Hot-air Baloon

Ch-3: Develop Your Higher Self:
The part that loves you unconditionally

Part 3

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter 3, Part 3 from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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Your Higher Self: Make it your inner source of power and love

 How does this Higher Self part of us devolop? 
 Empathy and unconditional love of self
 Empathy and unconditional love of others
 The Higher Self is not a set of rules
 Learning to transform obligation giving into giving from the heart
 Engaging another person's Higher Self
 The Higher Self might only be a weak, but persistent inner voice
 Competition with other belief systems
 A functional belief can become dysfunctional
 Examples of dysfunctional beliefs

Empathy and Love (of Self and Others) as Decision Guides

The Higher Self is a cognitive system like the executive self. However, it is the only system with the goal of seeking happiness for self and others. The Higher Self cares most about our happiness. We can trust our Higher Selves for guidance.

The Higher Self is not a conscience. It does not act from internalized parental or societal rules (as Freud's superego is supposed to). Instead, the Higher Self acts out of empathy and true love. It is our inner hero. It is the part that I have heard people near suicide say, "Some part of me wants to live and cares about me no matter what I have done."

How does the Higher Self develop? At birth, the Higher Self probably doesn't exist--except as a primitive neural structure. It probably begins by learning to care about the bodily sensations and about emotions.

Empathy and unconditional love of self. We have seen how the cognitive brain is "wired" to oversee what happens in lower areas of the brain. I believe that the Higher Self has a similar, primitive, built-in empathy for the lower brain centers that govern basic bodily functions. It receives messages from the lower brain centers and is affected by their pleasure and pain.

In addition, the Higher Self learns the concept of pleasure. And it initially learns to value pleasure per se as good. This "pleasure principle" is the first type of conscious unconditional infant self-love. The infant probably develops some primitive form of an unconditional self-love belief like, "My feelings are important no matter what." The Higher Self also learns that it can control actions that lead to pleasure, and consequently begins to value those actions and give them priority over other actions.

However, eventually, the pleasures begin competing with each other. Conflicts between one food and another, between food and play, or between hugging and play. Those conflicts innately are a powerful source of anxiety. While pleasure is the stuff of the lower brain centers, anxiety is a whole new ball game. Anxiety is the stuff of the higher brain--the cognitive system. It innately feels really awful to the cognitive system. Anxiety's opposite--happiness--feels great!

The Higher Self learns the concepts of anxiety and happiness. The Higher Self may begin by valuing pleasure, but will quickly learn that happiness is even more important. I suspect that a superordinate location in the brain puts it in a unique position to innately monitor and care for the overall happiness and harmony of the brain. Just as the cognitive system's job is to take good care of the lower brain centers and their pleasure, the Higher Self's job is to take good care of the cognitive system and its emotions.

Thus, no matter how dysfunctional or destructive other parts of the cognitive system may become, the Higher Self learns to love us and value our happiness unconditionally.

Empathy and unconditional love of others. As the infant develops, it learns that consistent images (later called "mama" and "dada") become associated with many important events. In most cases parents are associated much more with pleasure and the relief of pain than they are associated with pain. This may be the first, crude form of love--loving someone because of the pleasure they bring to us.

However, just as the cognitive system cannot help but know there is a future, it cannot help but know that there are other people out there too. It is intelligent enough to know that other people have feelings and thoughts similar to our own. The Higher Self automatically empathizes with other people. It cannot help but imagine that when other people are experiencing pain or unhappiness it feels like our own pain and unhappiness.

In other words, I believe that we cannot help but have a Higher Self that truly cares about other people and their feelings--just as it cares about us and our own feelings. The Higher Self is so intelligent that it cannot help but guess how other people feel. It knows that they would probably feel much like we would feel in the same situation.

This empathy is the foundation of a higher form of love--caring about how others feel no matter how it affects us personally. This love is an early form of unconditional love.

Therefore, we cannot be completely happy unless the Higher Self feels ok about the happiness of other people. We are especially concerned about our own effects on other people's feelings. The Higher Self produces anxiety or guilt when it believes we have hurt others. It produces happiness when it believes we have contributed to another's happiness.

The Higher Self is not a set of rules. The Higher Self is based upon empathy and unconditional caring--not a set of rules that tell us what we "should" do. The Higher Self is not the rule, "Act as if you cared about someone." It guides us to get into someone's shoes to see how the person feels, and to develop genuine concern for that person's happiness.

This concept of a Higher Self based upon empathy and genuine caring is unlike the way Freud described the superego. He described the superego as being more like what I have called internalized parents. Freud believed that the superego was a reflection of societal norms. I believe that the Higher Self is based upon empathy and unselfish caring. Empathy and unselfish caring develop from our own intelligence and observations--largely independent of what others teach us.

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What we learn from others can have a powerful effect upon us. Our internalized parents and societal norms are important, but they are rules--the source of "shoulds." The type of empathy and caring that comes from the Higher Self is not based upon rules.

