Good for Me; Bad for Me: I

This is the first of three blogs regarding the phenomenon of “good for me” and “bad for me” that I have used for many years as I have attempted to help people know when something is, quite simply good for them or bad for them. In this blog I will propose the basic concept of how to know when something is good or bad for you as well as the variations of “good” and “bad.” Like many other significant psychological terms, these expressions do not lend themselves to exact definitions, which is to suggest that we cannot fully define “good” or “bad.”

Undefinable

The fact that we cannot exactly define “good” or “bad” does not take away from the value of using these terms. It is noteworthy that several other very significant psychological terms do not have exact definitions, like love, truth, feelings, and understanding. Nor do we have exact definitions for the three basic ingredients of the known universe: time, space, and mass. We understand these important aspects of the universe, as well as the elements of psychology by seeing the effects of such things. Furthermore, we can quantify such things as time, space, and mass even though we do not define them. Likewise, we can quantify love by noting how much we love something, and we can quantify truth as well from somewhat true to entirely true. Feelings do not lend themselves to quantification but we can see the effects of feelings as we have discussed at length in previous blogs and in our recently published book, I Need to Tell You How I Feel. In the present discussion we will study the quantification of “good for me” and “bad for me.” We will discuss the effects of good or bad in the forthcoming blogs.

Quantification of “good for me” and “bad for me”

Allow me to first discuss the quantification of “good for me/bad for me” by suggesting a continuum, or spectrum, with “good for me” on one side and “bad for me””

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Bad for me                                                                   Good for me

(very bad)                                (not so bad)          (pretty good)                                      (very good)

 

My suggestion with this proposal is that there is a spectrum that ranges from very bad for me to very good for me. Before I elaborate more about this spectrum, I should explain what can be good for me or bad for me. Pretty much anything can be good for me or bad for me. For instance, some foods may be good for me or bad for me. Likewise, some life situations can be good or bad for me, like work, relationships, geographical locations, or insertions into my life. Insertions include the finding of $10 bill on the street to a dog barking loudly while you walk by a house, but the more significant and lasting the “insertion,” the more significant the effect on you. If you find a $100 bill, it would be really good for you, or if the dog bit you on the leg, it would be really bad for you. Additionally, something that someone says too you might be good for you or bad for you, or in more extreme circumstances, a person him/herself at tone time might be good for you or bad for you. So, as we continue to discuss this “good for me” and “bad for me,” consider that anything, human or otherwise, living or nonliving, real or imaginary could be good for me or bad for me.

Having proposed that there is a spectrum of “good for me” and “bad for me,” allow me to elaborate about this continuum and suggest a number of terms that might serve as indicators of the strength of “good” or “bad” for me. We might have relatively mild experiences of “good for me” or “bad for me”, i.e.:

Aversive     Unpleasant    Uninteresting                   /                   Interesting    Pleasant    Exciting

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We might also have things that are more extremely good or bad for me, and find the use of stronger terms valuable, i.e.:

Lethal    Toxic    Dangerous               /                   Enlivening    Life-enhancing    Life-sustaining

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Putting these terms together we have a continuum on the “bad for me” side ranging from something that is mildly “not good”, i.e. uninteresting, to something that is lethal, meaning something might kill me. Likewise, on the “good” side of the continuum the range is from interesting to life-sustaining, meaning that I can’t do without it.

I have found it helpful to assist people to know how to quantify things and people in their lives using this continuum starting with the simple “good for me” things be asking them what people, places, ideas, and situations are good for them, and then to help people note relatively good these things are. Then I follow by assisting people to similarly identify things that are bad for them along the negative side of the continuum. I have found that while it is hard for people to describe exactly how good or bad something is for them, they can approximate the good or bad somewhere on the continuum. The idea of a continuum, or spectrum, of good or bad rather than an absolute good or bad is helpful for people to see how things adversely affect them or enhance them in life.

