What follows is a transcript for the podcast HomeGrown Humans - Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. - Self Actualization - Hosted by Jamie Wheal.
Topics within the interview include the following:
- The human capacity to create ourselves
- Why self actualization is ultimately unlearning
- Breaking free from a victimhood identity
- Beyond self-actualization and accessing transcendence
Exploration of Abraham Maslow’s Work in Psychology
Jamie Wheal: So the first thing I would love to unpack is your recent or even new book, Transcend. And how you've really added a vital and missing chapter to Abraham Maslow's work. And you've not just been a historian of a prior scientist, you're really adding your own take, your refinement on updated models, your own input on what are those higher reaches of human potential? What do they look like? How do they feel? What are they good for?
So how about we just start? I know you've really done something with shapes, and specifically geometry, of Maslow's famous pyramid and you've upgraded it. So let's first just jump in there and just orient folks to what is the train that we're looking at?
Scott Barry Kaufman: And so we're looking at a sailboat not a train. I have a new metaphor for life than a static pyramid. Many people might not have heard of Abraham Maslow, the humanistic psychologist from the 50s and 60s.
But I realized when I was looking into the writings of Maslow that he never actually drew a pyramid. I was really looking through his writings. I was reading his personal journals and it's like where's the pyramid? Where's the pyramid? I don't see it.
And if you actually look at his writings as I did and very in depth, you realize that he was really a developmental psychologist at heart. He believed that human development is always the two steps forward, one step back dynamic. We may not be hungry at one point. We're satisfied but then four hours later, we're hungry again and then that shifts our world view.
To the chronically hungry person, everyone looks like a hamburger. To the chronically socially deprived person everyone looks like a potential friend. You become very needy. To the chronically deprived person of self esteem, that person can overcompensate and start to demand respect from others. And we can, any of us, there's a common humanity there.
So I think a better metaphor is a sailboat. I really do think a sailboat is a better metaphor for life. Something that is more dynamic. Something that moves. Something that is an integrated whole as opposed to something you climb. I don't think of life as this mountain you climb. I mean anyone who's ever viewed life in that life, then gets to the top of their goal and they are only excited for five minutes. And then the fifth minute, they're already thinking, "Well, what's my next goal?"
Because if they don't have another mountain to climb, they'll get depressed. So that whole model needs to be thrown out. Life is to be experienced and with a sailboat you have, the boat indicates safety and the sail indicates growth. And we surely won't go anywhere if we have too many holes in our boat. If there's not enough needs satisfied.
But we don't go anywhere just with safety. We have to eventually get out ... You're great at this, Jamie Wheal, at getting outside your comfort zone. Right? You're good at exploration. That's what I'm talking about. The sail is all about exploration and moving in the unknown of the sea, having your values. Moving in a purposeful direction, but amidst knowing that the waves can come crashing down on us any time. But we still move. We don't stop moving just because we're scared.
Jamie Wheal: Well, let's talk about that for a sec.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Please stop me.
Jamie Wheal: Because I mean I think the first thing, right? That's nice about your ... It's not just a change in shape from a pyramid to a boat with a sail. You've also got motion across time and space, right? And you've even got a sense of vulnerability where layers of pyramid might feel more fixed and immobile. Then like you said, you get some holes punched in the hull, that changes things, right?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah.
Jamie Wheal: You can be in a stiff gale and sometimes there's too much of a good thing. So it's nice that you ... And I hadn't actually ever thought of Maslow in the realm of Loevinger, Piaget. The classic developmentalists. But you describing it that way makes me wonder because your two steps forward, one steps back. That kind of just basically very human experience of like things don't always go according to plan and they don't always work according to two dimensional models.
Talk to me a little bit because that pyramid is social media sexy. Ladders and rankings and diagnostics and quizzes are social media sexy. They medically propagate may be more than their academic validity.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Absolutely.
The Human Capacity to Create Ourselves
Jamie Wheal: So talk to me about that. Like what is your sense of how we grow? Because obviously, we're all in a world of hurt right now and we all need to get better quickly. Right? So developmental psychology is really germane to the world right now.
Scott Barry Kaufman: The way I look at it is from a very whole organism perspective as the humanist psychologists did. So I'm really interested in how a human can be a harmonious unit. Because most of us walk around playing a civil war within ourselves and then we project that out on to others and other people we meet. And we externalize that.
And what I'm really interested in is that sense of inner wholeness and becoming fully human. And this sailboat metaphor, I like it because you have to integrate all the parts. You need the stability, but you also need the ability to adapt and the ability to grow and to learn. It's a developmental process for sure.
