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Beyond right and wrong

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.”

Although this sentence was written literally hundreds of years ago - in the 13th century - it has aged amazingly, so it is a valuable reminder even for us, 800 years later. Despite his incredibly ‘uncatchy’ name, "Muhammad bin Muhammad bin al-Husayn al-Khatibi al-Balkhi al-Bakri" - known as Rumi - this poet became one of the most recognized and memorable poets in history. In fact, Rumi remains the best-selling poet in the United States to this day. That's quite an accomplishment, considering the man has been dead for centuries.

The subject of today's column, however, is not Persian poetry of the Middle Ages, but an exploration of the paradigm in which we live. With this short phrase: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there", Rumi invites the reader to accompany him into a space beyond prejudice, expectation, and judgment - a place unknown to most of us.

Having grown up in a society where the dichotomy of right and wrong, good and bad, pass and fail is the norm, I learned early in life to avoid one of these options, and I suspect you did too. We all prefer positive feedback, recognition and appreciation rather than disappointment, blame or even punishment. So, from an early age we strive for the "Well done!", the "That's beautiful, did you draw that?", the "Wow, best grade in the class! Daddy will be so proud of you!" etc. And we learned to avoid the "You could have done better", the "What is that? Is that supposed to be a bear you drew here?", the "I can't believe it, you failed again? What a shame." With time and repetition of such experiences with our caregivers and teachers, and later with our lecturer, manager and partner, we become perfectly attuned "recognition suckers."

If you think this is only the case for people who had a harrowing, traumatizing childhood in which they experienced violence or neglect, you may be surprised to hear that this process of conditioning is just the same in the kindest, most well-intended upbringing. If you doubt this, let me ask you the following questions: Do you feel nervous about going to a 1-2-1 meeting with the CEO of the company you work for? Do you feel a little anxious when you meet with people you don't know well? Would you describe yourself as hardworking? Would you like to be 'successful' in what you do? If you answered "yes" to only one of these questions, then you too are a fan of recognition. Welcome to the club! You are not alone in it. In fact, almost every single person on this planet is in this club with you. Your parents, your colleagues, your boss, your partner, your friends, and your therapist. We have all experienced conditioning in one way or another.

The consequences of years of being conditioned into a "nice person who does the right things well" can manifest in painful side effects such as self-doubt, impostor syndrome, anxiety, depression, compulsive pleasing, eating disorders, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, low self-esteem, chronic stress, and physical illness. Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg once said that the consequence of being a nice person is depression, and I agree that Marshall is correct here.

Given that we all suffer from what we, in person-centered psychotherapy, call "conditions of worth" I can see why we find it hard to imagine a different paradigm beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing. The black and white paradigm in which we find ourselves is so integrated into our ways of understanding the world and ourselves that an alternative is out of question. In fact, an alternative doesn't even occur to us.

But what if there were an alternative paradigm that we could choose to live in? What would it look like? Well, I know someone who made a valuable suggestion of such paradigm - Rumi. He imagined that interactions and experiences in the world can be based on something else but rightdoing and wrongdoing. He imagined a place beyond judgment. In such a place encounters do not involve any prejudice, projection, judgment or conditions but are simply based on the lived experience in the moment.

It's hard to break away from a paradigm of judgment and to decondition. However, I believe that it is possible. In fact, I see it happening week after week in the therapy room. My person-centered therapy work focuses on fostering unconditional acceptance, non-judgment, and deep empathy. The aim is to create a therapeutic space where all experiences are radically accepted. No judgment attached. Full stop. By meeting the client with these very qualities, conditions can be explored and a process of deconditioning can take place that helps the client feel less anxious, less caught up in external feedback, and feel more empathy and acceptance for themselves as they are.

Consequently, I believe that when person-centered qualities such as radical acceptance, non-judgment, empathy, and unconditional appreciation are facilitated in a society, it can flourish. For new generation to come, such a way of being would promise more collaboration and less competition, more well-being and less suffering, more authenticity and less incongruence, more connection and less disconnection.

And that's a society I'd like to be involved with. What about you?


Have you ever wondered how life beyond judgment could look like? Are you aware of your own conditions? Do you challenge them or feed them? How do you contribute to the black and white paradigm we live in? And how would your contributions look like if you contributed to a paradigm beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing?

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