Understanding Organizing Principles

by Rachel Eden January 2, 2019


Cropped shot of women working out with exercise bikes in a exercising class at the gym

C’mon everybody! What are you going to tell yourself to get through the next 90 seconds?” Fidel yells over the loud music. What am I going to tell myself? I have no idea. My mind begins to race as my body fights slowing down. He may be my favorite instructor but his message is not always well-received when my heart rate is at 183 bpm. In the comfort of a seated position, I could listen to Fidel talk about drive, goals and challenges all day long. One of the most inspiring quotes that moves me in Fidel’s classes comes from the Navy SEALs: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. The idea that growth is predicated on discomfort reframes my challenge.

Most of us don’t naturally have a positive attitude toward discomfort – physical or emotional. Robert Stolorow, founder of Intersubjective Analytic Psychotherapy, asserts that people’s “organizing principles” constitute their attitudes toward discomfort.

Organizing principles are the set of beliefs each person has based on how they interpret their experiences. For example, if I believe that no one understands me, and this belief is confirmed by various experiences I have, I will consequently live life feeling isolated and alone. Our unique perspective on the world is individualized by our personal array of organizing principles. These principles shape everything from our politics, relationship patterns, career choices, hopes, fears and dreams.

The sages teach us (Ethics of the Fathers) 48 ways to spiritual empowerment. One way is binat halev – understanding the heart. In order to live an emotionally and spiritually healthy life, we need to seek an understanding of what’s in our hearts – and the hearts of those around us. A great cocktail party trick I learned is to ask people what they do professionally and (regardless of the answer) respond with, “That sounds hard!” The perception that there’s a substantial degree of difficulty in getting through the day is the great equalizer between plumbers, politicians, teachers and doctors. This phenomenon remains true for people who are retired, are in-between jobs, or are staying at home to parent. Taking the time to understand a person’s feelings breaks the ice for strangers and bonds long-time friends.

The Torah portions for the month revolve around the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Pharaoh stubbornly holds the Jews in Egypt despite the first five plagues and then G-d Himself famously hardens Pharaoh’s heart for the last five. This is the only example in our recorded history that G-d takes away the gift of free choice from another person. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes here that evil has two faces: One that is extended to victims and one that is internalized inside the perpetrator. In an ironic turn of events, Pharaoh loses his personal freedom and becomes a slave to his own evil. Sacks points out that we see this with tyrants like Hitler and Stalin as well as tragic figures like Lady Macbeth or Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. People become trapped in an organizing principle that may have rational beginnings but ultimately takes hold and brings about ruination of self (among plenty of other destruction).

When we find ourselves or the people we love experiencing worry, sadness, or anger, the worst response is “it will be fine.” This denies the existence of the organizing principle that’s behind every emotional disturbance. So what is the best response? Stolorow recommends dwelling in the negative feeling and driving organizing principle in order to transform unbearable pain into bearable pain. Our first response to emotional distress is to remove it quickly through medication or various (often unhealthy) escapes. The pain doesn’t go away and we remain stuck in our heartache. Alternatively, embracing pain and seeking understanding is the best way to navigate through a tunnel of emotional suffering.

Seeking to understand and transform our organizing principles is what separated Pharaoh from Moses. While Pharaoh emerged a slave to his own evil after a lifetime of freedom, Moses led an entire nation from slavery to liberation. He did so by facing his original organizing principle that he wasn’t fit to lead. Granted, G-d Himself coached him to shatter this misconception, but Moses had to approach Pharoah. Moses had to prove himself not only to Pharaoh and his advisors but to the Jewish people who had no faith in him! The key to Moses’ success was in his hard-earned new organizing principle that he was the right choice to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. Dissolving our limiting organizing principles is each of our lifework and key to all significant accomplishment from maintaining healthy relationships to running at all-out speed in 90 seconds.


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