The quest for liberty takes many forms, from political activism to philosophizing. But the freest country in the world will not be satisfying to one who is not at peace with oneself. To one who lacks self-esteem and a sense of personal worth, political freedom means very little. And one who is not confident in their moral code or who lacks a clear-cut set of values is more susceptible to authoritarian pressure than the self-confident individual.
In an extraordinary group of experiments conducted at Yale University in the early 60's by Stanley Milgram, it was discovered that fully 65% of participants were willing to obey "an authority who tells the subject to act harshly and inhumanely against another man". In his book, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer argues that those low in self-esteem are eager to join collectivist mass movements in order to establish some sort of identity.
So the issue of self-liberation, of raising our self-esteem and our confidence in our ability to run our own lives without the paternalistic interference of government, is a question that touches each one of us interested in promoting individual liberty and self -responsibility.
One of the leading practitioners of the art of raising one's self-esteem back in 1979 was psychologist Nathaniel Branden. On June 14-17, I attended one of his Intensives on "Self esteem and the Art of Being" in Seattle. Although part of my interest was because I was an active libertarian and an avid Ayn Rand fan and Branden had been a close associate of Rand's, I also had a very personal reason for attending.
Throughout my teens and twenties I was very shy with women. Although I had female friends they were always platonic friendships. I later discovered that some were lesbians. Maybe my subconscious recognized that and so I played it safe in relationships that would lead nowhere.
Branden's Intensives were not a lecture series, nor psychotherapy (although it contained elements of both), the Intensive was advertised as "a unique learning experience designed to facilitate self-awareness, self-acceptance, sell-responsibility and self-assertion". And that it most certainly is.
So here is my personal account of my experience at this Intensive. It changed my life.
The Theoretical Base
Self-esteem "is the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living," says Dr. Branden. It "is the psychological result of a sustained policy of commitment to awareness, by which is meant: a will to understand the facts of reality, as they relate to one's life, actions and needs; a respect for facts and a refusal to seek escape from facts, including the facts of one's inner experience.
"This way of relating to reality produces that sense of efficacy, power and worth which is the meaning of self-esteem". (All quotes from The Disowned Self)
One of the chief problems of many (if not most) people is the failure to recognize, acknowledge and accept the facts of one's own inner experience. Many people repress emotions because of painful childhood experiences. Many people repress emotions for moralistic reasons. (It's not rational. Only a rotten person could feel that. etc.) The result of this blocking and repression of emotions manifests itself in "a feeling of self -estrangement, sometimes as the feeling that one's life is only a dark question mark or a guilty secret." This problem Branden calls "the problem of the disowned self". The solution to this problem is through a process of self-awareness and self-acceptance.
Branden rejects the notion of "evil thoughts" and "evil emotions". "Thoughts as such cannot be immoral; they can only be correct or mistaken."
"Desires and emotions as such are involuntary; they are not subject to direct and immediate volitional control". The impact on mental health of the notion of evil thoughts and emotions, says Branden, is devastating. "On the one hand, it generates guilt; on the other it sabotages men's efforts at self awareness."
"Self-awareness requires an ability to approach the content of one's inner experience as a noncritical observer, an observer interested in noting and describing facts, not in pronouncing moral judgements". Self-acceptance "requires that one approach the contemplation of one's experience neither with approval nor dis-approval but rather with an attitude that makes such concepts irrelevant; the desire to be aware".
This acceptance of one's feelings does not imply that one "does not desire to feel differently (but) merely acknowledge(s) that they are there and that they are what they are". Further, Branden says that "to accept that one is what one is, is not to approve of every aspect of one's personality; and to accept oneself is not to forbid the possibility of change; on the contrary, it is the precondition of change . . If (one) permits himself to experience and acknowledge his denied feelings, he reestablishes contact with himself, he makes it possible for unwanted feelings to be discharged, and he unblocks the integrative process by means of which his internal well-being is preserved".
