Saturday, May 24, 2008

A few Self-ish thoughts.

First the disclaimer: These are just ideas. Ruminations. You should not expect them to coalesce into a comprehensive Body of Thought. I lack the credentials for that. Still, these observations may serve as a springboard for some useful discussion (or at least some Self-examination). Especially in the wake of some of the recent action on SHAMblog.

As I reflect on that give-and-take (as well as other cultural dust-ups one hears about with increasing regularity), it occurs to me that even people who claim to be fed up with the SHAMscape and who supposedly reject its dogma outright may have been corrupted anyway by self-help's ongoing penetration of American life; more on that in a moment. But the individuals I have in mind appear to suffer from a fatal misconception of Self. Oh, they have no trouble embracing their own right to be who they are—but will give you a befuddled look when it comes to recognizing ways in which their pursuit of Self impinges on the corresponding goals of those around them. We saw much this same blind spot in the two horror stories I presented before suspending the series.

This may come as a shock to some, but the concept of Honoring Thy Self doesn't just apply to you, John or Jane Doe who's reading this. Your neighbors, too, are entitled to honor their respective senses of Self. The fact that I may wish to declare myself King does not mean that you're obliged to bow before my throne. Because you'd have the right to declare yourself King as well. So would all of our neighbors. Which ultimately means that none of us has the right to summarily declare ourselves King. Not to get too airy about it, but the call for the primacy of the Self—which I've made many times on this blog—is not a call for solipsism.

Some folks today never seem to get this. They expect to be able to be themSelves and yet also be insulated from the untoward consequences sure to arise when their single-minded pursuit of Self runs up against someone else's (equally valid) interests. This is important because, for a society to avoid little upsets like, oh, mass bloodshed, the disparate interests of all the various Selves must be mediated and resolved into something coherent and sustainable. Failing that, what you have is anarchy.

Though I can't say authoritatively where people got the idea that honoring YourSelf means dishonoring everyone else's, I can take an educated guess. I think the answer lies in one of the seminal buzzwords of modern* self-help: codependency. Though intended in clinical settings to apply to the peacekeeping behavioral adaptations common among those raised amid alcoholism, the term broadened quickly once the self-help movement got hold of it. (The cynic in me can't help observing that the more inclusive you make the definition of the disease, the more you expand the potential market base for "treatment.") Pretty soon almost everyone was codependent, and I don't necessarily say that in jest. If you click the link earlier in this graph and browse some of the sites, you'll find definitions and explanations of codependency that implicitly (if not explicitly) apply to everyone who forms a close personal bond with another human being.

During the 1980s, best-selling books and 12-step workshops taught people, primarily women, to begin looking out more for No. 1. Of course, it's indisputable that for centuries in America, women were stymied in their pursuit of even the most basic sense of Self by the expectation that they'd consecrate their lives to the care and feeding of their husbands and kids (as Dr. Laura would put it). There's such a thing as overcorrection, however, and this is one case where, for a fair portion of us, the pendulum swung way back past the midpoint. "Look out for No. 1" became the anthem of the Me Generation. As I point out in SHAM, the backlash against codependency (and selflessness as a whole) led straight to the twin pillars of Empowerment/Entitlement that have characterized self-help since the early '90s. Just as the self-esteem movement over the past quarter-century taught American kids to equate striving with achieving—such that they felt entitled to success, and cheated if they didn't get it—not a few grown-ups came to see their Self-actualization as if it took place in a vacuum, quite apart from the wants, needs and feelings of everyone else.