And we're constantly tapping it, just choose growth. The idea of self actualization as a level. Life is not a video game and that's what I tried to emphasize. Not like you reach a level of needs like belonging and then some voice from above is like "Congrats, you've unlocked connection." And then you move up to connection and then you don't have to worry about belonging anymore.
It's like let's pretend you're ... How old are you? How old are you? Am I allowed to ask your actual age?
Jamie Wheal: 47.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Okay. Is that okay that I asked you that? Is that too personal?
Jamie Wheal: No, it's fine.
Scott Barry Kaufman: You look great by the way for 47. You look great.
Okay, pretend that you go to visit your high school again. At the same exact high school. And let's pretend you had all the same teachers still teaching there in that high school. And you took a tour through the halls. And you went to the classroom. In your head, you wouldn't revert entirely back to Jamie Wheal. Do you remember Jamie Wheal at age 15? Do you remember that guy?
Jamie Wheal: Yes, sort of vaguely. Like, it's vague ... Yeah, and I'm curious about that. Maybe you're going to explain it, but I'm curious about the persistence of self construct.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Me too.
Jamie Wheal: Like what does it mean? I mean the numbers are all wrong, but placeholders of we replace every cell in our body every three years. And memory is plastic and re-formattable. And all these things to say who honestly are we? That is the artist formerly known as? Like what is your sense of persistence of psyche?
Scott Barry Kaufman: I'm fascinated with this topic too. We obviously nerd out, bond over multiple topics. So all the research shows that the only thing that really needs to stay consistent for us to fool ourselves into thinking that there's such a thing as a consistent self is our morality. That's it.
Everything else can go. Our memory can go as we age. But if we feel like we're no longer in control, have self control over our ability to do moral things in the world, then we actually feel like we've entirely lost who we are.
And that's because most people associate their true self with their goodness. This is what all the research shows in authenticity. I call it the authenticity bias. People have an authenticity bias. They'll disavow any of the naughty bits of themselves ... If they do anything naughty. They drink too much and they do something bad the next day. They're like, "Oh, that wasn't me." How many celebrities do you see do all these horrible things, right?
They're like, "That wasn't ... People who know me know the real me." It's like, "No, that was you. Now, it wasn't all of you." But it's so important to take responsibility for all of you. Not just the most moral parts. But from a consistency point of view, that's what all the research shows even with dementia. When everything else starts breaking down.
Jamie Wheal: That as long as I'm still going from the same guidebook that I've always believed in and tried to steer from?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Absolutely. And so that could probably go the other way. Let's say that your identity at age 15 was an asshole.
Jamie Wheal: Well, think about AA, right? I mean AA is the classic. Like I made a bunch of bad choices that come to a very, shaky moral code. And then I adopt 10 steps wholesale. Does that change selfhood?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah, and what happens in those situations is that those individuals, once they change and they grow, they start to believe, "Oh that is the real me. The age 15 person wasn't the real me. When I was addicted, that wasn't the real me. When I've changed and I've grown and I've really gone towards goodness, then the metaphor is that I'm not distracted anymore from being my best self or my true self."
I think all of us, or most of us, want to think that we're doing good even ... A lot of people who do bad in the world still think that they're doing good and that's interesting too.
Jamie Wheal: Okay, well this is an entirely new avenue. I'm psyched to go down. We'll come back to Maslow and pyramids and self actualization, I promise. So okay. So let's talk about this. This notion that morality is the most persistent and abiding index of selfhood. Was I hearing you very much right on that?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah, that's exactly right, yeah.
Jamie Wheal: So then we've got-
Scott Barry Kaufman: And self control. They're tightly linked, yeah.
Jamie Wheal: And we've got the scenario where someone was living out of integrity, nominally and they do something like 12 steps, come back online and say, "This is actually the real, deeper, truer me." If I heard you right. "And I was perhaps hijacked by demons. Models of addiction. Models of something that was a degradation or perturbation of pure self, true self, yeah?"
Scott Barry Kaufman: Think of all the self help programs and books called rediscover your true self. There's five billion. They all say the same thing. Pay us lots of money and we'll teach you how to rediscover your true self. By the way, I'm starting an online course in September so I'm not above this.
Jamie Wheal: That's right. Mercy's a business, but we all got to eat, right?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Thank you. But there's something to it. People are ... That's what they want to do. They want to reclaim what they think is their true self.
Jamie Wheal: So then let's talk about this. Because I mean the notion, again, back to developmental models, most of the time there is an integration phase. A time where that world view or stage or phase of things appears to be operating quite well for me. And then there's a disintegration and transition phase to the next which then gets stably annexed. At least that's the conventional modeling, right?
