Fragments

I feel now I can engage with the past, that the past is in some way part of me and I can use it to make decisions about the future. But I don’t really know how.

As the last event of the school day, we listen to a kind of religious lecture delivered by our eldest National Language teacher who knows a lot of other things too, like about our state religion. I’m sitting with the other teachers at the back of the room, not understanding anything, and I realize I have no particular plan for my future.

I have applied to stay here in Country X for another year, but I have no thought about what to do beyond that. Which is perhaps as it should be. I am in a period of radical internal transition. Any future I chose now might later become something I did not want. And so it is better to wait.

Still I wonder about it because I also have the sense I have lived for a long time as if I needed to live for two people—as if I needed to live for Natalya as well as for myself. I don’t know exactly what this might have meant for me in the past, or if it’s good or bad to go on thinking in those terms, or what kind of future thinking in that way would give me.

It’s hard for me to understand and feels in some way like something that still exists a little bit on another side of a wall. Nonetheless, I feel like trying to sort it out. And this seems like a good idea, but as I am writing, I am overcome with sadness. I can’t seem to do it or even think about it in a meaningfully way.

I am too sad that Natalya is not with me to think about anything.

I keep wanting to be analytical, to think in a conscious, clear way, and to organize the pieces that have been tossed around in my head these last few days only to discover that mostly I have to feel. That I have to go on feeling. There’s not really any kind of break in the need to feel.

I have a friend who understands some things. She reads my blog and now has her own blog, but our friendship began outside the blog.

This friend has helped me recently in a way that feels really significant. When I write about how Natalya spoke to me, she understands what I mean. She says it would have been like a warm bath. It was. That is exactly it. I want a warm bath again.

And it makes me think I can’t really understand what Natalya was for me without understanding something of her culture, that some of what I remember about her was particular to her and some of it was simply about where she came from. It’s just that she was the only person I knew from that place.

During that time in my life—from 9 to 13—all the other girl and women were from what were then Soviet countries. I don’t know precisely where they were from because I didn’t talk to any of them. We did our thing and went away again. There was no relationship, no connection, and I only drifted in and out of their world.

They were all used in both prostitution and pornography, and the pornography was sometimes with me. The scenes were sometimes female-on-female and sometimes involved two or more of us servicing one man. I do not know if my dad was still turning me out or not, or if he was only selling me to the pimps who ran the porn studio and controlled the other girls.

But the only one of the girls I formed any connection with was Natalya.

When I was smaller—from something like 5 to 8—the girls were all from Mexico and South America. I think at that point my dad had his own “stable” of small girls, but he did not have a lot of girls. There might have been only three or four of them at a time, but it’s hard to know because there was no stability. I don’t know what he did with them, but they didn’t last long. And I think in those days the pornography end of the trafficking was separate from the prostitution, although I can’t be sure. The pornography I was used in mostly featured abuse from adult men. When there other children involved, I think they were all white children. The little brown girls played with me by the hotel pool and solicited men, but I didn’t interact with them in front of a camera. I did in front of a live audience—they were the ones with me at parties, where we were passed around to be abused by men—but we didn’t interact in front of a lens.

That’s not really the point, but I thought I would tell you anyway. Just because. My point was supposed to be that almost all of the information I had about Natalya’s culture came from Natalya, and so when she was alive there was a kind of confusion for me about what was uniquely her personality and what was simply her culture: Which might not be important. Still, I think it is.

The warm bath was her culture—maybe it was both the culture and how she was. But the idea that affection could be expressed in altering the sounds of the language—that this was among the possibilities of expression—that was her culture. I don’t know that I quite knew that, but I had some idea. At the very least, I understood doing it. I understood its intent.

The extent of the affection may also have been culture. It’s possible too that Natalya was herself an especially warm and affectionate person, or maybe she just loved me a lot. However, it reminds me of my last girlfriend who wasn’t for years comfortable saying she loved me out loud. In contrast, the only word in Russian that I think I really recognize now from what Natalya said to me is the Russian word for love. And maybe also you.

