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Books about positive values, spirituality, and counseling

"How People Change"

by Benjamin B. Conley, M.Div., LMFT

I wish to affirm certain basic values about the worth of each individual (life), the autonomy that allows each person to make his or her own decisions (liberty), and to live life his or her own way (the pursuit of happiness). Those are ironically the very rights, when lived out, that relieve the suffering of those who would destroy them for others.

These thoughts may seem a far cry from matters of loving relationships and spirituality, but they are not. The application of values that would erase poverty are the same values that create intimacy in relationships and allow us to be connected to all people in a loving way. They are the values that create love in the spiritual dimension of life.

The living out of fundamental values affirming the importance of every life and the right of each of us to manage our own lives let us sanctify the spiritual dimension of life and experience a serenity that is self-validating.

The practical problem for every human being is the "how to do it" question, how to apply those principles to over-ride our inclination to do what is less than loving. The goal of "applied love" is a full integration of the values of valuing ourselves and others, making our own decisions and affirming the right of others to do so, and living life our own way and endorsing the right of each person to do the same.

I will call this the process of applied love, sending virtual particles of love, "spiritons," into the lives of others. By the time we have learned to use this process well, it becomes unconscious and automatic, so we no longer have to think about it. As a tool to expand our capacity to be loving, here are five steps in learning how to treat others in the most loving way.

Five Steps to Loving Behavior

1. Information.

In order to do anything, we need information about the subject that concerns us. Start with your experience of information you receive from outside yourself. This includes what you see, smell, feel, and hear. In addition it is important to clarify what you hear from others by restating the messages and confirming the accuracy of your perception of them.

Let us use families as an example. Suppose your mother is coming over to your house for a visit, and you want to treat her in the most loving way, even though you expect she will make critical comments about you as she has done in the past. You have considerable information about her, and having known her for a long time, have a general idea about what to expect the visit to be like.

You have an idea of how you might respond to her emotionally. You might be annoyed or angry if she criticizes you. Even so, you can listen for what may be new and of interest to you, and use your own ways of getting accurate information. If she says or implies that the chicken might have been better, you can see if she meant to criticize your cooking by asking her something like, "Did you mean to say I should have cooked the chicken a better way?" It is important to get her to answer your question.

2. Understanding.

The second step in the process of applied love is to focus on the descriptive understanding of what you see, smell, feel, and hear, so that you begin to understand the way in which all the pieces fit together.

a) Logic. You endeavor to understand the logic intrinsic to the messages you hear. The test of your understanding is to restate the logic of the message in such a way that the other person can confirm your understanding.

If the answer from your mother is that you should have done better by cooking the chicken a better way, find out why that is important to her. It may not be important to you, but if she criticizes your cooking, it is important to her. Perhaps, to make a guess, she has lived her life trying to be perfect, and believes anyone who doesn't try to be perfect threatens her security and way of life.

By saying to her, "I suppose the chicken wasn't perfect. Is that why you think I could have done better by cooking in another way?" you can see if the guess has any validity. She might correct you, and tell you that her mom would have done it differently. In which case she has a slightly different reason than my guess.

Whatever you understand her reason for criticizing you to be, you have shifted away from self-defense into curiosity about why your culinary skill is emotionally important to her.

b) Empathy. Applied love requires that you identify emotions expressed by the other person(s) as part of the message you hear. You can test your perception's accuracy by empathizing with the other person's feelings and asking for conformation and addition to your impression.

For example, with our hypothetical mother, you might say, "Oh, you might be feeling somewhat nervous about my cooking not being up to par. Is that accurate?" She might say, "No, I'm not at all nervous. But I do feel a little annoyed, because you know how important this is to me." Or she might say something else.

Whatever she says, you can follow her description of her own feelings and empathize with them, since feelings tell us about what is emotionally important to a person. You are finding out more about your mother's emotional response to eating chicken the way you prepared it.

Empathy is not the same as "feeling what your mother feels," since we can only feel our own feelings. Empathy is connecting emotionally with what the other person feels so as to appreciate the emotional significance of what the other person is experiencing.

3. Meaning.

Applied love requires a shift from focusing on your own point of view to your mother's point of view. Using the information you have gathered, you are in a position to put it all together and use your ability to understand the whole picture from your mother's point of view. You can evaluate the meaning of what you have heard and understand more clearly your mother's point of view, still using your own values and life experience to do so.

By now you know some of the data she is using (even though you may consider it to be mis-information). You know the way she is interpreting that information (though it may be a distortion or unfair interpretation from your point of view). You know what she is feeling (though you may think that her emotional response is inappropriate to the present circumstances).

You might conclude that your mother wants to do the right thing, that being a good cook is one way she had a good relationship with her deceased mother, and that she criticizes herself for not being a "good enough" daughter to her mother.

Suppose you believe she identifies with you and wants you to be the daughter she failed to be, and so needs you to be the best cook in the world. And that she is afraid that if you fail, she will also fail again, by her unconscious identification with you. Whether this is 100% accurate is of little matter. Assume it is close enough for everyday living.

You can even visualize your mother shifting into the position of the scared little child who couldn't please her mother, and her fear that if you don't do well enough, she would be in danger of being criticized and rejected, just like when she was a child. From that perspective, you can empathize with her apprehension and know that her concern about your cooking is not about you, but about her need to be affirmed.

So it is now understandable in a new way that how you cook is emotionally important to your mother, because, from her point of view, if you fail, she fails, and condemns herself again as a poor daughter. She has a lot at stake in your cooking, from her point of view, and intends to save herself, not to hurt you.

4. Decision to Act.

Applied love requires that you focus on your own highest values, your knowledge of what is most loving and caring. From that perspective you can decide what to do about what you have understood and evaluated.

rWhat is the most loving response you could make to your mother based on your fuller understanding? Would you say, "Mom, I know I could do better, and I'm happy to hear your suggestions." Or, "Wow, I'd love to have your mom's recipe and learn how to cook it her way." Or, "I love you, Mom, even though this is not the greatest chicken in the world." Or, any one of a hundred different ways you can invent to respond to her and acknowledge her emotional investment in your being a success in her own eyes, and offer her the affirmation she needs.

Whatever your response to her, it can be about loving your mother instead of defending your own point of view.

5. Implementing the Decision to Act.

Applied love is ultimately about how we treat others. Having decided how to respond, the next step is to do it. In this hypothetical case, it would involve communicating with your mother, and telling her what would be caring and nurturing, including how much you appreciate what she has given you. You can offer her the appreciation that she has wanted more of from her mother.

The process of understanding leading up to implementing the decision to act may seem pedantic and labored when spelled out the way I have done it here. Yet, it is a process that may take less than a second to occur when we are used to doing it.

In real life, the process may take more than a few seconds when we are not ready to respond in this way. When, for our own reasons of personal emotional need, we are not ready to respond in this way, we can take the necessary "time out" to figure out how to respond as part of our own growth into becoming more loving. When we offer others the love we want for ourselves, we reclaim an important part of our own spontaneous empathic selves that we may have given up in our own childhood development

How responsive we are in accepting others matters. Even more important is our own commitment to grow in the capacity to be more loving. We can become more aware of how to do it, how to grow into becoming more loving toward ourselves and others.

The more we succeed in communicating acceptance and affirmation of others, the more we enlarge our participation in the spiritual dimension of life.


2001 by Benjamin B. Conley, All Rights Reserved

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