Why We Don’t Always Know Ourselves and Why That’s a Good Thing

Some of my best friends don’t know themselves well. Moreover, there is often value in not knowing. Nonetheless, both those with lots of self-awareness and those without tend to overrate their knowledge of “who they are.”

We humans benefit from believing our march through life is an honorable endeavor. Most of us stop at red lights, let pedestrians cross, and smile when a stranger says hello.

Few take glee in admitting they’ve harmed others, broken rules undercover, and spoken untruth. We prefer to believe we deserve whatever we’ve achieved, rather than attributing our triumphs to cheating.

When a man acts beneath his best, he tends to justify his actions. Sometimes the reason he gives to himself is loyalty. At other times his sense of unfairness justifies employing the identical ruthless tactics the enemy uses against him.

Another category of rationalization includes survival in a competitive world. If you work in a dark-sided corporate or political culture, continued employment might demand persuading yourself, “this is just the way things are done.”

All of us travel through an imperfect world of flawed inhabitants, not an idealistic one. As we grow up, experience reveals the best man doesn’t always win, power and money increase mating opportunities, and who you know sometimes trumps what you know.

The adaptation to conditions “as they are” can evoke less than saintly behavior.

You might wonder why we possess this readiness to violate the messages we hope our kids learn in their religious education. In part, we must credit our resourceful ancestors.

In wartime, periods of scarcity, or episodes of other physical dangers, they used all their know-how and ingenuity to survive. Sometimes deception saved a life, as did theft when their child or tribe confronted famine. Strength, smarts, and strategy, along with viciousness, defeated enemies.

Can you imagine your chances if you lacked any motivation to act in your own interest? Two-thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish sage, raised this issue and more:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I?

A too accurate peek at our mirror image allows uncomfortable truths concerning ourselves and our beloved social circle.

Every successful marriage, for example, values the spouse for more than what he is. A loss of trust might follow from full recognition of the worst in those around us, forcing a crippling exaggeration of danger.

The magnification of personal defects also creates a frightful sight. Without psychological shielding, the soul is brought to its knees. One’s life might be reinterpreted as a fraud. How could we function in the world without a few of the lies told by ourselves to ourselves?

With a built-in capacity for at least a bit of self-deception, we face away from weaknesses like an unbridled penchant for antagonism or the avoidance of confrontation. Many of us project our shaded motives and dispositions on those different from us in race, religion, or politics.

Blindness to our situation frequently leads to emotional pain and poor choices. When the discomfort becomes considerable, therapists are consulted. The unveiling of revelations, however, must involve a gradual and careful process. The therapist shouldn’t disarm us by obliterating the beliefs on which we lean.

As Marshall Greene wrote in 1997, defenses help “the patient ward off disturbing feelings such as anxiety, anger, disgust, depression, envy, jealousy, guilt and shame.”

Counselors grasp this. Each of them encounters a phenomenon called “resistance in the service of the ego.” The psychologist takes care not to approach the client as though his mind is a walnut requiring a hammer blow to crack it.

The ache of past hurts, as well as the stark and startling acknowledgment of character limitations, can sink the patient before he learns to swim. Clients must float before the internal uncovering strips him of defensive buoyancy and his long-established tool kit of life skills.

The ancient Greek Temple of Apollo included the inscription “Know thyself” in its forecourt. Perhaps the designer should have considered a safer alternative:

“Know thyself (but not too much)”

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The first image comes from an unknown Google source. The second is the work of Loveteamin. Finally, Barlow in Hiding is the work of Andrew Smith. The last two pictures are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

If you are interested in powerful theatrical representations of families with an uncomfortable relationship with the truth of who they are, you might read or watch Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

On the Elusiveness of Vindication (and How Special It is When It Happens)

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I suspect there is hardly anyone among us who has not hoped that the person who broke our heart would come back to us, see the light, apologize, and say:

You know what? I was wrong. I didn’t give you a chance. I should have. You deserved better treatment than you received from me. It was unfair of me to blame you as I did, not to see how good you are.  I hope that you will forgive me and we can start over.

Vindication can take a number of forms. It might involve being reinstated to a position you lost unfairly, being exonerated of a crime you were alleged to have (or convicted of having) committed, receiving a belated medal for acts of courage performed in combat, or having a parent apologize for abusive or neglectful mistreatment.

There is only one problem.