The overtness of the affection, an affection expressed in words and in language, and that can be (in comparison to my own culture) almost sentimental, I think that was Natalya’s Russianness also. After her death, what I felt aside from my grief was also a kind of homesickness and displacement regarding a culture I knew almost nothing about and couldn’t acknowledge.

I think also, because of Natalya, I came to associate love with a kind of reaching across: the difficulty of communication, the effort involved, the willingness to make an effort that are part of being an “other” and of being with the “other,” these became what we did. They were a part of how we loved each other, and they also became what I did and what I thought of as somehow natural and effortless, despite the effort involved. Except hardly anyone else does this. It is not natural, and most people won’t do it.

The reaching across was Natalya. It is what she did for me—what we did for each other. We struggled through incomprehensible languages, through the exhaustion of being trafficked, and the constraints of being always watched to try to understand one another. I think it remains the reason I still want to have to reach across to others and why it’s more comfortable for me to live far away from my own country than it is to live in a place where understanding might come more easily, although it is never easy when you have my background, when you are like me. The experience of being foreign still feels like love to me. At the very least, it feels like the way things ought to be.

 

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Competence/incompetence

There will be no CCD trip this week. I want too many other things.
There will be no CCD trip this week. I want too many other things.

A cross-cultural experiences inevitably raise questions about competence.

I have myself on a strict budget these days—the cash I have with me needs to last for the next 14 months. And I feel guilty and anxious if I go out for a cup of coffee or buy a bag of potato chips. A budget is a way of reassuring myself that the money is there and I am free to spend it.

At the moment, what I really want are cleaning supplies, and I’m also finding that all of my toiletries are running out: shampoo, soap. The weather has become dry and I’m suddenly terribly itchy all over. I want lotion now as well.

So a budget also creates other kinds of anxieties, because I don’t know what many ordinary household items cost. I didn’t know what a kharata would be (79 rupees) or floor cleaner (65) or tampons (110 for ten). When I think about whether I can afford various purchases on my 120 rupee a day allotment, I often don’t really know until the shopkeeper has already taken it out for me.

It’s nerve-wracking. But the larger question, relates to competence. I can manage my household budget at home because, for the most part, I know what everything costs. I know what I’m likely to spend on groceries. I know what a toilet brush costs give or take a few dollars. I have, over the years, developed a financial competence, based on years of experience of shopping and budgeting. And, although costs have steadily risen, they remain knowable and predictable.

lizolHere that competence is gone, partly because costs have risen, but I haven’t been here. So while I know I used to be able to spend 400 rupees on a new readymade selwar kameez, I also know that was a decade ago, and I don’t have the faintest idea what one would cost now except that it’s probably more. Other items I’ve never bought before, because I never really had to manage my own household even in the limited way I am now: I’ve never needed to have my own toilet brush before.

A loss of a sense of competence is generally part of any extended cross-cultural experience, and it can be a source of significant stress. Success in a new culture depends immensely on your ability to manage the stress resulting from this loss.

While I am experiencing stress because of one specific kind of a lack of competence—financial—there are usually many arenas in which the newcomer is at a decided disadvantage: social, interpersonal, navigational (where is everything, anyway?), operating ordinary household equipment and tools (the water filter, the kharata, the toilet), health, and ordinary life problems (what the heck do you do about worms in the bathroom?).

It’s something I’m considering more carefully than I might because of Country X. Here, I I know that most things are already familiar. I can even stumble through simple transactions in Hindi, although English still gives me problems. (That thing I take a bath with in the mornings is called a “mug” by the way. Also, brush is pronounced “broosh.” Just passing the word.)

My stress over not knowing what anything costs or what to do about the worms in the bathroom are only a small part of what I could be feeling stressed over. In Country X, I may not know how to manage my interpersonal relationships or how to make friends. I may have to learn all over again where the light switches are or which way means “off.” I may not know what people say when they really mean “no.” So, being able to cope with a sense of lacking basic adult skills will be important.

And the first problem is that it seems to me that lacking competence is simply not allowed. It was never okay for me to be a child who didn’t yet know how to do things. It wasn’t okay to lack physical strength or moral courage either. I remember the time I stepped on nails sticking out of a fallen fence paling. I was about four or five years old.