One of the key elements of Brandon's theories (and his Intensives) is the conviction that individuals are self-responsible. Blocks and repressions serve some purpose for the individual; they are not accidental. Thus the experiencing of unwanted emotions such as fear, anger or pain, discharges those emotions and reduces the anxiety that the repression of those emotions incurred. One becomes more aware of oneself and learns why he was blocking and repressing his feelings.
As a person grows in self-awareness, he accepts "responsibility for his actions, responses and psychological state". He learns that "one suffers not through the malevolence of some impersonal fate, but rather because one has chosen to nurture one's pain - and that one has the power to stop doing so".
Thus Branden urges participants in an Intensive to say "not 'Why am I so passive?' but rather, 'Why and how do I make myself so passive?". This approach even extends to somatic problems such as frequent headaches. "Instead of saying 'Why do I frequently have headaches?' . . . say 'Why and how do I frequently give myself headaches?'. (The answer might be: 'I tense the muscles at the back of my neck and head, or I tense the muscles in my face, to hold back tears or to hold back anger'.)"
Thus one increases one's self awareness and experiences a liberating sense of power. "Experiencing responsibility," says Branden, "can be intoxicating".
This then, is Branden's approach to psychology. Self-esteem, the sense of being competent to live and worthy of living, comes from a commitment to awareness, awareness of the facts of reality, including (and especially) the fact's of one's own inner experience. To experience fully one's inner experience, one must dissolve blocks and repressions. One must approach one's inner experience impartially and non-critically. One must accept oneself.
Through the process of self-awareness and self-acceptance one recognizes one's own responsibility for his blocks and repressions and is able to learn the purpose they serve. Only by recognizing these facts can one take effective action to grow, to improve, to live. And as one learns to be self-aware and self-accepting, one grows in self esteem.
The Intensive started Thursday night with a lecture by Dr. Branden on the aims of the Intensive and the beneficial effects a healthy self-esteem can give. Heart disease and cancer are two diseases strongly correlated with tension and lack of self-esteem. Dr. Branden also cited Stanley Milgram's experiments at Yale as evidence that there is a crying need for people to improve their self-esteem. Low self-esteem makes servile people. He talked about self-esteem and romantic relationships citing some interesting results of research done by Abraham Maslow in that area. Sexual creativity and enjoyment corresponds with self esteem. Amusing anecdotes punctuated Branden's discussion and illuminated points he was making.
Later that evening we experienced our first group exercise. The fifty people there were told to form groups of four sitting in circles on the floor. Then we were told to close our eyes and contemplate our fantasies, expectations and fears about the Intensive. After a while we were told to discuss our thoughts among ourselves.
Branden refers to his methods as " experiential psychology". As well as listen to lectures, he has participants engage in orchestrated fantasizing, physical exercises, small group interactions and face-to-face encounters. He has everyone actively participate in a voyage into one's own psyche.
Although the group is large, each person's experience is unique and individual. Certain exercises evoke tears in some people, laughter in others, and a great feeling of peace in still others. The gamut of emotions are touched. Buried rages and pain are unearthed and those experiencing them feel cleansed and ready to make a new start.
Thursday evening was a gentle introduction into the Intensive. The next three days would not be so calm. Friday morning started with a lecture and then we proceeded to our first exercise. We were told to stand facing someone and to alternatively say to each other three times, "I am (our name) and I am enough". A simple enough exercise that made me somewhat nervous, but did not become significant to me until the last hour of the Intensive, when the phrase reappeared in our last exercise.
In the afternoon we went on a mountain climbing expedition. Lying on our backs on the floor with our eyes shut, we followed Dr. Branden's suggestions and imagined climbing a mountain, our cares and troubles getting lighter and lighter as we got higher and higher. Finally we stood on top of the mountain and looked out on the view. We were told to dwell on what we felt, what the experience meant for us. Then we descended.
