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Psychedelics, Personal Constructs, and Leadership: Pathways to Transformational Change

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – Carl Jung.

How well do you truly know yourself? As you navigate the complexities of self-understanding and your own societal, economic, and political realities, you likely wrestle with deep, multifaceted philosophical inquiries: What makes me, me? What is my personal mission? How do I connect with others, nature, and the divine? Unearthing your deepest truths necessitates transformative practices that break down and reassess your self-perceived identity. With psychedelic substances, one can more completely answer these foundational questions. Psychedelics have the capacity to alter personal constructs, reframe existential questions, and unveil avenues for individual and societal metamorphosis.

What Are Your Personal Constructs?

To break down and assess our own personal constructs, we must first define what they are. Personal Construct Theory (PCT) was developed by George Kelly in 1955 as a cognitive theory of personality that emphasizes the active role of individuals in defining and interpreting their world.

At the center of this theory are personal constructs. These are the conceptual tools that people use to understand their lives and relationships and to anticipate future events. Each person develops a set of these unique constructs based on their experiences and interpretations of the world.

Personal constructs are bipolar dimensions of appraisal, meaning they consist of two opposite characteristics or traits. For example, a personal construct could be “good vs. bad”, “self v. other”, “competition v. collaboration”, “ownership v. sharing”, “material v. spiritual”, etc.

Kelly believed that our personality and behavior could be predicted by understanding these personal constructs. A fundamental principle in PCT is the concept of “anticipatory reality”. Kelly’s theory asserts that individuals don’t merely respond to the present, but also forecast future events through the prism of their own personal constructs. This means that adjusting one’s constructs can alter their future anticipation, consequently influencing their future behavior.

For instance, within the “competition versus collaboration” construct, leaders could begin prioritizing collaboration and mutual growth over solitary competition. This perspective shift can influence strategic decisions and encourage businesses to recognize themselves as part of an interconnected ecosystem rather than singular, profit-driven entities designed solely to benefit shareholders.

To delve deeper into your own personal constructs, refer to the exercise at the end of this article.

Once you work through the provided exercise you will see firsthand that remodeling your ingrained constructs is not easy. Why? Because they are subconscious. Your personal constructs develop from your innate traits and unique life experiences, shaped by your upbringing, social and cultural environments, personal experiences, as well as cognitive and emotional patterns. These automatic mental shortcuts aid us in navigating complex social interactions and environments without the need for conscious processing.

We learn to prioritize and value information that aligns with our existing beliefs and ideas, often overlooking or discrediting information that contradicts them. Altering deeply ingrained fundamental beliefs about ourselves and the world can be scary and unsettling, potentially requiring significant mental and emotional work.

However, even though they are hard to change, personal constructs are not immutable. Through transformative experiences, such as those facilitated by psychedelics, we can shift these constructs and subsequently alter how we perceive and interact with the world.

Case Study: Human v. Nature Construct

From the advent of civilization, our relationship with nature has been framed by a struggle for survival and dominion. The forces of nature were initially perceived as threats – harsh winters, wild animals, or catastrophic natural events. Over time, humans developed technologies and systems aimed at shielding us from the uncertainties of the natural world and ensuring our survival. This began a narrative of dominance, control, and extraction, viewing nature as an adversary to be conquered or as a resource to be exploited.

This narrative has shaped our personal constructs and societal norms around the human-nature relationship. Forests became timber for homes, animals became food for consumption, rivers were redirected for irrigation, and mountains were mined for their minerals. Nature, in this construct, is valued primarily for its utility to human needs and desires.

The Industrial Revolution further entrenched this viewpoint, with rapid advancements in technology allowing us to harness and transform natural resources on an unprecedented scale. This led to the acceleration of environmental exploitation, often with little regard for the long-term ecological consequences.

Our legal and economic systems also reflect this construct. Property rights, for instance, reinforce the idea of nature as an object owned and controlled by humans. Similarly, our economic models often treat nature as an ‘externality’ – something outside the system that can be freely used or impacted without cost.

However, this construct is increasingly being questioned and challenged. The emergence of environmental crises, from climate change to biodiversity loss, underscores the consequences of viewing nature as a resource to be exploited. Movements like “Rights of Nature” represent efforts to redefine this relationship, proposing a new construct in which nature is seen as a rights-bearing entity, deserving of respect and protection. This movement aims to use legal processes to recognize and protect the rights of nature by shifting the legal status of the natural world from that of property to its own legally protected entity, giving natural entities (e.g., rivers, forests, and species) more robust legal protections.

The fundamental rights of nature require a shift in how we perceive the human-nature relationship. It asks us to see ourselves not as separate from or superior to nature, but as an interconnected part of the natural world. This view respects the intrinsic value of nature, independent of its utility to humans. It recognizes that just as humans have rights that protect their interests, so too should nature have rights that protect its existence, health, and diversity.

Leveraging Psychedelics to Shift Personal Constructs

The essence of psychedelic leadership lies in its ability to shift our understanding of our place in relation to each other, on our planet, and in the universe. It fundamentally challenges our traditional frames of reality and what we think we know to be true. By disrupting established mental patterns and provoking novel perspectives, psychedelics open up possibilities for reevaluating long-held beliefs and assumptions. Such a shift does more than merely transform our internal perceptions; it can radically reshape our societal values and, consequently, our collective behaviors.