I went in the bathroom, got down the band aids and the disinfectant from the medicine cabinet and set to work cleaning out my wounds. It didn’t occur to me to ask for help. And although my mother did haul me off to the doctor for a tetanus shot and butterfly bandage, DIY was even then my first instinct.

As a newcomer to a country, you have two choices: DIY and possibly end up doing whatever you need to badly or ask for help. Both of them are stressful. Both reveal a lack of real ability to navigate one’s own world by oneself.

I ask for help a lot, but I wonder how comfortable I really am with that. And I also wonder if it will ever really get through my thick head that no one does anything on their own here. In a collectivist culture, asking for help is a part of being an adult and maybe it is everywhere.

Go away: the maid, the bathroom, and identity-bound behaviours

For me, the point of entering a new culture is to be changed by it. I was changed in coming to India, I was changed by teaching in a Latino-dominated school, I expect to be changed by Country X.

Change of that type isn’t about a rejection of the past or of my home culture. It’s about developing a mental flexibility and expanding one’s notions of what can and should be.

Behaviour communicates—both to others and to oneself. We aren’t usually aware of this. The communication proceeds smoothly without involving our conscious awareness. But we become aware of this when it changes, and when the meanings of behaviour changes, or when we need to communicate the same sentiment through different behaviour.

For example, it isn’t common to show appreciation through words. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone say “please” in India, although plenty of people speak English, and “thank you” has definitely made inroads. Some of this has to do with a certain degree of taking for granted: People will tell you, when talking about service, that there is no need for thanks because what they are doing is just their jobs.  Within relationships, certain gestures are simply expected. Sharing is required rather than optional. I have been told by Indians that I expect too little, I don’t demand enough. “Any of my other friends would have complained that I was keeping it all to myself,” someone has told me.

That space in the middle is bigger here.
That space in the middle is bigger here.

So boundaries within relationships are different. “Mine” does not mean exactly the same thing as it does back home in the States. A psychologist who lacked any intercultural training would believe the entire country to lack boundaries and to engage exclusively in enmeshed and codependent relationships. And yet many people are happy that way—or at least as happy as anyone else.

But the difference in boundaries means that closeness is expressed differently. I don’t have a handle on that, because I don’t have a handle on relationships back home. But I can tell you that too many “pleases” and “thank yous” in personal relationships expresses formality and a desire to maintain a distance, rather than appreciation or respect. Your waiter will just think you’re another one of those weird foreigners–and you well might be. But it’s a poor way to make friends.

Instead, appreciation is expressed through reciprocation. If someone sends a plate of sweets to your house, you send the dish back with something nice in it for them. If your friend shares her jacket with you when you’re feeling cold, then the next time around, you share yours. It’s not a bad system and it’s probably not terribly different from how we do relationships in the West. But, like I said, I don’t have a handle on that, so I can’t say.

In addition to behaviour communicating sentiments, it can also express who we think we are: some behaviors are what we call “identity-bound behaviors.” If you study and do your homework, that’s probably an identity-bound behaviour: you see yourself as a good student, and other people do too. If I can clean my own bathroom, I see myself as at least marginally competent and independent. With the purchase of the kharata, my self-esteem has gradually improved—along with the condition of my bathroom.

But I also know that being a middle-class Indian woman involves supervising the servants of the house. (I have exactly one. She comes for about an hour a day—so don’t get too many visions of my living in palatial splendour and being waited on hand and foot.)

picture013I can’t seem to do that. I cribbed once that the corners in the bathroom were dirty—what the maid is really doing is just throwing some water around. No change. Instead I clean more.

Clearly, I failed. Enter lowered self-esteem. I am aware of both sets of identity-bound behaviour, and I am only succeeding according to one.

My failure makes me reflect on the meaning of independence to me and the meaning of competence, and what it means to live in complex web of relationships. I don’t have answers, but the reflection is the point. Because if I had stayed at home, I never would have raised the questions.

