The Deconstructionists

Every once in a while, I come across an anxious or depressed client whose symptoms appear to be grounded in a particular belief system, which I will call deconstructionism. The deconstructionist sees the inherent flaws in everything and uses this awareness to reject everything as worthless. Religion, career, community, culture, relationships, politics, philosophy, morality, and even life itself… To the die-hard deconstructionist, it’s all crap. Nothing is real. Nothing matters or has purpose. There is no truth or meaning. Over time, such people come to exist in a nihilistic world, an existential and moral wasteland. It is little wonder that these people also become anxious or depressed.

Deconstructionists can be found in any population, since all it requires is a reason to question reality. Teenagers and young adults do this all the time, but so do other people who have their realities shaken. Imagine the doubts and questions that must accompany any great trauma, loss, or upheaval; and you will see how anyone can slip into deconstructionism under the right conditions.

What deconstructionists often fail to realize is that deconstructionism itself can also be deconstructed. It too is merely a belief system, a subjective reality, and as such, it can be dismantled. “There is no truth or meaning” becomes the one truth that many deconstructionists fail to deconstruct. If they did, they might discover an important distinction between the idea of “no truth or meaning” and “no absolute truth or meaning.”

Just because there may be no absolute (i.e. objective or universal) truth or meaning in the world, that doesn’t mean the world is devoid of all truth and meaning. It just means that truth and meaning aren’t fixed. I believe the world is overflowing with truth and meaning, but such things are subjective and very personal. In other words, we each get to choose what is true and meaningful to us.

If deconstructionists can make this leap of awareness, if they can deconstruct that last absolute truth, they might find themselves not in a world of oblivion and meaninglessness, but rather in a subjective world full of unformed potentials. To me, this is the ultimate insight and saving grace available to the deconstructionist. It is also the prize available to anyone who is willing to walk this path.

I would argue that deconstructionism is very valuable, as long as it is used as a tool for growth rather than an end in itself. As an end in itself, deconstructionism leads only to nihilism; but as a tool for growth, it has the potential to liberate us from beliefs that are absolute, rigid, ineffective, or toxic. However, due to its many potential pitfalls, the journey of deconstructionism should not be made impulsively or halfheartedly. I am reminded of a quote:

“Better never begin; once begun, better finish.” -Dan Millman, Way of the Peaceful Warrior

Going only part-way on the journey of deconstructionism is no good. You end up in a dark place. In therapy, I often use a mountain range metaphor to illustrate the nature of such journeys. If you stand on the summit of a low mountain but see a higher summit off in the distance, one that you would like to reach, you need to understand that there are no shortcuts. The only way to reach another summit is to climb down the mountain you are on, hack your way through the briars and brambles of the valley, and then work your way up to that other peak. It is hard work, and there is little joy to be found in going only part way, because the view along the way is often worse than where you started. This is what happens to deconstructionists. They come to believe that the valley is the destination, and they abandon their journey at its most critical moment, just before the path forward (and upward) is revealed.

What does the rest of the journey look like? If deconstruction tears everything down, then the second half of the journey must involve building something from the rubble. This is the beginning of reconstruction and the climb to a new summit with a new belief system. Like deconstruction, reconstruction is a hard journey with many challenges and pitfalls. Most common is the tendency to take shortcuts by quickly adopting new external beliefs. Such behavior is unfortunate but also understandable. After all, ambiguity is uncomfortable, and it is hard to figure out what YOU believe. It is hard just to figure out who YOU are. In some ways, deconstruction is the easy part, especially once you get the knack of it. Reconstruction requires a whole different set of skills, and it starts with some questions that are simple but not easy:

  • What seems real or true to you?
  • What matters or has meaning to you?

Your answers to these questions establish a basic subjective framework, a foundation, on which your personal belief system can be built. However, there is a danger here, because it is difficult to know when you’ve done enough deconstruction to avoid accidentally building the same old beliefs in a slightly different form. In other words, if your answers to these questions still reflect old biases, you will probably end up right back where you started, on top of that same old summit you were trying to escape.

I like to think of deconstructionism/reconstructionism as a transitional belief system. It is something we can adopt to help us move from a given belief system to a chosen belief system, from one summit to another summit. As such, it represents a potentially important part of individuation and maturation. However, as I have demonstrated, there are several ways that this transition can get corrupted. If we start reconstructing before we’ve done enough deconstruction, we can end up right back on our old summit. If we take shortcuts during reconstruction, we can end up on someone else’s summit. And if we never reconstruct, we can end up lost in the valley, believing in nothing.