So in each of those ... And then, think. Contrast that with evangelical traditions. Any or Road to Damascus experiences. Any "I once was lost but now I'm found." Or "I once was in a life." And this goes, red pill, blue pill matrix, you name it. Right?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah, perfect example, yeah.
Jamie Wheal: "And I have died to my prior conceptions." And I mean the question is, is my understanding of spirals of development or progressions of child to adulthood development is there's a lot of these. There's a lot of shedding of skins and entering into the subsequent utterly new realms.
Whether it is purely secular humanist developmentally tract or whether it's psycho spiritual and you have first born, twice born people. I'm born again in my faith or renewed, right? Or even recovery and addiction as another in between model that's borrowing from both traditions.
So how many ... Like if we're continually being reborn. Wendell Barry has that great phrase like practice resurrection, right? So if we're constantly practicing resurrection. If we're constantly dying to that which we were to become-
Scott Barry Kaufman: I would just say choosing growth. If we're constantly choosing growth.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Which is the nice incremental version.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah.
Jamie Wheal: Right? But if there are, in fact, what feels like these momentous divides of which after which nothing is the same. You could throw in the psychedelic experience. You can throw in lots of these, right? What does that do to our selfhood? Based on your model of our morality and our codes? Especially let's say we go from socially defined.
So my rule book. My moral guide was pretty much the one handed to me. The one from family of origin, culture of origin, these kinds of things. And I might start realizing wow, that's getting a little long in the tooth. That's constraining. I'm actually not steering by that anymore. And I'm now adopting or living into or being, again, transformed into a new one.
I've got a new book now. Am I still the same person? Or are we continually reinventing every time we upgrade our morality, ethics and operant world view.
Scott Barry Kaufman: I suspect if you were under the influence of LSD right now, you would know the answer to this question intuitively. Not intellectually.
Jamie Wheal: It's all the same fucking thing, man. That's Janis Joplin by the way.
Scott Barry Kaufman: I love that. I love that so much. When you're under certain states of consciousness where ... Sort of altered states, I should say, of consciousness, it doesn't just have to be through drugs, but altered states, as you know, you will have lots of triggers for altered states of consciousness. Where your self in reference to the world has shifted.
And Andy Newberg's research on the parietal lobe shows that your whole self representation has changed. Those sorts of questions don't even make sense because there is no such thing as a physical substance called the self. I know that's pretty ... That's like fighting words to some people.
But all the self is a cognitive representation of who we are. And if we can change our cognitive representation, we're literally changing ourselves. I mean we can constantly update our self concept.
That's all it is, is really a self concept. And that's why I'm a big believer, as I write about in this ... I shouldn't say believer because it's science. Science and my book is all about science. I think the evidence suggests that it's better than believing ... If you want to really fully grow to your highest height, you need to take responsibility for your whole self.
And you need to have as much self honesty as possible. See my approach is different from maybe some other self help approaches where I don't have like a 10 step program. I don't have like five ways to hack and people always do that. They always put ... You watch these videos. They put their hands up. Five ways to hack your whatever.
But I think that every individual needs to find out their own unique path to self actualization and own it and recognize that some of that path that they've consciously committed to might differ from their biological disposition even. Or from what their genetic destiny is.
This is a topic I bet you love too. I love people who say FU to their genetic destiny and transcend it. I did it. My genetic destiny was to be in special education and I said FU. Like I'm going to transcend that.
Jamie Wheal: Well now you're just an extra special education.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Right now, right.
Self Actualization is Ultimately Unlearning
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, well, no, I mean you're 100% pursuing the notion of what are non-ordinary modes to learning and growth.
Scott Barry Kaufman: That's right, yeah.
Jamie Wheal: So here's a question for you. So it sounds like in that description that you are basically a developmental constructivist, right?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yes.
Jamie Wheal: That people go along through life and they're making sense. They're constructing meaning, choice, et cetera. Now what, to contrast that, because we're talking about a hyper plastic self, right? Which is referential, context dependent, depends on where people are in life, all these things going on. What is the essentialist counter argument?
Is there something ... Because in Transcend, you talk ... I was actually moved by your description of what that transcendent phase truly looks like. And I want to come back to that and unpack it properly.
But that idea that it's not just the top of the ice cream cone. That it includes the full embrace of the pathos of the human experience on you. It's the whole shooting match, right? I mean it's the Zorba the Greek where he calls about, is this right? No, is it Fiddler on the ... God damn, I feel like maybe it's Zorba the Greek.