If you find yourself bored in your life, or you think you have it all a little too worked out, go away. Go away for a long while, and don’t return until you begin to feel uncomfortable–preferably a bit anxious and depressed (more anxious and depressed than usual). Don’t return until you begin to feel uncomfortable enough to engage the questions: What meaning does this have to me? What meaning does it have to others? Are those meanings shared? What would happen if I considered other possible meanings?

Those questions are a good habit to keep in any case.

On time

Our rat was considerably more dead.
Our rat was considerably more dead.

We must begin, first of all, with the matter of the dead rat.

Two days ago, I was sitting with Priya in what they call a “hall” around here, which is not to be confused with a hallway. A “hall” is also not a large public meeting place such as you might rent out from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. No, a “hall” is a livingroom.

So I was sitting in the livingroom-cum-hall. Priya was going into the kitchen for something, probably to mix a fresh drink, as she’s a practicing alcoholic—despite her inexplicable dry days.

But she stopped in the doorway, and something about her posture suggested fear. “What is it?” I said, “What happened?”

Well, she told me, they had had two rats living nicely in the kitchen—these aren’t very tidy people, and their untidiness is most evident in the kitchen. They’d killed one of them before I’d come, and this was the second one. They had poisoned him, and he was now in his death throes in the middle of the floor.

And she went to fetch her father to deal with him, but by the time he came, the rat had disappeared again.

Yesterday, my room began to smell, and I began to surmise that he had found his way into my room and finished his business of dying there. Then I realized the smell was even worse in the kitchen. He must have stayed there and died.

I relayed this to Uncle #2. “Uncle,” I said, “That rat has died in the kitchen.”

“The maid will come in the afternoon. She’ll take care of it.”

This being India, I had my doubts. However, you should also imagine that I told him this at seven in the morning. The maid comes at three.

And I was right. The maid came and went. The kitchen still smelled. The rat was obviously still there. So, again, I told Uncle #2. “The rat is still there.”

“The maid said it wasn’t.”

“It is.” I began to look for it.

This turned out to be very easy. There’s a cupboard door that has come off in their kitchen, and it lies sideways across the lower half of the open cupboard. I lifted this in order to begin searching through the cabinet where the smell was most clearly coming from. The rat was there.

“She’s crazy,” Uncle  #2 said, meaning the maid.

“No,” I said, “Lazy,” because it’s actually never entirely clear that she’s cleaned much of anything.

I think this whole incident says something about various attitudes about time—including mine—and also suggests some misconceptions.

In my Western, everything needs to be done now mind, a dead rat in the kitchen is an emergency. The cockroaches are too, if you want to bring that up, but it’s not my kitchen and for now I can live with them. I just avoid too much contact with the dirty counters and the filthy gas range.

But in Uncle #2s mind, this could wait. Time was not of the essence. Time is rarely of the essence, in fact, anywhere in India. It is what has been referred to as a non-linear culture, meaning people don’t queue in most places and most things take place about 20 minutes behind schedule. I once waited an hour for a friend to pick me up for lunch. He came. I’m not kidding about this.

aurangabad stationI’ll tell you another story. This happened twenty years ago. I was just a kid, and this was my first trip to India, but it was at the tail end of the sojourn. I was heading back to the States in a matter of days.

I had gone to see some caves near Aurangabad. They are quite something really. You should see them. At any rate, my flight was out of Delhi, but Aurangabad is in Maharashtra and there’s not really a direct route between them. So, I was passing through Bombay—which in those days might really have been Bombay rather than Mumbai. The change in name was at least recent.

And although I had come on the bus to Aurangabad, I had booked a train back. The problem was that I had lost my ticket, and in my panic to find it, I also reached the station late. Not after the train was scheduled to depart, but without enough time to settle any problems. Like lost tickets.

On top of that, if I remember right, this was a train that did not come frequently. Perhaps it came once a week, or only every other day. I’m not sure about that part. But I do recall that if I had missed that train, I would also have missed the train back to Delhi from Mumbai/Bombay and consequently my flight.