Quantification: a sign of emotional maturity

While many people find it valuable to see a continuum from extremely good to extremely bad for them, some people are not willing or able to make these distinctions. Such people often use the extreme terms for everything, namely “dangerous” or “lethal” on the bad side or somehow necessary on the good side. People who regularly use such extreme terms often talk more than do, by which I mean they complain a lot of things but do nothing to get out of situations that are not good for them, or they dream about things that they think would be good for them but do nothing to fulfill those dreams. I find that such people have simply not matured in life sufficiently to see that very few things are truly life-sustaining or lethal, but many things are simply interesting or uninteresting. These people are stuck in their helplessness or stuck in their dreams. They have not matured beyond a childlike view of life that they should have everything they want without work or that they are helpless to do anything to enhance their lives. Extremes of any sort are the natural stuff of childhood but not of maturity. As people mature in their understanding of life, they tend to use less extreme terms leaving such terminology for very few cases. When people mature in this way, they are better able to make adjustments in life.

There are at least three elements of maturing in the business of enhancing life with what is good and reducing elements that are dangerous: (1) thinking and feeling to yourself about such things, (2) speaking to someone else, and (3) doing something. People tend to skip item (1), thinking and feeling, and go right to item (2), talking to someone or item (3), doing something. But it is important to first think and feel before talking or doing. If I talk to someone right away or take action right away without first truly knowing how I feel and think, I will not find it profitable and productive because my personal thoughts and feelings will not be the foundation of what I might ultimately do.

You might consider the many other situations that occur in life, like an intimate relationship that is good for you, and then think of how you might enhance the relationship rather than taking the good person in your life for granted. Likewise, you might consider how you might make an adjustment to a relationship that is less than good for you rather than taking leave of the person who might just be uninteresting to you in some way. You could also examine what you eat or drink, what you do for recreation, or what color you would like to see on your house. In fact, if you can examine the less important things in your life, like what you eat or what color you have on your house, you might be better able to honestly examine the more important things in your life, like your relationships, your work, your geographical location, or something that is truly sacred in your life.

You might consider talking to someone about your “good for you” feelings and “bad for you” feelings once you have studied your feelings for yourself. There are equal dangers of keeping your feelings entirely to yourself, which tends to be a tendency of introverted-thinking people, or constantly talking about your feelings that frequently occurs with extraverted-feeling people. If you can be honest with yourself about what is good for you and what is bad for you, you will be in a better position to profit from talking to someone else. After thoughtful self-examination of the goods and the bads of something in your life, and then talking to someone about those feelings, mature people do something.

Sometimes the “doing” doesn’t actually look like doing because the person decides that the best course of action is to stay the course. Equally possible, is the need to actually do something about your life, particularly when you find yourself on the “bad for me” side of the spectrum. People tend to jump to action too soon or avoid any kind of action for fear of loss. In the long run, when a mature person has come to a decision to take action or not, there is always sadness involved in the action. For instance, it might be sad to give up alcohol if you decide that it is largely bad for you, or you might be sad if you decide to keep drinking because the loss of alcohol in your life is worse than then ill effects of alcohol. You will be sad staying with someone who is not always good for you and you will be sad leaving such a person.

Sadness

The universal experience of feeling sad when you have actually done something is important to understand as we have written in The Positive Power of Sadness. People often avoid doing something because they simply don’t want to experience the sadness of losing something. They would rather live in the fantasy that they can have it both ways, like living happily with a person who you find “not good for you” occasionally and simultaneously leaving such a person without any regret of having lost an intimate partner. You can only do this in fantasy, not reality. To honestly stay or leave, and then profit from the staying or leaving, you have to look at the effects of staying or leaving.

In the next two blogs, where I will discuss the effects of something that is good for you or bad for you and how to take action with such things. Consider what might be in each category:

  • Good for you could be person, place, property, experience, or idea
  • Bad for you could be person, place, property, experience or idea

 

 

You Value What You See

I don’t see much. Well, that’s not entirely true, but there’s lots of truth in it. An important part of this “not seeing much” is related to the fact that I am colorblind. Not seriously so, like people who actually don’t see colors at all and live in a kind of black-and-white world, as I have a red/green colorblindness, which is the most common. So when Deb asks me to look at the (red) tulips in the yard, I can see them only if they are pretty close to me, but when far away, I can’t distinguish the red tulips from the green foliage. There are lots of other times when I mix colors or fail to distinguish colors. I have failed to distinguish red, green, brown, and gray depending on the depth of the color and what might be the background confusing the “cones” in my eyes. I recall the first time everyone realized that I was colorblind because my paternal grandfather asked me to plug the meter in his green Nash standing right in front of his office building where he could watch me from 6 stories up. Mom and he watched as I plugged the meter of the brown Nash right next to his green one. Colorblindness comes through the mother’s side of the family and rarely affects girls, so my maternal uncle was colorblind, my daughter not, but her son is. It is funny to play Sorry with Gavin when we struggle to distinguish the green movers from the red ones. Enough about the colorblindness, already. What does this have to do with anything important in life? It’s not terribly important if you or I are colorblind, but it is dreadfully important to know what we see and what we don’t see because we actually see different things.

