by Marsha Familaro Enright, July 2013 for The Great Connections Seminar
Introspection as Freedom
To be able to make truly free choices, we need to know ourselves, be in control of ourselves, and to protect ourselves from the control and influence of others so that we can make the best, most objective, most life-advancing decisions and take the best actions.
Real freedom starts within ourselves, with understanding our deepest thoughts, feelings, and values. By being masters of ourselves. But this is a difficult task, not least because it is so hard to untangle and identify what goes on inside ourselves – and understand what goes on in others.
Our “inner landscape” is, in some respects, the “final frontier” – one of the most mysterious aspects of the universe.
Unidentified needs, conflicting or unwanted feelings, unexamined ideas and values, and preconceptions can cause extra difficulty in identifying what’s going on inside.
This means authenticity is very important, i.e. knowing what we feel, think, need, and want honestly, without barriers to the truth. Without acknowledging the truth about ourselves, we can’t accurately decide what’s best to do. Real self-knowledge is the gateway to achieving what we want, to achieving happiness in life.
But achieving real self-knowledge can be difficult for a variety of reasons.
Introspection is hard because:
- Internal experience is one integrated sum of undifferentiated feelings, thoughts, memories & images.
- Internal experience is not sensory and doesn’t appear to have many separate entities or objects except for symbols and images, unlike the external world which is filled with objects and entities.
- WHAT is in the mind is easier to identify than HOW it operates; many processes are outside of conscious awareness. And a once-conscious operation can become automatic, too, such as learning to drive a car.
- We use the very tool we’re trying to study; if it’s impaired, it’s like a broken tool trying to fix itself.
Learning how to effectively introspect is an essential skill for achieving self-awareness and authenticity. I hope to give you a few tools from the introspection toolbox that you take away from here and learn to use well. This will be only a bare beginning!
I. Knowledge of the levels of awareness in the mind
II. Understanding of the nature of emotions, their causes, their relationship to the reasoning mind, and how to change them if they are clearly an inaccurate response to the facts (and identifying whether they are inaccurate can be tricky).
III. Awareness of bodily feelings
- As indicators of emotions
- As indicators of needs
IV. Knowledge of human needs – your own and others’ – and their role in inner experience. As a living being, the mind’s function is to serve life. A corollary to this is that almost every action, word, and thought is motivated by a real need, no matter how irrational the action, word, or thought might appear.
- The fulfillment of these needs can be through productive or destructive means; identifying which is which is often very difficult.
- Understanding other people depends on recognizing this principle and trying to identify the real needs they are attempting to fulfill when they appear perplexing.
I. Levels of awareness in the mind
What are these and their relationships? What happens when you’re asleep?
A. The Conscious Mind:
- Is under your control through what you pay attention to.
- Can only hold about 7-12 discrete pieces of information in it at one time. Words and symbols enable humans to consciously manipulate vast amounts of information held in the subconscious by abstracting the information and integrating it into one mental entity.
- Can direct the mind’s entire enterprise through consciously identified and thought-out goals – or can be a servant to unidentified ideas and values.
- Is disrupted by strong emotions that fill attention and distract from thinking.
B. The Subconscious Mind:
- Has no ideas in it at birth (the meaning of the “blank slate”), but accesses our in-born abilities, needs, and tendencies.
- Is a repository for vast amounts of information, skills, memories, values, and experiences we have had.
- Is very logical, given whatever principles we put in it – or accept without examining (which we all do as children, since we don’t have the mental capacity to examine them in childhood).It reveals this logic when we experience conflict; conflict is a clue that we’re holding some contradictory ideas and/or values that need to be examined and resolved.
- Is a never-ending integration process: Given the conditions and rules we put in it, in combination with our inherent needs and tendencies (both universal and individual), it is constantly, logically connecting input to input, to literally “incorporate it” into our minds/brains. This means it is constantly connecting what we think and value in one area of thought/knowledge/interest/experience, etc. with others.
- Produces emotions as a consequence of an automatic evaluation in response to information from the conscious mind.
The reality-oriented logic of subconscious processing can be disrupted by:
- Suppression or repression of emotions.
