Zenho Chad Bennett
Deliberately Developmental Psychology, Principle of Nourishment
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Nourishment: “You are what you eat”
See how true this is for you: You want to change… and you don’t want to change. You know exactly what's good for you and you’re just not doing it.
There are many models of change addressing how to get underneath this civil war inside our minds. These models, in differing ways, share the common goal of making one or both sides of this polarity more conscious. One approach is to develop the “will” which strengthens the side that wants change, while another angle is to understand the psychology of change resistance. And some models pendulate awareness to recognize both.
Perhaps as important as which pole to engage, is how to engage. The literature of any deliberate practice shares a common emphasis on slow, incremental and consistent progress rather than short term big gains. Why? Because if one pole is favored too strongly, the other pole reacts in an equal but opposite direction. Push too hard, you may collapse the next day. Don’t try at all, you further entrench negative beliefs about change and the inner critic goes haywire.
But there’s another angle on all of this. While so far I’ve emphasized principles proposing how to look at practice, there’s also the topic of what is being practiced. Some “thing” is always being practiced.
What are your inputs? Inputs are simply anything received through the sense perceptions. It’s only 10am and mine already include: a glass of water, meditation, coffee, sunlight, fresh air, some upsetting headline news, a Zoom conversation with a colleague, a shower, editing a blog, and reading emails.
As has been pointed out in several ways, that which is perceived is constantly filtered through conditioning in the sense perceptions (our frames). So while it makes sense to look at developmental practice from the perspective of cleaning up our frames, it’s also essential to develop agency over what the sense perceptions are exposed to. “You are what you eat”.
So at the high risk of insulting ourselves, it could be valuable to make a list of all inputs- food, drink, the home environment, medications, exercise, reading, practices, content on screens, nature, relationships, to name a few. Then notice the degree to which each item serves the self-image of “who you want to become”. Inputs discerned as serving the deliberately developmental process are what I’m calling nourishment. Nourishment grows something. Take note that some nourishing inputs do not necessarily “feel good” in the short term (e.g. exercise, eating right) but they pay off in the long run as evidenced by slowly becoming “who you want to become”. And some inputs which do “feel good” are clearly not nourishing. Practicing discernment is key.
Another distinction to be made in deliberately developmental practice is the difference between healing “negative” patterns and cultivating “positive” nourishment. Traditional psychotherapy, by in large, has done a tremendous job with the former. A whole plethora of techniques are used to address wounds (e.g. shadows, traumas and attachment issues) in order to give them the medicine they need. Exposing them hurts; we pushed them out of awareness because we perceived them as “negative”. Healing wounds usually requires changing our relationship to them, giving them a “good intervention” so they can be healed and integrated. This type of work, healing the “negative”, is an essential aspect of deliberate development and it should not be minimized.
However, healing the “negative” is not the same as cultivating the “positive”. They are different processes with different impacts on development and most of us have biases toward one side which should inform what is practiced. As crude examples, there are those who are relentless “shadow hunters” seeking to eradicate all possible pathologies while they fail to smell the roses in front of them. Others dwell in self-improvement workshops proselytizing “positive self-talk” or engaging in magical thinking while avoiding the truly hard work.
So let’s take what could be a silly example of practicing with an input to highlight the positive cultivation of nourishment. I say silly because it may seem a bit basic and fantastical. Think of it as a metaphor applicable to practice in general, the main point being conveyed that anyone can practice a nourishing input deliberately to whatever degree works for them. I’ll also weave in the attitude of steady, incremental progress which was discussed earlier.
Once upon a time, a person suddenly realizes that after making a list of inputs, many of them are not nourishing. Rushing around, too much time on social media, eating bad foods, drinking coffee all day, a messy house, watching Netflix stoned in bed and forgetting to drink any water. Rather than engaging the inner critic, this person does the right thing and is inspired to become a deliberately developmental practitioner! That’s “who they want to become”.
But it’s overwhelming, where to start? Wisely, our person resists the spontaneous urge to leave their marriage, change everything at once and head to a monastery. Instead they go with the most basic input on the list: drinking water. Water? Yes, water. This person formulates a practice around making sure that several liters of water are being consumed each day. It requires basic planning, buying the bottles, placing them strategically in the room, and setting alarms every hour to drink. At first glance, it’s favoring the “building the will” side of the polarity. It’s not easy, it’s disruptive, and the person is initially bloated, annoyed at having to piss all the time. It won’t work forever, but at least they’re engaging and they’re challenging the “negative” habit of ignoring water.