But he basically calls life ... Like he looks around. He's on his fishing book. It's Anthony Quinn. And he talks about things like the kids and the wife and the work and the boat. And he's like, "It's a full catastrophe." Right? And it feels like your transcendence is the actual embrace, reconciliation, integration, celebration of the full catastrophe.
So my question is, is by the time we get to that person via your developmental constructivist path, are we actually delivered full circle to something unique and essential said by any other means, what is our soul?
Like what was the germ that was the seed that becomes the fullest flourishing that we have in us. And I've never assigned, ascribed, defined, any of those concepts or categories because they're just outside my normal realms of thinking.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Well, I think there is a psychological soul. I do. I have often talked about self actualization is finding the most alive, unique, creative center of your being. And I think that's your soul. And we can try to unpack what that means and how to discover that and et cetera, cetera. But I think that there's value in talking about the psychological soul.
But even from a biological, genetic perspective. I don't want to be on record saying I don't believe that genes have any value or make any contribution to who becomes. That'd be silly. There's a whole field of behavioral genetics showing that genetics makes quite a substantial contribution to our personality and intelligence even.
So obviously these things play a role, but I'm so interested in the human capacity to whatever extent we have it to create ourselves. And I know you are too. I know you are too. And we don't create ourselves out of whole cloth. That is true. We create ourselves by getting lots of sources of information, from our genes, from our inclinations, our tendencies as well as what other people tell us. Other people's ... There's feedback, right?
So if I want to create myself to be an NBA player and I show up to the 76ers training camp, they will promptly arrest me and put me in jail for crashing the NBA. Right? It's not like they put me on the team. So there are limits to ... You need feedback from the environment.
But I'm so interested when all these things are harmonious with each other. So I built up my skill level to the NBA level. I find the right coaches or the right connections to allow me to come to that training camp. They know that I'm on the roster to train. No, they're surprised that I even showed up.
But you set all these things in motion that are harmonious with each other to allow you to become the person you most want to become. That's what I'm very interested in and I think people have a lot of possibilities to become something very different than who they currently are. I do believe that.
Jamie Wheal: Well, so then, let's timestamp it, right? So let's say the mother who births that child. She holds them, cradles them, understands in a pre-linguistic essential way, what is this little monkey in my arms?
And they get a sense of how they respond to delight and novelty and stress and all of these things, right? And how they pair and how they connect. A 1000 things, that again, are pre-linguistic and pre, I suppose, egoic as far as anything resembling a developmentally mature thing you could point at and talk about.
Is your path to ... Your articulation of Maslow's origination, is it a constructivist, developmental path, full circle like Dorothy? To come back to, as close as possible like you said, via choices, via actions, via practice, via training. Not simply subject to acting out the genetic imprint or mandate.
But are we somehow trying to forever, as Ram Dass said, like not just walk each other home but find our own way home? And the closer we get to that, the more aligned we are and the more, in your modeling, the more transcended we are in the sense of coming back to where we began?
Leaving Space For Growth and Grief
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yes, I think it's a very complicated question. Because I think we can have ... As you'll note, my answer to everything will be like this. I think there's a pseudo home and there's a real home. And I think it's important to distinguish between the two.
I think too often in our lives we are tempted by the devil. No, we're tempted to feel that we're home just because it feels comfortable to us. But there are things that can feel comfortable to us that are not actually coming home to that alive, unique, creative center of our soul that I was talking about.
And so I think it's worth distinguishing between these two constructs. So for instance, some people who have been abused as children, they feel more comfortable with abusive partners. And they might-
Jamie Wheal: So would you say is that a pathologized extension of just broad attachment theory?
Scott Barry Kaufman: It's, well, attachment theory. But also just the understanding is a little trauma 101 of research on the topic. But the brain is a prediction machine as you know. And when we're children, our brain operates like a weather forecast for our future. So if we grow up in an unstable and certain environment, our brain starts to predict that that's the way the world is. That's our world view. You actually see this at the neuronal level.
The brain wires itself to predict that life will be unpredictable. Because the brain needs to be a prediction machine or else we wouldn't be able to adapt and anticipate anything in our lives.
So unfortunately, a lot of people, there are different systems in the brain for fear of learning and fear of unlearning. So unfortunately, people ... They learn the fear early in their childhood, but they never go through the process of the fear unlearning when they're in a different context later, maybe a safer context when they grow up in life.
Maybe they actually have a partner who finally once and for all treats them right. But they never went through the process of a fear unlearning. So that means they never trust that partner.
Jamie Wheal: Is that the same as fear extinction as a practice?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yes, yeah. They're two different systems in the brain. So people think like you just automatically, oh you'll grow up and you'll be in a different context than the context you were growing up, so therefore, you'll just automatically adapt. But that's not how the brain works.