After this exercise, as after most exercises, we talked over our experiences, Dr. Branden fielding comments from various participants. People's different experiences really brought home how the Intensive was a deeply personal and unique experience for each person. I saw myself climbing a grass covered mountain on a hot sunny day and standing on top in a cool invigorating breeze. Another imagined a mountain of ice and snow which they scaled with axes and pitons.
Later in the afternoon we were organized into circles of four seated on the floor and participated in one of Dr. Branden's most popular exercises, sentence-completion. Dr. Branden would throw out a phrase such as "If I could tell you how lonely I am . . . " and each member of the group of four would repeat the phrase in turn, adding a different ending each time. The phrases were calculated to probe our emotions and to discover blocks and repression. A block-discovering phrase might be something like "I sometimes make it difficult to get what I want by. . . "
Again the exercise affected different people in different ways. The sentence-completion exercise was one we repeated many times in various ways throughout the Intensive. It is a powerful therapeutic device.
The atmosphere of the Intensive and the willing openness of the participants makes the Intensive very conducive to bringing out your emotions. Dr. Branden repeatedly told us to go into ourselves and experience what we were feeling, to discover what was there.
How powerful this influence can be did not really strike me until that evening. The exercise involved had us standing in circles of ten arranged in alternating pairs face to face. We were first told to engage in an argument with our partner, one partner to argue "Yes" and the other "No". Then we would be told to switch and the yea sayer would become the nay sayer. Then we rotated to a new partner and argued "I will" versus "I won't".
Rotating to a new partner again, one partner said "I can show you my anger" and the other partner replied "I can accept your anger". Here for the first time, acceptance of our emotions was not just implied but was explicitly stated. It produced strong reactions in many people.
Rotating once again to new partners we exchanged "I can show you my fear" and "I can accept your fear". My partner was a young woman with tears in her eyes from the previous encounter. Now while I wanted to think that this particular exercise produced a strong reaction in me out of empathy for this tearful young woman, the violence of my reaction convinced me otherwise. I burst into a torrent of weeping by the third "I can accept your fear" and when we switched and I told her "I can show you my fear" I was shaking so hard it was like being in one of those machines that shakes up paint at the hardware store. I felt like my arms and face were bathed in static electricity. All I could think was "What's happening to me? I don't believe this."
And even in retrospect, it is hard for me to believe. In my entire life I had never had such a powerful emotional experience. I had always been somewhat shy and hesitant about many things, but I had never thought of my shyness as a mind numbing fear until the Intensive.
Other people had similar violent reactions throughout the Intensive and for varying reasons. Some experienced a violent rage at parents or spouses. Some experienced great pain and loneliness. Some exercises that induced severe reaction in others, produced none in me and vice versa. Each person's experience was, indeed, unique.
Saturday morning started with a lecture. Dr. Branden talked about a theory developed by Wilhelm Reich that repressed childhood conflicts sometimes manifest themselves as muscular conditions that block emotions. For example, nervous tension often blocks out fear. You know the fear is there but you can't really experience it.
The trick to unblocking in such a case is to fully recognize and "go with" what you are experiencing. For example, a person about to speak to a large crowd may feel fear and nervous tension. He is aware of the fear but doesn't fully experience it. By acknowledging the fear, by "going with" it, the physical tension dissolves and the fear can be experienced and dissipated.
This method of unblocking by going with what you do feel was dramatically demonstrated to us on Sunday. A young woman told Dr. Branden Sunday morning that she was unable to get into the proceedings. All she felt was a pain in the back of her neck. She was afraid that she would leave the Intensive without having benefited from it.
Dr. Branden recognized that the physical pain was symptomatic of an underlying emotional pain and the neck pain served to block out her ability to experience this feeling. So he had her tell the group "I hurt" repeatedly, going with the pain. This was followed by "I hurt and I'm angry". Acknowledging and expressing her pain and anger relieved her neck pain somewhat and made her able to experience the emotions she had buried inside.
