Acquiring more freedom and lightness thanks to Spinoza’s wisdom

22 March 2018
Acquiring more freedom and lightness thanks to Spinoza’s wisdom

I recently coached Paul who was hoping for a promotion and had asked me to help him formulate his request to his boss. He had been waiting for this promotion for a long time and was afraid it would not be granted because of the company’s political games. Because of this, he suffered an “emotional upheaval” that he feared might harm him during the interview. Personally, I thought that his asking for help was already a clear indication of his self-awareness and a mark of humility vis-à-vis his emotional state in this complex situation.  We therefore decided to work on two fronts:

- The first concerned his motivations to obtain the promotion

- The second centered on expounding this motivation to this boss


The first front: exploring his motivations

In order to examine the first problem, I invited him to delve into his motivations. We discovered that they were manifold:  the first and foremost was a feeling of dissatisfaction with his present job. As we probed farther we hit upon his passion for his work and his wish to have an impact on a company where he had grown and, finally, we uncovered a desire to settle a score with his father who had been very successful in his professional life and to whom he wanted to prove that he could also be successful. Beside this desire to succeed there was the perception of not being up to the task, of not doing the job more efficiently, a feeling which had a negative effect on his self-esteem.


The second front: expounding his motivations

This first step cleared up the emotional confusion associated with that promotion and enabled us to move to the next phase, i.e. expounding his motivation to his boss. After careful consideration, he decided to base his talk on his ideas relating to projects he would have liked to carry out after his promotion and, should these projects be realized, the added value he would be for the company. I also asked him to put himself in his boss’ shoes and look at the subject from his viewpoint: what was at stake?  What were the problems that he needed to solve? What kind of feed-back did he need, considering the issues at stake? How could he sell these projects in-house? And so forth.



At the meeting with his boss my client was calm, free from his passive emotional baggage and with a positive attitude toward himself, his potential and his boss. He succeeded in describing his projects, and in supporting them with concrete arguments. He was pleasantly surprised by his boss’ encouraging reaction. A few weeks later he received a positive answer concerning his promotion, even though a considerable number of employees aspired to this position.


What happens backstage and is worth looking into

I am going to tell you about what really went on backstage, because the positive outcome was not due to a magic trick or a sudden revelation, but to careful work on self-awareness and self-acceptance.

To do this I am going to ask Spinoza to help me. Spinoza is a 17th century philosopher who, in my opinion, formulated one of the best theories on how to live a happy life, without falling into the trap of an idealized world where “everybody is nice and every situation is wonderful”. He is the father of what nowadays is known as positive psychology, i.e. psychology that aims at making us happy by learning to become more resilient when facing difficult situations.


Some gems of Spinoza’s philosophy

My goal is to give you an overview of human nature and highlight the importance of thoroughly understanding it in order to live better and uplift our spirit in accordance with the great philosopher’s guidelines.

According to Spinoza, the desire for joy and pleasure is the essence of emotional life, whereas passion is only part of it. We are active when we are driven solely by our nature. We are passive when our actions are mainly a result of causes outside ourselves and our essence. Yet, regardless of whether we are active or passive, our essence (= our desire) is always at work. Spinoza does not contrast reason with passion. It is passive passion that we must fight against because it engenders sadness. It is for this very reason that each one of us must be aware of the origin of his emotions. The origin of human activity lies in adequate ideas (which are complete and therefore true); the origin of passivity lies in inadequate ideas (crippled and partial, hence false). Passion arises from an incomplete, imaginary, mistaken knowledge that engenders man’s bondage both to other men, since he accepts their incomplete ideas and to his own passions, preventing him from perceiving reality in its entirety.

Our happiness or unhappiness depends on the qualities of the object to which we are bound by love. This love object can be a person, a group, a cause, a political party, an association, a company, an object, a country, in short anything we may choose as the recipient of our love. Hence the importance of thinking on our own, since others can give us flawed information on a person or a situation which may lead us astray and consequently towards passivity as Spinoza conceives it. It is also important to be aware of our emotions, because this awareness will help us to better understand why and how we reflect our desire on another person; in other words, to use psychoanalytical terms, how we “project” onto others.

A psychological projection occurs when we project our desires onto others, thinking that others have emotions, thoughts and even qualities which in reality are ours. Generally speaking, it means that sometimes we think we hate or love someone not because of what he/she really is, but because of the way we reflect our emotions on him/her.



How can Spinoza’s philosophy help us in everyday life?

The first application: motivation

Like Paul, whose problem I mentioned at the beginning of this newsletter, we are sometimes driven by reasons dictated by others or else we react to the other people’s thoughts. Paul wanted to settle a score with his father, who in a way had encroached upon his emotional space, preventing him from clearly analyzing the situation and, especially, from acting appropriately. Only by highlighting this feeling could he look into the motivations that reflected his essence, i.e. his passion for his job and the projects he wanted to carry out.


 The second application: our delusions about people

Sometimes our wish to love and be loved leads us to see merely partial features of the person we deal with. Our passivity causes us to see what we would like to see. On the other hand, by realizing that the image we have of a certain person is flawed, we are able to recognize other traits which we may not like (and which we refused to see). It is sometimes difficult to accept reality, but, according to Spinoza (and I agree with him), it is better to face reality, no matter how hard, in order to be able to handle it more successfully. Some of you will say that we live better by not seeing reality in its entirety. Wanting or not wanting to see something is part of life’s choices and all of them are worthy of respect.


The third application: our delusions about groups

The same problem can arise in relation to a cause, a company, a group: sometimes our desire to be accepted by a group prevents us from seeing the reality of the group which is not necessarily as rosy as we think. There may be political games, group rationales.  Sometimes “smooth talkers” influence crowds with illusions that they pass off as truths.

 Sometimes it is easier and simpler to believe in a reality that someone would have us believe in since developing a critical mind is a much more complex process and sometimes becomes a source of loneliness and disappointment. This again is one of life’s choices.



According to Spinoza, if we develop self-awareness, understanding of other people and of situations, while striving to look for a truth that corresponds to reality, we will gain more freedom. Yet, unfortunately, being freer does not necessarily mean being happier, since truth sometimes can hurt.  On the other hand, we will be better equipped to manage a situation because we will gain awareness, as evidenced by Paul’s case. We could also say that in certain situations it is better to get rid of our illusions or partial truths whereas in others it is wiser to hang onto them. It is up to you to choose what you deem best.

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