- Conceptual structures we have accepted which don’t consider one area of information and thinking in relation to another area (matrices of knowledge don’t interlink)
- Lack of cognitive ability/skill to connect ideas.C. The Unconscious Mind:
- Refers to mental processes which are opaque, i.e. completely inaccessible to conscious awareness. For example, other than deciding to remember something, how do we get information, e.g. a word we want, from memory?
- This includes processes that were once conscious, but have become automatized. For example, understanding what someone else is saying.
- Seems to particularly include voluntary physical processes. For example, how do we merely think of what we want to say and we’re able to type the words? Decide to play racquetball and all of our skills and strategy come to bear?
D. Body processes: Those physiological processes that affect the mind, i.e. hormones, electrical activity, circulating levels of nutritive substances. These aren’t strictly part of the mind – and yet they are insofar as they produce the physical substrate of it.
II. Understanding Emotion
What is emotion?
A very succinct definition is: “the psychosomatic form in which man experiences his estimate of the beneficial or harmful relationship of some aspect of reality to himself” (Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, 1969, 64)
Emotion is the result of a combination of the ideas and values which we hold (acquired by conscious choice and thinking, or incidentally accepted) and our inherent needs and tendencies, in response to some event. Since, as mentioned in the above section, emotions are a result of an automatic process originating in the subconscious, they cannot be directly controlled.
At most, they can be suppressed, or, if suppression becomes a habit, repressed.
Suppression and Repression
In a variety of situations, it may be beneficial to suppress an emotion. For example, if a tiger is stalking you, it is beneficial to suppress your desire to scream, turn and run, because this will trigger the tiger to attack. Instead, if you can suppress your fear and think about what to do to protect yourself, you have a better chance of survival.
However, it’s only too often the case that painful, perplexing experiences, especially ones in which we seem to be powerless, lead to a habit of suppressing a feeling. Suppressed too often and an emotion becomes repressed.
That is, the mind automatically suppresses the particular feeling – it becomes an automatic process of the subconscious. And this puts the most of the information leading up to the feeling out of conscious awareness, and therefore conscious control.
Unfortunately, as children, we’re often subjected to situations that are contrary to our needs, irrational, and painful. The only way to psychologically survive in such situations is to suppress our feelings.
For example, if, as a child, you pointed out that something was factually wrong with a story your father recounted, and he typically hit you in response, or told you to “shut up, don’t contradict me” – or merely belittled you with a comment such as “what do you know, you’re just a kid,” or “you’re such a nerdy know-it-all”, what was your response? Hurt, anger, a desire to retaliate? Yet, was it safe to be angry or retaliate? You might be physically punished or you might fear losing his love. So you suppress the feelings of hurt, disappointment, and anger.
When you’ve done this over and over, your emotional response becomes repressed. And you don’t feel as strong and assertive as you could; it undermines your motivations.
Or perhaps you allow yourself to feel anger, and even plot revenge. You turn the situation around and use your fantasy to develop a fictional world, and you become a writer. But you repressed your hurt and now you don’t understand why it’s difficult to feel love also.
That’s because the process of suppression involves the dampening of all feeling. To stop yourself from feeling something – to suppress – you must:
- Ignore some aspect of what you were thinking about
- Tighten your body against the feeling, i.e. hold your breath, squeeze your shoulders, stiffen your muscles.
This affects everything you’re feeling. If this becomes automatic and turns into repression, it becomes much more difficult to be aware of what you are feeling in that situation, and even in many others.
Practices that help identify emotions
Taking the attitude that whatever you are feeling are facts of nature, not within your control and something to accept,is a first step in identifying what you are feeling. In other words, working to have no internal censorship. The most productive practice is to first allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling, then analyze it.
To identify why you reacted in a given way and what it means, try to describe the triggers, the quality, and the exact bodily feelings of the emotion you are having. Here are some useful questions:
When did the feeling begin?
What was the last thought I had before it started?
What was I paying attention to when it started?
What was I looking at, imagining, remembering, doing, saying?
What immediately happened to my body after the feeling started?
Where were the feelings in my body? Where were they in my body?
Were they sharp, dull, slight, great – what would be a good way to describe them?
