What Makes Us Human (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 28
As someone who's spent years attempting to navigate and make sense of the complex stream of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that come and go in my life, I can confidently say that it's often a dizzying experience for me. While I'm likely to draw up a few working hypotheses at any given moment about what's currently going on between my ears, I'm never really certain that I know precisely what's happening.
The more I practice introspection, the more willing I am to sit in this uncertainty, but there's nothing particularly easy about it. On my best days, I kindly remind myself that it's all just practice in growing my self-awareness. On more trying days, I find myself getting caught up and wrestling with the content of my thoughts and feelings, desperately trying to pin them down in search of answers for my concerns, or longings, or questions. Thankfully, I've read enough self-help books and behavioral research to know that I'm not alone in this, even though it can often feel that way.
What We All Yearn For
This past week, I finally revisited the book A Liberated Mind by Steve Hayes, which I've been reading slowly (i.e. procrastinating and avoiding entirely). In the book and in his ACT Immersion Course, he not only outlines the skills that help us approach life with greater flexibility and openness, but also the shared yearnings that are core to our human experience.
I want to paraphrase those yearnings here and attempt to distill some of the wisdom from A Liberated Mind in case you don't find the time to sit down and read through it. That said, I definitely recommend making the time. Hayes is one of the most important contributors to our current understanding of human behavior. His work offers a set of practices that can help us show up to life in the ways that matter most to us, and many of the ideas outlined here are borrowed directly from his work and the larger contextual behavior science community.
While these yearnings haven't and won't provide every answer that we find ourselves searching for on those trying days, I think they provide a great deal of clarity in helping us determine what parts of the map we're currently exploring in our minds. The yearnings, then, serve as trail markers, or signposts, that can help us identify the paths we're currently on. When we walk these trail systems in our minds for so many years, the markers can serve as reminders of what challenges and difficulties to expect along the way.
Analogies aside, here are the six desires that we commonly share as humans:
Our desire to have a logical, organized, and coherent sense of how to order all of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Belonging
Feeling connected, cared for, and included as a part of a larger community. Feeling The need to experience the vast array of emotions that are available to us — happiness, sadness, heartbreak, joy, frustration, calm, disappointment, ease, irritation, loss, warmth, etc. Orientation
Having a clear sense of where we are in time and place; this includes understanding how we arrived where we are, as well as where we're going.
Being able to freely choose and decide what matters most to us in our lives; determining what we care about.
The desire we have to become capable; to act, do, and learn through the process of engaging with the world.
As Hayes writes, all of these yearnings are natural and part of our evolutionary history. The great news is that there are some really productive and fulfilling ways that we can go about satisfying them. Unsurprisingly, though, there are also some very unhelpful and painful ways that we can contort ourselves to address them. By pivoting from rigid, inflexible practices to more flexible, open ones, we can spend less time doing what hurts and more time doing what matters.
Before we wrap this up, I'll briefly outline two overarching behaviors that cause us to adopt rigid, inflexible practices. If you're looking for a deeper dive on the specifics of each yearning, Part 2 is in the works, so keep an eye out for that!
What Causes Rigidity?
There are two major contributors that cause us to work ourselves into rigid and inflexible ways of being. The first is rule-following behavior and the second is experiential avoidance. To be really clear, neither rule following or experiential avoidance are inherently bad or problematic In fact, these actions often provide a short-term benefit to us.
The key point here is that context matters. There are plenty of instances where following rules and avoiding difficulty are completely appropriate (e.g. don't run a red light; use the bridge to cross a stream instead of trudging through it).
These rules and avoidance tactics only start to become unworkable when when we begin applying them broadly without consideration, or unconsciously using them in specific situations that work against us. For example, say that I start to rigidly live by the rule "anything I do, I must do expertly." At first, it might not make a huge impact, but if I repeat this consistently, my life may soon become limited to a small number of activities that I'm good at. If I must be an expert, trying out new experiences might be off the table. What starts out as a rule to help me fulfill my yearning for competence can unintentionally start blocking me from other yearnings (e.g. self-defined meaning — if I consider myself or aspire to be someone who is adventurous and open to new experiences, the need to be an expert starts working against me).
Or say that I come to believe that I must "be nice, no matter what." This may cause me to avoid expressing my frustrations and shutting down or simply never having difficult conversation with my coworkers, friends, or loved ones. What starts out as a way to experience belonging (i.e. kind people tend to be accepted by the group) starts to harm my relationships; it also might cause me to suppress my feelings (which need to be felt — even if I've trained myself to push them away).
Hopefully it's clear that if we apply rigid rules and avoid difficulty consistently or entirely, we cut ourselves off from learning, growing, and living in ways that matter to us.
As we wrap up part one of this post, here's a reflection question to consider:
Are there any typical rules that you follow (or assumptions that you make) that help you avoid challenges in the short-term, but end up causing you frustration or harming you long-term?
If you spend a few minutes here and think of something, I'd encourage you to jot it down. See if you can't come up with specific examples or scenarios where that rule or assumption showed up previously, and keep an eye on that this week to see if it shows up anywhere else.
In case this reflection question makes you feel isolated in your challenges, I just want to remind you that you're not alone. We all have inflexibilities in different aspects of our lives, and at the source of that inflexibility (i.e. avoidance and rule following) is often something that we care about deeply. That caring is often connected to some past hurt. As a result, our minds are often just trying to protect us from difficulty in the short-term with these rigid rules and avoidance tactics; it's on us to figure out when they're overdoing it so that we don't move away from what matters most to us in the long-term.
That's all for now. I'll be sure to link Part 2 here once it's published!