We actually have to learn to trust again. We have to go through the hard work and that process of recognizing goodness in our partner when it truly exists and not being so cynical about it. Or even just saying, well, this doesn't feel like home. You know we're talking about home. I'm more used to the discord so therefore, that's home. But I would argue that's pseudo home. I don't know. Does this make sense?
Because obviously to our conversation about self orientation and are we coming ... Do we see the world happening to us as victims versus are we at cause?
Jamie Wheal: I'm imagining that early trauma or a crude trauma shapes personal narrative. You end up with reinforcing predictive feedback loops. I'm expecting something big time bad so I flinch, but then that makes me fall off my bike and the bad thing has happened. And so what's your sense? What's your sense of the negative inputs and positive outputs and the metabolizing of grief between here and there?
Scott Barry Kaufman: I think that the process of fear unlearning requires actively learning hope in one's life. And actively learning ... This Martin Seligman's research because Martin Seligman studied learned helplessness. And he found out and realized 50 years later that he had it completely backwards. You actually have actively learned what we learn is hope, not helplessness. Helplessness is actually the default response to a traumatic situation.
Jamie Wheal: So that's the sort of flight freeze little animal response?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Exactly. That's the automatic response. We're also just believing that because things have happened in the past means that that's what's going to happen in the future so we don't even try anymore. We don't even ... The will, we lose the will. So we have to learn hope.
And this idea of learned hopefulness is a big concept in positive psychology right now that my colleague, Dan Tomasulo, just published a book with that title. I wrote the Foreword to that book. It's a wonderful introduction to that. Martin Seligman talks a lot about that in his autobiography. Called the Hope Circuit. That's what he calls it. He says, "Because the hope circuit is different from the learned helplessness circuit."
Jamie Wheal: And is that neuro biological or is that psychological and like narrative driven. Like I'm telling myself a new story or is something happening at some deeper substrate?
Scott Barry Kaufman: The two are always connected unless you're a dualist. Right? I mean there's always a neural substrate underlying any of our thoughts, right? But I'm interested to see how you saw that? Because you sounded like a dualist there for a second.
Jamie Wheal: No, no, I think it was more just curious as to which level of the house of the self were coming in on. Because the next question I would have about learned hopefulness is the Stockdale paradox.
The Admiral Stockdale in Vietnam. He was the highest ranking POW. He noticed that the pessimists all died but so did the optimists. Right? Because when they were like, "The boys will be home for Christmas. The boys will be home for Easter." And they weren't. Then it went into helplessness.
Jamie Wheal: And the Stockdale paradox was be ruthlessly realistic about short term realities and relentlessly optimistic about long term possibility. So I'm curious like now, lay that onto your model of the transcended human who's embracing the suck. Who's embracing the full catastrophe.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Sure.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, riff on that. How does that land for you?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Oh sure. And I think you raise a good point. The extremes are not good. Like almost everything in life is an inverted U shape curve no matter what it is. And so hope is not this thing that is having blinders on. And I mean that would be stupid. That's not hope. That's stupidity.
Learned hopefulness is a situation where you teach yourself that no matter what you've endured, there is hope for growth. There's hope for finding some sense of meaning in what has happened to you. Finding some sense of maybe having to turbocharge your purpose or shift your priorities.
That there is a potential meaning to be had from the situation. And that takes experience. And that takes a little bit of faith. Faith in yourself and faith in the world that you'll be able to be resilient. And not only be resilient but to thrive in the face of adversity.
Breaking Free From a Victimhood Identity
Jamie Wheal: So what advice would you give folks to strike that balance to taking responsibility for what we can and then also surrendering to what just is and leaving space both for grace and grief.
Scott Barry Kaufman: It's a heavy, heavy question because there are different forces that are unknown operating on us. If you take specific cases like racism in America, there are real forces that are not seeing black people as fully human. And I don't think it'd be fair to just say to black people like, "Well, just surrender to the racism." And I know you're not saying that.
But I'm saying that's why this is such a tricky situation because we can talk in generalities, right? But I think it's actually important to make nuanced distinctions and say what you're saying. So when I talk about this, I talk a lot about what are the forces that we can't control? What are the forces that even if we fight over, we can't control?
Jamie Wheal: But the weird thing is how few people have actually acknowledged that. Like what I find baffling is how something as utterly as agnostic as a pandemic is still, nonetheless, getting broken into culture war, factionalism, social media trolling. You're like, "But it doesn't really care." And we still seem to be acting as if it should.
Scott Barry Kaufman: It boggles my mind. When I talk about practicing ... And I'm going to start sounding a little Buddhist here because I am a Buddhist. That is my philosophy in life.
