principles to live by

What principles do you live by?

Do you know?

The principles that underlie how we see ourselves, how we see the world and how we conduct our lives usually operate outside of our conscious awareness – that is, until we decide to work on understanding ourselves better.

Take a moment and think about which ideas and principles from below most accurately capture the ones you may have brought forward from childhood and young adulthood into your present life:

Principles that promote
insecurity and stuckness
Principles that promote
centeredness and growth
– Keeping up appearances is essential; perfection and adoration are the ultimate goals. – Honesty and transparency are essential; healthy & authentic relationships are the ultimate goal.
– Success, fame and wealth are the key qualities I admire in others, which I must achieve in my own life. – Warmth, genuineness and integrity are the key qualities I admire in others, which I seek to develop within myself.
– Obtaining approval and validation from other people is vitally important to me. – Creating connection and mutual satisfaction in relation to other people is vitally important to me.
– I am ‘less than’ some people and ‘better’ than others. – I am not above or beneath any other person; I am equal to all people.
– I seek immediate gratification whenever possible – I seek to cultivate the skill of delayed gratification.
– I try to be right, always. – I seek to learn from everyone and every situation, and hope to forever be a student of life.
– I use gossip as a way to feel good about myself and to have fun. – I try to be loyal to those not in my presence, and I know that treating others with respect and dignity enhances my own self-esteem.


childhood: the good, the bad and the ugly

Principles (also referred to as basic assumptions) play a large role in guiding all of our big and small decisions – which is why becoming aware of and owning up to the ones we adhere to is so important.

Certainly the hope is that we leave childhood and go forth into the world armed with a set of principles that, more so than not, supports healthy and constructive living. Unfortunately, human life, such as it is, does not often conform so well to such hopes.

And it’s not about blaming your parents – they did the best they could with what they knew. No one gets all that they needed in childhood; you didn’t, nor did your parents when they were growing up.

Does this absolve all parents of their big and small mistakes?

No, though I’m not really into absolution anyway – I prefer more that each of us (our parents included) learn to take responsibility for the good we have done in relation to others, the ‘not so good,’ and yes, the downright terrible, when applicable.

But we cannot control whether others take responsibility for their part in things; we can only decide whether we will do so ourselves. And if we live by the principle of taking responsibility for how we have impacted on others in our relationships with them – then we set in motion a process by which we can grow beyond our smaller, pettier selves.

principles are mandatory – which ones we choose are optional

The truth is that we either choose the principles by which we will conduct our lives, or they will be chosen for us – by a combination of family tradition, consumer culture, peer pressure, biological impulses, emotional insecurities, previous trauma and injuries and more.

In my NYC therapy practice, I often help people see that there is no substitute for slowing down and reflecting regularly on the principles that they want to put (and keep) at the center of their lives. I highlight, of course, that none of us adhere perfectly to our most valued principles; it’s about progress, not perfection. The principles we seek to live by serve as important guides – as they help us sift through mountains of data and life-choices so that we can stay (relatively) true to what’s most important to us.

the organizing principles of our lives

In earlier periods of human history, the organizing principles of our lives were provided to us (spoon-fed) by culture and tradition, which is part of the reason why every other day we hear someone lamenting the “breakdown of tradition in modern society.” Yes, I too can get swept up in the sentimentality of such pronouncements – “Ah, things are not like they used to be.”

However, if we stop and think about it – the “loss of tradition” is synonymous with the fact that we are more free to think for ourselves and to take greater responsibility for our choices. YOU get to decide for yourself which principles you will put at the center of your life – based on what YOU believe is important, what your priorities are, what you will and will not participate in, how you expect to be treated by others, how you will conduct your life, etc.

Does this freedom place a greater burden on us?

Yes indeed.

In Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm outlines the various ways in which we humans seek to escape from this freedom, precisely because it can be so burdensome. He humbles us by pointing out the ways in which we want, on some level, for some person or institution to just give us the damn answers to life’s big questions so we can stop stressing and just relax.

Alas – life requires something different from us in contemporary times. It requires a deep, serious and sustained exploration of our own hearts – and of the world – to decide who we are going to be and how we are going to live. Lifelong learning is no longer optional.

Of course this brings to mind Socrates’ maxim about the importance of living an examined life.

Is living an examined life a good principle to live by?

That’s for you to decide.

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