Are You Principled? Or Rigid?

Chris Nufer, a therapist in Office of Dr. Michael DeMarco in New York City, stumbles on a real life example of how sticking blindly to our beliefs can prevent us from getting the satisfaction and happiness we want.

I had a conversation with my son yesterday about his firm conviction that most popular music is worthless. In its manufacture as a product to be sold, in it’s ruthless insistence on the common denominator, and in it’s absence of artistic risk, every popular song on the radio is bad. 

So with that broad swath of the universe accounted for, I asked, should we assume that all music that is NOT on the radio is good?  Of course not, he replied, but wouldn’t I agree that music that is played for the sheer joy of it and not primarily for money has more redemptive potential than commercial music?

This conversation went on in this vein for a while.  It was certainly not the first time we had had this “art for art sake” discussion.  I tend to applaud his ethics but I find myself being a bit more pragmatic.  He on the other hand, as a man in his in his mid twenties, sees artistic integrity as the fundamental building block for a life with meaning. He rails against what he sees as the manufactured celebrity of someone like Justin Timberlake, but I can’t help wonder what his tune would be if Justin came up out of the small crowd at one of his band’s appearances and offered him a recording deal.

The point is this: My son is a hard-working musician who believes he is doing everything he can to carve out a career. However, he also believes deeply that if he compromises his principles and sells out in any way, he is dooming himself to same mediocrity that offends him so much. This rigidity obviously gets him in trouble.  What he sees as sticking to his principles can often be interpreted as inconsiderate, selfish or just plain pig-headed. As a result, he ends up losing opportunities to be recognized and rewarded for his talent. As bright as he is, he has a bit of a blind spot when comes to connecting his career frustrations with his lack of flexibility.

I often run into the same situation with some of my clients.  They believe they MUST do this or they SHOULD do that and if they don’t it will be AWFUL. When situations come up that demand flexibility, their rigidity often prevents them from achieving a positive outcome. Having values and sticking to your principles is all well and good.  But part of having integrity is having the insight, courage and humility to continuously question your behavior. We have to allow ourselves to be wrong from time to time especially when course adjustments are required. When beliefs are only used as defenses instead of a base from which to explore the world and test its complexities, our ability to engage and adapt breaks down. Losing the ability to engage leads to depression.  The inability to adapt tends to make us fearful and creates anxiety. 

So just as I offered my son a suggestion that great music is born out of both rigid adherence to working within the confines of music theory and the ability to flow creatively within and around those confines, I offer this for your consideration: Beliefs, values and principles are wonderful when they provide our lives with meaning and structure. But when we lose the ability to consciously observe the effect holding fast to our beliefs is having on our lives, our inflexibility puts us at risk of detouring unwittingly into the land of the depressed, the anxious and the disappointed.

- Chris Nufer


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