And, as I see it, there's another mega-factor in play here. Cyberspace. To be sure, the 'Net has had a transforming effect on every aspect of life...but anthropologists may one day reckon that none of them was more significant than the Web's impact on the way in which people present themselves to the world. Consider above all the process of the so-called "social networking" sites: Yes, you reach out to friends and lovers that way...but first you retreat to your electronic cottage, sit down at your computer and decide "who you are" and how you want to be seen. For the first time in history, everyday people are able to micromanage their public images almost as if each of us were a Hollywood celeb with benefit of a studio-orchestrated PR campaign. On MySpace and Facebook, we celebrate ourselves, create soundtracks for our lives; we decide which photos, videos and song lyrics best capture The Look we hope to project to people who—this is key—may never meet us in the flesh. We craft a virtual identity that, at the very least, differs from the lives we really lead in critical areas of nuance. I'm not so much talking here about the 52-year-old truck driver who masquerades as a 28-year-old CIA operative or lead singer for a garage band. Rather, I have in mind the socially awkward 17-year-old girl who "adjusts" the imagery of her life to cast herself more as a diva or a vixen; who quotes poetry or movie lines that reflect what she'd like to be instead of what she is; who uses bold color schemes or frankly scary clip-art to exude a brashness, a sense of control, that she hardly ever feels among family and friends. We didn't used to have that option/luxury; we were stuck with the way we were seen by the people who actually knew us. No more. Today, if we can't have our way in the real world, we can have it online. (And frankly, when it comes to blogging, I think some of us get a little too caught-up in these fanciful alter-egos.)

Then, add the iconography of modern-day celebrity. Our kids see the Britneys and Parises and Lindsays and Mileys, who appear to live by no rules except those they willingly choose for themselves.

All told, you could say the era we live in has produced The Perfect Storm for narcissism and self-involvement....

To sum up, then, the Selfhood I envision resides more in figuring out where your strongest personal inclinations and aptitudes best fit within the overarching framework of society; it's maximizing that Self within a structure that respects the Selfhood of the folks around you, too. Hell, within the privacy of your own mind, you can be as psychotic as you please. But it's unrealistic (and probably self/Self-defeating) to expect to impose your psychosis on others. If you do want to take an extreme stand on Selfhood, that's fine; just know that there will be penalties, possibly severe ones. Just as (contrary to self-esteem-based lore) not everyone can grow up to be president, not everyone can be an unalloyed version of Himself or Herself without encountering pushback—perhaps a devastating degree of pushback—from society-at-large. So if you're determined to be 100 percent YourSelf, you should also be prepared to end up living in a rural cabin somewhere, like Ted Kaczynski. And maybe coming to the same end.

Hmmm. I wonder if there's a self-help book in all this? I think I'd make my agent very happy.

(That's a joke, folks.)

* As you know if you read SHAM, I divide modern self-help into two phases/periods: Victimization and Empowerment. Victimization held sway in the early years of modern self-help, kicked off (to my mind) by the 1967 publication of I'm OK, You're OK.


Elizabeth said...

Steve, you say, "(...) the Selfhood I envision resides more in figuring out where your strongest personal inclinations and aptitudes best fit within the overarching framework of society; it's maximizing that Self within a structure that respects the Selfhood of the folks around you, too. (...) it's unrealistic (and probably self/Self-defeating) to expect to impose your psychosis on others."

Indeed. Thanks, Steve, for this elucidation.

Part of my problem with the tyranny of selfhood (because this is what it has become in SHAM and vicinity, including so-called legitimate psychology) is the almost mandated obsession with the self-realization, according to criteria imposed by those "in-the-know," who sell (in many meanings of this word) their self-actualization theories, programs, etc. As if self was something we can achieve, once and for all, and be done with it (and perhaps proud of it). And often never mind how many others we trample in the process. We have actually just witnessed in that last thread the effects of this, including attempts to belittle and make others conform to some self-approved (by the critic) vision of self as the right one (including the time-frame for its realization).

There are tomes written in legit psychology on the subject of self, and the subject remains elusive, despite being dissected with such persistence. It often appears that those who become preoccupied with it, including the pursuit of self-realization, end up self-deluded and wasting their lives, along with ruining those around them, as the examples you gave show.