In a week, results of the practice begin to surface; fewer headaches, clearer thinking, and a bit less irritability. So the person adds another very small element to the practice. Every time they drink the water they remember and mentally “mark” that this is one chosen thing they are doing in support of “who they want to become”. This marking, therefore, feeds higher levels of meaning and purpose than simply becoming hydrated and continues to shore up the mental representation of “who they want to become”. Drinking water at this stage is now associated with cultivating the “positive” rather than just eradicating the “negative”.
As this practice is stabilized, perhaps a month later, another small element is added. The person has now noticed they’re feeling much better by drinking the right amount of water each day. By slowing down and tuning in more precisely to the good feelings in the body, nourishment is now experienced directly in the present moment. It is less conceptual, closer to home, and even more enjoyable.
The practitioner is now on an upward spiral toward the “positive” by 1) Choosing “who they want to become,” 2) Planning and executing a practice while marking its purpose, 3) appreciating the impact of sensing nourishment directly and , 4) actively wiring all of this back into the mental representation of “who they want to become”. Thus they are recycling nourishing inputs at the levels of sensation, emotion and mentalizing all the while “enjoying who they’re becoming”.
Now obviously there are some ups and downs with hard periods for our person. Drinking water slowly reveals all the other ways they are not nourishing themselves. They feel bad sometimes. Periods of needing to clean up the “negative” occur in therapy yet this person is simultaneously on a roll of actively cultivating nourishment. The practice eventually becomes stabilized and drinking water everyday becomes second nature so now it’s ok to add another practice! Clean up the home environment. Yikes! Our practitioner, makes another incremental plan- just one drawer a day- and executes the plan in much the same fashion as they did with the water practice. Perhaps months later, diet is addressed and then perhaps even more difficult inputs.
There is yet another possible outcome years down the road! Now our practitioner is becoming highly deliberately developmental and begins to notice something really fun. What was initially arduous work to address each input individually has become increasingly easier. Why? Now our practitioner is practicing on several fronts with several nourishing inputs. And they’re also figuring out how deliberately developmental practice works as a whole.
Not only is their self-agency stronger due to all of the discipline, patience and steadfastness which has been cultivated incrementally over time, but there’s a catalyzing effect as all of the practices are feeding “who they want to become”. All of the practice is pointed toward one end and the sense perceptions begin to privilege that which is nourishing as attractive, while harmful inputs will more likely to go unnoticed. The conditioned sense perceptions, then, are being reconditioned by nourishing inputs!
Deliberately developmental practice is simply engaging a system of nourishing inputs, consciously taken up to support growth, appropriate to each person’s goals and particularities.
Now back to the therapy room. One major grouping of inputs clients can explore to serve the therapeutic process is “knowledge”. It’s striking to note that these days MDs- with up to 30 years of education- complain that their patients readily challenge their expertise by having done ample research on what their ailment could and couldn’t be. In ten years as a therapist, I’ve not experienced this even once. It seems that, for whatever reason, people perceive themselves as having less agency in matters of mental health and self-development than they do with their bodies.
This paradigm can be challenged. Knowledge of psychology is available in tens of thousands of self-help books, and granted it may take some effort to sort the wheat from the chaff, but that process alone is a developmental move of discerning truly nourishing inputs from the other bogus ones. In the meantime, clients can ask their therapists directly for any recommended reading which would serve to support their therapeutic journey. Other knowledge inputs might include workshops, retreats, video content and friendships outside of therapy.
Perhaps a most salient point about knowledge is that every client enters the practice of psychotherapy with paradigms about change. (e.g. see if you can spot 3 such paradigms in this article alone). These paradigms are usually unconscious and can greatly influence the impact of therapy. Those with little knowledge of psychology may be more likely to re-enact poorly developed ideas about the how/what/when change will occur. The greater the understanding of psychology as related to each client’s self-understanding, the greater the self-agency for change. In this way, too, good education is a way out of poverty.
By now you’ve noticed I’ve attempted to insert short pieces of developmental theory into each of these presentations of the principles. My opinion is that those who have basic knowledge and enjoyment of how development works have more agency and can make more progress on their own developmental journey. They’re able to practice psychotherapy and other developmental modalities more effectively by bringing their paradigms of change into collaboration in the therapy room and are open to having their models of change evolve as lifelong learners. Yet another angle on what self-development looks like is that even paradigms of change evolve… what was once thought impossible becomes increasingly possible.
Final thought: If I were to make one change out there “in the system”, I’d ask developmentally appropriate psychology to be taught in every grade of school. Please take this literally: “You are what you eat!” at every stage of life. May we all be well fed, nourished by, and into, our greatest.