First, let’s enlarge upon the word see for a moment. We can use this word “see” to include at least all five senses and possibly the “sixth sense” of intuition. Intuition is very close to the feelings that I have disused at length in previous blogs, but for our current purposes, we shall use the word intuition as a kind of sixth sense. Then we can use the word “see” to include all the ways people gather information: seeing (physically), hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and by intuition. I mention this 6-part way of “seeing” as a way of dealing with several important factors in one’s psychological makeup, not the least of which is that there are great differences among people in the way they see things. Some people are particularly good at seeing through one of their six senses, and some people are good at using all of their senses. Furthermore, there are people called synesthetic, who actually integrate their senses so much that they do such things as “taste the color blue,” smell the green grass, feel “touched” the thing that they hear, and many other combinations. There is at least one good book on the phenomenon of synesthesia and many articles, some of them in the popular genre. Blind people often have developed a particularly sense of hearing, and deaf people are often particularly good at seeing with their eyes. Beyond the fact that many people have a preference for one or two senses, there are people who aren’t particularly good at using any of their senses.

Beyond the use of the physical five senses plus intuition, there are some very interesting things about what we see that are very close to many other psychological factors, not the least of which is what we value. Think of it this way: if you don’t really care much about colors, as is largely true for me, you won’t really see colors, or if you do, you won’t care much about colors. Thankfully, Deb chooses my ties every day and often chooses my suits, jackets, pants, and shirts. I care about how I look but I don’t care about colors particularly as Deb has learned over our 40 some years together.

Having briefly presented some information about what we see with our eyes, what we see with the other physical senses, what we see with intuition, and also what we value, allow me to tell you a bit about a very important understanding that was made a century ago. Carl Jung, psychoanalyst and psychologist was a student of Sigmund Freud around the turn of the last century but came to believe that Freud’s understanding of the human condition was not sufficient to help people grapple with the difficulties in their lives. He proposed. Among many other things, that people had substantially different personality structures, one of which was the way that people see things. He referred to this structure as the perceptive function. Jung observed that people seemed to attend to very different things, perhaps see different things, and certainly value different things. Simply stated, Jung suggested that there is a spectrum of these differences representing how, what, and why people saw, attended to, and valued different things. He called these two different ways of seeing “intuitive” and “sensing,” terms that have continued to be used for the past century. I have found it more valuable to use the terms “objective” and “subjective” in explaining these differences of seeing. Thus the spectrum of perception is:

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Objective (Sensing)                                                                                     Subjective (intuition)

 

There have been scores of books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of pages written on Jung’s understanding of personality, so permit me to simply indicate how people with these different perspectives see the world.

Objective (sensing) people tend to:

  • See what is real
  • See what is factual
  • Value the physical world
  • Engage the physical world
  • Produce something
  • Examine things (and people) individually

Subjective (intuitive) people tend to:

  • See what is unreal
  • See what is possible
  • Regard the nonphysical world
  • Engage the nonphysical world
  • Create something
  • Examine things (and people) relationally

There are many more things that can be said of these important ways of looking at the world, and nay interested reader will have no difficulty finding relevant material on this subject. My point in presenting this difference in seeing is to highlight the strengths of both of these ways of seeing, and to shed some light on some of the difficulties people have engaging these different worlds (physical and nonphysical), as well as the difficulties people have relating to one another.

For purposes of personal revelation I should note that I am particularly on the objective side of this spectrum, namely being a person who sees the real world and engages the real world. However, I am married to someone who sees the unreal world and engages quite well with this world. Furthermore, I have had the opportunity of living with my 14-year old grandson for the past three months who is distinctly on the subjective side of the spectrum of perception. The interesting thing about living with these two people who share this subjective way of seeing the world is in their seminaries in how and what they see and ultimately what they value. Additionally, as would be expected, they display differences in maturity that come with being either 14 or 65. Deb grew up in a very objective family and learned how to deal with the objective elements of the world, so from her earliest years she knew how to engage the physical world, reflected to some degree in the way she cared for property. My grandson did not grow up in such an environment largely because his mother took undue care for all the property in her household leaving my grandson to be able to continue undisturbed in engaging the “unreal” world, more accurately described as the “possible world”. It has been remarkable for me to see Gavin who is truly “subjective” in what he sees compared to my wife who also sees the subjective but also engages the objective world. This has given me an opportunity of seeing a bit clearer what subjective people “see” and hence what they do with what they see, and what they value because of what they see. This can be simply summarized in the matter of socks.

