Monday, January 26, 2009

How to be an adult

I just finished reading a little book called How to be an adult: a handbook on psychological and spiritual integration by David Richo that was pretty darn good. What I like most about Richo's writing style is that he is pithy. The book is divided into three parts: "Personal work", "Relationship issues", and "Integration".

The first part talks about the sorts of childhood issues we need to work on in order to grow up, how to develop assertiveness, and the major challenges to adulthood: dealing aptly with fear, anger, and guilt. He ends the first part with a set of affirmations that show the direction in which he leads his readers:

"I accept full responsibility for the shape my life has taken."
"I let people go away or stay and am still okay."
"Until I see another's behavior with compassion, I have not understood it."
"I live by personal standards and at the same time -- in self-forgiveness -- I make allowances for my occasional lapses."

Part two starts with a section titled "Maintaining Personal Boundaries in Relationships" in which he says, "Our first growth realization was of separateness. Our first task was letting go, i.e. acknowledging a personal boundary: I am separate and so are those who care about me. This was a departure and a struggle... Adults learn that separateness is not abandonment but simply a human condition, the only condition from which a healthy relationship can grow."

In the following section titled "Intimacy", he describes the opposing fears of engulfment versus abandonment, how to recognize each where they exist, and useful strategies for coping and processing.

He ends the section on relationships with a list he calls "The Givens of Relationships: Antidotes to Unrealistic Expectations" in which he shatters every fairy tale with the following statements:

"Only at rare moments is the love in one partner the same as that in the other."
"No one is loyal or truthful all of the time."
"You are ultimately alone and ultimately able to make it alone."
"There is no one person who will make you happy, keep you fascinated, love you as your favorite parent did, or give you the love you missed from your parents."
"Most people in relationships seldom know what they really want, ask for what they really want, or show what they really feel."
"Most people avoid or fear intimacy, consistent honesty, intense feelings, and uninhibited joy."
"Letting go of blame and the need to be right heals a relationship most efficaciously."
"Jealousy and possessiveness, though not desirable, are normal human feelings."
"A relationship is a spiritual path since it consists of a continual shedding of illusions."

In the third part, in speaking about integration, he says, "We are hard on ourselves when we demand total elimination of our shortcomings... Integration is a human not a mechanical process. It has a unique timing over which we have no control... If our self-actualization means that our inner work must all be done and we must be perfect, we are choosing never to be happy." He also talks about the role of the subconscious in integration, in terms of recognizing and dealing with the shadow side of the personality and using dreams in a Jungian sense.

About unconditional love, he says:

"In a very real way, we are who we are because of the love others have shown us. Our every adult asset began as a gift from someone who loved us as we were and thereby encouraged our unique self-emergence."
"The most perplexing and elusive mystery about love is that we can show it totally and yet we can never really know how much we love someone or just how intensely we are loved."
"All the while it has been here within us and here everywhere around us. The only search is for that which is always and already ours."

Although the title is a little funny, it is pretty appropriate. Richo guides the reader through the essentials of what one must learn in order to live as a healthy adult, as opposed to someone who continues to live life with unrealistic, childish expectations. He makes the work of "becoming an adult" seem important, challenging, even noble and he leads the reader on a clear path to attaining this goal.


Scott said...

I like the idea, and agree with much of what you've posted here... thanks for that, Pam! Always interesting to read about the books you're experiencing. A lot of good advice there, I think.

My general sense of reservation about this sort of thing, though, comes from a deep love of illusion, dreaming, art, and mystery. Maybe that just is a way of saying I never want to be fully adult. I want to hold on to childlike wonder and curiosity my whole life long. I want to strive for unreasonable goals. I always want to push the love I have to be more than real, into the realms of high drama. These things aren't always possible, I know, but I think it's important to strive towards them. Just my 2 cents for the moment.

Pam said...

Thanks for your comment, Scott! I see here that I haven't been thorough enough in my description of the book. I think Richo advocates having an active imagination, dream life, being creative, etc. His main goal, it seems to me, is to help people learn better how to be happy. The main ways he advocates doing that are to be honest with yourself, communicate honestly about how you feel and what you want, accept that you are in control of the choices you make in your life, and have the courage to move on past relationships that are having a negative impact on your life. If you are using fantasy to justify why you're letting someone treat you badly, he advises against it. He advises being honest with yourself about how you really feel and having the courage to know that you will survive without that person. If you're blaming others for why your life isn't going well instead of acknowledging that you are in control of your life, he advises against that.