Another one of my favorite metaphors for illustrating the process of deconstruction and reconstruction involves LEGO building blocks. If I were to put you in a room and give you a collection of pre-assembled LEGO objects to play with (a car, a house, a boat, a spaceship, etc.), you might never notice that you were actually playing with blocks. You would simply see a bunch of colorful toys. This is what happens to us as children when we are given beliefs by family, friends, and culture. We receive a collection of pre-assembled ideas, and we use those ideas without really understanding them. This is a good thing, because as young children, we are not capable of inventing an entire belief system from scratch, just as we are not capable of building our own toys.

Over time, however, it is also good for us to learn to ask questions and think for ourselves, because critical thinking can reveal the true nature of the toys/beliefs we have been given and open the doorway to deconstructionism. Some people are taught to be critical thinkers, which is like having someone show you the blocks and how they fit together. Other people develop critical thinking through trauma and adversity, which is like having your toys break and discovering the component blocks for yourself.

Regardless of how we gain awareness, once we realize that our toys/beliefs can be taken apart, we discover a deeper reality. Instead of a car, a house, a boat, and a spaceship; we start to see the blocks. Instead of rigid beliefs, we start to see the experiences and influences that led to those beliefs. With persistence, we can learn how to disassemble all of our toys/beliefs, leaving nothing but a pile of rubble. For the dedicated deconstructionist, this is ultimate goal and stopping point; but as I have shown, there is another perspective. Where the deconstructionist sees only chaos and rubble, the reconstructionist sees a room full of blocks, and blocks can be used to build almost anything.

It doesn’t matter if what we build can be taken apart. That’s fine. What matters is that we get to build things for ourselves. We get to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble. We get to experiment. We get to figure out what we like and what works for us individually. One person’s creations are not worthless just because someone else could deconstruct them or build something different. That’s actually the beauty of it all. We each get to build, and nobody gets to claim that their creation is the right one, although many people will certainly try.

The journey of the deconstructionist doesn’t have to end in nihilism, anxiety, and depression. It can continue forward and upward along the path of the reconstructionist and into the infinite possibilities of a subjective world, a world of blocks.

A Story About Stories

Stories are powerful. At their most basic, stories are simply ideas or collections of ideas, and they can be as big as an epic novel or as small as a single thought, like “life is hard” or “I am fat.” There are stories we take in through books, movies, TV, advertising, other people, and our own experiences. There are also stories we tell ourselves in the form of self-talk, beliefs, values, assumptions, biases, superstitions, fears, and expectations. Finally, there are stories we tell others through our own words and actions.

All three types of stories are important, because they shape the very world we live in. The stories we take in and tell ourselves shape how we see ourselves, other people, life, relationships, and the world around us (i.e. our perceptions). Meanwhile, the stories we tell others can have a profound effect on their perceptions. If we accept the idea that perceptions shape reality (see Believing is Seeing), then there is a lot of power in the stories that we encounter, and we would be wise to take them seriously by choosing our stories carefully and taking responsibility for their effects.

It is rare that a single story has the power to radically reshape our perceptions, especially once we reach adulthood. We are exposed to thousands of stories every day, and most of them have only slight impacts on us. It stands to reason that a lifetime of experiences don’t go out the window just because of one little story. However, with repetition and/or intensity, stories really do start to have an effect. [Other relevant factors include the age and receptivity of the audience; as well as the relevance of the story.]

For example, a single deodorant commercial may seem insignificant, but if you see enough commercials over a long enough time, you may actually start to worry that you smell bad. Advertising really works, and it works because of the power of stories and repetition.

Intensity can also increase the power of a story, even with only a single exposure. If you see enough news stories about car accidents, the repetition may eventually lead you to see cars as dangerous, but if you are actually involved in a bad car accident, that one exposure might be enough to dramatically change your perceptions.

Of course, stories have varying degrees of intensity. Watching a single scary movie can keep you up at night, even if you are never in real danger, and watching a lot of scary movies (or reading a lot of scary books) can trigger fears that last a lifetime. Eventually, whether through repetition or intensity or a combination of the two, stories can get under our skin and take root in our psyches, where we repeat them to ourselves over and over.

Now, let’s not forget the positive side of all this. Having the power to shape the world through stories is an amazing gift. If you like the way a story makes you think and feel, you can make those ideas more real for you by exposing yourself to other stories with the same ideas. You can also repeat those stories to yourself, as well as share them with others. We are all doing this all the time anyway, so we might as well learn to be more intentional about it. Being intentional also allows us to be more responsible for the effects our stories have on others.