Psychedelics’ potential to alter perception can instigate a shift in our perception of “self” and “other”. These experiences evoke a profound sense of interconnectedness with fellow humans, nature, and the wider universe. This realization may give rise to a more compassionate, empathetic, and inclusive worldview, fostering values of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation.

As just one example, research shows that psychedelics can help catalyze a shift in our individual human v. nature construct. Let’s explore how.  

The initial flourishing of Western psychedelic culture in the 1960s corresponded with a swift expansion in the environmental movement, suggesting a relationship between psychedelic usage and modern ecological initiatives. In alignment with this historical and cultural parallel, several contemporary studies have identified a correlation between psychedelic use and significant, lasting enhancements in individuals’ feelings of connection or relation to nature. (See references 1-3 below)

Research has indicated that individuals who use classic psychedelics tend to express a greater environmental concern in their values and beliefs. (See notes 3, 7 and 8 below). A survey conducted among 150 psychedelic users indicated a universal increase in their connection with nature following their psychedelic experiences. Furthermore, two-thirds of respondents acknowledged an enhanced concern for the environment, with over half noting a positive change in their eco-conscious behaviors. Notably, 16% even pivoted careers towards more environmentally-focused roles. Psilocybin mushrooms (as compared with other psychedelic medicines) were most commonly linked with an increased affinity for nature and environmental concern. In a consolidated analysis of eight studies, 38% of participants reported lasting positive changes in their relationship to the environment months after their psilocybin experiences.

When individuals perceive a disconnect from nature and do not include it as part of their lived experiences, they may find it challenging to appreciate and protect the environment. A sense of estrangement from the natural world, experienced by many, could be driving both environmentally harmful actions and personal dissatisfaction.

This is the shift that happens during the psychedelic experience. The desire for advocacy and protection is a result of an amplified connection with the natural world that happens in the experience itself. This is more than an intellectual awakening; it is a profound emotional bond that pulsates with life. Our connection to the environment is no longer based on distant threats reported by media or buried within the complex vernacular of scientists. Instead, it springs from a direct, heartfelt experience. This immersion in a reality where we viscerally feel our connection to the Earth infuses us with a compelling sense of responsibility and care. The abstract transforms into the intimate, and the intellectual understanding blossoms into an embodied reality, giving rise to a potent and transformative personal call to stewardship.

Drawing on my personal journey, I recently bore witness to an extraordinary experience with psilocybin. It was during this transcendental encounter that I felt an overwhelming surge of empathy and sorrow for Mother Earth.

In that infinite moment, I became deeply aware of her nurturing spirit, her limitless love that envelopes us, as well as her disappointment in how she is treated. I experienced her strength, her vitality, and paradoxically, her vulnerability. Unexpectantly, I felt the full weight of her grief and her simmering rage. A torrent of emotion overwhelmed me and I found myself dissolving into tears.

It was as if I were in tune with the Earth’s breath – an ethereal connection that transcends conventional understanding. I felt the palpitations of the ground, resonating with her rhythm, a gentle ebb and flow that echoed under me. This powerful pulsation, akin to a silent whisper of the planet, was a testament to her living essence. Each inhalation was a manifestation of life’s vibrancy; each exhalation was an affirmation of relentless resilience.

The experience was heartbreaking yet enlightening, shaking me to my core yet filling me with a profound understanding of the bond we share with our planet. It was a poignant reminder of the interconnectedness of all life forms, of our collective responsibility to safeguard our celestial home, and the urgency of mending our strained relationship with her.

It’s critical to acknowledge that the potent benefits of strengthening our connection to nature extend beyond systemic and political reforms. There is a robust body of evidence that underlines the integral role of nature exposure in individual well-being and optimal health. For instance, a comprehensive meta-analysis of 143 studies, engaging a staggering 290 million participants across 20 countries, revealed that nature engagement was correlated with an impressive array of health advantages.

We must bear in mind that our quest to mend our business and societal structures begins with self-healing. When we recognize the necessity of healing ourselves, it becomes evident how invaluable these insights truly are. Being in nature doesn’t merely offer a respite from the artificiality of our constructed environments, it accelerates an internal restoration process, the ripples of which can touch every aspect of our personal and societal lives.

Business Leadership

Leaders who have undergone such transformation might also begin to view their organizations less as profit-generating machines and more as living, evolving entities, contributing to the betterment of society. They may aspire to foster a culture that values shared purpose and collective thriving over competition and individual gain.

Moreover, the spiritual dimension of the psychedelic experience often gives rise to a deepened sense of purpose and meaning. Leaders guided by this purpose shift the underlying assumptions that govern our capitalist structure. So, psychedelic leadership could potentially pave the way for a more conscious and sustainable economic model. This new model might prioritize mutual growth and societal well-being over unchecked competition and exploitation, fostering a healthier and more balanced relationship with our planet.

