L. Jay is very excited to about the recent publication of his very first book, if you’re interested in learning about it, here is the Foreword written by Brent D. Slife. For more information, or two download the first chapter of this book for free, click here.
When I first met the author of this book many years ago, I was skeptical. I was exhilarated by our conversation, but I had trouble believing that people like him really existed. Here was an elegant man talking in an exceptionally humble manner about big ideas and even bigger applications. My own experiences had proven to me that genuine elegance and humility rarely went together, but big ideas and feasible applications were an even rarer combination. Was this guy to be believed?
Now, after some 15 years of collaboration, I’m so glad that I answered this question positively. I have come to know L. Jay Mitchell as one of the most insightful, highest integrity individuals I have ever met. Our collaboration has spawned important presentations at national psychological conferences as well as articles in noteworthy psychological journals. Yet, the most significant focus of our work together has been two groundbreaking and highly successful programs for troubled youth; a wilderness academy and a therapeutic boarding school for young women. L. Jay not only cobbled together funds for these large programs, but also innovated a large portion of their treatment interventions. These interventions include some of the most creative and effective programs I have witnessed in my over 30 years as a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology. It is no wonder that he was well-known as a pioneer in the field of wilderness therapy before I had even met him.
I am excited that he has decided to funnel these intellectual insights and the practical know-how into the book before you. The reader is in for a real treat because L. Jay tackles ones of the most important issues of our time – who we are. He is right that our identity and our perceptions of our identity are central to a whole bunch of vital life issues, including whether we truly flourish, whether we have quality relationships, and whether we experience real joy. It is a great sadness to me that so many people never attain any real life satisfaction or what some ancient writers call “the peace that passes all understanding.” They, unfortunately, get lost in a host of common misconceptions about the self.
One of the many virtues of this book is that L. Jay gently corrects these misconceptions that are sometimes fostered unwittingly by the so-called experts on the self; psychologists. As he points out so poignantly, these misconceptions cluster around the tired notion that who we are, not to mention how we perceive ourselves, originate from some interaction between our nature and our nurture. Too often we are told that our identity or our self is some amalgam of inborn factors and the way that we were raised, in which case there is nothing much we do about the self. All we can do is discover who we are and live into this fixed identity.
This book, fortunately, takes a completely different tack. It assumes – and cites convincing evidence – that what you believe about yourself is pivotal to your identity. This tack is a hopeful one because it means that you actually have some say in whether you truly flourish, have good relationships, and experiences authentic joy. The nature-nurture crown would immediately tell us that your innate biology and your past development determine what you believe about yourself. Intriguingly, however, L. Jay cites fascination research that turns this conventional notion on its ear – our chosen beliefs might actually, at least in some important cases, trump our DNA and our past experiences.
He then goes on to cogently demonstrate that we have a kind of agency about these beliefs. The influence of our biology and our environment is important, of course, but we also have possibilities within these nature-nurture parameters, possibilities that allow us to claim some agency over these beliefs. If this is true, and a growing number of researchers believe that it is, then it is a game-changer for the self and for our identity. This book draws our many of the significant implications of these new ideas.
Just to whet the reader’s appetite, allow me to single out two implications that L. Jay explicitly challenges: the priority of “feeling good” and the uniformity of the self. The first is the common notion that the most important life objective is our emotional satisfaction. Professionals and laypeople alike routinely confound this kind of satisfaction with happiness, well-being, and peace. Most surveys of the public seem to point to the priority of good feeling, and many researchers of the positive psychology movement focus on it almost exclusively. L. Jay gives good feelings their fue, but he rightly challenges this notion as the main goal of our lives, replacing it with “a life of rich meaning and purpose, a life of quality relationships, a life of giving and receiving love.” Anyone who has striven to do even the last – giving and receiving love – knows that this situation does not always result in “feeling good.”
I am also relieved to see that this book discusses a second implication of this new understanding of the self and identity. For a long time, the self has been understood as if it is basically uniform, or at least should be uniform. The “personality” tradition of psychology has contributed to this understanding, often treating the self as though it is one entity, one set of feelings, one system of thoughts, and so on. L. Jay, on the other hand, understands that humans have mixed feelings and conflicting thoughts. He proposes that a better understanding might be that we consist of “mini-selves,” with one personality when we attend football games and another personality when we attend church. Indeed, as he describes so powerfully, we might even harbor simultaneous mini-selves in our identities that conflict with one another. His ideas do not deny the continuity we experience between these mini-selves, giving us our sense of a unified identity, but I think he’s quite right that this unification has been overly emphasized, leading us to wonder why we suddenly “blow up” in some situations and are “not ourselves” in others.
As much as I would read this book for its provocative ideas alone, its true strength is that L. Jay Mitchell does not just describe these important implications; he informs us practically of what they can mean for us in our own lives. If there is anyone, in my experience, who is the master of applying these conceptual insights, it is L. Jay Mitchell. His experiences in both his wilderness academies and his boarding school have led him to devise these thoughtful applications and creative practices. The book, in this sense, not only helps us understand the practicalities of these ideas, it patiently moves us through cognitive exercises and thought experiments so that we actually experience their richness and benefits. Readers who are willing to buckle their chinstraps are in for a very intriguing and enriching ride.
Brent D. Slife, Ph.D
– Clinical psychologist, university professor, and member of seven editorial boards for professional journals.