Most of us are unaware of the true power that stories hold. We let them flow over us and through us, shaping our perceptions and defining our reality. Ideally, perhaps this would be fine, but with so many stories coming from questionable or manipulative sources (corporations, consumer culture, etc.), it seems dangerous to not have any filters in place, like antivirus software on a computer. If we aren’t careful in such an environment, we may inadvertently promote suffering by allowing harmful stories to become part of our internal dialogue and by sharing harmful stories with others.

Personally, I believe that we each have a responsibility, both to ourselves and others, to be aware of (1) the power of stories and (2) our own power to choose those stories, both the ones we let in and the ones we put out. This awareness allows us to harness the power of stories and create better lives for ourselves and a better world for all of us (see Stepping Through Illusions).

I don’t always remember, but I try to ask myself, “What am I really seeing and hearing? What is the story here? How are my internal stories affecting my perceptions? And what stories am I telling others through my words and actions?” This story about stories is one of my stories. I repeat it to myself often, and I share it with clients and friends, in the hope that it will reduce suffering.

Lessons from Water

Water knows no fear, anticipation, or surprise.
Remaining calm, clear, and true,
It suffers not the future
And reflects beauty in tranquility.

Water neither seeks nor resists conflict.
Flowing with simplicity and efficiency,
It suffers not the present
And reflects beauty in turbulence.

Water dwells not on drama or regret.
Resuming the original condition,
It suffers not the past
And reflects beauty in equilibrium.

Water approaches obstacles without doubt, fear, hesitation, expectation, or anticipation. It simply remains calm and clear until it reaches an obstacle. One might think that this would leave it ill prepared to handle obstacles, but water needs no preparation. By knowing itself perfectly, staying true to its nature, and maintaining composure in the moment, nothing can surprise it.

Water meets obstacles without resistance or eagerness. It simply flows around and through, following the path of least resistance. It may become wild and turbulent during the encounter, but only as much as the obstacle requires.

When obstacles have passed, water quickly returns to a state of calm and clarity. It does not cling or dwell. It does not suffer guilt or regret. It does not seek further drama. It simply moves on with poise, composure, and equanimity. This is the balance it maintains as it moves from obstacle to obstacle.

These strategies apply equally well to the lives of human beings.

By offering such profound lessons, for those willing to see them, water also provides further evidence of the emergent beauty of nature (Li). There are parallel processes all around us, and therefore, we can look to nature’s other manifestations for advice, assistance, inspiration, clues, and strategies on how to negotiate the rapids and challenges in our own lives. This is the gift of Li. We need only accept it, trust it, and have faith in it.

A Foundation of Self-Care

During the intake process with a new client, I always ask about five areas of self-care: nutrition, sleep, exercise, pleasurable activities, and supports. Self-care provides a foundation for physical and mental health, and I believe that everything we do in therapy is built upon this foundation. With a more solid foundation, progress comes easier and outcomes are more sustainable. The same is true for everything we do in life, which is why I place such great value on self-care.

Think of self-care as a table with five legs, one for each area. If all five legs are strong, then you can use the table for almost anything. You can set heavy boxes on it. You can build a house of cards on it. You can even stand on it. Of course, nobody’s table is perfectly solid all the time, because we all face limits (time, money, motivation, sickness, etc.) that make self-care difficult. Fortunately, even with a couple wobbly legs, your table can still do its job. However, there are limits.

The less solid your table becomes (i.e. the more areas of self-care that are weak), the greater the chance that it will become unstable at a critical moment. Imagine trying to build a house of cards on a table with shaky legs. Imagine the frustration of having the cards fall, not because of your unsteady hands, but because of your wobbly table. Now, imagine your frustration if that house of cards was actually a new relationship or a new career. If only you had taken the time to tighten up the legs of your table, perhaps your efforts would have been rewarded! This is why making time for self-care is so critical. Any improvement might make the difference between the cards standing and falling.

Let’s take a moment to look more closely at each leg of the table:

  1. Nutrition – This leg includes anything that you take into your body: food, beverages, vitamins, supplements, medicine, alcohol, drugs, and so forth. All of these have a direct impact on body functioning and brain chemistry. Without the proper building blocks, the body and mind can’t maintain themselves effectively; and with excessive toxins, functioning can be impaired or damaged.
  2. Sleep – This leg is about the amount, quality, and consistency of sleep. Unfortunately, sleep is not always under our control, as with insomnia or nightmares. Like the canary in the coal mine, sleep issues can serve as an early warning sign for other problems (e.g. anxiety or depression). Also, sleep patterns are often hard to correct once they get disrupted, so it is important to catch problems early.
  3. Exercise – This leg is about physical activity, which impacts not only your physical fitness, but also your mental health. Exercise is one of the best ways to manage the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. Ironically, exercise is also typically one of the first activities to be dropped during times of stress!
  4. Pleasurable Activities – This leg includes activities that are fun and/or meaningful to you in some way. They can be social or solitary, and they can take almost any form (interests, hobbies, escapes, passions, creative outlets, connections to nature, etc.). They can also overlap with the activities of the other four legs. I think of pleasurable activities as being the most direct source of stress reduction, because they have such a profound impact on quality of life.
  5. Supports – This last leg is about connections with individuals, groups, or communities. Human beings (introverts and extroverts alike) generally don’t function very well in prolonged isolation, and good supports provide the critical bonds that keep us grounded and balanced. However, in order to qualify as a good supports, we must actually use these people as supports! It is not enough to merely have people available to you.

