The courage to dance

“Your parents or even your friends may want you to treat your children in some way they deem best… This sets your children up to live their lives within the expectations of others, just as you are, and to never truly be happy and find themselves on their own terms.”
– Cody Baldwin


“There probably isn’t anyone who leads a problem-free life. Every person has sad experiences and setbacks and suffers unbearable treatment and great disappointment. Then, why do some people refer to tragedies as ‘lessons’ or ‘memories’, while others remain shackled to such events and regard them as inviolable traumas?”

The Courage to be Happy, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitaka Koga

“We are not determined by our experiences, but… by the meaning we give them.”

The Courage to Be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitaka Koga

Until I read the books about the work of Alfred Adler, The Courage to Be Disliked and The Courage to be Happy, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitaka Koga, it had never occurred to me that trauma may just be like theories about ghosts—bad explanations of bad explanations. But if we take trauma to be a solvable problem it ceases to exist when it is solved, just as a ghostly apparition ceases to exist when whatever actually caused it is adequately explained. 

As an explanation trauma is predicated on the mistaken idea that bad experiences define us. Bad experiences carry bad explanations which we have not yet refuted. If we view ourselves as caused by, determined by, or immutably defined by, others, such as our parents, or by circumstances outside our control, instead of as the agents of our own lives, we can get stuck in “poor me” and “that bad man” (The Courage To Be Happy)—and in the case of parents, “that bad child”. If life problems are caused by the unchangeable past or your circumstances or your parents, partner or child, they can’t be solved. Our trauma is permanent and nothing can be done. “Poor me.” 

“If the past determined everything and couldn’t be changed, we who are living today would no longer be able to take effective steps forward in our lives.”

The Courage to Be Disliked

We then use praise and blame and coercion to manipulate our children and others into conforming to our preferences, conveying the same bad explanation to our children, who then do the same to their children.

But if we understand that an experience was bad and strive to fix the bad explanations that underlie it, the bad experience can be interpreted as a point from which to grow. The “cycle” of trauma is broken, and trauma ceases to exist. So, denying trauma, like denying the existence of ghosts, is the first step to fixing a bad underlying explanation.

The denying of trauma can be abstracted further to general philosophical terms. For example, if we’re always seeking the reason that things happened to us, a curtain is pulled over our eyes to what we have caused to happen. Is one’s life like a book they are just reading about themselves, or are they the ones writing the book? If things just happen to us, then we have no control over our happiness, we were destined for it. On the other hand, if we cause things to happen, then we are responsible for our happiness. So, this idea that we are not responsible for our lives makes no sense, it explains nothing, it’s a haunting apparition.

It’s not the bad thing that caused the unhappiness, it’s us and our interpretation and goals after having had the bad experience. Adler makes a distinction about these contradictory philosophical frames. The idea that we seek reasons for what happened to us is called etiology, and the idea that we cause things to happen to us is called teleology. If we’re always in the frame of etiology, we’re in a frame of infinite regress—seeking a greater authority, a greater initial condition, from which all other events can be explained. But we cannot see causes, it’s always a guess or an approximation. Assuming the Big Bang is accurate, no one could have been present to observe it. It could be the case that there was no start and there is no end. So, this pervasive shadow of etiology is like a finger pointing backward ad infinitum.

“When one adopts the point of view of Freudian etiology, one sees life as a kind of great big story based on cause and effect. So then it’s all about where and when I was born, what my childhood was like, [etc.]… And that decides who I am now and who I will become… The problem is, one can see the dimness that lies ahead at the end of the story. Moreover, one will try to lead a life that is in line with that story. And then one says, ‘My life is such-and-such, so I have no choice but to live this way, and it’s not because of me—it’s my past, it’s the environment,’ and so on.”

The Courage to Be Disliked

We trap ourselves and our children in the mistaken idea that we are caused by people and circumstances outside ourselves. For example, parents often believe that their child makes them angry, but anger is not something that other people/things “make us”. And yet, “that makes me angry,” is such a common phrase. In fact, talking about any emotion in this way: “[that] makes me [emotion]” is a similar construction. This etiological frame is a bad explanation pessimistically proclaiming that not all problems are soluble, and blaming others for your problem—“That bad child. Poor me.”

Anger is often a tool used by parents to scare their children into obeying. It is in itself a form of punishment. Children are manipulated further with praise, trapped into doing things for praise and to avoid punishment, living for scraps of recognition from their parents.

“Whether we praise or rebuke others, the only difference is one of the carrot or the stick, and the background goal is manipulation. The reason Adlerian psychology is highly critical of reward-and-punishment education is that its intention is to manipulate children.”