Jamie Wheal: Oh nice.
Scott Barry Kaufman: I write a lot about equanimity. And I think that we could all use it to cultivate a lot more equanimity in our lives. And equanimity is a great concept that I like better than grit. By the way, I love Angela Duckworth. I love grit. All the caveats aside, this is no shade at all on grit.
But I think the flavor of grit that is most valuable to becoming fully human is equanimity and that's the way the Buddha thought of it, dealing with life's inevitable ups and downs and unknowns with warmth, love, openness, curiosity. And if you approach the world in that way, it's like no matter what happens in your day, you're like, "Huh, didn't see that coming."
I almost even have a little bit of cosmic humor. That people are really missing in humor these days but especially cosmic humor.
Jamie Wheal: It feels like life is inevitably tragic. Life is magic and drops you to your knees. And the dialectic between those two and the utter unpredictability and absurdity of it can only lead you through life's comic. To laugh at the interplay of those first two. You're like a tragic, magic, comic man. And if you can't fucking laugh, you're just going to have to weep.
Scott Barry Kaufman: It's exactly what I'm saying. I'll give an example the other day. I was making oatmeal. And my bowl, I try to put my bowl ... It was hot, hot. Oatmeal hot when it came out of the microwave. And I tried to put it down and I missed the counter and so, of course, it fell on the ground and it fell into a billion different little tiny pieces.
And my initial ... I laughed. I looked at it. I was like ... Maybe now I'm sounding like a psychopath or something. Like you guys are supposed to care more about things. But I'm very zen about things. I looked and I was like, "Of course that happened to me today." Because I had so much to do and this would be the worst possible time for this to happen.
I was late for a meeting. So I was like, "Of course, there's cosmic humor here." That's what I mean by cosmic humor, it's cosmically, that's pretty darn funny that that had to happen today. Of course that happened right then when I had to go on the Zoom call. And 3000 people are waiting to see me give a keynote on a Zoom call in two minutes and I'm covered in chards of a bowl.
I didn't get upset. I was just like this is what life is. This is what it means to be alive in fact.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, I find Pema Chodron's stuff about that kind of a thing as a Buddhist teacher really heartening. And I think a big part of it is that she was also a mother first. But she talks about like ... I think she says, "There's something almost aggressive about trying to iron out all the rough spots in life. To be alive is to be continually thrown out of the nest."
Scott Barry Kaufman: That's what you sign up for when you pop out of the cervix. Like that's what you're signing up for in life unknowingly. I mean it's without our consent. We didn't agree to being born. But once we become a mature human and we do have that deal. That if we're going to be alive, we're going to take responsibility for our actions in the world.
When we hurt people, we need to own up to that. We can't say, "Oh that wasn't my true self." We need to say, "No, I fucked up." And own it. And that'll make you a better person. That fact, doing that will make you a better person.
And also accepting and owning the fact that life is a shit show. I mean I'm using colloquial language to ... Maybe sometimes I'll be more academic when I'm in my academic mode. But I feel like me and you can talk real talk.
Jamie Wheal: Real talk.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Right? Can we? I hope we're allowed to have real talk on the Homegrown Human Show.
Jamie Wheal: Oh yeah. Has to.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Life is inevitably a shit show. And it's the control issue that is the problem. So many people try to control others. Like how dare you look at me that way or whatever? How dare you? It's like well you can be annoyed at that person. You can not like that person. You can want to avoid that person for the rest of your life. But I hate to break it to you, you can't control how every single person responds to you. You can control the way you respond to others.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, so that's the whole stimulus response thing, right? And the gap between being choice. So on that, I mean what comes to my mind. I feel an awful like of angst and suffering and frustration right now is based on some power, like a deeply implicit assumption that this isn't how things are supposed to be. Right? And whether that's protesting in the streets or whether that's seeking to address any imbalances or injustices in the world. And then-
Scott Barry Kaufman: Well, we could talk racism for a second if you want to get really controversial. The point there is that it's completely unrealistic to expect that you're going to reduce racism to zero percent. If your only goal in life is to reduce racism to zero percent in the world, it's never going to happen.
It doesn't mean that you can't fight to reduce ... To whatever extent you can to change the systemic structures, as they say, that make it explicit. Absolutely. But I do think mentally, it's healthy to accept that you're not going to eradicate assholes from the world. You're just not.
It's part of the human genome and every generation is going to have a certain proportion of assholes in the world. The question is how do we deal with assholes? How do we have well being for ourselves and have self respect for who we are that isn't dependent on whether or not an asshole thinks we're an asshole. Do you see what I'm saying?
