The title of Mark Manson’s recent book—The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck—is subtly deceptive. He actually wants us to give a f*ck, but selectively, on our terms and in accordance with our values. He orients us to his challenge by posing the question that the great Viktor Frankl based Logotherapy on: If suffering is inevitable, what are we willing to suffer for? Manson encourages us to start by examining our beliefs and values. Which ones are we punishing ourselves with? Which ones are serving us? Which ones do we want to keep and organize our relationships around? He also encourages us to examine our various identities. If we’re clinging too tightly to them, he tells us, we’re likely thwarting our potential, keeping ourselves small. If we want to grow, he says, we better be willing to fail, for in pain and adversity, we become intimate with what really motivates us.
Manson’s advice is excellent—in fact, most mindfulness-based therapies endorse similar lines of inquiry—but like all advice, it is more easily given than lived. So, what would it take to make the changes that Manson is advocating for? How deep would we need to go? Well, very deep, down to the foundations of selfhood.
Let’s start with the process of change that Mason describes: learning to stand in one’s own authority even if it means falling out of popular favor. Though that process might hold powerful resonance for the generation that grew up negotiating their identities within the halls of social media, Carl Jung first described it, with beauty and depth, in the early part of the twentieth century. He called it individuation, and posited that the Self—our brilliant, unconditioned, potential self—in its movement toward expressing itself in wholeness, must first reconcile two socially constructed aspects of our personality: Persona and Shadow.
When we are babes, Jung’s theory goes, we realize ineffably that some parts of us are wanted and so ensure our caretaking and survival, and some parts are unwanted and so jeopardize our caretaking and survival. Instinctively, we learn to bury our unwanted parts (our Shadow) and instead invest in our wanted parts (our Persona). Our Persona becomes the self we bring into relationship and, over the years, we adapt it to navigate a variety of social environments: school, religious communities, extended families, neighborhoods... It serves us well—bringing us a sense of belonging that nourishes us—but it also compromises our sense of being fully in the world because it often prevents vital parts of ourselves (our Shadow) from getting seen and known. The loneliness and disconnection that can arise out of the feeling of inauthenticity often inspires us to participate in relationships with greater honesty and complexity. But for those of us whose early social environments were especially censorious, daring to drop the protective shield of the Persona can feel as dangerous as jumping blind off the side of a mountain. That is why LGBTQ+ youth from conservative families, for example, are especially vulnerable to suicide—‘coming out’ presents them with an alternative, but perhaps more formidable form of dying. The need for the defense of our Persona is a matter of degrees, commensurate to the fear we experienced in our early relationships, and for those who experienced a lot of fear, the aspiration to not give a f*ck, even selectively, might be at odds with their need to feel safe.
But say we start to question our Persona. We see how our reliance on it has become a barrier to the intimacy we long for, and we are tired of the artifice and the bending over backward and the various roles we find ourselves playing: the clown, the peacemaker, the nurturer, the badass. We see how these roles keep us stuck in a limited way of being, removed from vital parts of ourselves that also long to express. We have started to wake up, by simply taking a step back, out of the box of our Persona, and into a vaster consciousness, which is not limited to its parts, but has the potential to hold the unfolding of the whole circus of the self. That vaster consciousness, once awoken, can no longer content itself with hiding in illusion, in Persona. It can no longer play the same games with the same convictions, at least without eventually waking up out of them. Not that daring new expression doesn’t scare the hell out of us or that the fear of rejection instantly dissipates. It’s just that we are now intimate with the kind of suffering that limiting ourselves causes and are no longer willing to shoehorn ourselves into those narrow ways of being.
We have awakened into a broader holding of self—a 'more spacious personality,' as Jung wrote—which means entering into a more conscious relationship with our socially constructed aspects (our Persona and Shadow). Through the eyes of our 'more spacious' Self, we are now able to watch the play of our Persona (catching ourselves catering to others at our own expense) and the play of our Shadow (feeling impoverished when learning of others’ successes). We are no longer blindly subject to the forces of our conditioning, but wakeful participants in the emotional experiences that arise in relationship. Moment by moment, we are practicing at consciously bringing the open states of our 'more spacious' Self (like curiosity and compassion) into relationship with our contracted states (like fear and aggression), and in doing so, we are transforming our sense of selfhood.
Take jealousy, for instance, a Shadow aspect if ever there was one. We might notice our ancient impulse to push it down, out of consciousness: the shame of being someone who suffers from jealousy is almost too much to bear; our Persona simply won’t have it, and it takes all of our courage to turn toward it and engage it. Our capacity to hold ourselves in a broader awareness serves us well here, for we understand that conditional arisings, like jealousy, aren’t really who we are. We are vaster, irreducible to a single expression of self. Perhaps that understanding alone emboldens us to turn toward our jealousy.
We might first notice all the ways we defend against feeling its terrible pain. We might want to drive the energy outward, as aggression. Heads will roll, we say; lives will be ruined. We will adopt a scorched-earth policy, and if people get hurt, they have no one to blame but themselves. And though it might be true that a second party shares in the responsibility, we take back our power by working compassionately with the feelings arising in us. They are ours, the legacy of our conditioning, and we would do well to address them before coming back into relationship with that second party.
Now that the energy of aggression has expressed (in our imagination, villages are burning), we become aware of a depth of grief opening up, the undertow of sorrow taking us down. We start to experience the raw pain of not feeling good enough for the person we love the most, and in that not-good-enough-ness, we experience the feeling that we deserve to be abandoned. It is excruciating but undeniable: we feel we deserve to be left for dead by the side of the highway, alone, desolate, and deserving of our suffering. We have come to the bottom of our sorrow, and waves of grief are rolling through us. But because we have trained in holding ourselves in our vastness, we don’t contract our identity around this Shadow play, but instead open our hearts to ourselves, to our suffering selves, like mothers comforting their children. Can we be with ourselves like that, in the depths of our sorrow, continuing to offer ourselves compassion even as the flow of our grief seems endless?
In one of her early lectures, Pema Chodron, the great Buddhist teacher, tells of being deeply impacted by a scene in a documentary about an order of Carmelite nuns. For fifteen minutes, the camera stays on one nun offering comfort to a badly deformed child. The child resists, convulsing against the nun’s care, until, realizing the nun’s love is sincere, intent on meeting her beyond her deformity, the child looks at the nun with trust and relief and finally lets herself relax in the nun’s arms.
That is the transformation that can occur in the kind of holding I am writing about: a deepening in trust that arises out of our capacity to be with ourselves through painful trials. That kind of love allows us to lead fuller, more courageous lives because we trust that if we fall while taking risks for the things we care about, we will catch ourselves. The practice of that kind of holding facilitates a profound reorganization of self, for we start to operate from our wholeness, not our parts; our loyalty is to our open nature, not to the discrete arisings of our conditioning. Who and what we give a f*ck about is incidental to that loyalty.
The process elaborated above can be effectively navigated through some good psychotherapy. If you’re inspired to make an appointment with me, please click here.
Photo credit: Maud Fernhout