Character: “Enjoy who you’re becoming”
I’ll start by highlighting the current premise of most psychotherapies today as being “humanistic”. Humanism came out of the 1950’s led by Abraham Maslow who basically focused more on strengths, human potential and the “whole person” as a needed correction for the overemphasis on pathology from the psychoanalytic (e.g. Freud) and behaviorist schools (e.g. Skinner). Humanist, Carl Rogers stance “unconditional positive regard” sums this up well.
I fear though, that “unconditional positive regard” has been over solidified, limiting some areas of exploration in its intent to be nonjudgmental into a climate of not being able to make any value judgments whatsoever. Of course, I don’t advocate for therapists to be the morality police but the complete elimination of exploring “good character” in therapy has its consequences as well. And if this is distasteful, bear in mind that “unconditional positive regard” is likely a value to you, it has a moral “judgement” as “good”.
So I want to illustrate a way to include “character” in a deliberately developmental psychology which I believe “transcends and includes” the best of the humanistic ideas. It is possible to make value judgements while maintaining positive regard. This can be done ultimately by encouraging clients to grow themselves from the perspective of character with minimal interference- but plenty of engagement- from a therapist.
I’ll begin by defining character, perhaps not comprehensively, but as a way to think about its implications for DDP. Three features which define character:
1) A good character knows who they are. They have a strong sense of self. They have gravitas, and possess distinguished “characteristics” or enduring traits over time. When we say someone is acting “out of character” we are saying they’re not consistent with who we thought them to be.
2) A good character acts on principles. Notice “out of character” conveys more than inconsistency with personality traits. Character infers virtue. A good character is based on well thought out principles, which are acted upon even in the face of adversity (including strong social pressure to do otherwise). So character includes a personal, moral, individuated sense of responsibility.
3) A good character serves the greater good. And finally, a good character is not self-centered, is morally based not only on a well-defined personal code but on what is good for others. Many of these stem from a universal morality found as far back as the axial wisdom traditions (e.g. does not lie, cheat, steal, kill indiscriminately). A good character is then, quite naturally, of service.
Respective to the three features above, here are three questions to consider as a way of formulating DDP around character development. Viewed as principles, these questions can be tailored in psychotherapy to meet the particularities of each client’s needs.
What are you about?
Who do you want to be?
Do you “enjoy who you’re becoming?”
I’ll digress for a moment to introduce a short and elegant model of self-development proposed by the late psychologist and meditation master, Daniel P. Brown. These stages are presented in a developmental sequence, though they don’t need to be operated on linearly. However, mastery of lower levels is likely prerequisite to mastery at higher levels.
The first of the three stages is “self-definition”, knowing who you are and having a strong sense of self. For many, we lost track of our “core self” because our unique qualities were not mirrored back to us from the earliest stages of development. A great deal of work in most of the psychotherapy modalities is to uncover and heal the conditioning (the fake selves) that has prevented us from knowing our “core self” directly. Deliberately developmental psychotherapy should include pointing out essential qualities and strengths by the therapist (mirroring) and encouraging clients to look inwardly for such aspects. Self-definition, seen in terms of character development goes hand in hand with the first question, “What are you about?
The second stage is ”self-agency”. This applies very directly to DDP, especially the capacity for engagement. Self-agency is the power to shape one’s world in a chosen direction. It’s directing one’s life toward getting what’s wanted in areas of relationships, work, spirituality, etc. For our conversation at hand, self-agency is the process of actively developing one’s character based on having a sense of one's own uniqueness or strengths, or knowing “what you’re about”. It’s about shaping experience rather than sitting on the sidelines. Self-agency, from the perspective of character is relatedly, “Who do you want to be?” (It is worth noting here that even if your ultimate aim is self-transcendence, you will still be a person acting in the world, and hopefully with a strong sense of character! It doesn’t always work out that way).
For the final stage, Dr. Brown borrows a definition of “self-esteem”: Self-esteem is the “developmental linking of positive affect states to the self-representation”. In other words, when you become aware of yourself, you feel good about it, throughout most of your days, most of the time. Bear in mind, self-esteem by this definition is a relatively high level of self-development. In the context of this principle of character, I call this positive affect “enjoyment” and we’ll get back to this important point later.