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And I want you to actually unpack that because a couple weeks ago I think you wrote an incredibly helpful, also brave, and what my experience, very strategic article in Scientific American. And it was about the rise of victimhood culture. But you described several things.
First of all, there was a quick little diagnostic. And then there were, I think, three or four consistent behaviors that arise when we source from the world. And you didn't connect the dots to our current news feeds and our worlds, but the dots were inevitable.
And so I'd love you just to unpack for us what was the case you made in that essay? And how do you see it informing, because I mean fundamentally you said, "Hey, once you're on this side of the cervix, you're born into a life of pain and suffering. If we follow our own path. If we excavate and release the things that are less true, less pure, we emerge to a self transcended person that can accept maturely that this isn't a box of chocolates all the time."
And we can do this. But somewhere in between, we can get knocked off balance. We can feel entitled. We can feel overwhelmed. We can become traumatized. Or we can just be engaging in passive aggressive power. Whatever the game is, it's somewhere in that transactional analysis neck of the words of the stories we tell ourselves and then interact with each other.
Talk about victim hood and that as an identity and what are the pitfalls and pathologies of that? Particularly right now where history feels like it's really raring up to give us an ass beating?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah. By the way, I couldn't help but giggle when you said the other side of the cervix, because that's brilliant. Yeah, that's exactly right. We're either on one side or the other. We'll be on the other side for the rest of eternity so we might as well enjoy this side of the cervix while we can. So okay. I just thought that it was brilliant that you said that, okay.
So I want to zoom in. Second of all, the funny thing about my article from a cosmic humor perspective is that everyone interprets it to mean something in their head personally. So Democrats will read my article, they'll be like, "Oh those victim hood ... Republicans are always crying about victimhood."
Republicans will read my article and they'll be like, "Oh, those snowflake liberals, always victimhood." Everyone where you go, everyone loved my article.
Jamie Wheal: Because it's about those guys.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Everything's about the other person for everyone. So it's like I created the ultimate article.
Jamie Wheal: It's a Rorschach, yeah, it was the perfect one.
Replacing a Victimhood Identity With Empathy
Scott Barry Kaufman: I say that with all due humility, by the way. It's a weird thing to say you created the ultimate article. It sounds a little narcissistic. But I'm saying it from the perspective that I created the ultimate article from the perspective of well if you want to blame the other person.
And I didn't actually have a ... If you want to know the secret, there was no dog whistle here. Like it's not like I had ... I was actually talking about the Democrats. Like it's not true. Not true. I wrote this from as bird's eye view as possible because what I see as the victim hood Olympics going on from a bird's eye.
Let's pretend we're viewing all the weird humans from like another species, what I'm seeing is everyone thinks that their pain is more important than someone else's pain. Or their group's pain. You see this in every single direction possible. And we're not really listening to each other.
We're not really seeing the individual in each other. We're maybe seeing their political group or we're even seeing their skin color and we're not looking beyond the skin color. We're not really seeing the person and trying to make a connection to our suffering.
I have found when I talk to people who ... I have black friends who have certainly had experiences that I haven't had because of the color of my skin and I'll be the first to acknowledge that.
But when we start to get into the nitty gritties of it, we start to bond. Because I say, "Well, I totally see what that must feel like because when I was a kid, I was in special education and they all thought I was stupid. And I was discriminated against so I know what feels to be discriminated against."
And what I want to live in is a world where we are not so polarized. That we start to face our common humanity that life is a shit show. That actually discrimination is not something we'll get to zero. There will always be bullies. Can you ever imagine a sixth grade junior high school where like no one in the whole school even thinks about making fun or mocking someone?
Jamie Wheal: Sort of punks constant? There's an irreducible coefficient, right?
Scott Barry Kaufman: I mean if your goal in life is to get zero punks for the rest of humanity, well come on. Really? Is that really realistic? So I think that I mean it's good if you're a principal to do as much as you can obviously to make sure that there's punitive things for people who discriminate. Absolutely.
Jamie Wheal: But talk about that part you made in the article which basically hurt people. That folks that orient around the victim mindset are actually ... And in particular, always looking back to painful pasts. And therefore, always collapsing into a fearful future are actually less empathetic. That really struck me.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Okay. Well, this article was about interpersonal victimhood as a trait. So it was really more about how people, there are some people who are constant victims their whole lives in terms of their mentality, not necessarily their reality. So it is very important to point out there are people who, in reality, are victims. There are real victims.
