Sweeten Your Inner Voice — Adlerian Psychology and the Four Agreements

I’ve been reading from two books over the last couple of weeks. The first one is a Japanese philosophy book called “The Courage to Be Disliked” and the second is the very well know “The Four Agreements”. These books have both inspired me to listen to my inner voice and hear some of the abuse that it metes out to my psyche. The Four Agreements tells us of the powerful magic we can access when we are impeccable with our word, and The Courage to Be Disliked shows us how we perpetuate our own pathological psychology because we believe it serves us to do so. In my personal case, these two concepts intersect around messages I repeat to myself and that dim my light and reduce my joyful experience of the world. One example is the self admonishment I give myself that “I am too old.” But before I get into my own personal illumination of these negative tendencies, I want to write a little bit about the concepts in the book. Please dear reader remember, that when I write like this, the primary audience is myself. I am not intending to lecture anyone, but instead I am learning as I write for myself.

I read The Four Agreements a long time ago, maybe more than ten years ago, maybe even before I started my spiritual journey in the Santo Daime tradition. The first agreement is to always be impeccable with your word. I had over the years forgotten what the author said about this, and instead remembered it as an admonishment to be strictly and completely truthful in everything we utter. It would, of course, be impossible and disastrous if we tried to implement this in our daily lives. You can start with the obvious example that if the Gestapo knocks on your door and asks if you are hiding any refugees, you say “no refugees here sir.” Other times people pry into our personal lives and a refusal to answer a question about some intimate truth that we do not want to reveal would in itself be an admission.

For example, if I ask you if you ever murdered anyone, you would easily say no. If I then asked if you had every burglarized a house, you would say no. If they then asked if you had ever sold heroine to a minor, another easy no. Then they ask have you ever smoked marijuana? Well if you then say “I don’t want to answer that question” then you’ve just admitted it haven’t you? In that case you have to say “no” even if the truth is yes.

We all have the right to keep safe and protect our intimate selves from the harsh judgments and resulting punishments that wait for us in the world. Throughout Human history–from the inquisition, to police states, to overbearing employers, to prying family members– abusive powers demand the the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then they manipulate us with guilt for withholding our most intimate selves from those who would use the information only to abuse us.

I was resistant to reading the Four Agreements when my friend recommended me to it, because I remembered the admonition of impeccability as requiring this naive veracity. But when I read the book again I saw that impeccability requires a much more powerful discipline for the voice. What it really requires is that we not use our voice to cause harm to ourselves. The first instance of this is when we say negative things directly about ourselves, such as “oh you are so stupid!” These words form agreements in our psyche that then play out in our lives.

A lot of these negative beliefs we have about ourselves come from experiences we have had in our past. I was told at a young age that I was not good at singing or drawing, and so I believed this, and would stand by mute when happy birthday was sung, and I never attempted to draw. At that young age, I was not aware that both singing and drawing are skills that one develops through practice and love. I thought they were skills one was born with, and as I was told I did not have these skills, I agreed with this, and then never developed them.

It was not until I started in the Santo Daime tradition that I learned that everyone can sing or draw or dance just as well as they can, and if we practice we improve. I learned to accept my abilities as they are, and then give my best to develop them through practice. This is how we grow. Michelangelo did not start out by painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Rembrandt’s early drawings were awkward and lacking in perspective. Even the masters had to start somewhere and improve over time with great effort. Sure some people are born with a very sensitive ear, and that makes it easy to learn to sing. Some people are seven feet tall and that gives them an advantage in basketball. But that does not mean we cannot develop our own abilities. How cool is it when we see a relatively short person with amazing skills hit three pointers one after another?

The next case of impeccability of the word involves gossip and saying negative things about others. The book warns us strongly against this spreading of poison. The Santo Daime tradition teaches the same thing–that gossip and speaking badly about one’s brothers and sisters is a grave sin. There is one teaching that says the death of the body is on the tip of the tongue. Another says that if we speak badly about our brothers and sisters we are inviting our own demise. If I say something negative about someone else, then I will inevitably believe that person does not like me. I will create a negative opinion in the person I’m talking too, and thus poison spreads.