Closing Thoughts

The potential of psychedelics to reshape personal constructs and subsequently transform leadership values and behaviors represents a bold frontier for societal change. By prompting us to question our conventional understandings of reality, life, ownership, and success, these substances offer a gateway to a more empathetic, inclusive, and purpose-driven world. As we grapple with increasingly complex global challenges, the insights and transformations brought about by psychedelic leadership may be key to unlocking a more sustainable and harmonious future.

Personal Construct Self-Reflection Exercise:

This exercise assists in uncovering personal constructs that shape your perceptions and behaviors, particularly in leadership and broader societal contexts. By dissecting these constructs, you gain the power to reshape them in ways that align with your growth and the values you wish to promote in your leadership and business practices. This exploration is a journey, so approach it with patience and openness.

  1. Identify Elements: Start by thinking about different people in your life who have had a significant influence on you. These could be family members, friends, colleagues, mentors, or even public figures you admire.
  2. Pairwise Comparison: Choose two of these people at a time and think about how they are similar to each other and how they are different. For example, compare ‘your best friend’ and ‘a mentor’. Write down your thoughts.
  3. Construct Elicitation: The similarities and differences you identify form your personal constructs. For example, you might say your best friend is ‘nurturing’ while your mentor is ‘challenging’. This gives you a personal construct of ‘nurturing vs. challenging’.
  4. Construct Examination: Now, examine this construct. Does it help or hinder you? Does it accurately represent your experiences? Can it cause conflict in different areas of your life? For example, if you always see nurturing as positive and challenging as negative, it might be difficult for you to accept constructive criticism or engage in self-improvement. How does this construct impact your broader views of society, social norms, economics, and the purpose of business?
  5. Construct Exploration: Explore other areas of your life where this construct shows up. Does it influence your behaviour or decisions in those areas? Is this influence helpful or unhelpful?
  6. Reconstruction: Based on your exploration, consider whether you need to modify this construct. For instance, instead of seeing ‘nurturing and challenging’ as opposites, you might choose to see them as two aspects of care that people can show you.
  7. Continue: Repeat this process with different pairs of people to explore more of your personal constructs.

While introspection and discourse offer us valuable tools to explore and understand our personal constructs, transformation often requires a more profound, experiential shift. Psychedelics, with their potential to immerse us in alternative realities, serve as powerful catalysts for such a change. They allow us to feel and embody different perspectives, not just as intellectual concepts but as lived experiences. This felt understanding can ground and solidify our commitment to change, turning abstract thoughts into tangible shifts in perception and behavior, fostering a truly embodied transformation.

To explore your nature-relatedness construct specifically, consider taking the short-form version of the nature-relatedness scale (NR-6) developed by Elizabeth Nisbet and John Zelenski. The instructions for the test can be found in Appendix A of The NR-6: A New Brief Measure of Nature Relatedness. The questions ask you to consider the scale of how important nature is to who you are and how connected you are to all living things and the Earth.  

Note: Advocacy for Psychedelic Leadership does not constitute an endorsement of illegal drug use. Rather, it acknowledges the profound insights these experiences can yield when responsibly and legally engaged under the supervision of trained professionals. But, the legal framework is changing rapidly.

Disclaimer: The use of psychedelics is illegal in many regions of the world and carries serious psychological and physical risks. This article neither endorses nor encourages illegal activities or the use of substances without proper medical supervision and a comprehensive understanding of the potential risks involved. Always consult with a healthcare professional.

Additional References:

  1. Kettner, H., Gandy, S., Haijen, E. C. H. M., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2019). From egoism to ecoism: Psychedelics increase nature relatedness in a state-mediated and context-dependent manner. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24), 5147.
  2. Lyons T., Carhart-Harris R.L. Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. J. Psychopharmacol. 2018;32:811–819. doi: 10.1177/0269881117748902.
  3. Forstmann, M., & Sagioglou, C. (2017). Lifetime experience with (classic) psychedelics predicts pro-environmental behavior through an increase in nature relatedness. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 31(8), 975-988.
  4. Twohig-Bennett C., Jones A. The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environ. Res. 2018;166:628–637. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030.
  5. Watts R., Day C., Krzanowski J., Nutt D., Carhart-Harris R. Patients’ accounts of increased “connectedness” and “acceptance” after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. J. Humanist. Psychol. 2017;57:520–564. doi: 10.1177/0022167817709585. 
  6. Carhart-Harris R.L., Erritzoe D., Haijen E., Kaelen M., Watts R. Psychedelics and connectedness. Psychopharmacology. 2018;235:547–550. doi: 10.1007/s00213-017-4701-y.
  7. Lerner M., Lyvers M. Values and beliefs of psychedelic drug users: A cross-cultural study. J. Psychoact. Drugs. 2006;38:143–147. doi: 10.1080/02791072.2006.10399838. 
  8. Studerus E., Kometer M., Hasler F., Vollenweider F.X. Acute, subacute and long-term subjective effects of psilocybin in healthy humans: A pooled analysis of experimental studies. J. Psychopharmacol. 2011;25:1434–1452. doi: 10.1177/0269881110382466.