Recall seeing someone you care for in pain. Recall the feeling when you genuinely wanted to help relieve their pain. Compare that to a situation when you felt that you "should" do someone a favor according to some rule, but didn't really feel like it. That contrast in feelings illustrates the difference between giving out of genuine empathy and caring as opposed to giving out of obligation.

That is the kind of love that the Christian new testament writer, Paul, was talking about in his letter to the Corinthians. Before becoming a Christian, Paul's life as a Jewish Pharisee priest had been dominated by hundreds of rules spelling out almost every detail of his life. He believed he had to follow these rules to be a good person. A large part of his conversion to Christianity involved choosing to value true empathy and love rather than living by rules describing how he "should" live. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13,

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries
and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains,
but have not love, I am nothing.
If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,
but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast,
it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. . .
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.
But the greatest of these is love.

Learning to transform obligation giving into giving from the heart. How much of your giving is to keep the scales balanced? How much giving is to please other people and their expectations? Frequent feelings of guilt and shame are signs that we are giving more out of obligation or giving more to please others--than out of genuine empathy and caring. Even giving because you want to act like an empathetic, caring person is not the same as giving out of true empathy and caring.

If I catch myself feeling guilty, saying "should," or worrying about what someone else expects me to give, then I ask myself, "What do I really want to do?" Next, I search all my own positive and negative feelings about doing it. I give each of my subparts a chance to speak.

I also focus on developing a deep understanding of the other person's situation and point-of-view. When the part of me that cares about someone experiences the situation from their point-of-view (and I conclude they genuinely need help), it gives me a stronger urge to give to that person. Giving out of empathy and love is very different from giving out of guilt. By focusing on their point-of-view, I thus transform a "should" into a "want."

I try to avoid giving out of "shoulds." If I cannot persuade myself to give out of true empathy and caring, then I generally do not give at all. [Although, in many simple daily situations, I give out of "habit"; because going into a deep understanding is too time-consuming.]

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Can we give too much? It may be that the part of me that wants to give is in conflict with a part of me that wants to use the time, energy, or money for some other goal. We will see in chapter 6 how people who are too codependent may give so much that they don't take adequate care of their own needs.

My Higher Self must make the ultimate decision about that conflict between giving to someone else and giving to me. We must each find our own balance between giving to self and giving to others.

Engaging another person's Higher Self. I attended a meeting where one staff member aggressively attacked another in front of the whole group--calling him irresponsible and unprofessional. He was obviously angry. The second responded, "I can see that you're upset with me. I am sorry for any problems I may have caused you and appreciate your bringing it to my attention. Why don't we talk about it after the meeting?"

Immediately, the first staff member calmed down and became much friendlier. He even apologized in front of the group for his outburst and praised the second person for his "classy" response to his attack.

The second person had looked beyond the attacking words into the eyes of his comrade's Higher Self. He heard more than a personal attack, he heard a person he cared about hurting inside. His caring response was not lost. It engaged his comrade's Higher Self to apologize.

Everyone develops a Higher Self--no matter how weak or hidden it might be. What about all of the times people appear to act without empathy or caring? Obviously, their Higher Self is not controlling their behavior at that time. If we can help them engage their Higher Self, then we will find that we are suddenly dealing with someone who is much more understanding and caring. One way to do that is to treat an angry, aggressive or otherwise unpleasant person with deep understanding and concern.

Thus, we begin living at a higher level ourselves. Instead of living by an "eye for an eye" (which is one reason why gang warfare is so difficult to stop), we begin living by the rule of empathy and love. We are trying to maximize our own and others' happiness. We stop worrying about "getting even." Perhaps the best way to overcome our enemies is make them our friends. Perhaps "turning the other cheek" can really work in the right situation.

This approach may not work with all people at all times. We might not know how to engage a person's Higher Self. We each need to draw our own boundaries for self-protection. We need to protect ourselves and act assertively against aggressive domination. Giving in to their aggression only reinforces their aggressive actions and beliefs.

If we set clear boundaries, we can help empower their Higher Selves and de-power their dysfunctional parts. The assertive, "tough love" response is consciously motivated partly by a desire to protect ourselves and partly by a desire to help empower their Higher Selves.


The Higher Self may start as a simple set of beliefs valuing its own and others' happiness. Like any other cognitive system, it can remain weak, primitive, and undeveloped or it can grow and become strong through learning and reinforcement. Parents can encourage their children to care for themselves and others' happiness, and parents can help them develop beliefs that support these overall goals.

However, many parents teach their children to be obedient and rule-bound. Other parents give little guidance and their children are left to fend for themselves. In these cases, their Higher Selves may remain weak compared to the Higher Selves of children whose parents consistently supported love for self and others. By adulthood, the Higher Selves' development and power can vary dramatically from person to person.

