation and busy-ness (see my blog post on busy-ness).

The pay-offs
Avoiding the unpleasant feeling of uncertainty is the obvious pay-off gained from faux-certainty. However there are other pay-offs too. 

People will follow: Because most people want to escape the discomfort of uncertainty, if someone offers an escape route, they'll have no problem finding followers. We see this in religions, cults, charismatic leaders of organisations and self help gurus who promise the one right way. Some people even subscribe un-critically to scienctific claims without appreciating or even understanding the limitations that scientists themselves acknowledge. Offering certainty is offering pain relief from part of the natural human experience. Therefore the market for certainty is massive - anyone who wishes to avoid that discomfort. The hunger for this opiate is pervasive and the human ego is all too willing to feed on the adoration of dedicated followers.
Membership of the brotherhood: It's also the case that the stereotypes of masculinity in many modern cultures, still promote the idea that to be a man you have to powerful, you have to be a hero, you have to be decisive and in control. For men who feel strongly the need to prove their masculinity, the idea of acknowledging shades of grey rather than flying into heroic action against the bad guys, is anathema. Faux certainty can be used as proof of strength and masculinity and a way of gaining acceptance into the brotherhood. That's an important need being fulfilled and therefore a strong reinforcement for continuing the faux certainty habit. 

Interestingly, women can also have a strong need to be accepted as 'one of the boys'. In organisations this can be seen in women who live according to the stereotypes of masculinity above. They too act as if they are certain, decisive and in control. I remember being this way when I first hit the corporate world in a fear-driven culture. Over the years as my confidence has grown and my fear diminished, I've become more willing to be honest about uncertainty.

The need to be right: Another group of people who feel a strong pay-off from faux certainty is those of us who have linked being right with being worthy. Like my dinner-table experience, this instills a connection between certainty and safety. From my later experience however, letting go of attachment to a position brings with it more safety than any amount of rightness ever did. The path to de-coupling rightness from worth takes commitment and energy. However it can be done and it leads to a much more peaceful place.

The need to be perfect: Similarly, the perfectionists among us have a pay-off for insisting that perfection is the only acceptable way. Again, worth has often been coupled with the achievement of perfection. While this view often leads to immense amounts of stress it also takes the uncertainty out of things. There's a right way and if I achieve it I'll be considered worthy. To acknowledge that there are many ways of doing things or that perfection, where it exists, is not often necessary, removes their north star - their map to worthiness. To know what perfection is provides an assurance that worthiness is possible.

Relevance to the dharma
So what has this to do with the dharma? The Buddha taught that a flourishing life is one where we embrace the whole catastrophe of the human experience - the good, the bad and the ugly. That's not to say we enjoy it all, but we are willing to have it all, know it all, be with it all. 

One of the key challenges the dharma puts before us then is to be willing to be with unpleasant emotions. Rather than automatically running from them as if they're a threat to us, the challenge is to get to know them fully. In order to do that we have to be willing to feel them. Uncertainty has an unpleasant feeling tone to it. So instead of holding our seat with reality we act with certainty, clinging instead to the pleasures of the payoffs listed above.

The problem is, uncertainty is reality a lot of the time. So more often than not, when we engage in thinking or speaking with certainty we are mis-representing reality to ourselves and others. This unwillingness to be with the vulnerable feeling of not knowing deprives us of learning, good decision making, creates tension and mistrust in our relationships, encourages judgment rather than compassion and leaves us out of touch with much of our human experience. The more we numb it, the less fully we experience our own life - the pleasure, the pain, and everything in between.


Here are some questions for reflection and some practical suggestions to help.

Questions for reflection:
  1. In what situations do you find yourself speaking with certainty: with black/white, right/wrong, good/bad language or with authoritative tones?
  2. What is the pay-off for you in doing this? What's the benefit?
  3. Imagine not doing this in those situations? What feelings arise? Why?
  4. Is there any mental activity that goes along with these feelings? Mental movies? Narratives or scripts running? 
  5. What does uncertainty feel like in the body? Can you sit with it for a few minutes and describe to yourself where in the body it shows up and what the sensations are like?

10 practical suggestions:
  1. Preface your opinions with phrases like: 
    - my current thinking on that is......
    - I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about that but my off-the-cuff thoughts are........
    - one perspective/ approach/ idea/ way of looking at it is.......
    - I'm just thinking out aloud here but...........
    - I haven't come to a conclusion about it but the angles I can see on the issue are........
    - I don't think I know enough about this to speak with authority but my initial thoughts are......
    - it's a complex issue and I don't think for a second that I've understood it fully but....
    - (rather than regurgitating someone else's opinion as your own) something my friend X said made some sense to me which was........
  2. Take notice of the impact on conversations when you use the prefacing phrases above.
  3. Ask a trusted friend to point it out to you when you are sounding very certain about things.
  4. Notice when you use extreme words e.g. always, never, completely, absolutely, all, none etc. Reflect on whether they are accurate descriptors. Where they aren't try replacing them with less extreme words e.g. often, sometimes, rarely, mostly, many, few.
  5. Ask a trusted friend to help pick you up on your extreme words.
  6. Admit it openly when you realise you were wrong about something or have changed your view on something. Notice what happens (including whether the world falls apart).
  7. Start noticing the presence of 'judging mind'. Enquire into this - what conditions lead to it arising? What impact does it have on you and others?
  8. Practice cutting judgments off before they come out of your mouth (both positive and negative)
  9. Practice 'thought stopping' with judgments about people
  10. Try replacing judgments with observations about and descriptions of what happens in you when you observe certain things - the patters of cause and effect.

For information about Bob Dick and his consulting services click here.