As a reminder, thus far we have:
What are you about? (Self-Definition)
Who do you want to be? (Self-Agency)
Do you “enjoy who you’re becoming?” (Self-Esteem)
How to engage these three questions in practice? In order for them to take root, they can be engaged rather honestly and methodically. First, what are you about? If you’re not sure, this is a perfectly valid and honest answer! And keep in mind, this is prime ground for a Superego attack which can prevent deeper exploration. If you do engage the question, part of the work will likely be surfacing inner criticisms from your conditioning of who you “should be”. You may even discover that a great deal of your ideas of what “good character” (good boy or good girl) are thanks to mom and dad and your culture, not actually who you know yourself to be.
Psychotherapy, on the whole, works well addressing this level of inquiry (e.g. what happened in your history that you lost connection with your core sense of self?) But additionally, by allowing yourself space to answer the question over time, you should be able to find one or more positive aspects of yourself that feel true, unique and irreducible to you. In my case, I would inquire, “What is Chadness?”
The next level of inquiry is Who do you want to be? Keep in mind, the disparity between your current self-image and who you want to become is the canvas of deliberate development. It's precisely where we can practice. Psychotherapy, in general, has done a great job healing parts who we do not want to be. But only recently, to the credit of Positive Psychology, have we discovered the importance of shaping ourselves toward wholesome images of who we want to be. A DDP should include both amply. Knowing that your old mental representations are built on conditioning, what’s to stop you from building new self-representations generating healthier conditioning?
Here are two avenues to practice with this question, Who do you want to be? The first is to take any number of the traditional standards for character- honesty, non-violence, integrity, etc- and using your own measures, grade yourself. This is not an opportunity to re-employ the Superego as much as it is to answer your question by your own standard- are you living up to who you want to be? Does this help you know who you want to become? How do you want to be different or the same as these traditional standards? Any answers that are honest, genuine and clear are the practice working on you.
In this same vein, a second way to practice is to consider “good characters” you look up to. Who are the people you want to be more like? Are they in biographies, your history, or your current mentors? What are their characteristics and virtues that you want to onboard and strive for? And also what do you see in them that you don’t want to include?
Engaging these questions as practice also brings us to the powerful cognitive and developmental capacity of visualization. By stabilizing a “best sense of self” as a practice, we lay down grooves of who we’ll become. A future discussion about this, as distinct from “magical thinking” will be important. But for now, the capacity to shape scenes of a future self that are positively wired to your developmental agency have a catalyzing and growthful effect. And that brings us finally to the third question, answered by the practice slogan “Enjoy who you’re becoming” .
“Enjoy who you’re becoming” is a powerful developmental injunction. If you’re not regularly enjoying yourself in the present moment, appreciating your growth and your vision for your own becoming, you are likely in a “frame” that could benefit from more inquiry. It’s especially important to recognize and cultivate enjoyment when you notice progress in your development. Taking time to appreciate yourself sets up the positive reward circuits which makes further development also more enjoyable.
Any time you make progress toward the self-representation of who you want to become, you already enjoy it because you are in that moment a bigger version of yourself. You’ve victoriously broken a frame and you’re closer to the very person who you believed was in the future. This is important! The future image, actualized, embodied, grounded in your experience NOW is being the person who you want to become. Good DDP “marks” these moments so they are wired into the self-definition. How enjoyable! This is Dan Brown’s healthy “self-esteem” being actualized and noted in present moment practice. Note: many people would think of this as “shallow” or narcissistic and my observation is that truly enjoying who you are is a much harder, higher level practice than simply healing the negative.
As a final point, I’ll refer back to the original third trait of good character, that they “serve the greater good”. Enjoyment of who your becoming, which is just a way of practicing self-esteem (feeling good about yourself based on earned development as opposed to pretense and narcissism), leads to a natural instinct for what I call “self-extension”, perhaps a fourth stage.
When you feel good about yourself, you’re connected with your life and you’re more likely to reach out to others for connection. You’re more inclined to share yourself and you hope that others around you are also well.
Alternatively, when you feel bad about yourself, your meaning making is likely to be tied to rehearsals of worthlessness, loneliness or nihilism. In other words, rather than being a “good person” with an idea to help the world, “Enjoying who you’re becoming” is a natural movement of wanting wellness (and development!) for others around you. This makes deliberate development itself an enjoyable and positive feedback loop.