By now, we’ve probably all heard the story of the blind men and the elephant. After feeling the elephant, a king asked them what the elephant was like. (Apparently, they had a very elephant-deprived existence, and this was their first one. Work with me here.)
“Thereupon, the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.”
Continuing with my post from yesterday, arguing about which self is true and which is false is like arguing about whether an elephant is really a pot or really a brush. It is both, and also neither. It’s an elephant.
I see myself both as someone disposable and without any value (the Paper Cup self), and as someone who has so much value that the feeling of being without value is worth listening and paying attention to. Just as the elephant is his tail–but is also much more–I am that person that feels without value. But I’m a lot of other things as well.
We tend to assume we are the only specie with the capacity to deceive others. Animals are always authentically themselves, we presume. But chimpanzees lie. They sneak off to have sex with partners they aren’t allowed to have sex with, and pretend they don’t know where the tasty treats are so their interest won’t alert all the others to its location.
Animals, it turns out, lie too. At least some of them do.
Deception is something that becomes possible as soon as you can understand someone else’s point of view. And we aren’t the only ones who can.
But we might be the only ones with prohibitions against deception, so we might still be special that way. In fact, we’re so focused on authenticity that we sometimes seem lost in a search for our “true” selves. Our true selves might be wonderful–discover your true self!–or sniveling, frightened, whiny children that we suppress because they’re either so painful or so humiliating. But we are sure they exist.
In addition to his idea of the “good enough” mother, Donald Winnicott brought us the idea of the “true” and “false” self. It wasn’t really anything new, but he seems to have done better at describing it than his predecessors. He describes the “true” self as our internal, felt reality and a “false” self as a compliant image we create to satisfy overly controlling parents.
I don’t believe in any of that. All of our selves are real, even if we construct them mainly to please others. I don’t think he’s entirely wrong. I just don’t think a bifurcated view of reality is helpful.
In fact, because our self-views are formed through several different pathways: our internal, felt experience, our actions, and the views others have of us (Cooley’s looking glass self), incompatible, conflicting views of the self would be the natural result of having wide disparities in those pathways.
In other words, if the people around me constantly see me in distorted ways (say, because they’re psychotic), I would quite naturally develop a sense of self that will feel just as authentic as the sense of self that emerges based on watching what I do. Similarly, if I need to avoid expressing important parts of my real desires and feelings, then the self-view I develop based on my lived experience will probably be substantially different from the one I develop based on how others see me.
When we have to put on too much of a show to survive–or if there is a show going on entirely in our parents’ minds, we develop discontinuous selves.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately. Not any of the million things on my to-do list. Just thinking. And I have several different feelings about this. I’m enjoying it. It also makes me feel trapped, because I don’t really know why I’ve chosen to do that. I don’t seem to be able to choose differently. And it makes me really anxious (because OH MY GOD I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO!!!!)
I don’t think any of those are more real than the others. The feeling that is harder to access isn’t more “authentic” than the feeling on the surface. They are all real, and they are based–I’m guessing–on my own discontinuous selves, that have different memories of the past, different assumptions about what might work and what’s important, and if they were free to choose would all choose different actions.
I just hope the one I’ve settled on is the best one. But I don’t know.
It seems to me that all of my selves are incomplete. It is like looking at the world through a thick screen–some part of your view is always obscured. You hope you’re seeing enough, but it’s hard to know. Maybe you’re missing an elephant out there in the middle of the landscape.
My real self is what I would have if I could see everything at the same time. I guess that’s why I keep thinking.
I didn’t sleep well last night. I woke up in the night and again early in the morning–before the sun was up–feeling cranky and restless and out of sorts. I felt about seven years old, like a cranky seven-year-old.
I have no idea why.
Being me is a constant surprise and a mystery, even if it isn’t always fun.
I’m thinking more about the paper-cup self and my fears about acknowledging it.
We tend to assume that we think we are who we are because we are that person, but that’s not true. There are many reasons we form a view of ourselves–how we behave and how others behave towards us is a large part of that.
If your behavior is a natural outgrowth of how you feel and what your temperament is, then your view of yourself will tend to have something to do with what’s going on inside you and all will be well. But if what you are doing has nothing to do with what’s going on inside–if you feel frightened, or disgusted, or ashamed of what you are doing then it all gets a bit confusing. Your view of yourself won’t match your internal experience.
And that’s what happens during a lot of abuse. It’s one of the reasons it is abuse, in fact. It messes with your head.
I mentioned that behavior communicates shared meanings. Both the perpetrator and the victim usually agree on what behaviors communicate degradation and powerlessness, and so their interaction creates a message that they can both read. What that makes me realize now is that, when I was a child, the perpetrators and I had shared meanings for behavior.
I wasn’t dealing with the Glish. “Tasting” wasn’t a simple greeting among friends.
I’m not up to explaining this in detail today, so I hope that what I am writing makes sense. But what I am getting at is that they knew about the paper cup self. When they treated me as disposable object without rights, when they degraded and shamed me, they knew what they were doing to me. It may have been intentional, or it may have been a by-product of something else they were trying to accomplish, but they knew.
