How would you describe yourself?
How do you usually talk about yourself?
Do you feel like you are the writer of your own narrative?
Who are you?
We all stand on a balance of being perceived and perceiving, of having
a visible and owning an invisible part, and of having control over and
being controlled by. It is amongst all this that we can find the nebulous
definition of who we are, what Locke calls “the sameness of a rational
In view of this, we are both passengers and conductors of our narrative. So how do we drive this narrative forward, is it possible to have more agency in it than we currently have. And if we are our narrative can we, as the narrative, choose another narrative without self-annihilation.
Metacognition can be dizzying.
I’ve previously discussed the topic of what we are and now I’d like to focus on the self, its formation, its transformation, and its actualization.
Who one is, over time, is created by the amalgamation of the historical events, physical aspects, and external and internal reflections, that get incorporated into one’s identity. The self is this element that sits in the middle, taking in and taking out, what makes sense to us and for us.
From an external point of view, we could define ourselves in reaction to
the roles we play for others, the way we interact with them, eventually
adjusting our selves to the labels we’ve been given or have chosen.
It is helpful to have others act as calibration to our internal system when we have nothing else to base our definition unto, especially when we are starting with our self exploration in teenage years. We aren’t brains in a vat, a self doesn’t exist without a world. Yet, if we overly emphasize on this sort of self definition, the other becomes our worse nightmare and our only way of finding meaning and salvation. It leads to interpreting the world with a heavy filter, and judge it the way we think it judges us, harshly, and frequently inaccurately, because it is shaped by our individual self-concept and personal biases. This is what we call metaperception, the idea we have of how other people’s view of us.
Metaperception can be destructive if not handled properly. For instance,
someone who fixates on it may act in a self-centered way, imagining
that everyone is watching and evaluating their every move, that they
are the center of social interaction. They’ll shut themselves, limit
their spontaneity, and have an increasingly fragile ego. All the while,
not considering the unbridgeable gap that exists between selves.
Being overwhelmed by the other makes it difficult to accept criticism, to interpret someone else’s response; everything becomes emotionally charged in a frenzied uncontrollable internal state.
From an internal point of view, we could define ourselves as the main
character of our lives, the maker of the story. We could move in the
world in relation to what we perceive we’re doing to it.
We are our own persons, with our own choices, so why not make the world what we want of it. Yet, if we overly emphasize on this sort of self definition, we become an actor, the protagonist, reading the main script, trying to get the center of the stage, while everyone around plays a minor role. It leads to clashes in narratives, cognitive dissonance, an illusion of superiority, and an egocentric bias. Just like over-metaperception creates lenses, the self-made-story does too. We cannot deny that, by analogical thinking, others exist and that they have their own selves.
Therefore, that’s where the balance lies: knowing that we can be the masters
of our destinies, and knowing we are creatures living in a limited social
and physical world.
How do we learn to be comfortable with the ambiguity of the self/other boundary and get a better life experience. Why and how do we change our selves.
Change is hard. It’s an arduous task we’d rather let happen
by itself gradually, let it pass by, barely noticing it after it has
happened. Unfortunately, life is riddled with issues and dissatisfactions.
At first, we may pretend they are benign, non-existent, trivial. We dismiss them and move on to do activities that take our focus away from them…
Until they are not trivial anymore, until our behavioral pattern becomes destructive, until they become unmanageable, until we become intimately aware of them.
Then a realization emerges: Those problems are created by our sense of self, they are the product of our definition, part of the narrative. Rejecting them would mean rejecting one self. And this is what we do, we build immunity to change, we protect our self consistence, we cocoon ourselves away from the unknown changes. This is what we are, and we feel stuck with it.
The years pass by and nothing seems to change. — Henry David Thoreau
Gradually, we may build constant feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and regret. Desperate for change we see as unattainable, seeing everything as an unfulfilling experience. Are we to forever remain haunted by what might have been?
To cope with such emotions, we could rely on our old friend: self-suppressive escapism. Namely, anything that is numbing, numbing to the critical evaluation of the self, a cognitive narrowing, a cognitive detachment from the disturbing elements of the self. All of this being the easiest way to avoid the source of despair. Moreover, in themselves, these kinds of actions could be blamed for our current state. We can blame our inability to take productive actions to change on our anxiety, depression, fear, or lack of confidence in our abilities. Additionally, we may even believe that we have to first get rid of such feelings before moving on to change, we’ll try meditation and introspection. Or we may believe that we’ve wasted too much time, that it’s too late, and be overwhelmed by intense feelings of guilt and regret. However, the negative emotions are not the results of those, but they are inherent to the way we define ourselves and our fear of change.