Dr. Branden continued working with her, probing the reasons for her pain and anger by having her do sentence completions such as "I'm angry because . . . " and had her acknowledge responsibility for much of her suffering by having her complete "I give myself a pain in my neck so that . . . "
Later Dr. Branden perceptively had her complete "If my mother wasn't such a pain in the neck . . . " This brought a lot of laughs but also struck a responsive chord. Of course! "You're a pain in the neck" is not just the idle cliché we always thought it was.
One of the most powerful exercises of the Intensive was what Brandon calls the "deathbed" exercise. After a strenuous physical exercise that numbs your muscles and leaves you particularly sensitive to suggestion, you fantasize that you are in a hospital room dying. It is your last day. In a few hours you will be gone. After contemplating this situation for a few moments, your mother visits and it is the last chance you have to tell her everything you always wanted to tell her but haven't. Then your father visits and you talk to him. Finally you fantasize that you are walking along a country road in the sunshine. In the distance is a tree and underneath that tree is a child playing. As you approach you recognize that child. He is you when you were a child. You talk to him. And finally you fold that child that is you to yourself and accept him into your being. This exercise proved to be the most intense for many people.
One of the most exciting exercises was a fantasy where you acted out the animal you most wanted to be. You pretended to be that animal in four states: normal, angry, afraid and affectionate. If you've never seen a room full of grown men and women on all fours milling around making animal noises and nuzzling one another, you've missed quite an experience. Everyone is a kid at heart and it's great fun to be able to act like one without everyone thinking you're some kind of nut.
Sunday was the final day of the Intensive and the general mood was one of increased self-awareness, self-confidence and optimism. Most of the exercises were geared to affirming what we had learned. And sentence completions that might have evoked anxiety in us before, now evoked feelings of "I know where I'm at. I can cope. I can change. I can grow."
The closing encounter exercise had people paired off sitting facing each other. Branden would give us a question and one partner would ask the question repeatedly of the other partner who would try to answer with a different and more meaningful answer each time. Then Branden would have us switch and the asker would become the answerer. The first question was "Who are you?" and was to be answered by "I am a person who . . . ". Try it sometime and see how long you can answer that question before you have to give it some deep thought.
Then we participated in a final exercise that was like a benediction to the whole Intensive. We stood with feet slightly apart, hands at our sides and eyes closed. Breathing deeply, we fantasized that we were breathing in energy in the form of a warm golden light. The energy flowed into us right down to the very center of our being and with every exhalation the energy diffused to all the parts of our bodies. And our feet planted on the ground drew up energy from the earth to our center and with each exhalation spread throughout our bodies. And then Dr. Branden told us that whenever we have troubles pursuing us, whenever we are plagued by self-doubt and uneasiness, we can always descend to that calm inner center of our being and know that we have a right to exist, that we are enough. And we were!
The real results of the Intensive, Dr. Branden told us would appear in the coming weeks in strange and unexpected ways, from the trivial to the meaningful. From a new approach to eating or playing to a new openness in romantic relationships. From a happier disposition to a new enthusiasm and ambition in your career. He was right!
One of the greater benefits I obtained was an increased self-confidence and warmth in human relationships. And one of the lesser effects (though rather startling to me) was that on a recent dinner date I ate all my cauliflower, a vegetable I had dreaded to touch for years. For the first time in a long time I wasn't afraid of that damned cauliflower on my plate. I was amazed! (And it didn't taste half bad.) I can, in all honesty, say that the Intensive was a major turning point in my life.
I attended another Intensive the next year. At that one I discovered a deep-seated anger that was gnawing at me, one that I was not even aware of because it was totally repressed.
The best result of the first Intensive was that about two years later I had found the right person to be my life partner and got married. We've had two children and now have two grand-children as well. Life is good.
Other Links in My Life Story
About the Creator
Marco is the published author of two books on investing in the stock market. Since retiring in 2014 after forty years in broadcast journalism, Marco has become an avid blogger on philosophy, travel, and music He also writes short stories.