Socks? Yes. Some weeks ago, before I had truly grasped the differences in how my grandson and I “see” the world, I noticed that he had left his socks on the bathroom floor when we were visiting our cabin up north. I noticed the socks after he showered for the day. I noticed them at noon, again at 5 PM, and at 8. I noticed the socks because I notice such things. At 8 o’clock I asked Gavin to look in the bathroom and see what might be “wrong,” which was an interesting word I chose for what he saw. He immediately said that he saw the socks on the floor. I then asked him if he had seen the socks on the floor during the several times he had gone into the bathroom during the day. He said that he hadn’t seen the socks. While hard for me to believe, I came to the immediate realization that he hadn’t actually seen the socks. I thought, “How can someone walk into a (relatively small) bathroom and not see the socks that are on the floor?” But this wasn’t so much a question as it was a rhetorical question, something that I restrained myself from asking because such questions only stir shame rather than instruct.

Since the incident with the socks there have been perhaps several hundred such incidents over these past 12 weeks that Gavin has been with us, many of which I ignored, many of which I attended to by picking things up, and many of which I asked Gavin to attend to. This experience of “socks” and all that the socks represent has stirred a new understanding of people who have the subjective way of looking at the world.

I know this: it is the subjective people of the world who have made the most important discovering and improvements in the world, not the objective people like me. This very blog is a testament to this fact: nothing that I have written is “new” because Jung and his predecessors “discovered” this difference in perception long ago. Theologian Soren Kierkegaard predated Jung by nearly a hundred years and said the following about how people perceive. He called objective folks “people of possibility” and subjective folks “people of reality.” Then he went on to note the difficulties that both kinds of people have:

  • People of reality do everything but nothing (or very little) is of value
  • People of possibility do nothing (or very little), and everything they dream about is valuable

There are many more musings on this matter, not the least of which is what we value. Thus, Gavin values what he might do rather than what he does, whereas I value what I have done more than what I might do. I’m sure it’s been a challenge for Gavin to live with me for these past months and it certainly has been a challenge to live with him. More importantly, this is not about Gavin and me. It is about what we see and what we value, and ultimately how we can understand and value one another.

Further Reading

Jung, C. (1921/1974). Psychological types. Princeton, NJ: Bollingen

Myers. I.B. (1980). Gifts differing. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press

Johnson, R. (1993). Watch your temperament. Madison, WI: Midlands Psychological Press

Self, Selfish, and Selfless

There is much talk in the psychological community about “self,” and rightly so because the idea of self is central to understanding the very basis of psychology. Unfortunately, “self” is not defined, nor should it be, because it is one of those concepts that is so important that it can’t be defined. You might recall that I have written (as have many others) that the most important concepts in psychology are undefined, like feelings, love, wisdom, and perhaps other ones as well. Additionally, the three basic ingredients of the known universe are all undefined: distance, mass, and time. All other physics concepts are based on these three undefined concepts. We can measure time, distance, and mass, and we can combine them, like distance/time = velocity, but we don’t define them. Neither do we define “self.”

Not all psychologists use the term “self,” preferring “core self,” “soul,” “spirit,” “inner self,” and other such concepts that all refer to this essence of being human that is not only undefinable, but also fraught with implications according to how people use such terms. I will not debate the values and dangers of these terms but simply state that my preference is “core self” for the most part, but for this blog I will be using “self.”

What is self?

When you have an important concept like self, or time, distance, and love for that matter, you can understand the concept not by a definition but by three ways: (1) observing the absence of the concept, (2) observing more complex concepts that are comprised of self in combination with self, and (3) observing the effects of the concept. Note that the operative word is observing. Let’s look at these three ways of observing self.

