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Reflective Functioning: The Groundwork for Integrity
The definition of integrity that I use here at Let Your Life Speak comes from author Stephen L. Carter. He defines integrity as a process in three parts:
discerning what is right and what is wrong,
acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost, and
saying openly that your action is based on your discernment of right and wrong.
I know, I know, it’s a little dry and moralistic-sounding, but let’s consider the definition of morality from author Iris Murdoch, as described by reflective functioning researcher Naomi Benbassat:
Morality, according to Murdoch, is a continuous effort during everyday interactions, consisting of countless actions of seeing and paying attention; while the “enemy” to moral life is the “selfish consciousness” that, through self-deception, rationalization, dismissal, and lack of attention, obscures reality and avoids seeing the other, thereby leading to moral blindness and unethical behavior.
Discernment, the ability to distinguish between things (and people) and to be able to grasp and comprehend that which is obscure, arises out of reflective functioning.
Reflective functioning is the ability to make a mental distinction between what is happening on the surface of behavior and emotion, both in ourselves and others, and what is happening underneath. It is the capacity to consider intentions, feelings, thoughts, desires, and beliefs and how they motivate action. It is also the capacity to hold the complexity that our internal reality is likely different than other people’s, so navigating our interactions with others requires respecting and accommodating those differences.
Put more succinctly, we have to understand why we behave and act the way we do, and we have to consider why other people might behave and act the way they do. Understanding our own psychology, feelings, biases, and filters as separate from other people’s is an essential precursor to being able to engage in discernment and, therefore, practice integrity.
This understanding requires focus, effort, and practice, and often goes against the grain of how we were raised. Many of us grew up in environments where the adults who cared for us weren’t terribly self-reflective, nor did they encourage that reflection in us. We weren’t treated as separate people, but simply as extensions of our caregivers and community. Add to that the tendency towards homogeneity in many communities due to racial and class segregation, as well as our cultural tendency to avoid discomfort, which is a necessary aspect of negotiating differences between people, and you get a recipe for a distinct lack of reflective function in most people.
So, what do we do to develop our reflective functioning?
Meditation & Mindfulness: you don’t have to sit still by yourself, breathe in a particular way, or be particularly good at “clearing your mind of distraction.” I am the Queen of Mental Distraction, myself. But making space in your life regularly to relax your mind and contemplate is hugely helpful for developing even a hair’s breadth of space between your automatic emotional reactions to the world and how you choose to behave. Practicing mindfulness, or being fully present to the current moment, can also go a long way towards reducing emotional reactivity and unconscious habitual mental patterns.
Talk therapy: I know not everybody can afford therapy, and finding the right therapist can be difficult and/or emotionally exhausting, but if you can make space in your monthly budget for it, even if it’s only once every couple of weeks, it can be a huge help. Having the opportunity to talk through your feelings and motivations out loud allows you to hear yourself, and to make your unconscious life conscious. Putting words to emotions can cultivate that space between your initial reactions to circumstances and people and your choice of how to act.
Develop intimate friendships: Reflecting on yourself and other people can give rise to tremendous feelings of vulnerability. You need and deserve people who can hold that vulnerability with you. Good, intimate friends also can call you out, lovingly, on your habitual patterns and emotional reactivity. Especially if you’re making big decisions, you need people in your life that you can test your decisions with before you make them.
Confront your compulsivity: Though not all of us have compulsive habits that are formally recognized as addictions, most of us have behaviors we engage in reflexively to avoid emotional discomfort and pain. Often, we engage in them so quickly that there is very little conscious thought involved in off-ramping from our strong feelings into something that numbs our suffering. However, compulsivity is the enemy of integrity, so unpacking your own compulsions can be a necessary step in developing your reflective functioning.
Practice on your kids: Reflective parenting, research shows, strengthens the parent-child relationship, teaches children how to understand and regulate their own behavior, and supports cognitive development. Sometimes it’s easier to learn how to do something that’s hard on behalf of our kids than it is to learn it simply on our own behalf, but the learning will reverberate across every aspect of your life. I don’t generally like to send folks to Amazon, but a good resource on reflective parenting, The Reflective Parent by Regina Pally, can be found here.
Reflecting on what is actually happening underneath the surface of what seems to be happening is not unlike trying to find an animal camouflaged in the forest. The animal resists discovery, and the true meaning and significance of the surface of things resist us as well. Without that underlying understanding, however, it can be hard to discern what the right action is and proceed with integrity.
Ultimately, there will always be unknowns, unforeseen consequences, and mistakes, but developing our capacity for reflection will improve the quality of our discernment.
I hope you have a restful and reflective weekend. XO, Asha
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