I‘m doing an offline writing exercise, self-invented, to try to get a better understanding of my sense of continued self-dissatisfaction. It was inspired by a set of questions from Oriah:
What if instead of asking why I am so infrequently the person I really want to be, I instead asked why I so infrequently want to be the person I really am? What if who I essentially am right now is who I am always going to be? What if the task is simply to become — to ‘realize’ — who I already am?
Nothing terribly new in these questions, but they strike at the root of our (and our society’s) insistence on always becoming, doing, and being ‘better’ — personal ‘growth’, ‘self-improvement’ and ‘self-help’. The implication of this insistence is that we’re not good enough, and somehow flawed, and ‘need’ to work to become something other than who we ‘are’ now. There’s much discussion about who’s to ‘blame’ for us being so flawed, damaged, imperfect. But what if we’re not, and have never been, and can never be, anything but who we essentially are? Not flawed, not perfect, just ‘who we are’.
So the exercise is this:
Write what you really know about yourself by completing these seven sentences:
- The animal in me loves _____: List your passions, obsessions, lifestyle choices and orientations, the things you know you really care about, love to do, think about a lot or are deeply emotionally engaged about
- The animal in me needs _____: List your wants and longings and needs, the things you know you are missing or which are in too short supply in your life
- The animal in me craves _____: List the things you are addicted to, that you can’t get enough of or do enough
- I have become fearful of _____: List your triggers and fears, the things that you know set you off or inhibit you
- I have learned to become _____: List your acquired adaptive positive traits and abilities and inhibitors — positives about your physical and emotional condition and positive personality attributes, qualities that have come to define you
- I have become _____: List your acquired adaptive negative traits and inhibitors — negatives about your physical and emotional condition and negative personality attributes, qualities that have come to undermine you
- Your unanswered questions — Identify the things about yourself you’ve been unable to understand or which seem paradoxical
Don’t write about your intentions, plans, wishes, dreams, behaviours, past, self-judgments, others’ judgements of you, or your physical attributes (unless they’re really extraordinary). These things are not who you are.
You may appreciate that your fears and triggers are unwarranted, even foolish, but that doesn’t make them less real or ‘not you’.
Write about the complicity that is you. Know that you are plural, a collaboration of trillions of cells, and that what you think of as your ‘mind’ is just their pattern-detection, information-processing and motility-management system. Your mind is not you. Think about that as you write about ‘your’ passions, needs, addictions etc. The first three sets of attributes are about the ‘animal’ you — attributes that would probably be on your list no matter when, how or where you lived. The next three sets of attributes are about the ‘acculturated’ you — attributes that became part of you as you adapted to life in the cultures you have lived in.
Now review each item in your answer to each question above, and think about what are the qualities that are behind or underlie it. How and why are each of these qualities ‘yours’ and ‘you’ exactly? This is the real ‘trick’ in this exercise, and the hardest part of doing it. What does it really mean to say you are this? Does this really ‘define’ you; is this really who ‘you’ are? Or is it just a description of your perception of yourself relative to other people, or an oversimplification that you use to explain yourself to others, or something about your situation rather than really about you at all? Group items in your list that have the same underlying quality or are aspects of the same quality.
In my case for example (i) several of the things I love doing are all essentially ‘creative’ activities; (ii) many of my fears have underlying them a fear of suffering (my own or the suffering of those I care about); (iii) my ‘need’ to be free and my ‘fear’ of being in a situation of feeling trapped are manifestations of the same thing; and (iv) my ‘love’ of falling in love, and of some games, are all manifestations of my addiction to the ‘feel-good’ chemicals (dopamine etc.) that such events/activities produce. In this way my long initial list of loves, needs etc. got grouped into a surprisingly short one-sentence answer to each of the first 6 questions. And some of the attributes on my initial list (e.g. generosity) got deleted entirely, as, after thinking about them, I realized they weren’t ‘me’ at all.
If you’re not sure, if you don’t really know, cross it off or leave it out.
Review your answers to the seventh question the same way. Ask yourself how this lack of understanding or seeming paradox relates to who you really are. My resolution of four aspects of the real ‘me’ that lay behind three of my unanswered questions about myself are illustrated in the Dialogue Map at the top of this post (read more about Dialogue Maps, if you’re interested, in the note at the end of this post). Add the insights you get from this analysis to the applicable answers to the first 6 questions.
Now re-read this six-statement portrait of the essential ‘you’ and go back and consider Oriah’s three questions, with this ‘real you’ in mind.
That’s it. That’s the exercise.
I found it like looking in a mirror. Until you hold it up and look, you don’t really know what you look like. Until I did this exercise, for all my ruminations and self-analyses, I couldn’t really see who I really was. The end-product was astonishing: as much as I ‘knew’ these qualities to be parts of me, to see this pared-down summation of who I am — my animal self and who I’ve ‘become’ — is like seeing myself for the first time, and realizing this ‘stranger’ is me. I keep rereading it, almost like a newly-sighted person keeps looking at his own reflection, with wonder.
Until you can ‘see’ yourself, you can’t be yourself. Or perhaps more accurately, once you can ‘see’ yourself, you can’t any longer be somebody else, the person you’ve pretended to be, that you thought you were, that others want you to be, somebody you’re not.
I’m not going to post what I wrote about myself (six short sentences with some reminder notes on how I arrived at some of my answers) — it’s too personal and would need a ton of contextual explanation to be intelligible to others. It’s been enough just to do it. If you try it, let me know how it goes for you.
The chart above is an example of a Dialogue Map, a form of Mind Map (these are both terrible, official terms for something that might better be called Deliberation Maps) — a way of rigorously thinking about and documenting any deliberative thought/discussion process. Software for both Mind Maps and Dialogue Maps is free online, and you can do them by hand too (great for planning and documenting meetings). I found the Dialogue Maps, which start with a question (blue ? symbol), proceed to possible answers, relevant consideration points (yellow lightbulb symbol), and decisions/insights (gold handshake symbol) and are supported by persuasive (green + symbol) and contraindicating (red – symbol) data/arguments, very useful in doing this Exercise. I asked the seven questions above and developed a Dialogue Map for each. The chart above is part of my seventh (i.e. unanswered questions) Map, and the four insights I received from this particular map about my true self (that I am undisciplined, grateful and happy to be so fortunate, afraid of failure, and grieving for the state of the world) are shown below the handshake symbols.