This was an interesting phenomenon where there are people who even in ambiguous situations, they always see malevolence. So if they're walking down ... I don't know if anyone could think of someone who you're just walking down the street and you don't even look at the person or whatever, but maybe you glance at their eyes and they're like, "What are you looking at?"
It's like, "Whoa, I don't even care about you at all. Like I don't even know who you are." So there are certain people who constantly have this victim and they identify components of this victim hood mindset that tend to be correlated with each other.
So people who tend to be perpetual victim hoods and psychologically tend to constantly need to seek recognition of their victim hood. They have a sense of moral elitism. And the third one is the one you're referring to. They tend to lack empathy for the pain and suffering of others. Because they tend to feel "Well I've suffered enough in my life so I get enough points."
Jamie Wheal: And now it's your time in the barrel.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Exactly. "Or I don't need to ... God forgives me for being violent or horrible to others because God has made me suffer enough." And then a fourth is frequently ruminating about past victimization. Constantly thinking about plotting revenge. These are the people who will remember the one thing you may have said in fourth grade. Now you're both 60 years old. And it's like, "I still haven't forgiven that. And I still try to think of ways of getting back at you."
Jamie Wheal: What you were describing is like the personal also seems political in the sense of those four criteria that you just described, that's one person in isolation. But then suddenly if you find others with shared grievances and obviously social media and lots of things are helping accelerate and exacerbate that these days.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah.
Jamie Wheal: And so what are you seeing there? And is that just individual psychology squared into pathological culture? Or is there any other driver or dynamic ... Like how do we get past that, if that's what's metastasizing right now?
Scott Barry Kaufman: The only way to get past it is for people to acknowledge that real grievances do exist, first of all. So there are people ... Like, if you just don't want to be abstract, if you want to zoom in, are you talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance. There needs to be some recognition that yeah, there are a lot of black people who are suffering. There are a lot of things we can do in our society to make the quality of life better for black people and to make them feel like they're fully human.
That they're part of America. They belong here. So there's a lot of real ... They have some real grievances. But the only way forward ultimately is to think about what is the growth from this? What is a way that we can acknowledge the past, but move forward in a very productive fashion where we don't just focus on, for instance, police brutality and slavery.
But we also recognize "Well a lot of black people helped create America." I've been posting on Twitter some examples. Some people have heard of Alexander Graham Bell. They haven't heard of some other people during that time who have really helped develop our system of electricity.
There are a lot of black people who have helped build America. And I think a complex identity is one where we hold America ... Where America has a complex identity. If you want to talk about tying it together, I'm going to give you a chance here to tie this all together.
Jamie Wheal: Awesome.
Scott Barry Kaufman: We talked about the importance of owning your whole self for growth. America needs to own its whole self. In the same exact way. In the same exact analogous way. We have so much defensiveness. There are some people who are like, "Don't call me white fragility mother fucker." It's like, "Okay, look, saying that you might have some white privilege to a certain extent is not saying that your whole being is ... That you need to get defensive about it."
It's perfectly okay to acknowledge that some people have it worse than me. I have it worse than others. And that America has a lot of blood on its hands, but also America has done a lot of good. There's a lot of goodness to Americans too. And to have a more nuanced, complex, integrative and realistic identity as an American just like we need a realistic, integrated identity for ourselves is the only way forward for growth.
Beyond Self-actualization and Accessing Transcendence
Jamie Wheal: Beautiful. So maybe what we need to do the very thing that your book does to Maslow's learning which is that we need to go beyond self actualization or what's in it for me? And we need to get into self transcendence which is how do I return and serve? And how do I serve the body politic? How do we serve the American experience?
Scott Barry Kaufman: Well, I think that you're touching on something really important there. Because socialization processes are very important for the kind of way that we develop. And I do have some criticisms about the way that kids in this generation are being indoctrinated into certain woke ways of thinking that are potentially divisive to our society in an unhelpful, unproductive direction.
So I think that having people to grow up with a healthy sense of pride for their in group and to learn that one can have a healthy sense of pride for one's in group without hating one's out group. That's not a necessity. It's not necessary to hate your out group. You're allowed to have healthy pride.
And also, even you're actually allowed to have pride for multiple groups. And here's the kicker, and I think I should leave on this because this is the point of my book. At the ultimate level of transcendence, we have so much proud for so many groups that we feel deep connectedness to all of humanity.
And that's the sense of unity and oneness that mystics have been trying to get us at for so many years and which I'm trying to get us at in that scientific fashion.
Jamie Wheal: Sounds like Schoolhouse Rock on MDMA.
Scott Barry Kaufman: I love it. I love it.
Jamie Wheal: Awesome, awesome. All righty, man. Dude, thank you so much. Thank you, thank you.