How Deepest Consciousness Often Means Most Responsibility

By Dr. Keith Witt
October 2, 2023

In many social settings, the person with the deepest consciousness (the most compassionate understanding) has a special responsibility to help things go well. Deeper consciousness generates clearer vision and more mature moral clarity, which both guide us to contribute what we can. This requires courage! Just knowing a way to help without actually helping reminds me of the saying, “Knowledge without action is like no knowledge.” 

For example: Alfred and Jean come to me to discuss problems with Alfred’s mother, Alice, who lives down the street. Alice routinely intrudes into their family life, often making insensitive and insulting comments and demands. This generates arguments between Alfred and Jean and often-ineffectual attempts to deal with Alice. Alfred tends to blame Jean for being offended, since he was conditioned since birth to codependently allow his mother’s impulsive aggression. Both Alfred and Jean are challenged to consider what’s best for themselves, each other, their kids, and Alfred’s mother.

When Alfred and Jean discuss this in session, the therapeutic challenge is for me to first model deeper consciousness by considering ethical demands and the highest good for everyone, and then help them deepen their compassionate understanding to deal with the immediate distressing situations. This involves encouraging them to pair new perspectives of the psychosocial dynamics with a felt responsibility to serve the highest good for everyone, starting with themselves and each other, and then moving progressively into what’s best for their kids and Alice.

Part of what makes cultivating deeper consciousness and felt responsibility difficult is that we are constantly influenced by lots of social drives, most of them unconscious. This can make it confusing to consider more effective views and actions. For instance, setting boundaries for family members we’ve traditionally deferred to (like parents or even adult children) can be challenging.

One social drive we all share compels us to automatically position ourselves in group hierarchies. When we enter a room, we have an automatic instinct to evaluate where we fit into the social hierarchies present. If we perceive we are being treated in a way that doesn’t meet our sense of how we should be treated, we feel emotional protest. This instinct is an involuntary process which we can learn to notice. If we have deep enough consciousness, we can view our social distress and accompanying stories with interest, curious how to serve the highest good right now. This can regulate us out of defensive states where we feel impulses to attack others (that guy is so rude!) or ourselves (I never get the respect I deserve!), and into states of healthy response where we’re genuinely curious as to how to appropriately think and act.

The above social referencing reflex is only one of hundreds of potential triggers to veer instantly into distorted perspectives and destructive impulses. Life presents such triggers every day. Depth of consciousness is having enough of a Wise Self to witness such states, reach for compassionate understanding, and have moral clarity as to what our responsibility is in each situation. This often involves consulting with trusted others—coaches, therapists, ministers, psychics—to find the best way through crises and conflicts.

Much of my work involves helping people who have been triggered into distress, despair, anger, greed, envy, or fear and are suddenly burdened by accompanying negative stories and destructive impulses. In therapy, we explore the dynamics, reach for compassionate understanding, review and refine personal values, and practice assertive actions to deal with specific situations. A principle I refer to often is, “The person with the deepest consciousness has the most responsibility.”

This is particularly tricky with couples who tend to easily trigger each other. Healthy couples get progressively better at regulating emotional triggers into deeper consciousness and caring actions that lead to more trust and intimacy. Unhealthy couples get progressively more sensitized and distrustful as situation after situation ends badly. 

Consider the following two dialogues with a less healthy couple, Jack and Gretchen, and a healthier couple, Sara and Daniel.

Jack and Gretchen

Gretchen to Jack as they are driving home from a dinner party, “You didn’t talk to me or connect with me at all tonight! You just kept talking about outer space with Tim.”

Jack to Gretchen, “Come on! We were talking about the new Hubble images! They are mind blowing! They’re changing how we understand the universe!”

Gretchen to Jack, “You always do this! Every time something bothers me, you have some excuse! I was bored and felt alone tonight. Nobody, including you, asked me anything about me once!”

Jack to Gretchen, “Now I’m pissed off! You’re a grownup, act like it! It’s not my job to baby sit you at parties.”

Gretchen to Jack, “You get so mean when you drink too much—like tonight.”

Jack fires back, “I did not drink too much! Anyway, you’re the one who’s bitching and complaining!”

Sara and Daniel

Sara to Daniel as they are driving home from a dinner party, “You didn’t talk to me or connect with me at all tonight! You just kept talking about outer space with Tim.”

Daniel, noticing a surge of irritation and wanting to explain, but instead reaching for empathy, responds, “I’m sorry! Looking back, you’re right, I mostly ignored you all night! I was so caught up talking to Tim about the consequences of the new Hubble images I forgot about everything else. I know that bothers you and I’m sorry I did it again.”

Sara, somewhat mollified, but still hurt, “That third glass of wine probably didn’t help!”

Daniel laughs, “Oh yeah! You know, I should monitor whether I’m including you, especially when I’m drinking, and notice when I get so tunnel vision that you disappear. You’re right about the third glass. I like when you are part of the conversation and I don’t want to let what happened tonight happen again. I’ll do better next Saturday at Bill’s birthday party.”

Sara smiles. Daniel follows through with intentions like this and she feels validated and loved, “Thanks sweetheart! I know you will.”

Depth of consciousness

Sara and Daniel clearly have more compassionate understanding and healthy options that Jack and Gretchen. This is not random! Sara and Daniel have worked individually and together to feel the inevitable surges of relational irritation and defensiveness and to prioritize immediate self-awareness, other awareness, and repair. Their relationship is getting more intimate and fun as they practice these skills. 

Gretchen and Jack have not done this work. Episodes like this are happening more frequently and intensely, and their relationship is getting more conflicted and despairing, unfortunately leading them towards misery and betrayal.

Depth of consciousness and responsibility

Besides dealing with their own triggers, my clients often find themselves dealing with people—including spouses and family members—who themselves are triggered into destructive states and habits. I encourage each client to feel responsible to reach for compassionate understanding and serve the highest good in every situation. This often involves assertion and boundary setting done kindly and firmly. If your friend/lover/child/parent/coworker/boss/client is acting badly, you have a responsibility to respond in the best way possible. If you have compassionate understanding of yourself and others, you have more options and moral clarity, and thus more choices (response abilities) to deal with most difficult situations.

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