Any obstruction of the natural processes of development …or getting stuck on a level unsuited to one’s age, takes its revenge, if not immediately, then later at the onset of the second half of life, in the form of serious crises, nervous breakdowns, and all manner of physical and psychic sufferings. Mostly they are accompanied by vague feelings of guilt, by tormenting pangs of conscience, often not understood, in face of which the individual is helpless. He knows he is not guilty of any bad deed, he has not given way to an illicit impulse, and yet he is plagued by uncertainty, discontent, despair, and above all by anxiety — a constant, indefinable anxiety. And in truth he must usually be pronounced “guilty”. His guilt does not lie in the fact that he has a neurosis, but in the fact that, knowing he has one, he does nothing to set about curing it. — Jolande Jacobi, The Way of Individuation
We cannot change anything unless we accept it. — Carl Jung
Thus, we should find the courage to tackle personal growth. If we don’t accept what has been, we can’t move to what will be. The feelings of dissatisfaction should be the catalyst of change, they should be welcomed as stimuli in the struggle for the development of personality.
Neurotic symptoms such as these are a direct result of an inadequate approach to life and act as signals communicating the necessity of change. — Carl Jung
Small changes are great and cumulate but when we’ve reached a point
where each step forward gets repelled by all our insecurities, we need
more assurance, we need to know which sort of exact self-induced changes
are the most useful.
And this is what we need to do, we need to break our immunity to change, we need to remove the shield of our self consistence, we need to face the unknown changes right on. This is the step where we need to take the courage to sacrifice our selves to be reborn.
Sacrifice always means the renunciation of a valuable part of oneself, and through it the sacrificer escapes being devoured. Difficult but necessary step to abandon an aspect of ourselves in order to pave the way for the emergence of the new. The sacrifice is critical in the process of rebirth because what keeps us locked in our problem is the inability to recognize that ways of life that served us in our past may morph from promoters of our well-being to the acute cause of our suffering. — Carl Jung
… The dying of one attitude or need may be the other side of the birth of something new. One can choose to kill a neurotic strategy, a dependency, a clinging, and then find that he can choose to live as a freer self… A “dying” of part of one’s self is often followed by a heightened awareness of self, a heightened sense of possibility. — Rollo May
Unsurprisingly, any sudden unnatural change involves risks, especially when already deep into the abyss. Such change may lead to disorder if, by removing part of ourselves, we have nothing else to fill it with. This may take us to the path of chaos and psychological breakdown.
[This] …is similar in principle to a psychotic disturbance; that is, it differs from the initial stage of mental illness only by the fact that it leads in the end to greater health, while the latter leads to yet greater destruction. — Carl Jung
Enters a labyrinth, and multiplies a thousandfold the dangers that life in itself brings with it — of which not the least is that nobody can see how and where he loses his way, becomes solitary, and is torn to pieces by some cave-Minotaur of conscience. — Nietzsche
So now that we’re aware of our situation and have the courage to leap and let ourselves go, how do we direct the change and get out of the loop we’re currently stuck in, how do we stop being an immovable pillar of the past.
Just like we’ve accepted that parts of the self can be sacrificed, we
have to accept its ambiguity and its chaotic nature. Accept that there’s
a world within us that we may not currently understand, that there’s a
depth in each of us that remains to be discovered. We have to be aware
of the reality of our psyche.
Indeed, a lot of the reasons why it remains hidden are related to the self-suppression we externally exert on elements of our personality that we think run counter to the moral system of our days. We are blinded by the unquestioned social beliefs and standards.
All psychology so far has got hung up on moral prejudices and fears: it has not dared to descend into the depths. — Nietzsche
Similarly, how can we know ourselves if we are actors in a play, wearer
of the masks of society. How can we know ourselves if all we strive for
is fake-perfectionism, a fetishism for perfection and a repulsion for
anything that isn’t. Perfection hinders our development.
Consequentially, we have to accept that perfection is not a thing to aim for, that it is non-existent. Because how can one know what perfection is if it is not complete to begin with.
One should never think that man can reach perfection, he can only aim at completion — not to be perfect but to be complete. That would be the necessity and the indispensable condition if there were only question of perfection at all. For how can you perfect a thing if it is not complete?