What we disagreed about was my right to find it distressing and to object to it.
I’ll tell you what came up next–not an ace, I’ll tell you that.
But I want to start with Cooley, so that you understand what I mean, and also with the idea that the self is something that we imagine. It doesn’t really exist. The self is a model we create in our mind that allows us to make predictions about ourselves and others, to make decisions, and to interact. It’s a very cool thing, and I’m guessing a fairly recent thing, since apparently hominids have only been able to think about the future for three million years (where that number comes from, I have no idea.)
And a self seems useful mainly for thinking about the future and what we might do in it, but maybe I’m wrong. Chimpanzees evidently have developed theory of mind, and that sort of leaves the door open.
But keep in mind that, regardless of what the ability to think about a self developed for or even whether it was three million years ago or longer, it would before modern humans appeared n the scene (and before chimps as well).
We are only 200,000 years old. But australopithecus would have been around and so would have paranthropus. Maybe they
started this trend. I don’t know, but I’m afraid I have wandered off the point.
Charles Horton Cooley says we develop our sense of self, at least in part, because we see ourselves as we imagine others see us. This is called the looking-glass self, because in this idea, the minds of others are acting like mirrors for us to see ourselves in.
We know–or can guess-how others see us, because of how people behave towards us mainly, and to a lesser extent based on what they say. (We usually believe behavior over words.) Behavior has meaning and within a culture, meanings are usually shared. (Across cultures, it often isn’t, which is why people experience culture shock. The real problem is usually self-shock: differences in meanings ascribed to behavior creates a conflict about how to see oneself.)
This process occurs outside of awareness and outside of intentional control.
When we are routinely abused by others, we develop negative views of ourselves, because the view of us being communicated in abusive behavior is that we are worthless, bad, or unworthy of consideration and regard. No one communicates care or respect by slapping someone else around or looking contemptuous. It just isn’t done.
So sometimes, when I feel like a used paper cup, I know why. It has to do with how various perpetrators saw me, and the view they communicated to me through their behavior. I think it’s a completely accurate view of what they thought about me.
It’s hard to stay with that view though. It’s painful. I don’t really want to think about it or engage with it. It’s one of those things you want to put aside and move on from without considering too carefully.
But if I stay with it, I start to see a bit beyond it. I start to see how I saw myself. I don’t really know how I see my child-self now, but I think I can recall how I saw myself then. Maybe.
I was cute.
I don’t know how else to say it. I was really, really cute.
And that just makes me very sad.
It also reminds me of how I saw the men who used me, and it is like fire raining down. They were just evil. And I feel sad about that too. It also hurts my head. The horror is so terribly intense.
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.
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.
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.
Recently, I mentioned to someone else the necessity of creating the right performance if your life is in the hands of a sociopath or someone similar, or if you are being tortured, or if you are a child in the sex industry as I was.
I’ve said it before on this blog: everyone wants you to be someone if you are in that situation. Who they want depends on them, but it is never what you want. And survival–and by survival I mean not getting your head bashed in or your intestines ripped out of your body while you are still alive–depends on figuring out very quickly what performance to give and being able to give the performance convincingly.
I think that’s true of anyone in situations marked by violence coupled with extreme power differences, whether it’s a detainee at Abu Ghraib or a 6-year-old sex worker in Thailand. The detainee needs to know who the interrogator wants him to be. The sex worker needs to know who the john wants.
Our performance is not a self, although it’s possible to begin to mistake it for one if it goes on long enough.
Selves are always performative, but they are never the performance themselves. We are the directors and authors of our performances and the self always shows through. If we perform for the torturer or the john, it is evidence of our desire to live, a wish to avoid unbearable suffering. And it may point to a limitation in our courage or our will to continue to resist, but it is not evidence that we are the person the perpetrator desires.
The self is also our interior experience of witnessing and responding to the performance, which might include our sense of gratitude to the performance for saving our lives, or the guilt at betraying our real feelings and desires.
Our performances shape our selves. They tell us, in part, who we are. The way others view us also shape who we are. But our internal experiences are also us. The”true” self lies at the nexus of all three. There is no such thing as a false self–although we might get confused about it if we begin to lose some part of the nexus: our internal experience, or our view of ourself, or the way someone else sees us. But the self can only be what it is and it is never still. It is always instead in a state of construction.
If we perform a character we are not in order to survive, the pain for us lies in the horrific nature of what is performed. In other words, it is what we endure while carrying out that performance that is so so terrible. It is only if I believe the performance is all there is to me that I can confuse the performance with myself, but that can never be true. A performance informs the self, but it is not the self.
The very necessity of survival creates an internal experience–fear, rage, revulsion, helplessness. I don’t think it’s possible not to feel this, although we might find ways to distance ourselves from it. But we are always, in the end, the one inside ourselves. The one who feels, thinks, reacts. We are the doer and never solely what we do.