It is worth considering that many of the most creative individuals in human history, including modern times, which are so suffused with the tyranny of self, are not models of self-realization as championed by SHAM and/or mainstream psych. The subject of self and the importance of its realization, especially as a path to happiness, often do not even enter their minds as such -- they are too preoccupied with following their passions and/or fighting their demons to notice their self or think it important. One could of course call this itself self-realization (in its purest sense?), but the conscious pursuit of it is not a main goal for these folks (or even a goal at all). And for most of them, it is a non-ending struggle -- but they would likely shrug if you pitied them because of it. Because it is what it is -- and sometimes it cannot be otherwise. And sometimes it is even pretty cool to be involved in the on-going creative process called life without self getting in the way, or being some major consideration, or a goal to realize. It is liberating, one could even say -- freeing one from the tyranny of self and its realization makes it possible for some to experience life as is. (*For some* being the key phrase here.)

This is a complex subject, as I see it, and one of those that become more complicated upon closer inspection. The closer one gets to its "core" (if it exists at all), the fuzzier one's perceptions become. It's not a bad thing at all, IMO -- it keeps things interesting, for one. And it lets people write more books about it, because the market never dries up. (There is definitely another book -- books! -- in it, Steve:).

For practical considerations and general approach to the subject, however, I'd go with your quote from the beginning of my post.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, on the subject of the 17-yr-old shy diva/vixen and more accurately, the discrepancy you describe between our projected (as we would like it to be) and real image:

I do not think this is a phenomenon limited to our cyber-age, though I agree with you that virtual reality makes it easier to express. I think -- and my professional experience confirms this -- that there is almost always a discrepancy between our real and ideal self, or between our self as perceived by others and that we'd like to project to the world. (Even when we look in the mirror, we do not see the same thing others who look at us do. We listen to our voice on tape and we are often surprised by the way it sounds -- it's not the way we hear it). Actually, the richer one's character (or personality), the more chances that this would be the case (of the discrepancy you talk about).

That shy diva/vixen may just be expressing a different, but no less legitimate, or real, side of her character (or self, if you will). It's just not the side she has (yet?) managed or chosen to express in her day-to-day interactions with others. I'd say many people have inner lives that are at odds with their daily persona -- and, again, it is not necessarily a bad thing, if they choose to keep it this way. Sometimes it is a very good thing indeed, especially when it enriches their lives and aids their development (without harming them or others). For whatever reason (and sometimes for many reasons) it may not be possible for some to realize their innermost desires that constitute that second life and shape that other image in their day-to-day existence. But I think it would be another sign of the tyranny of self and self-realization to demand that they do so, or judge them somehow "defective" if they don't. (I'm not saying that you do that, BTW.)

Mike Cane said...

Well, if you do decide to write a book about this, you should include the fake self of that woman who drove a child to suicide via impersonation on MySpace.

RevRon's Rants said...

How the pendulum does swing! And one common aspect of those "swings" is the inclination to throw the baby of past perspective out with the bathwater of human intellectual, emotional, and spiritual evolution.

We we first observed the phenomenon of codependency, the backlash was to deny the incontrovertible fact of our *interdependency.* In order to actualize the Self, it was thought by some that we must necessarily separate and clearly differentiate ourselves from other "selves." The inevitable result was that in the quest for self-actualization/realization, we lapsed into self-absorption.

What began as a means of helping us better integrate into our surroundings deteriorated into a form of emotional hermitry. No need to integrate, compromise, or even acknowledge anyone else's worldview; indeed, even making an attempt to do so was perceived as a betrayal of holy Self. As Buffalo Springfield so wisely put it, "Nobody's right if everybody's wrong."

The ways we went about that delusional "self-actualization" were as myriad as the personalities of the individuals themselves. Some who are impressed with their own level of intelligence attempt to make dissenters from their ideas feel foolish or ignorant, their condescension often masked by feigned humility. Lacking such finesse, others rail against the alleged evils of anything that differs from - and threatens - their own perspective. Still others will smugly detach themselves from the debate, chuckling at the ludicrousness of it all.