The second book, The Courage to Be Disliked, talks about how we hold onto our pathological psychology because it serves us to do so. This is Adlerian psychology and it is contrasted to the psychology of Freud. In Freudian psychology, the basic premise is that our present personality and our neurotic behaviors come from traumas that we have experienced in our past. In this view traumas we have suffered in the past make an indelible imprint upon us, that cause us, for example, to be unable to form lasting relationships in adulthood. Under this understanding, the only way to heal is to delve into past traumas and reconcile them.

Adlerian psychology, on the other hand, says we hold onto traumas and negative behaviors because it serves us to do so. Someone close to me used to always say they were terrified to fly on airplanes, and would have panic attacks every time they got on a plane. They blamed this on the trauma they experienced when they were on a flight that ran off the end of the runway. But it turned out that the truth was that this person really did not like to visit their family which was full of drama after an ugly divorce and some other issues. One day when an opportunity to take a fabulous trip arrived, suddenly this person was no longer afraid of airplanes. Another example we have all seen is people who constantly complain about being sick when they are not really sick so they can get the attention of their parents.

There are extreme cases of post traumatic stress disorder which can really interfere someone’s ability to enjoy a happy life. It is not for me to discount the reality of their situation or their suffering. In those cases a panic attack might prevent the person from going into a crowded street where before they were subjected to grave danger. In Adlerian psychology the remedy would be more to focus on learning that the behavior is no longer necessary, that the streets are safe, while in Freudian psychology, the remedy would be to delve into the trauma. Recognizing the difference between the two modes of psychology does not discount the suffering of people with intense mental illnesses. For them we should only have compassion and offer help.

In my own case I have formed an agreement in my own mind that I am “too old.” This started for me when I first went through my divorce and found myself single. I was about 43 years old when my divorce was final, and the first thing that came up on the radar as I started to form new relationships was that I did not want to make a fool of myself by being attracted to people who were significantly younger than me. This was kind of awkward for me, because at the time, many of the women who were “age appropriate” for me were at the stage of their life where their primary interest in relationships was to have children. I already had four sons, and a vasectomy that I had not intention of reversing. Women who were a little younger than my judgment about “age appropriate” on the other hand, were more likely to not to be focused on having kids.

I was visiting friends in another city one weekend, and there was a woman that I found very attractive. It turns out that at the time she was about 33 years old. A sister of mine noticed that I had taken interest and she smacked me on the arm and said “no way! you are way to old for her”. I internalized this. Sometime later someone in their early twenties called me a geezer, and so I started to believe that I was too old.

But now I am going to break that agreement. I’m not too old for anything. I just am what I am. In actual fact, I’m in better physical shape than I have ever been in. I am at my best weight, I have my lowest resting heart rate, and after a couple years of intense physical training, my body is strong and balanced. I do not drink or smoke and I eat a healthy diet. I’m in the best shape I have ever been in, and my mind is as sharp as it has ever been. What exactly am I too old for? Nothing.

I used to carry forward this belief because it would prevent me from making a fool out of myself through attraction to younger women. But now I am happily married and have good relationships in my life, and I no longer need this protection. There is nothing good that comes from the self perception of being old and so I do hereby reject that notion, and resolve to change my self speak to be impeccable with my word in this respect.

Over the next weeks we have several spiritual works in our tradition of the Santo Daime. In this tradition our first instruction is to examine our conscience and then to correct ourselves. I am going to dedicate my spiritual work for the next phase to examining my conscience for negative thoughts I have about myself that form these pernicious agreements that limit my joy and happiness in life. One by one I am going to identify and reverse them. I am definitely not too old to start this process. I hope you can help yourself with this practice too.

Peace.

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