One of the more dramatic shifts in understanding human psychology can be demonstrated in the contrasting views of Aristotle compared with his mentor, Plato. There is a famous painting by the old master Raphael of Plato and Aristotle. In the painting Plato points to the heavens whereas Aristotle points to the ground. This was a visual representation that Plato was an idealist, whereas Aristotle was a realist.
Plato believed that mankind was perfectible. There was no excuse for those that could not live up to his ideals. When we experience something that seems to contradict an ideal, we should reject the experience. For Aristotle however, our experience of the world is fundamental. Thus if our experience contradicts an ideal we should reject the ideal, not the experience.
Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University points out that the difference between the views of Plato and Aristotle relate to a disagreement about the nature of Human Nature. He defines this difference as a conflict between a constrained view and an unconstrained view of human nature.
Those who lean towards the constrained view believe that human nature is immutable and does not change. This is just another version of determinism. It proposes that human flaws are inevitable and the best we can do is to accept our imperfect nature and make the best of it. This was the point of view of Aristotle.
Alternatively those who hold the unconstrained point of view believe that human nature can be changed and improved. Sowell writes, “In the unconstrained vision, human nature is itself a variable and in fact a central variable to be changed.” This was the stance of Plato.
As usual, the truth lies between these two extremes. As we have discussed in previous essays human behaviour is greatly impacted by our biological history and our social conditioning. Such behaviours become part of our behavioural repertoire and very difficult to change. The determinist point of view would argue that there is little point in trying to change such behaviours.
But we can change our behaviours – not easily and generally not quickly. The general rule is that if we are to change a behaviour we must learn and embed a new behaviour. I have written elsewhere about the dilemma of accepting either of these outlier beliefs.
I talked last week about some of the problems of perfectionism. If we take the unconstrained point of view and we believe the attainment of any ideal is possible, when such ideals are not achieved we often blame ourselves. We can’t accept the fact that some of our ideals are beyond our capacity to attain. This is a huge impediment to self-acceptance. I took issue with the local university which has as its slogan “Become what you want to be.” There are many things I might want to be which are beyond my capability. What say I wanted to be an Olympic basketballer? Well I am forty years too old and at least 30cm too short! A young autistic boy who I know was greatly interested in computers and completed relevant TAFE courses. However, despite the fact he would have loved to become a computer technician his lack of hand/eye coordination prevented it.
On the other hand, if we adopt the constrained point of view, we take a fatalistic stance that our lives are essentially determined and therefore we have little incentive to try to change for the better. We thus achieve a form of self-acceptance (it is alright to be who I am because I have no choice in it!) but at the expense of realizing our potential.
Because the unconstrained point of view leads to self-denigration and the constrained point of view leads to fatalism, like the Buddha would have attested, there is a middle way. Proper self-acceptance comes from striving to develop our potential whilst being realistic about our limitations. This way we can continue to strive without an undue sense of guilt, because we know that our own limitations will sometimes prevent us from meeting our ideals.
Just as an aside, I read some material from the Israeli psychologist and teacher Haim Ginott recently which had a bearing on this issue. Ginott’s most famous quote is the following:
“I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis
will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.”
Between Teacher and Child
Ginott admonishes us for not letting our children identify with and properly acknowledge their emotions.
Ginott said, “A child learns about his physical likeness by seeing his image in the mirror. He learns about his emotional likeness by hearing his feelings reflected by us.”
Harvard academic, Tal Ben-Shahar comments, “Just as a mirror does not preach to us but merely shows us what is, a parent should not preach to a child who is in an emotional storm.”
If a child says after an altercation with a sibling, “I hate him!” parents are inclined to say, “No you don’t hate your brother you are just disappointed that he hasn’t shared with you.”
We attempt to downplay the emotion of the child. As a result the child becomes confused about what emotion he or she is actually experiencing. In the end denial of emotions is not a helpful strategy in dealing with them.
Managing our emotions comes from our awareness. Being able to recognise our anger/hatred/resentment etc is the first step in addressing the negative outcomes of such emotions. This is the Buddhist state of mindfulness. If we are aware of the emotion as it is arising we can take steps to ensure that we are not at the mercy of the emotion but can do something positive in response. If we are led, (even through the best intent of others) to deny these emotions and to artificially suppress them they will more than likely play out in destructive ways.
Ginott continues, “A child’s strong feelings do not disappear when he is told, ‘It is not nice to feel that way’, or when the parent tries to convince him that he ‘has no reason to feel that way.’ Strong feelings do not vanish by being banished; they do diminish in intensity and lose their sharp edges when the listener accepts them with sympathy and understanding. This statement holds true not only for children, but also for adults.”
So, even here, self-acceptance requires us to be in touch with who we are. When parents try to suppress the undesirable emotional responses of children instead of facing them realistically they are hindering the process of self-knowledge and therefore impeding their ability to come to self-acceptance. Self-acceptance comes to us from a realistic knowledge of ourselves including a realistic recognition of our weaknesses and deficits.