12/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Living With Meaning: Look At Yourself From A Distance

The ad in a London newspaper read, "Unemployed. Brilliant mind offers its services completely free; the survival of the body must be provided for by adequate salary." The world-renown psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, quoted this ad in his book, The Doctor and the Soul, to make an important point about the different ways that people may respond to being unemployed. To be sure, Dr. Frankl was not in any way suggesting that unemployment is not a serious matter; on the contrary, he emphasizes that being unemployed is a "tragedy because a job is the only source of livelihood for most people." By the same token, this newspaper ad reflects the fact that not all unemployed people experience an inner emptiness to being unoccupied or to feelings that they must be useless.

First of all, the fact that we do not have work in the form of a paid job does not mean that life itself has no meaning for us. Second, our attitude toward any situation, including unemployment and other major life challenges, frames our ability and willingness to respond in a responsible manner. As you can see, the person who placed the ad in the London newspaper turned a dire situation into something humorous because she was able to put some distance between herself and the issue at hand. She was able to look at herself from a distance as well which, among other things, allowed her to find meaning in her plight and take appropriate action to remedy her situation. Indeed, even the text of the newspaper ad reflects both her sense of humor and her innate, distinctly human, capacity to look at herself in a detached way and rise above her predicament.

I have already introduced you to four principles explored in my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, which was written at Dr. Frankl's personal urging and with his support: "Exercise the Freedom to Choose Your Attitude"; "Realize Your Will to Meaning"; "Detect the Meaning of Life's Moments"; and "Don"t Work Against Yourself." If you missed any of these posts, or if you would like or need a refresher, please take the time to review them. I am sure that you will benefit from the review as we move on to the fifth meaning-centered principle, "Look at Yourself from a Distance," which is based on the concept of Self-Detachment.

You might be interested to know that I was prompted to introduce the concept of Self-Detachment at this particular time as I was responding to a question about how best to deal with "crises" in our lives--an issue that I discussed in last week's post, Can You Deal with Life's "Crises"? In this regard, I was asked for my thoughts about "staying in the moment" when dealing with life's crises. For the most part, I must say that I agree with the need to feel and process our feelings while we're in the midst of such crisis moments. This said, I also believe that there are times when remaining "in the moment" does not serve our highest good and may not even be effective during our moment of need.

My mentor, Viktor Frankl, who was a survivor of four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, during World War II, believed that, if there is one thing that distinguishes our "human-ness," it's our sense of humor. Indeed, Dr. Frankl viewed our sense of humor as evidence of our unique ability to "self-detach," that is, look at ourselves from a distance. In this regard, we all know dogs who smile--but they don't burst out laughing, especially at themselves, when they forget for the umpteenth time where they buried their latest bone! Humor about ourselves represents the essence of self-detachment, especially when the joke is on us. It tells us, and anyone within earshot, that we aren't taking ourselves so seriously--and isn't that a relief?! Our human ability to laugh at ourselves takes the edge off every serious life and work situation; and every serious life and work situation deserves, and needs, a dose of humor. (The late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, aka "I don't get no respect," made a successful career practicing self-detachment with lines like, "My wife and I were happy for 26 years; then we met.")

A sense of humor, moreover, is usually accompanied by cheerfulness. This is another one of those misleading words. Most cheerful people I know have experienced real tragedy in their lives. When tragedy strikes, it takes us to the depths of our grief. Going through grief gets us to cheerfulness. When we know how bad it can be, we find out, as the actor Jack Nicholson would say, "how good it can get." Indeed, a moment of humor at the right time can lift us out of our self-imposed misery faster than anything else. When we detach ourselves from ourselves and our situation, we don't diminish or marginalize the circumstances, we go beyond them. We can see, feel, and appreciate ourselves as separate from the distress. We don't deny; we accept and rise above.

It is important to distinguish between self-detachment and denial. When we detach, we do so knowingly and with an orientation toward action. We understand our predicament and choose to behave in a way that supports our relationship with others. We might share our burden; we might not. But we know what it is and we know what we are doing. On the other hand, denial separates us from our experience and the benefits that can be derived from it. And, when we deny our own experience, we deny the experience of others. Denial leads to disconnection. Self-detachment, on the other hand, leads to connection, learning, and growth.

In the final analysis, of course, self-detachment is not about detachment at all. While it certainly has been proven to be an effective tool for coping with a wide range of situations, including crises, predicaments, and hardships from which we cannot escape, its ultimate value lies in the unlimited potential for bringing wholeness and authentic meaning to life. To summon the power of self-detachment and tap into this unique human potential, however, requires both freedom of thought and a will to meaning. And we can only fulfill these requirements if we are not "prisoners of our thoughts."

Note: For more about the concept and technique of self-detachment, including practical applications, see Chapter 8, "Look at Yourself from a Distance," in my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts. And, of course, if you have any questions to ask, or thoughts and/or experiences to share, please do so!


You can find out more about Dr. Alex Pattakos, author of the international bestselling book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl's Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, in his HuffPost Bio and at Contact Alex at:

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