Among other difficulties, you may need to overcome a prejudice as to what is okay to feel – e.g. you shouldn’t be attracted to your brother’s wife; you should want a high powered career, but you love children so much, all you want to do is have babies.
Feelings of conflict and discomfort will bring this kind of thing to your attention. For example, if you want to call a friend but simultaneously are resisting contacting him, you are feeling a conflict. If you want to apply for a job but you never get near the phone to call, you are feeling a conflict.
Lastly, you may not understand something about your own nature and needs. For example, you may have an introverted disposition (this is often inborn), which makes too much interaction with other people overwhelming. But you don’t realize this, so you think there’s something wrong with the fact that you don’t like to go to parties.
A helpful practice is to write down your thoughts about any conflicts you are having in a log or journal every morning, using the above questions for your reflection. That is, make a diary of your feelings and thoughts about the situation. At the end of the week, look over what you wrote and see if you can glean any new understanding from it; see if you can relate them to events during the week.
For example, you stayed up really late and were exhausted on Wednesday, and you see that you felt especially bad about a mistake you made. Or you ran into an old friend on Tuesday and you noticed that you felt out of sorts all day.
III. Awareness of bodily feelings
Being aware of what’s going on in your body is key to identifying what’s going on in your mind. However, highly intelligent, intellectual people often spend a lot of time “in their heads” and not in awareness of the physical world. They tend to be excellent at focusing on something they’re thinking or working on, but often lack in awareness of their environs or what’s going on in their bodies.
Yet such awareness is not only a gateway to much pleasure and value, but to greater awareness of your self, your body, preferences, responses, and needs.
Developing your sensory acuity, noticing the physical details of your surroundings – the smells, sounds, sights, and feels – is beneficial. Furthermore, it aids in emotional awareness and even understanding, as you can more easily connect your emotional reaction to what just happened to you.
For example, you’re in the elevator and a man gets on with you while you’re busy texting a friend. He stands behind, to the left; doesn’t move or say anything. You find yourself getting more and more tense while you continue your text conversation; you arrive at the fifth floor and exit the elevator; a great wave of relief comes over you. You stop texting and reflect on the experience. You realize that when he got on, he had an odd expression on his face, which you couldn’t make out. You weren’t sure if it meant he could be threatening or not, but you were distracted by the texting, so you didn’t think the whole thing through. Instead, your subconscious put two and two together and made you worried. If you were more alert to your body’s reactions, you might have been able to consciously assess the situation better – and protect yourself another time, if someone were indeed threatening.
Increasing your awareness of your body’s reactions, no matter what you’re concentrating on, can expand your ability to understand your emotional reactions. Many physical disciplines like yoga aim to increase your bodily awareness.
IV. Human Needs
A basic principle in understanding human motivation is: what real need does that behavior fulfill?
In understanding perplexing things about yourself or others, this is a crucial question to ask. Combined with an understanding of the most fundamental human needs and tendencies, it can be extremely useful.
For example, going back to the scenario with your father’s inaccurate stories. What need of his could account for his nasty behavior? What did your action make him feel?
The hard part is understanding the range of human needs and how they interact in a given situation. That takes a bit of study and experience. Also, just as people vary on their ability to be aware of their own feelings, they vary on their ability to perceive and analyze others’ emotional expressions and demeanor.
It turns out that humans have the ability to directly, internally imitate the experience of what other people are feeling through “mirror neurons” which reside in the frontal lobes of the brain.
“A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate and other species including birds.”
Researchers “argue that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. Some researchers also speculate that mirror systems may simulate observed actions, and thus contribute to theory of mind skills, while others relate mirror neurons to language abilities. Neuroscientists such as Marco Iacoboni (UCLA) have argued that mirror neuron systems in the human brain help us understand the actions and intentions of other people. In a study published in March 2005 Iacoboni and his colleagues reported that mirror neurons could discern if another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table. In addition, Iacoboni has argued that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy.” Wikipedia
There is a raft of evidence that the natural ability to easily be aware of one’s internal states and those of others varies considerably from person to person, and that women tend to be naturally more skilled at grasping their own internal states and those of others. Of course, ultimately, the degree of inborn ability is individual, just like intelligence. Further, just like intelligence, it’s a skill that can be practiced and enhanced through purposeful observation, reflection, and analysis. This ability is highly pertinent to identifying human needs.