The absence of self

We can understand self to some degree when we see what we call an “absence of self.” This terminology is not the best, I grant you, but it does communicate something of what apparently happens with some people: they have failed to develop a clear concept of who they are, that they are important in some way, or even that they exist. A related phenomenon exists with some severely impaired autistic people, or perhaps more accurately, they don’t have a concept of their actual existence.

But this is not what we are talking about with people who have an absence of self, or more accurately don’t have a good sense of self. The primary symptom of such people is an undue attachment to something other than oneself. There is some truth to the theory that people who become addicted to something, whether person, property, substance, or behavior, might not have a good sense of self. So they find a kind of attachment to one of these things (or behavior), which then gives them a sense of existence. This is tantamount to a person feeling such an attachment to, for instance, gambling, that s/he feels a real sense of self when s/he gambles. More often, however, the attachment is less to a behavior, person, property or whatever, as it is to the endorphins that are churned up when the individual is attached to this thing. It is like the person feels, “I feel real when I…(gamble, drink, or fuse with someone else, etc.).”

Most people have at least some sense of self, and hence “absence of self” is not quite right, but when someone has failed to develop a sense of his basic existence apart from anything, we do have this lack of a good sense of self.

Self combined with other elements

People who fuse with something so much that this thing, whether person, property or whatever, becomes what the person is rather than attached to the thing. There is a much healthier and profitable experience than fusion and consequent lack of identity: attachment. There is a literature on several kinds of attachment, but for our purposes here, we are talking about secure attachment. This is typified by the person who can separate him/herself from the behavior or product but finds that the use of something makes him/her a better person. Thus, a person who has a good senses of self can develop a passion for swimming and see swimming as a reflection of one’s self rather than swimming being the essence of oneself. In fact, the best competitors, whether in swimming or playing chess, are people who can attach to the sport and then detach from it without discomfort. To some degree, you can observe a person with a good sense of self engaged in some activity, do well with it at one time, do poorly with it at another time, and have other activities that assist the person to display his/her “self” in the activity. People who have to win at everything do not have a good sense of self, neither do people who simply do not try or give up too easily.

Aside from attaching and detaching from a sport, people with a secure sense of self can truly enjoy something like reading, writing poetry, painting, working, playing, singing, and many other elements of life. Common among people with a good sense of self is their being able to attach and detach from several things, which also suggests that the individual is able to love more broadly, say love swimming, love being alone, love being with people, love playing checkers, and love reading.

The effects of having a good sense of self

In all of these ways of attaching and dethatching to things, the person with a good sense of self is appreciative of the many aspects of life. The primary effect of having a good sense of self is that the individual appreciates life and has a sense of gratitude for living. People with less of a good sense of self do not feel such gratitude. Rather, sadly, they feel that they have not had enough and need more. This effect of having a good sense of self yields a deeper and deeper appreciation for what the world provides them, sometimes as simple as air to breathe and water to drink, but also property, people, and position in life.

In addition to feeling a sense of gratitude the second effect of someone with a good sense of self is that s/he has a passion to do something for humanity. You don’t have to be a philanthropist or a tree hugger to do something for humanity. You can be that cheery cashier or the honest attorney who both feel a passion to do something good for other people. When these things happen, namely feeling grateful and feeling a passion to give to the world, an interesting thing happens: you forget about yourself.

Forgetting about yourself

Now this must seem quite contradictory to what I originally wrote, namely that ideally a person has a good sense of self. So what do I mean suggesting that one “forget about him/herself?” I mean that when one’s sense of self is truly solid, s/he doesn’t worry, doesn’t fear, rarely gets angry, and spends a great deal of time thinking of how to serve the world. Such people are not defensive because they know their limits and their flaws. They are not critical because they know that everyone is doing their best to survive in life. They do not worry what other people think of them because they know that most people don’t care about them whatsoever, while there are probably an equal number of people who do like them and don’t like them. In their doing, they make mistakes and quickly come out with a “my bad” expression. They listen to criticism, whether right or wrong; they know they are hurt, but they don’t let their hurt lead them into anger or fear. Most importantly, they are more interested in other people than they are in themselves. They don’t live through other people, but rather have a life orientation of service. You can’t serve, give, and sacrifice if you are constantly thinking of what you want, which is so common among people with an inadequate sense of self.

Be yourself. It is the best thing you have. When you really know that, you will be able to “forget about yourself” without losing yourself. It is like having such a good foundation that the upper stories can collapse but never damage the foundation.