The Higher Self might only be a weak, but persistent, inner voice. One of my clients illustrates how the small inner voice of the Higher Self can speak to us at an early age--even when it goes against our parents' will. Her father would come into her room in the middle of the night and tell her that what he was doing was good, and it was because he loved her.

She wanted to believe him because she was young and he was important to her. She depended on him for everything. In the community he was a model citizen and pillar who was successful and respected by everyone. For a long time a dominate part of her told her she must agree with her father and that what he was doing was ok.

But despite all of this external input, a part of her told her that--even though it brought some pleasure to her--it was not ok. That part of her felt violated. It took her years to really begin to listen to that little voice inside of herself, but it was always there. Finally she paid attention to it.

When you are doing something that is clearly not life-enhancing, is there a little voice inside questioning it? This little voice may be your Higher Self speaking to you. It is repelled by people it perceives as harmful. On the other hand, your Higher Self seeks knowledge and reinforcement from others who value your happiness--it is automatically attracted to them.

Competition with other belief systems. We cannot trust all the little voices we hear from within--though all need to be explored and understood. Each cognitive system has its own little voice, even those that are not healthy. The Higher Self faces a hazardous path of conflict with other belief systems in order to develop into a strong system.

If a child's parents create an environment that is too confusing, boring, or unpleasant, the child may not learn to trust others or to feel valued or important. Or the child may go to school and learn that obedience to teachers or peers gets more immediate reinforcement than love of self and others. That lesson supports the internalized others belief systems--not the Higher Self.

If competing belief systems are given more reinforcement than the Higher Self, the Higher Self can become underdeveloped and weak. The Higher Self is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. In chapter 6 on the transition from external to internal control of your life, I will discuss how we can become so focused on pleasing others; doing what they want; and internalizing their beliefs, values, and expectations that we can literally lose our own identity and self-esteem. Developing the Higher Self and focusing on its beliefs and goals is our primary way of increasing our self-esteem, personal power, and happiness in our life.

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UNPRODUCTIVE BELIEF SYSTEMS--They devalue health and happiness

Any established belief system that tends to devalue or compete with loving oneself and others is potentially dysfunctional.

A functional belief can become dysfunctional. Often beliefs and rules that are good for limited purposes are used beyond their range. They may be limited means to happiness that become dysfunctional when they are made into ends or ultimate concerns. For example, making a lot of money can potentially provide many things, help, experiences, or environments that can help bring happiness. However, if I must give up too much happiness for myself or others to get that money, then making money is dysfunctional. Oddly enough, making more money can reduce our personal power by reducing our ability to be happy and contribute to the happiness of others.

A belief system can become outdated. We may have learned beliefs that worked well as a child within our particular family, but do not work well as adults. For example, one client's parents taught him as a child that it was God's will for children to obey their parents. They said, "The Bible says that you will go to Hell if you don't obey us." He believed them--literally.

For many years he tried to do everything that he was told. As a small child, obedience worked ok. Placing obedience above meeting his own needs was reinforced by avoiding punishment. However, as he got older, he couldn't meet his parents' expectations no matter how hard he tried. He was ridiculed and punished. Since obedience stopped working, he tried rebellion. He gave up trying to please them and he began meeting some of his own needs. This new philosophy worked much better--except for one thing. He still believed that he was evil and that he was going to Hell. He still held that old belief his parents had taught him as a child.

So, he lived in constant fear that God would severely punish him for being so evil. These beliefs continued to haunt him into adulthood. Only through therapy and through talking with a more understanding minister did he question these beliefs. It was not easy, because his parents had also taught him that to question any of these beliefs was evil and meant he was going to Hell.

He learned that loving ourselves and taking good care of ourselves is not selfish and evil. He began to view God as a loving God who wanted his children to be happy and who would forgive them for mistakes. How could he believe that God would be less forgiving than a loving human? These new beliefs got to the core of his underlying fears of failure and punishment. He was on the road to greater self-esteem and happiness. As a child, were you taught any of the following dysfunctional beliefs?

Examples of dysfunctional beliefs:

  • "I should always put other people's needs before my own."
  • "I should be loved or liked by everyone I meet."
  • "I am weak and dependent on strong people for my happiness."
  • "I must be the best at everything I do."
  • "I am entitled to health and happiness, and other people should meet my needs."
  • "We must run our lives by rules, and people who break those rules must be severely punished or we will have chaos."
  • "There are winners and losers. If you are not strong and take advantage of others before they take advantage of you, then you will be a loser."

PRACTICE: List some of your basic beliefs that may have been unproductive for you. If you are having trouble, start by looking at some beliefs that you think may have been unproductive for your parents. What messages did they keep giving you that you know are dysfunctional? How did these beliefs interfere with their happiness and productivity. How did these beliefs influence you? Compare these basic beliefs to beliefs of unconditional love of self and others. Evaluate them by the criteria presented in the next sections.

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