We seem to be more aware than ever that success in business, as in life, requires self-awareness. Self-awareness offers us the advantages of understanding our own thinking and biases, gives us greater capacity for emotional regulation, and a deeper appreciation for our values. “Emotional intelligence” is only one the latest products of a long history of philosophers, artists, psychologists and sociologists advising us to “Know thyself.” And who can be against such a dictum? Indeed, we can be defensive anytime we get information that shows we do not know ourselves.
Yet against this tradition is another that values action over self-examination, that places results ahead of values or other subjective content. In the hard-edged world of profit and loss, such matters as feeling and experience may be viewed as too touchy-feely and navel-gazing to be attended to or (if we must attend to them) are simply seen as part of a compensatory package used to satisfy unmotivated employees.
We have, in effect, a deep ambivalence about the actual process of self-knowledge and what value it has. Because we cannot easily see its connection to achieving outer gold in terms of a better life, it’s hard to see why we should penetrate the cave of the intrapersonal to find the inner gold.
So here’s a theory, if you will, based on my interpretations of what I’ve read over the last forty years or so, and my own experiences. There are too many authors and books here to cite, but if you want to know more you can always read Robert Bly’s small classic, “A Little Book on the Human Shadow” or just about anything by Robert Johnson.
As children we are taught to grow up in such a way that parts of ourselves that were unacceptable to our primary caregivers were quashed. Anything that did not fit their own images of who they wanted us to be — as an extension of themselves — became risky, unacceptable, and eventually less conscious. We typically work pretty hard at this project of growing up, eventually covering over some major continents of personality. Of course, some of what gets covered over, such as destructive emotions or impulses helps us function as part of society, so all that’s an appropriate and inevitable thing. However, other parts of us that are valuable and good also get covered over in the process — perhaps our native “big energy,” or our creativity or other kinds of intelligence that don’t fit the caregivers’ model.
But here’s the deal. No matter how much a person grows toward that image of what they should become, there’s still an access point someplace to the whole, original person. It often has its own life, if it has not been completely throttled, but getting near that inner hole (which I said in my last post was really also a well) can be uncomfortable. We are prone to say a number of things when we get close to it:
“I know myself already, don’t I?”
“Yes, but knowing what’s in that hole won’t help be make more money.”
“I don’t really see a hole or a whole.”
“Prove to me that entering that cave will have value.”
“I don’t see the point of examining that pain; can’t you prescribe me something?”
“I feel empty. There’s nothing down there.”
“I don’t want to go there to find out how I really am.”
All of which, in their way, from rationalization to depression, are tools of avoidance because, after all, we really don’t know the inner continents, and while they might hold a certain attractive magic, they also by the time we are adults can be pretty scary. We want somehow to make the inner questions something more than empty, painful or anxiety provoking. And even if we try yet again to design a value system that attempts intellectually to integrate the inner world we may come up personally short-handed — because reason is not the whole enchilada. This is not to say that attempt is unimportant — it is, in order ultimately to contribute to human understanding and needed shifts in the culture, but it may not be enough for the “me” that is operating in the world right now, a me that is here dealing with these challenges, dealing with the private facts of a real life — from job dissatisfaction to life dissatisfaction to break-ups in important relationships, and back again.
And so that’s the way we too often think of the inner world, as a place you go in pain or emptiness only to find more pain and more emptiness. And under such a supposition, why would anyone enter the cave? Because it’s good for us? No. That would never be enough. To find the truth. Yes, but that may not be enough either, in the moment. We go because we have no choice? Well, maybe, but we are pretty good escape artists.
In a world flush with fast, concrete, behavioral answers to inner questions, with calls to action at the very moment quiet reflection might have begun, it is easy to miss the mouth of the real cave. It is easy to miss the steps leading down into the dazzling darkness. To answer the question, “why go there” is to notice the business-like question of a reasoning mind trying to protect itself from faltering, trying to defend the personality it has built around itself. After all, our reason may be built, in part, on the cover-up of our full, true natures.
Why go there, indeed! Only what we find in the cave can ultimately tell us why we have decided to go that way. And we cannot find those riches without entering. So this is the conundrum, one that cannot be broken if it is never seriously considered.
Perhaps you’d like to take a crack at the answer.
(Here begin the steps down…)