After years of addressing self-care with clients, I have come to realize that all five areas have something to do with connectedness. Nutrition, sleep, and exercise involve connectedness with yourself (your health, your body, etc.), while supports involve connectedness with other people. Depending on the individual, pleasurable activities might involve connectedness with self, others, nature, or a sense of meaning, purpose, or spirituality. As each area of self-care is given more attention, connectedness deepens and health improves. Taken together, these areas of self-care seem to suggest that our foundation of health is really a foundation of connectedness… or interconnectedness. The longer I do this work, the more right that sounds.

Guilt and Worry as Alarms

It was a client who first shared with me the idea that guilt is not meant to be carried around as a burden. Rather, it is more like an alarm. I liked this idea, and I have used it ever since. Recently, it occurred to me that worry is much the same. Both are like smoke detectors, warning us of a potential problem or threat. When the guilt alarm goes off, it says, “You screwed up! You screwed up! You screwed up!” When the worry alarm goes off, it says, “Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong!” In each case, just as with a smoke detector, there are two possibilities: either it is a false alarm OR there is actually a problem.

When a smoke detector goes off, the first thing you do is look around to see what set it off. Maybe the battery is low. Maybe your dinner is making too much steam or smoke on the stove. Or maybe there is actually a fire. If is it a false alarm (i.e. no fire), you push the button to silence the alarm and move on with your day. If there is a fire, you either grab a fire extinguisher or call 911. You do something about the problem. What you don’t do is carry the blaring smoke detector around with you all day! That would obviously be pointless and stressful; and yet, that is essentially what many of us do with our guilt or worry.

A more effective approach would be to treat your guilt or worry like the smoke detector. When it goes off, the first thing you do is look around to see what set it off. In the case of guilt, you might ask, “What’s going on? Did I really screw up? Did I hurt someone in some way? Can I do anything about it?” In the case of worry, you might ask, “What’s going on? What am I worried about? Is the problem real? Is it certain or even likely? Do I have any control over it? Can I do anything about it?”

If you decide that the problem is real, the next thing you do is look for possible interventions. With guilt, you might apologize, make amends, or fix the situation in some way. With worry, you might take steps to minimize the possible dangers or negative outcomes. You heed the alarm and respond accordingly. That’s what alarms are for. Once you’ve taken all reasonable steps to address the problem, the alarm should stop, because it no longer serves any purpose.

If, on the other hand, you decide that the guilt or worry is a false alarm, or if the alarm has not stopped after you’ve intervened, then you run into a small problem. Unlike smoke detectors, your guilt and worry do not have a reset button. You can’t just turn them off by getting a broom and whacking a little box on the ceiling. You also can’t simply leave the room, because unlike smoke detectors, you carry your guilt and worry around with you. The only way to escape is to turn off the alarm, and the only way to do that is to clear the air. Like waving a towel in front of a blaring smoke detector, you have to look at the situation, remind yourself why you believe it is a false alarm, and be patient. At first, it may seem like an impossible task, but there is a skill to it, and you can get better.

Ideally, we can learn to avoid false alarms by training our guilt and worry to be more discriminating. This means challenging any guilt or worry that fails to serve a useful purpose. We can also learn to minimize actual problems by refining or disciplining our behaviors. This might mean being more careful with our comments or judgments, treating people with greater respect or compassion, or avoiding unnecessary risks. If we learn to reduce both false alarms and actual problems, we unlock the potential for a life that minimizes guilt and worry. The alarms are still there to protect us in an emergency, but they do not go off unless absolutely necessary.

As a final note, I should point out that living a life with less guilt and worry may lead to the perception by others that you don’t care enough. Some people wear their guilt and worry like badges of honor, as a sign of just how much they care. However, this seems dangerous to me, because it links being a good and caring person with carrying around lots of guilt and worry. That reality may be fine and good for some people, but I don’t want it for myself. It puts suffering on a pedestal, and there’s enough suffering in the world already.