Taming the Dictator Within, Part 2

How can we stay resilient and avoid becoming fodder for authoritarian social and political movements as the economy declines and the social mood becomes more polarizing? We will all wish for different circumstances, but as the Stoic philosopher Seneca advised, “If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”

To ask the question another way: How can a person with an overactive “Dictator Within” (see the work of Steven C. Hayes in Part 1 of this essay) be a devoted advocate for liberty? Since they treat their own lives as something to be controlled, would they not have sympathy for the idea that society should be administered? A mindset promoting “rigid problem-solving formulations” is not easily turned on and off.  

If you interact with a person who is eminently confident in his rational thinking process, run away far and fast. Robert Heinlein wrote, “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.” 

If someone is determined not to change, he can use “reason” to rationalize why he is the way he is. He will choose from a grab bag of external causes to justify his personal choices—his upbringing, his education, his job, his partner, society, etc. People like this reverse causation, seeing themselves as the effect of external circumstances. For them, “reason” has reversed causation. 

If we are determined to blame, we lose sight that individuals first choose their purpose and then adopt their way of being in the world to reach their goals. 

Notice when your mind confuses cause and effect in your personal life. Watch your mind rationalize your feelings. As the late author Michael Crichton observed, wet streets do not cause rain. Other people don’t cause us to be angry. An angry response to another person reveals an angry predisposition we already carry within us. Relationships don’t create grievances. Grievances reveal a mindset looking for evidence that life is not fair.

We construct our self-concept. Because it is a construction, we rationalize our self-concept by feeding and defending it with our thought-based stories. When we reinforce our self-concept with an outside-in narrative, we are shifting blame for our feelings onto someone or something else. A story that reverses cause and effect relieves us of responsibility since we see ourselves as the effect of external forces.

This rationalizing mindset on the personal level is what supports collectivists who are determined to use coercive central planning to achieve their ends. Collectivists deploy “wet streets cause rain” thinking. They chant: Greedy food and energy suppliers cause inflation. Government spending on infrastructure reduces inflation.  

Crichton coined what he called the “Gell-Mann Amnesia effect,” the tendency we have to give “unwarranted credibility” to those in the media who have already proven themselves wrong. The Gell-Mann Amnesia effect, named after Nobel laureate in physics Murray Gell-Mann, applies on a personal level too. The Dictator Within, the inner expert narrator Hayes describes, tells us who and what to blame. We mindlessly take its bad advice as sound guidance even when it has proven to be misguided time and time again. 

Don’t be fooled by the sheer volume of noise coming from your Dictator Within. Crichton writes, 

Sheer volume comes to imply a value which is specious. I call this the There-Must-Be-A-Pony effect, from the old joke in which a kid comes down Christmas morning, finds the room filled with horseshit, and claps his hands with delight. His astonished parents ask: why are you so happy? He says, with this much horseshit, there must be a pony.

We want to be fooled because we want to eschew responsibility. 

In his seminal book on mass movements, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer cautions, “There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves.” Hoffer observed, “The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on.” 

When we become aware of an outside-in tendency in our own thinking, we can become more aware of the voice of our Dictator Within narrating our story of me, hijacking our self-concept. We can choose to defuse from our inner dictator. This first step is challenging. In his book A Liberated Mind, Hayes writes, “What is so potentially dangerous about the power this voice can have over us is that we lose contact with the fact that we are even listening to a voice.” He adds,

The dictation is so constant and seamless that we disappear into the voice; we identify with it, or “fuse” with it. If we were pushed to say where that voice comes from, it would be natural for us to consider the Dictator to be our voice, our thoughts, or even our true self. That is why we call this voice the ego—which is just Latin for I. But it is really the story of I. It becomes so entangling that we take its dictates literally. 