The Courage to Be Disliked

It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing things for recognition. If you’re doing things for recognition, though, you’re living life through the expectations of others. Other people have caused you to do something by controlling your behavior, as if you were their pet. This etiological frame is the cause of much distress, because if you are living for the recognition of others, you are never fully living your own life. The conventional frame of “parenting” conceptualizes people as creations of other people, rather than of themselves. And, most parents praise and punish their children into adopting the same life lie.

“When receiving praise becomes one’s goal, one is choosing a way of living that is in line with another person’s system of values. Looking at your life until now, aren’t you tired of trying to live up to your parents’ expectations?”

The Courage to Be Disliked

“Being praised essentially means that one is receiving judgment from another person as ‘good.’ And the measure of what is good or bad about that act is that person’s yardstick. If receiving praise is what one is after, one will have no choice but to adapt to that person’s yardstick and put the brakes on one’s own freedom.”

The Courage to Be Disliked

Why not do what you think is best instead of living for the approval of others and expecting your children to do the same? For adults this is, more-or-less, the standard. Adults are to respect each other’s dignity. But, in the case of children, it is mandated otherwise. All people, even children, create knowledge, learn, and grow slightly differently. That’s what makes people so amazing and special in the cosmic view of things. So, what makes authorities, like parents, so special that their recognition of you is more important than your recognition of yourself?

And worse, if those authorities suddenly stop recognizing you, what will be there to stop you from doing things you had deemed bad only as a result of good or bad recognition?

From the perspective of a parent, society, your parents or even your friends may want you to treat your children in some way they deem best. Who cares? This sets your children up to live their lives within the expectations of others, just as you are, and to never truly be happy and find themselves on their own terms.

The …Courage… books and Taking Children Seriously unite on this goal of figuring out how to get out of this top-down approach to knowledge and to happiness in life. Life is not a fabricated system of tasks handed down from above, we must understand why we’re doing things, we must live our lives for ourselves, not for the approval of parents, authority figures or gurus. Living in the expectations of other people, regardless of how larger than life you’ve made them and their ideas, cannot lead to happiness.

To me, Taking Children Seriously is about just this. It’s about helping children, and even ourselves as parents, explore their ability to change the world, not about how there will always be a reason out of their control for why they did it, and that they should yield and be subservient to it.

But this view of the world as expressed by Adler and Taking Children Seriously will help you enjoy yourself as you are and enjoy everything that’s happening right now. It’s a matter of interpretation. Of course it’s not going to make you less lonely if no one else understands you and what you think is important, be that Taking Children Seriously or whatever. People like feeling that they belong. But living to please the people in your life who disapprove of your parenting won’t ease your loneliness, it just makes it worse, because it’s fake unity.

“In Adlerian psychology, a human being’s most fundamental need is the sense of belonging. In a word, we do not want to be isolated. We want to have the real feeling that ‘It’s okay to be here.’ Because isolation leads to social death and eventually even to biological death. Now, how can they gain a sense of belonging? By gaining a special position within the community. By not becoming everyone else.”

The Courage to Be Happy

Once you throw off the shackles of expectation, you may find that the people who liked you for doing what you didn’t really want to do, either never really liked you, or that they’ll love you as you inevitably change and grow, and perhaps always would have anyway. You can’t discover that unless you risk not trying to conform with everyone else. And, once you start living in alignment with yourself, you may find that “[i]t’s okay to be just as we are. Your place to be is there, without needing to be a special being or be outstanding in any way.” (The Courage to Be Happy)

When we shed the desire for recognition, we feel more ourselves, more normal and in the flow of everyday life, more comfortable being wherever we are here and now, in the unpredictable process of untying our hangups, instead of wishing we were somewhere else. As David Deutsch has said, “every point is a growth point.” We can grow from wherever we are. Those points of growth are difficult to predict because when we overcome challenges it is often in unexpected ways, like a dance.

It takes courage to dance like no one’s watching when we know people are actually watching. Some people will dislike you for it, but they might change their mind and tango. But, at the end of the day, as Adler writes, “Someone has to start. Other people might not be cooperative, but that is not connected to you. My advice is this: you should start. With no regard to whether others are cooperative or not.”

See also:

Cody Baldwin, 2024, ‘The courage to dance’,

1 thought on “The courage to dance”

  1. Coalesces my thoughts on life’s constraints and expectations and my push back. Imperative to become comfortable with NOT belonging, to make it a goal, in becoming one’s self. And not to allow life’s tragedies define you.


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