Note: The “Sorting Myself Out” posts is a series exploring and implementing the ideas of Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson on self improvement and living properly.
It always struck me how much Dr. Peterson discusses words and their power to introduce order to chaos and having watched the video above, I gave a earnest shot to negotiating with myself. It used to be that I would break out an empty schedule, look at all the work I have to do and try to fit them all into the next day as best I can. Anything left, I would put on the day after that, then the day after that, etc. I would visualize myself at the end of that week having done all that and predictably I’d have a huge grin on my face. And to apply Dr. Peterson’s advice, after a hard day of doing math, I said, I would reward myself: by reading a certain very hard (but great) book. That is something I really, really want to do! I negotiated, I thought. Wrong. I end up feeling a bit resentful, a bit put upon and certainly dissatisfied even I do manage that schedule. And most of the time I don’t.
Your Nonverbal Self
Studies on patients whose connection between their left and right brains was severed revealed that there is another personality within us, one that is nonverbal. The voice in your head is your left brain, most likely. And when that link is cut, then the two can act more or less independently. That’s when it gets very weird:
Standing in the supermarket aisle, Vicki would look at an item on the shelf and know that she wanted to place it in her trolley — but she couldn’t. “I’d reach with my right for the thing I wanted, but the left would come in and they’d kind of fight,” she says. “Almost like repelling magnets.” (Source)
By the way, her left hand is controlled by her right (nonverbal) brain. It’s interesting that Vicki identifies with her right hand- AKA her left brain. She thinks that what her left brain what’s is what she wants and more strikingly, she didn’t even know that part of her didn’t want it until her left hand started fighting her right. Her right brain, it turns out, can’t tell her anything. Is is that true of us too? Do we also identify with our left brain? It turns out, there’s at least one other you in there, and it’s not entirely clear that your verbal, chatty brain, let’s say, is any more powerful than the other you! And it’s sort of scary. This other personality has a huge influence over you, no doubt. But you can’t begin to articulate what it wants or what it’s like as a person.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe the bicameral mind theory doesn’t entirely explain why we can’t “control ourselves”. However what this makes clear is that our conscious mind is far from the only part of us that has thoughts and desires and many times we literally don’t know what we want until we act it out. For instance, I spent most of my time thinking that what I really want is good grades. When I binge on mobile games, that’s an aberration. That’s not the real me. That’s BS, of course. You are what you do most of the time, and if I play that much video games, I do want to play. Since my verbal brain is the only part of me I can really “hear”, thus I sit down to make my schedule I only write down what it wants. In hindsight it’s obvious why my well-intentioned schedules never work out.
Mindfulness and Self Talk
Now that we know there’s at least one other “us” and they can’t talk, how do we know what they want? Meditation is all the rage nowadays, whose benefits are supported by a host of studies. So naturally I tried it. I won’t say I’m an expert- far from it. But the central theme to meditation seems to be: pay attention to what’s happening right now, in all parts of our mind and body. Secondly, use words. Put names to things. If you feel something, try to identify it; don’t let yourself just wordlessly feel it. If you feel angry, tell yourself “I feel anger right now. I’m pissed and resentful, and here’s why, and this is what I can do about it” This is admittedly nontrivial; there’s a reason many try and quit meditation in frustration. But I posit if we want to know what our nonverbal selves want, it’s worth exploring. And this is where logos comes in: we can use our conscious mind to give a voice to the parts of us that are voiceless.
All of us know what it’s like to feel a compulsion, say, eat an unhealthy snack then realize after the fact (with some horror) that we did it. Clearly, a part of us wanted that and that part bypassed our conscious mind all together, which is why our inner voices never said, hm, a candy bar would be nice. If we can be more mindful overall, then we’d feel the compulsion and our consciousness can then identify it. “Hunger. I want to eat a candy bar.” Then we’d know a part of us wanted a candy bar. Then we can negotiate: “I know you want a candy bar, but we just had one this morning. What about tomorrow? Want an apple instead?”
Another way we can know is hindsight. Look at all the times you act “out of character”. What do you do? When you’re not on task, not doing what your verbal mind wants, what are you doing? What are some of the things you tell yourself don’t want to do but do anyway? Maybe I just enjoy stupid games no matter what my vanity wants me to think. Maybe I’m not as intellectual or ascetic as I thought, and maybe I should stop judging myself for it. This is how I found out I genuinely want to play that game. I play it a lot, in hindsight, and now I catch myself wanting to play it before the compulsion leads me to pick up my phone.
Ultimately I’m not saying we should listen to our nonverbal self and always let it have its way. But I’m saying, at least listen to it. Find out what it wants, put it in words and work with it properly, otherwise it’s going to get what it wants one way or the other, and the way it happens might not be to our liking. If what it wants is not totally evil or unethical, even if it goes against your self image (e.g. I’m an intellectual, therefore I’m going to spend all my time reading books instead of playing Candy Crush), then consider appeasing it in a mindful manner- at least some of the time.
Finally, I put together a short meditative worksheet to find out what we might really want, whatever that means. I just see it as a self guided meditation, really, but hopefully it offers some clarity. I write my desired vices on this sheet, and use these as my rewards to motivate myself. The PDF contains two identical pages because I prefer to print two A5 sized copies of it on one A4 page.