Needless to say, I was a bit in a state when I went to speak to the stationmaster about the matter of my lost ticket. He wasn’t in. He was having his dinner or his tea or hadn’t left his house. This part is again rather vague. But there was an office full of employees of various kinds—white collar, sweepers, peons (as they call them). They all took an interest in my lost ticket. And in various polite ways told me to calm down—including sharing out a half cup of tea with me. There was plenty of time, they told me.

Which there was. The train was about four hours late. It might have been six.

And I think for some of us who aren’t familiar with all of this, we might take this for a generally relaxed attitude. But it isn’t. It is a relaxed attitude about time. Just as the rat was not an emergency, neither was my train ticket. The rat wasn’t going to come back to life and walk itself out of the kitchen. It would remain there nicely until someone finally found it. And the train was late in any case.

But my experience with Indians is that they are no less stressed than anyone else, that most Indians are worried about something most of the time. There is often some kind of inter-personal conflict that has to be addressed.

Now, I haven’t met all of India. So it’s entirely possible that I’ve managed to land myself repeatedly in the midst of worriers and nail-biters. But I have heard about inadequately treated rheumatoid arthritis from a young woman with a young child–a fresh acquaintances–on the train, and about a middle-aged man’s wife dying of cancer at a café, and a friend’s almost-tragic love story. (An arranged marriage, she fell in love with the wrong arranged suitor.) And last week I saw two men very nearly come to blows (there was shoving, but no hitting) over a motorcycle fender-bender.

Life is stressful. It’s stressful everywhere. That seems to be the nature of life.

What I saw was only a fender bender. This would have led to a brawl.
What I saw was only a fender bender. This would have led to a brawl.

But it is perhaps doubly stressful when healthcare standards are not quite up to par, when you live in a slum or are dependent on someone’s labor who lives in a slum (because slums are periodically destroyed and their tenants evicted), and a lot of things just don’t work or they work for a while and then break. Oh, and then there’s the matter of weather and the fact that most of the year, in most places, it is either raining like mad or hotter than hell.

So my India is not a chilled out place. It’s a place where everyone everywhere is hustling, because getting by requires that. It requires hustle. And where a lot of things must be fought over in order to get anything done. This may be the case only in cities, but a lot of India lives there.

In fact, I would venture to speculate that the reason India has brought us meditation and yoga is not that it is such a relaxed, chilled-out, easy place to live. They have brought the world ways to relax simply because they needed some way to cope.

Chocolate Cake

I was thinking about Sir Ken Robinson on the bus on the way to get a TDaP vaccine, focused mainly on how tremendously ironic I think it is that a man who hales from the 2nd most individualistic culture in the world and (I think) currently lives in the most individualistic culture believes our schools are forcing too many square pegs into round holes.

I believe this is a classroom in Shanghai. China is not outperforming the US in education, by any measure, but other Asian countries who have very similarly designed classrooms are in math and science--fields that require a high degree of creative thinking.
I believe this is a classroom in Shanghai. China is not outperforming the US in education, by any measure, but other Asian countries who have very similarly designed classrooms are in math and science–fields that require a high degree of creative thinking.

The man has clearly entered very few classrooms outside of his own culture and has no idea how much rote learning and conformity goes on in schools elsewhere. He seems so without perspective that he makes me laugh.

He is really telling us we need to be more what we most love to do. And we love him for it. It is like going to church and having the priest tell you to sin more or going to the doctor and having her recommend you eat more chocolate cake.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Individualism is our form of excess. It has not made us happier and it may or may not be making us more successful. It may be giving rise to increasing rates of suicide among Baby Boomers, and it may be contributing to a variety of stress-related diseases especially among older people–who have had more years to develop them.

He also seems to have no clue that people are not, in fact, distributed randomly across the country or around the world. We tend to cluster in various ways–we gravitate towards one another when we have shared interests or values, and we also tend to adopt one another’s habits and behaviors over time.

In the above video, he uses a map of the country to drive home the point that the rising rates of ADHD are figments of our imagination. But it is based on this idea that people are distributed randomly across the continent. There is no reason to think that we would be.