Make it complete first and see what it is then. But to make it complete is already a mountain of a task, and by the time you arrive at absolute completion, you find that you are already dead, so you never read that preliminary condition for perfecting yourself. — Carl Jung
Completeness means grasping the wholeness of the self, the inner
foundation of one’s mind, how to impose form and harmony on the chaos
that is the totality of the self. We are chaos.
We are composed of a multitude, and we need to make those emerge, to bring the parts to light. As much as we dig, as much as the elements of consciousness become apparent. We should do all we can to promote this growth, we should be heroes and explorers of the chaos not passive observers that are controlled by its forces. The myriads of chunks are then seen from afar, for what they are, none taking authority on the whole.
Just like the body is coordinated, there can be a master to the chaos of the mind. We can have an organizing idea that drives the rest. But what is this drive, how do we cultivate it, how can we muster its power to train the body it’s composed of.
If we keep experimenting and spend time bringing forward the chaotic
parts to understand them, it becomes clear. Our drives don’t come out
of thin air. Analogically to the reframing of the definition of the self,
we can reframe our connection to space and time.
We are part of our history, our dreams, our will of achievements, our unconscious thoughts, our past cultures, our institutions, our traditions, our physical predispositions, our limits, our sense of imminent death, and our primitive drives, all constitute our location in space-time. Those are also expressions of our personal and collective unconscious. Altogether, those create a common symbolic language, archetypes, universal elements, original forms that are part of the specification of human nature.
When one becomes conscious of their link with archetypes, they gain knowledge of the timeless “pattern of human life”, it provides a link with humanity. Additionally, this type of learning dissolves the feeling that everything is absurd and provides a sense of being rooted.
Considering this, we need to actively learn about basic prehistorical drives and how we can take power over them, we need to learn about history and how it repeats itself, we need to be familiar with the vestiges of the past, feel them flow within us instead of being ashamed and repressing them. The ruling passion should drive it all, sculpting our own heroic meaning to life.
For that, we can choose to study examples of archetypes, anyone and
anything that we find excels in life, be it an imaginary being or
not. Like an artist, we can be active makers, using the same method that
gave birth to our self in the first place: imitation and emulation of the
others. We can create a second self based on traits, characteristics,
and how they handle adversity and challenges, of a role model while
still respecting what we know we can’t change in ourselves, our innate
strength and weaknesses.
This mechanism, of having an alter-ego archetype as a feedback mechanism that we slowly dissolve into, makes escapism easier and directed. Instead of reaching for the numbing actions we should reach for the second self we’ve created. Importantly keeping in mind that one of those numbing action is to divulge to others that we are simple “acting it out”, informing others would only be a sign of the anxiety we are having when facing this novel situation and that we are looking for the recalibration of our social norms via the others.
We should not pretend, we should act as if we already were and remind ourselves constantly, when we fall back to our old habits, that the past was the actual acting and that the present is the reality.
All of this until we engender the shift in our mindset. We’ll finally
be a new self, looking above the previous one from a distance. It’s only
by taking a distance that we can understand the whole.
Thus, we can continue on our self discovery, peeling more and more, revealing potential we didn’t know we had. At this point we can rediscover our internal and external worlds like never before. Introspection, retrospection, discussion, connection of the minds, these take on a different perspective: what we call psychological mindedness.
The field of developmental psychology has been enamored with such encapsulated form of growth, subject/object, the one where, as you move along, the previous self becomes the object of the current self or where you radically change your perspective on life. For instance, Abraham Maslow, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Robert Kegan, are psychologists that used such methods to convey cognitive and personality development.
Maslow talks about self-actualization, “man’s tendency to
actualize himself, to become his potentialities”, “the desire for
self-fulfillment”. This can be achieved by having something to aim at,
not for external rewards or achievement of the goal but rather because
the transformation of the self forces us to do it. The type of behavior
that requires self-discipline, skills, and that is constructive.
Piaget and Kegan focus on the subject-object and inter-relation when it comes to defining the self. Giving a sense to the self in a world that is nebulous and has roots in history.
Erikson prefers to emphasize what is important at every stage of life, the “ego identities”, from childhood to senior years, all together encompassing a stable self. Putting in perspective our common humanity.
Finally, maybe eventually, with all this, we can know who we are and how to describe ourselves.
- Gianni Crestani / CC0
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