When the injury is great, these things almost never happen. Or, if they do, they come much too late. Think about the occasional news story that documents the exoneration of someone who had been wrongly imprisoned after years behind bars, now finally permitted to return to civilian life. Or the long-denied medal for heroic service to one’s country in an almost forgotten war, awarded to a man now aged or perhaps deceased, and therefore only a posthumous recipient of the honor.

Perhaps even rarer is the parent who apologizes for child abuse. First, such people rarely acknowledge the extent of what they have done. And, to the degree that there is any recognition or admission of  mistreatment of their child, it is nearly always minimized on the one hand, and justified on the other; justified, usually by the child’s alleged misbehavior or provocation.

By the time the parents in question are senior citizens, the fog of time and self-deception has clouded and distorted their memory. Moreover, were they to admit (even to themselves) what they had done, they would almost certainly be shattered and humbled by that self-awareness; and left with the fact that there would be no way to make up for the lost time and the pain they inflicted – not enough of a future available to redeem the sorry state of the past and remove the stain on their conscience.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that they do not admit their errors even when confronted – in effect cannot do so psychologically without jeopardizing their ability to live with any measure of equanimity.

My wife likes to say that her favorite punishment for such people would be one minute of self-awareness. Unfortunately, they are the least likely among us to achieve this kind of insight.

A useful book to read on the subject is Frauen by Alison Owings. Owings interviewed numerous German women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. She observed the extent to which self-deception, rationalization, and denial were present as they looked back upon what they claimed they knew or witnessed (or didn’t know), and what they did or didn’t do in response to the mistreatment and murder of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis.

Beyond the individual level, even nations have a problem admitting that wrong has been done in their name. Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of the twentieth century’s second decade, while Austria and France have historically skirted their participation in the Holocaust, preferring to be considered co-victims with other sufferers of Germany’s misdeeds.

And, it was not until 1988, that the United States formally apologized for the 1942 forced internment of Pacific Coast residents of the USA, solely because they were of Japanese decent, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of those people, 62% were US citizens.

While none of what I’ve described thus far permits a very optimistic take on human nature, I do want to relate one very beautiful story I heard from a former patient on this subject. It stands out because it demonstrates that obtaining personal vindication does happen every so often, and can produce any enormously healing experience for both parties involved. I’ve changed the circumstances of the story to disguise the identity of my patient, but I think you will get the idea.

The young woman in question was a high school volley ball player, a member of the school’s team. She was a junior and had played, usually as a starter, for most of the season. Her coach was a young woman as well, that is to say, a relatively new teacher, just shortly out of training.

Toward the end of the season, the student’s mother was to receive a special award from her workplace. Mom and dad both wanted their daughter to be at the dinner honoring the mom, and the young athlete wanted to be there as well. Unfortunately, the award ceremony conflicted with an important game for her team. She explained in advance to her coach that she would not be able to play in that game, but the coach was furious. Thereafter the coach repaid her absence by keeping her on the bench for most of the remainder of the season and treating her with disdain.

Although she liked volleyball, my future patient chose not to try-out for the team as a senior, expecting either to fail to make the roster chosen by the same coach; or, if permitted to be on the team, anticipating the same sort of mistreatment from her for another year. And so, the athlete’s high school athletic career ended prematurely.

This turn of events did not, however, destroy her love for the game. She continued to play in various park district leagues for many years. But the memory of being humiliated by the coach did not go away, nor of the lost senior year of competition that she might otherwise have enjoyed, playing a game she loved.

Perhaps 10 years after the incidents I’ve described, this woman was now my patient. And one day she told me that just the day before she had found herself in another volley ball contest against a new team. And, wouldn’t you know it, she saw that one of the opposing players was her old coach, now in her early to mid-thirties.

My patient recognized the coach, but hoped the recognition was not mutual. As the game progressed they soon enough were face-to-face across the net from each other. The coach said “hello,” calling her by name, and my patient replied in kind. Perhaps, she thought, that would be the end of their interaction.

At the end of the game, however, the coach came over to my patient. She asked if she could speak with her privately. They moved away from the other volleyball players to a place where they would not be overheard.

What the young woman’s ex-coach said went something like this:

I’ve thought about you for many years. I realize that what I did to you was very unfair. I took your decision not to play that game too personally. Of course, there was nothing wrong with your attending a dinner recognizing your mother. Who wouldn’t have? I was very young, but I should have known better than to treat you as badly as I did. I have felt guilty for years that I caused you pain and that I made it almost impossible for you to even think of trying-out for the senior team. I have been hoping to run into you all this time, so that I could say this. I’m so sorry.