When you consider that, first of all, the US is almost entirely composed of people who rather recently (a few generations ago) left their homes, underwent a risky and uncertain journey, and began a new life in a far-off and unfamiliar place,you should probably expect that the people who live here might be substantially different from people back in their home countries. Because most sensible people would stay home.

Even in the face of economic and political adversity, there is still a safety in “the devil you know.” Americans have mostly embraced the devil they didn’t know. That isn’t quite unique, but it’s not usual.

Temperamentally, it seems completely reasonable to expect that Americans would be weighted towards certain behaviors: either merely culturally or because of some process in genetics. You would expect to see more risk-taking, more willingness to try new things, more restlessness, and less contentment with the status quo than those immigrants have left behind.

And while every country has its immigrants, some of the former British colonies are rather unique in being composed almost entirely of people who arrived there only within the last few hundred years. So, It does not in the slightest surprise me that the US has higher rates of ADHD diagnosis than Europe, even though most Americans come from European stock. Americans should certainly be more “something.”

But impulsive, hyperactive, and craving high degrees of stimulation and activity would be among them.

Certainly, if I had ADHD, and I were alive around the time my own immigrant great-grandparents arrived in this country, fleeing to a brand-new, largely unknown country might be the first thing I ever really wanted to do. And along with me, I would be bringing my ADHD genes.

It also does not surprise me that the United States would have different rates of diagnosis in different parts of the country. We cluster, we share, and we become like the others near us, and therefore different from those further away. And these differences affect all kinds of things: how willing we much we trust doctors and how willing we are to have our kids labeled, among them.

adhd_prevalencedatachart

It may be that everyone with impulsive, hyperactive genes decided to move to Louisiana at some point. Or it may be that Westerners resist having their kids labeled even if that label might help their children be successful and have positive self-esteems. We don’t know, do we?

The map does mean something, but there are so many factors at work, it’s hard to say what

It certainly doesn’t mean we are simply intolerant of difference.

Although we don’t really know what causes ADHD, even if it does seem to have a genetic basis, there are other factors that seem to affect our genes. It wasn’t long ago when we realized that having an older father seemed to contribute to the risk of being born with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

There is no reason to think that behavior–like waiting longer to have children–is evenly distributed either. In fact, some behaviors most definitely are not: Americans are much less careful with our food than our European counterparts. We allow far more hormones into our meats, for example. We are less cautious with GMOs. But we smoke less.

So when I get to that portion of Sir Ken’s speech, I can’t help but laugh. And not because of the absurdity of thinking that there may, in fact, be real genetic differences (on average) in populations living in different parts of the world or the country. But because the number of assumptions he is making in forming the arguments are so many and so great that the whole cloth of what he is saying is absurd.

In fact, Sir Ken is quite wrong on one point he makes; he claims we are anesthetizing children. And yet what we give those children who are diagnosed with ADHD are not sedatives. They are most often stimulants. We are, just as he urges, trying to wake them up.

His arguments are not only lacking in logic, but simply wrong.

And yet we love him.  Because he tells us what we want to hear. We want to be told how unique and creative we could be if only we had the chance. We want to be told we are special, that we have these unique and wonderful innate capacities. We want to be told we could have been geniuses if we hadn’t been spoiled by our second-grade teacher making us color within the lines.

And we value creativity and individuality, so we think those things will solve everything. It may be killing us, but we like it anyway.

I think I’ll get some chocolate cake.

Autonomy, Connection and Self-Esteem

This is the puppy. Not recently though. She's much bigger now.
This is the puppy. Not recently though. She’s much bigger now.

It has been a long day, but I am also home after a week away, puppy-sitting. (The puppy got sick. It had a biting problem. Lovely little thing but I am, as perhaps you can imagine, exhausted.)

Consequently, this will be a short post although what I have on my mind most likely deserves more space. Still, I will do my best to tell you all about it in 300 words.

I have long been suspicious that there is far more emphasis on self-esteem than is really necessary. A part of why I think that is that self-serving biases, a set of cognitive errors in which we see ourselves as better-than-average–is much more common in WEIRD societies.  Other cultures engage in those errors much less so, or even hold self-effacing biases.

