The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Autonomy, the ability for effective problem solving

“Man is born free, but one of the first things he learns is to do as he is told and he spends the rest of his life doing that. Thus his first enslavement is to his parents. He follows their instructions forevermore, retaining only in some cases, the right to choose his own methods and consoling himself with an illusion of autonomy.” – Eric Berne

Once children become capable of interacting with others they start to learn a vocabulary. While such learning allows us to have conversations, it is also one that teaches us to replace our awareness of something with the given label.

Eric Berne described awareness as our capacity to see, hear, feel, taste and smell things as pure sensual impressions, in the way a newborn infant does. It is the ability to perceive our environment unencumbered by the education or filters we learned to apply.

The education provided by our parents is there to help us live a life within the community. It is their selection of options and ways to act. And in teaching us language it is also the tool society gives us to communicate. There is nothing wrong with it.

For us, it may still come in the way of effective problem-solving.

Berne used the larger concept of autonomy to describe effective problem-solving. For him, the attainment of autonomy manifested itself by the release or recovery of three capacities: awareness, spontaneity and, intimacy.

Awareness is connected to perception. The capacities of intimacy and spontaneity will both connect us with vulnerability.

Intimacy as an open sharing of feelings and wants between you and another person is something most of us have learned to avoid. The fear being that it might not be welcomed.

Spontaneity is either applauded or condemned. Partly because it often was confused with behaviors happening on an impulse. Looking further into the definitions allows seeing how the way Berne understood it becomes very accurate.

The Cambridge dictionary defines spontaneous as “happening or done in a natural, often sudden way, without any planning or without being forced”. The Merriam Webster provides a more detailed definition including “proceeding from natural feeling or native tendency without external constraint”, “arising from a momentary impulse” or “developing or occurring without apparent external influence, force, cause, or treatment”.

The key elements are “natural” and “without external influence”.

For Berne spontaneity was best described as “the capacity to freely choose how we think, feel, and behave in response to an event”. Spontaneity enables the ability to solve problems through the capacity to see the many options available and to use what behavior seems to be appropriate to the situation and to her goal.

What Berne allows us to see, is that our decisions are influenced by the education we received, by our wish to belong, by the norms and rules we learned from both.

In such a context our ability to be spontaneous and to choose how we feel, think and behave in response to an event also means to be able to make our choices independently from such influences.

It for sure doesn’t mean against these influences. It means to know when they help us and when they don’t help us.

Spontaneity doesn’t mean to act without thinking.

Viktor E. Frankl described this as with the idea that “between stimulus and response, there is a space.” Inviting us to use that space. “In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”


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