As my patient related this story to me she was in tears, enormously touched by what the coach had said. The coach had given her closure for a painful part of her history and had done it with grace, courage, and integrity; taking full responsibility for injuring my patient. In so doing, I suspect the coach found relief too, because her former charge was an enormously likeable, decent, and forgiving person.

Everyone here was a winner.

As I said, the tale stands out for me because this kind of ending occurs so rarely. I suspect many of us have been the victims of similar hurts.

But, perhaps more importantly, some of us have probably inflicted comparable injuries on others.

Sometimes its worth reflecting on that — on one’s own failures and mistreatment of others.

You just might discover that like the coach, there is still an opportunity to put things right.

Of course, that is up to you.

The image above is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Stories That We Tell Ourselves

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Therapists hear stories. Tons of them.

Everyone has one.

But the stories that are most important are those that represent the essential narrative of a person’s life. You might have just one such story, one that tells you how you see yourself and your journey through life.

It may not even take the form of a specific tale or recollection, instead describing a view of how your life has progressed.

Perhaps you think you are lucky or, alternatively, unlucky. Maybe you see yourself as a “mover and a shaker.”  Do you imagine a handsome and suave (or beautiful and charming) persona as you look in the mirror? Or someone who is lazy or hardworking or resilient or weak?

But even if there is no story attached to the qualities that you ascribe to yourself or to your life path, the character traits you claim still are central to how you see of yourself, something you refer back to repeatedly.

Nor does the story or characteristic even have to be true. It just has to be something that you believe is true.

An example. An old acquaintance thought of himself as a “lady’s man,” making such politically incorrect comments as this simile: “A woman is like a taxi cab — if you miss this one, there will be another one along in 10 minutes.” He was clever, energetic, interesting, and outgoing, but unremarkable in his level of success and appearance — not particularly tactful either. When a woman rejected him, he was usually undaunted.

This gentleman even had a theme-song, of sorts. It was the soaring horn call from the Richard Strauss orchestral tone poem “Don Juan,” representing the bold, dashing title character he believed himself to be. And so, ever on the look-out for attractive women, he did, in fact, have numerous love affairs. Many ended badly, and he was as often rejected as he was the person who terminated the relationship.

Another person, no less likeable or successful with the opposite sex, might have seen the identical romantic life as a disappointment. But, our “Don Juan” never showed regret, rarely was chagrined for long, and continued to pursue women with the vigor he had always demonstrated.

Well, you might say that our hero had little self-awareness and you might be right. But, the case can be made that he was more satisfied in living-out his romantic life through his chosen vision of himself — through the story he was telling himself about himself — than if he had defined his role in the story differently, or come up with an alternate narrative altogether, especially if it was that of the jilted, luckless lover.

Now, I am not recommending either this man’s approach to women or his less-than-fully realistic view of himself. Nor would I have been pleased if one of my daughters found someone like him appealing. But his view did enable him to have much romance and fun in his life. In other words, he would have told you that it worked for him.

Unlike our friend, I have seen people change their stories over a life-time. For example, from feeling unlucky to feeling lucky, or from being timid and unsure to becoming more bold, assertive, and capable.

It is worth asking ourselves what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Again, they might not stand up to external scrutiny, but they don’t necessarily have to in order to be useful. We frequently create self-fulfilling prophecies for ourselves, succeeding or failing because of what we believe will happen or who we believe we are. In large part the man in question had much romance because he believed in his “Don Juan” myth. Had he seen himself as an undiplomatic opportunist (something as fitting as his chosen vision), he would have had much less female companionship. Even worse, if he saw himself as a schlemiel.

Was his glass half-full or half-empty? That too is part of his story, and he certainly looked at life with a hopeful, optimistic gaze and focused on what was best in himself, not his weaknesses.

The person I’ve described had many, many friends and had much pleasure, not only with women. He led an interesting life. Even if it is not one you would personally choose, do not be too hasty to judge it (especially after I tell you that he was a loving father).

A great man?

No, but then, there aren’t too many of those.

But he was one who found a useful story.

Many of us do worse.

The above image is Don Juan and the Statue of the Commander by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard, oil on canvas, circa 1830–1835; sourced from Wikimedia Commons.