Yes, you have to be able to live with yourself. I’m not sure that you need to think you’re the cat’s pajamas. Although my cat is very cute. And would probably select very attractive pajamas.

That’s another story though.

And it occurred to me this morning, out walking the puppy (at a point when she was behaving very nicely and not biting at all), that there’s a reason for this, and it has to do with the balance between autonomy and connection

pajamas
I think these would suit her.

We all need autonomy. We also need connection. We need both, And there seems to be a range of acceptable degrees of balance between the two.  You can be single, have a few close friends, and a supportive family that lives far away and be quite content with life. You can also live in the same house with your parents, a sibling, and your sibling’s spouse and children and be quite happy.

What you can’t live in is solitary confinement, and you probably couldn’t take the “joint family” situation (the parent/sibling/sibling’s family scenario) if no one ever left the same room.

And it occurred to me that relationships provide a sense of safety. They are your pack. In hard times, you can anticipate they will protect you. When push comes to shove, it’s possible they may fail you. But in the abstract, you might imagine they have your back.

Self-esteem provides safety as well. If you conceive of yourself as quite capable of managing hardships on your own, that lack of close, protective relationships isn’t frightening. No one needs to have your back if you believe you have your own.

We focus on self-esteem in this culture because we don’t believe anyone really has our backs.

Boundaries and the Self

boundaries
Click the image for a post about boundaries from a Christian perspective.

The key to coping with difficult people–the leaky ones and the ones who trample your rights–is said to be setting good boundaries.

I’ve always had trouble with this. Not the mechanics of it. I’m a practical person. I’m good at deciding what is and is not okay with me and asserting that. Mostly. Also, I’ve had almost 20 years of psychotherapy.

The idea of boundaries is hard for me to grasp, the language of it. I know what to do, but not really what the word means or what making rules has to do with knowing where I end and someone else starts.

This morning, I think I’ve finally sorted it.

I see what constitutes the self as being radically different from how many other people see it. This is partly because I grew up in a home where I had no rights and then left it to live in a society where I have quite a few  rights and am expected to assert them. Meanwhile, I continue to be essentially the same person.

Consequently, I don’t see rights as being a necessary part of the self. They are culturally mediated and agreed upon. They are like clothes you can take on and off. You are going to be more comfortable in some clothes than others. Some are too tight. Others are suffocating. Some are downright painful–which is why I refuse to wear heels. And most of my shoes lace up. But you are still you even if you are wearing clothes you hate.

Click the image for an excellent post on Muslim immigrants in Spain.
Click the image for an excellent post on Muslim immigrants in Spain.

You are still you even if you have no rights, or don’t have enough rights to be comfortable, or even if you have more rights than you really know what to do with.

I know most people don’t see things that way. They see clothes as being a part of themselves. But I could wear a burqa and still be me. I’d just be hot. And probably trip a lot.

I was still me even when I had no rights.

This is because I see the self as being composed of fewer essential elements. The advantage to this is that I am less distressed by radical changes in my environment or in what is expected of me. I don’t see them as being assaults on my self.

My self persists.

For example, I am not really any different now than when I turned tricks. What is me, what always was me, is that I am a practical person, and I really want to live. I believe in the power of hard work, and I think with some of it, the future can be a lot better than the present or the past.

I'm not the water. I'm the goldfish. I am not even the goldfish. I am the desire to leave the water.
I’m not the water. I’m the goldfish. I am not even the goldfish. I am the desire to leave the water.

There are a few other things that are also essentially me, but that is most of it. That is me in a nutshell.

In a very real way, I have not changed. I have worked hard to change my circumstances, my habits, many of my beliefs and even my feelings, but at a core level I am exactly the same as I was when I was two years old. I am a practical person, and I really want to live. I believe in the power of hard work, and I think with some of it, the future can be a lot better than the present or the past.

If I saw the idea of the self differently, I would need to see myself differently. The changes I needed to make would have been much more difficult. They would have felt like an assault on who I was.

The way I see the self is adaptive. You can borrow it if you like.