Back in January, a co-worker of mine lent me a book – The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. I crushed it in a weekend, basking in insight while pickling in uncomfortable ideas. But I enjoyed it so much, I cracked open their second installment – The Courage to Be Happy.
In an easy-breezy yet thought-provoking read, a Japanese philosopher (Kishimi) shares his perspective of Adlerian psychology through the medium of a Socratic dialogue between a nameless Philosopher and Youth.
Like many intro-psychology students, I vaguely recall the name Alfred Adler as a psychoanalyst who pales in the shadow of more famous (or infamous) thinkers like Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung.
Freud is so famous that my iPhone just supplied a proper autocorrect for his first name.
I often feel two parts enlightening wisdom and one part frustration as I try to grasp Adler’s Individual Psychology. As Kishimi writes himself,
No other form of thought is as easy to get wrong and as hard to get right as Adlerian psychology.
And yet I find his ideas compelling to the point of sharing my thoughts four beers deep at a convenience store on Dolsan Island.
Two friends of mine recommended Kishimi’s book, and both said they almost stopped reading after the first section as Kishimi boldly declared that “trauma does not exist.”
Anyone with a twinge of progressive politics would furrow their brow at best and explode in outrage at worst to such an assertion.
Trauma does not exist? What ignorant, privileged nonsense.
And yet both friends (and I) finished the book. While we do not espouse ebullient endorsement, Kishimi does provide pause to long-held assumptions about how individuals build their self-concept and chart their life path.
Trauma does not exist.
If one defines trauma as adverse past experiences, then this statement does at least ring of metaphysical truth – truth that Buddhists, stoics, meditators, and Elkhart Tolle enthusiasts endorse. All we have is the present moment. The past is a mental construction of previous events. The future is a mental projection of possible events. The present moment is all that is real, yet also something we cannot truly grasp.
But are we not products of our past events? Is the present moment not a culmination of history?
Freud would agree. In his deterministic framework, past traumas directly correlate with present circumstances and thought patterns. We are a product of our past.
But Adler contradicted Freud, opting for a more teleological explanation of individuals’ present behavior. In other words, as Kishimi writes,
Human beings are not driven by past ’causes’, but live according to present ‘goals.’
For example, consider a young adult who had harsh, overbearing parents as a youth. Today, he has few if any friends and bemoans his ‘dark personality’ that stems from his challenging upbringing.
Adler, however, would argue that the young man lives with the goal of ‘not wanting anyone to hurt him,’ and accomplishes his goal by maintaining a ‘dark personality’ that keeps people away from him.
In other words, Adler flips Freud’s script. While Freud attempted to explain a patient’s present sense of self by pointing to the impact of past events, Adler suggested that individuals will structure their past events to affirm their present self.
Psychologist James Pennebaker seems to affirm Adler in his book Writing to Heal, where he outlines an evidence-based procedure of therapeutic writing in which people spend 20 minutes per day writing all they can about a past traumatic experience. They then repeat this writing process for two additional days. In study after study, patients report enhanced wellbeing, sense of calm, and optimism post-journaling.
Pennebaker theorizes that writing about a past distressing experience allows patients to construct a coherent narrative – a narrative that produces a wiser and more forward-thinking interpretation. It allows patients to build closure.
The past doesn’t exist, and the past does not change. But our interpretation of the past is under constant re-negotiation.
As researcher Elizabeth Loftus convincingly demonstrates, our memories are not camcorders, but rather constructions. In unnerving studies, Loftus and her students used subtle verbal or visual suggestions to alter participants’ memories of simulated crimes – a terrifying realization in a justice system that assigns significant weight to eyewitness testimony.
What we remember is under a consistent process of construction and reconstruction. And how we choose to interpret past events often corresponds with how we see ourselves in the present.
As Kishimi puts it,
The question is not whether something happened in the past, but what meaning ‘myself now’ gives to that past.
In other words, we build a personal narrative that affirms our present-day sense of self.
As Kishimi puts more succinctly,
The past does not decide ‘now.’ It is your ‘now’ that decides the past.
Our past is not fixed. Rather the past is in constant conversation with our present self.
Are you unhappy with your life right now? I’ve been in that state of mind before. I’ll likely find myself in that dark place again soon. Some days I sit in a dark lagoon lamenting poor choices and ruminating on the mistakes of my parents.
But in those dusky days, I often neglect to realize that I alone churn out these thoughts. In other words, I reflect on my personal history to rationalize my poor self-concept. Not the other way around. As Kishimi puts it,
Every person is a compiler of a story of ‘me’ who rewrites his or her own past as a desire to prove the legitimacy of ‘me now’.
But as many have said before me, “It’s not your fault. But it is your responsibility.”
Or as Kishimi says,
No matter what has occurred in your life until now, it has no bearing at all on how you live your life from now on.
It sounds simple, but it’s not easy. Simplicity and ease are not the same thing. Adler’s advice goes down easy but burns upon exit.
While we can choose to move in a new direction, we have to make the painful choice of death.
We have to kill old patterns of thinking.
We have to kill unproductive goals.
We have to kill our present selves – selves we’ve grown comfortable in affirming and justifying.
Change demands death and death is difficult.
Yet this realization can also empower us.
I often listen to a now-defunct podcast called The Mating Grounds. In one episode, hosts Tucker Max and Niels Parker provide a compellingly analogize poker and self-awareness.
“Everyone is dealt a different hand. Some receive pocket aces. Others turn over a three-jack off-suit. Most of us lack the cards to make a royal flush. But we can still make a full house. Any hand can be a winning hand in poker. You just need to put in the emotional work to turn over your cards. It’s painful to turn those cards, but it’s worth it.”
Does trauma exist? Is that even the right question. Maybe we could all consider and then re-consider how we interpret our past. And what does that interpretation say about our present selves?
Do I agree with Adler’s assertion? It’s a tough pill to swallow.
This is not to say that psychological disorders like PTSD are fictions, or that anyone can just “snap out of” adverse moods or “funk.” Some require more help than others to reconfigure their past and find a healthy emotional equilibrium in the present.
But it’s possible. We are human. We are strong. As Kishimi says,
We humans are not so fragile as to simply be at the mercy of past traumas.
Will we allow our past memories to weaken us? Or strengthen us? In some capacity, the choice is ours.