After his own struggle with anxiety, Hayes relates that he “had let the voice take the place of the part of me that is aware and can choose… I had disappeared for years on end into my own mind and its dictates.” Hayes questioned the relevance of thoughts coming from his Dictator Within: 

I realized that what the voice was telling me did not necessarily have any more “weight” than any of the other thoughts that raced through my mind. I did not have to buy into them. Thoughts flit in and out of our awareness automatically all the time, like “I’m getting hungry, maybe I’ll get some ice cream,” or “I hope the laundry is done.” Some thoughts that are off-base also pop into our minds, like thinking someone is staring at us who isn’t even paying us attention. Memories suddenly resurface for no apparent reason.

Hayes continues to describe the defusing process: 

While we tend to think of our thought processes as logical, many of them are anything but. Thoughts are constantly being generated automatically and mindlessly. We cannot pick which ones pop up, but we can pick and choose which of them to focus on or to use to guide our behavior.

As you become more aware of your thinking, you might be dismayed to observe how much of it is nonsense, replays of the past, constructed scenarios about the future, and just scattered fragments of thoughts, all designed to make you a hero or a victim.

While attempting to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, we often give them our full attention; they become all-consuming. “Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are,” wrote the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains the mindset that causes us to give our dysfunctional thinking such relevance. Kahneman points us to the focusing illusion: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”

While we cannot control the thoughts arising in our mind, we can make a practice of observing our thoughts. In the pause, we can change our mindset. 

A thought of irritation about my wife can quickly turn into I’m grateful for my wife when I pause to observe my thought of irritation and do not justify and solidify that thought. Without pausing to observe my thought, the voice of my Dictator Within arises to convince me I’ve got a problem to grab hold of. If I grab hold of “the problem” it is as if I am clenching a piece of glass in my hand. My hand will bleed; when someone tells me to release my hold on the glass, I’ll say what glass

Thoughts are fluid unless we grab hold of them. Your experience of life will be very different when you practice non-judgmental observation of your thoughts and allow them to pass by. 

This form of intentional observation is far more valuable and effective at overcoming unhappy thoughts than exhortations of “Snap out of it” or “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” or soothing mantras of “You don’t need to worry.” Research shows that attempting to suppress unwanted thoughts only leads to more unwanted thoughts.

We can facilitate the process of defusing from troubled thinking in many ways. One technique for observing your mental antics is to watch yourself as if you were sitting in the audience of a play with yourself as the starring character.

Watch your character go through its antics without judging yourself. Pause to ask yourself, “Who is watching?” Bingo. When you observe your dysfunctional thoughts, the insight arises that you are more than those thoughts. You can disidentify with those thoughts. You are a player and not a programmed non-playing character. 

There is an alternative to following the lousy advice of your Dictator Within with its claims of being rational. In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek writes, “The case for individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievement of our ends and welfare depends.”

In “Individualism: True and False,” Hayek differentiates false individualism from true individualism. With a mindset of false individualism (see the work of Hayek as it intersects with that of Steven C. Hayes in Part 1 of this essay), we are sure that we are rational, accurately seeing the world. Hayek warns against allowing “human reason… to place itself in chains of its own making.” People are, Hayek acknowledges, “sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid.” As our knowledge is bounded, “more often stupid” applies to each of us and that is fine; “stupid” is corrected in our interactions with others. 

Hayek writes, “Man in a complex society can have no choice but between adjusting himself to what to him must seem the blind forces of the social process and obeying the orders of a superior.” Many must learn for themselves that an uncoerced social process is preferable to authoritarian controls. Obeying our Dictator Within, as with obeying an external dictator, prevents us from reaching our full potential. 

How tightly are you fused to your thinking? Every human being lives within the limits of his mind. We don’t control our thinking, yet we can pause and choose not to buy into our thinking. Your experience of reality is directly related to the mindset of true or false individualism that you embrace. When you release your tight grip on your thinking, you allow your life to reveal what your Dictator Within has fabricated.  

When we are ready to declare our freedom from the Dictator Within, we’ll begin by acknowledging that Hayek’s admonitions about false individualism apply to us. We can stop pretending to be eminently confident in our rational thinking. We can loosen the grip our thinking has on us by pausing to observe and not fuse with our Dictator Within. We can allow true individualism to lead us to meaningful lives with a greater sense of purpose, better relationships, and genuine happiness.

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