The following are sets of ideas about needs and emotions that are useful to consider.
Maria Montessori’s List of The Universal Needs of Humans
- Self-preservation 6. Movement/transportation
- Orientation 7. Logical/quantitative processing
- Order 8. Social connection
- Communication 9. Nurturing
- Imagination 10. Self-perfection
Ten Human Tendencies, which aim to meet the above needs
- Exploration 6. Self-control-discipline
- Orientation 7. Repetition
- Order 8. Perfection
- Ability to abstract ideas 9. Exactness
- Work 10. Communication
(Nathaniel Branden argues the need for self-esteem is fundamental, but it’s not on this list.)
Website with research and personal tests on Authentic Happiness
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization at the top. While the pyramid has become the de facto way to represent the hierarchy, Maslow himself never used a pyramid to describe these levels in any of his writings on the subject.
The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these “deficiency needs” are not met – with the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. Maslow also coined the term Metamotivation to describe the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for constant betterment.
The human mind and brain are complex and have parallel processes running at the same time, thus many different motivations from various levels of Maslow’s hierarchy can occur simultaneously. Maslow spoke clearly about these levels and their satisfaction in terms such as “relative,” “general,” and “primarily.” Instead of stating that the individual focuses on a certain need at any given time, Maslow stated that a certain need “dominates” the human organism, and the satisfaction Thus Maslow acknowledged the likelihood that the different levels of motivation could occur at any time in the human mind, but he focused on identifying the basic types of motivation and the order in which they should be met.
Cognition: the awareness and identification of reality.
Emotion: “the psychosomatic form in which man experiences his estimate of the beneficial or harmful relationship of some aspect of reality to himself” (Branden 1969, 64)
Introspection: the examination of one’s own conscious thoughts and feelings, i.e. one’s mental states and physical states in as much as one is aware of the physical through the mind. Introspection is contrasted with external observation. Introspection generally provides a privileged access to our own mental states, not mediated by other sources of knowledge, so that the individual experience of the mind is unique. Introspection can encompass any number of mental states including: sensory, bodily, cognitive, emotional and so forth.
Classifying Emotions: Some different systems
Robinson’s criteria contrasting basic emotions
The following table identifies and contrasts the fundamental emotions according to a set of definite criteria according to D. L. Robinson.
Robinson says the three key criteria defining fundamental emotions include theses mental aspects:
- have a strongly motivating subjective quality, like pleasure or pain
- are in response to a real or imagined event or object
- motivate specific types of behaviour or actions
According to Robinson, combinations of these attributes distinguish the emotions from sensations, feelings and moods.
Kind of emotion
|Related to object properties||Interest, curiosity||Alarm, panic|
|Attraction, desire, admiration||Aversion, disgust, revulsion|
|Surprise, amusement||Indifference, familiarity, habituation|
|Event related||Gratitude, thankfulness||Anger, rage|
|Joy, elation, triumph, jubilation||Sorrow, grief|
|Self-appraisal||Pride in achievement, self-confidence, sociability||Embarrassment, shame, guilt, remorse|
|Social||Generosity||Avarice, greed, miserliness, envy, jealousy|
HUMAINE’s proposal for EARL (Emotion Annotation and Representation Language)
The emotion annotation and representation language (EARL) proposed by the Human-Machine Interaction Network on Emotion (HUMAINE) classifies 48 emotions.
Parrott’s emotions by groups
A tree-structured list of emotions was described in Parrott (2001).
Plutchik’s wheel of emotions
Human feelings (results of emotions)
|Optimism||Anticipation + Joy||Disapproval|
|Love||Joy + Trust||Remorse|
|Submission||Trust + Fear||Contempt|
|Awe||Fear + Surprise||Aggression|
|Disapproval||Surprise + Sadness||Optimism|
|Remorse||Sadness + Disgust||Love|
|Contempt||Disgust + Anger||Submission|
|Aggressiveness||Anger + Anticipation||Awe|