I never had the sense that he was against childlike wonder or curiosity, or illusion, dreaming, art, or mystery, or striving towards great things. He uses Jungian tools, which make me think he is highly in favor of dialoguing with symbols and images -- in dreams and in waking life, of using creativity to solve problems and make life interesting.

At the beginning of the book, he talks about how as babies we think our world and our mother's world is one world and that our first difficult challenge in life is in discovering that we are separate from her. It is difficult coming to terms with this separateness and as we grow up, realizing that we need to take responsibility for ourselves and be our own parent, instead of waiting for others to meet our needs.

It was pretty late when I finished the book and wrote my blog post, and I realize now that I pretty much just strung together a bunch of the quotes that were most striking to me instead of explaining the gist of what he had to say.

Pam said...

Hi again... So I just re-read my blog post, and now I see the sentence that needs to be clarified. When I said "as opposed to someone who continues to live life with unrealistic, childish expectations", I meant someone who continues to live as though s/he were not a separate, responsible individual who is in control of his/her life. I didn't mean someone who gives him/herself lofty goals and who engages with a wonderful, childlike imagination.

Scott said...

Makes sense, Pam. And sounds like a very wise book. I think "not being honest" comes in so many different forms that it's hard to sort them all out. I think of friends working jobs they hate because they can't decide what to "do with their lives," and I wish instead of being sober and realistic about things, they would throw caution to the wind and just TRY something, even if it has a high chance of failure. That, in my mind, requires some measure of fooling yourself into believing dishonestly positive things about yourself and the world perhaps...

But I'm splitting hairs, I suppose. I'm just a huge proponent of unreal stances on life. I think it's important to think too much of your own possibilities rather than being honest about them. Maybe that's foolish. Who can say? Okay, I'm done ranting.... this is YOUR blog! HA!

In any case, many thanks for the clarification, and it really does sound like one of the best books of this sort I've heard about. I love the ideas here, and I definitely can think of moments where I should have just been more honest with myself. Good stuff!

Jake said...

Second - good stuff!

I think adulthood is one of the rarest, most mis-understood states of being in contemporary society, and it's so hard to know what are the pertinent factors and what not. What resonates with me about this is something I learned long ago when I was working at Landmark College. I had been introduced to one of the models of cognitive development that described much of the separation and delineation of Self that Richo seems to be on to. (Shameless plug! I blogged about much the same thing last year.) The adult understanding of how we fit into the larger pattern is, in particular, largely missing around and about us.

I don't think that being adult means to leave off the childlike wonder and curiosity that you speak of so wonderfully, Scott, but I do think it means understanding how those fit into our larger selves. All too often, we think we're striving for unreasonable goals in a noble pursuit of joy when in fact we're just being stubborn and closed-minded. The joy, I think, lies not so much in the goals as in how we approach them. We can come to appreciate that those goals aren't what make us happy, but that we are happy in truly realizing the gift of what we do have.

I wonder how much the modern plague of choice plays into the rarity of adult thinking? Time was, we had much less choice about whom we'd marry, what we'd do with ourselves and so on. I truly believe that we were happier in those situations than we are now, generally, with every step out the door forcing us to make constant choices. Lest I be accused of romanticizing this, I'll just say that when I lived in Vermont, finding friends and dating was vastly easier than it is in Boston, largely, I think, because of the choice factor. Here, everyone knows that there's always someone better, more perfect out there, whereas in a small rural community, guess what, we're all imperfect, let's make a go of it. And despite the hardships, rural Vermonters are both happier and more adult than most any city folk I've met.

Pam said...

Jake, your comment reminded me of themes from two other books I reviewed not too long ago: Better Off and The Paradox of Choice. Interesting how these things all link together. I was just thinking tonight about how much I wish everyone I loved lived in the same place. It would make many things a lot easier, I think. But, would it?

Scott said...

Somewhat off topic, but Pam, for me the answer is an unequivocal YES. If everyone I loved lived in the same place, it would be unbelievably amazing. I, in fact, never realized this at all until I had a child and then moved to the middle of nowhere, away from family and friends. I suddenly understand why whole families live under one roof, why people run away to communes, and on and on. Makes me really regret the way in which my career choice involves so much geographical uncertainty.