The ironic thing is that each of us has elements of all three, which we implement when the situation grows too uncomfortable. And by applying such dissociative tactics, we deny ourselves the potential for growth that true self-actualization can offer, opting to don Vonnegut's badges, rather than achieve deeper understanding of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live.

That these tactics have infused our religion, politics, education, entertainment, and personal relationships highlights the level of discomfort most feel. Rather than seeing a different mindset as a signpost on the path to increased understanding, we seem to perceive it as a danger sign, warning of dragons afoot.

Perhaps at some point, we'll be able to recognize that while each of us are individuals, we are also elements in a continuum of shared experiences and evolution, and that "different" is not necessarily a synonym of "enemy." While I realize that we may never achieve such a pragmatic utopia, I do believe it's worth striving for. At the very least, making the honest effort would eliminate much of the rancor and bloodshed that has been a hallmark of human interaction since we were dragging our knuckles on the floors of our caves.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, thank you for spending the time you obviously spent on writing that. (And if you didn't spend that much time...then I'm totally blown away.) Suffice it to say I appreciate it on multiple levels.

RevRon's Rants said...

Thanks, Steve. It actually was a quick, off-the-top-of-my-head post, as evidenced by my bout of dyslexia.

I wrote, "And one common aspect of those "swings" is the inclination to throw the baby of past perspective out with the bathwater of human intellectual, emotional, and spiritual evolution."

I *meant* to write, "And one common aspect of those "swings" is the inclination to throw the baby of human intellectual, emotional, and spiritual evolution out with the bathwater of past perspective.

Insufficient caffeine intake prior to posting. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it! :-)

Anonymous said...

Steve, is "the 52-year-old truck driver who masquerades as a 28-year-old CIA operative" different from "the socially awkward 17-year-old girl who casts herself more as a diva or a vixen" ? How?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, you make a good point. I guess I was trying to establish that the Internet is a breeding ground for misrepresentations that are far more subtle than those that eventually get people caught up in Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" series. I could've used a better example.

However, I think that in the case of the truck driver, the deceptions are more conscious and intentional. The deceptions I had in mind (in referring to the diva) were more in the realm of self-deceptions: i.e., adopting a new persona even in one's own mind, not just for the purpose of duping anyone on the outside.

Jim said...

Steve: I love this post. It is now one of my favorites.

Something else I keep hearing about is the idea that we should "worship the god within ourselves," which to me sounds like the epitome of narcissism. What I keep pointing out to people who say this is that if there truly is a god inside them, then there must be a god inside everyone else too, and then they must treat others as if this were true. Nobody takes it that far though. This pseudo-spirituality just flatters people's narcissism, which is why it seems to be correct to so many. Like this world needs to give narcissistic people a reason to justify their god complexes.

Elizabeth said...

One shy diva, an expert in poetry and self, or rather no self, was Emily Dickinson, who wrote this:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.


RevRon's Rants said...

"Nobody takes it that far though."

Good points, jim... this statement aside. I agree that there are an awful lot of folks who embrace the concept of entheos (God within), yet fail to grasp the universality of the concept. Hard to feel special when everyone else is packin'.

There are infinitely more people who embrace the fact that we all have that something at our core; the difference is that the majority aren't as vocal, aren't busting their chops to get a book deal and a spot on Oprah.

It's a lot like what we've seen happen with the Catholic church these last years. We rarely hear about the benevolent and loving acts performed daily by priests and nuns all over the world, but we hear a lot about pedophile clergy. Do they represent the whole? Of course not. They represent a problem that needs to be addressed, but not by abolishing the clergy itself.

By becoming aware of the problems and abuses in any culture, we become less likely to be adversely affected by those problems. And the more light is shone on the problems, the less likely for the abusers - in the church and in the SHAM - to successfully ply their trade.