Sunday, April 1, 2012

Social Constructionism and Personal Sovereignty

She said "I know what it's like to be dead.
I know what it is to be sad"
And she's making me feel like I've never been born.

I said "Who put all those things in your head?
Things that make me feel that I'm mad
And you're making me feel like I've never been born."
—The Beatles, She Said She Said

Reverse Engineering the Dissonance

"It's not what you look at that matters; it's what you see."
—Henry David Thoreau

For a long time I struggled with any number of limitations. I had feelings of incompleteness bordering on inferiority and a sick acceptance masquerading as a wistful remorse. In hindsight, I believe this had everything to do with a lack of introspection; I didn't think about thinking enough to understand what thinking really is.

To wit, thinking is merely a process of asking questions and answering them. Some thoughts empower us, many dis-empower us but they all start with asking a question and answering it. When you ask the same question enough times and come up with the same answer each time, you now have a belief. Our beliefs about who we are and what we are capable of absolutely govern our actions and any action taken on a consistent basis becomes a habit. Habits shape your life. Not any one thing you did but the things you've done time and time again, smoking a cigarette, playing a musical instrument, working out...who you are is largely defined by what you do on a consistent basis.

These days I'm at a very different place in life than I once was but still, at times, I catch myself asking the wrong questions. This of course only leads to terrible answers that lead to a state of anger, resentment, self disgust and a sense of stagnation. And I have to stop and ponder how I could still be asking such horrible questions, having such horrible thoughts and at times, taking actions so wildly out of step with those of the person I aspire to be. What I have found is virtually any time I catch myself thinking I am not good enough, smart enough or tough enough to face a challenge in my life, I realize the voice in my head imposing these limitations upon me is never my own. In fact, it's usually the ghost of a shockingly mundane experience in which I let someone else's perception of me become my own without even realizing it, let alone fighting it.

I, Sponge
I have a tendency to internalize things so at first I saw this as a personal shortcoming; a lack of personal sovereignty. "Wow, how weak am I if I let someone else decide who and what I am?" But some deeper introspection led me to reassess this conclusion. In fact, I now believe pretty much everyone on some level has a tendency to absorb what is around them, meaning unless you live on a desert island, your identity is inevitably a social construct at least as much as it is anything else. If you're reminded on a daily basis that others have extremely low expectations of you—be they teachers, parents, employers or anyone else (even mundanely, not maliciously)—why would you expect great things of yourself?

The Gift of Growth

"When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."
—Wayne Dyer

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be."
—Kurt Vonnegut

This has all been very doom and gloom thus far, but I have learned the wonderful thing is that this can and does work both ways. Someone else's perception of you as being more than what you are—or at least, more than what you have always seen yourself as being—can replace your own just as easily and seamlessly. I don't know if it is truly rarer or if it just appears that way since negative experiences are so charged in terms of emotional energy stockpiled, but it happens all the same. Of this I am absolutely certain. There is zero chance I would be the person I am today had I not had the tremendous fortune of meeting someone I saw as so far above me in every way imaginable...who saw me as her equal and in many ways, more than her equal. At which point I began to grow tremendously, without even realizing it, just trying to live up to being the person she seemed to see in me. It was life changing and completely carved out a huge part of my identity that lingers to this day, a full eleven years later; the part of my identity I love the most because it was a gift from someone I loved.

As fate would have it, the person who gave me this tremendous gift was essentially thrust randomly into my life only to disappear just as quickly. That's kind of how it works as a kid, people just sort of drift in and out of your life and your control over your circumstances is oftentimes limited at best. But there comes a time when every adult must take a look at their life and accept responsibility for everything they don't like about it, thereby empowering themselves to do something about it.

I think it's pretty obvious where I am going with this and brighter minds than my own have already said it more succinctly than I ever could.

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. The really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."
—Mark Twain

"Advice for others: surround yourself with positive people you can learn from."
—David Blaine

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