What is Discovered When We’re Looking to Know Ourselves

By Arnold Siegel

It’s interesting to discover when we’re looking to know ourselves—to know what makes us tick, so to speak—that we often find our “answers” when we look at ourselves as one among many. Yes, each of us is unique. Yet all of us are here. Set down. Made. What do I mean by “made?”

We all come into the world at the effect of the authority of the natural, historical and linguistic experimental design and ordering of the human condition. The design and ordering appeal to our desires; exploit our fears (with natural intimidation or with cultural or human-made criteria which generate sentiments such as shame, ridicule, embarrassment and pity); and attempt to motivate us to adapt to the environments in which we find ourselves and to compete successfully over the course of a lifetime.

In other words, much of who we are is already done. So much has already been written on our bodies, our brains. (Our scientists tell us that our reflexes and habits or patterns of being are neuronally encoded, that is, actually written on the brain.) We already have a perspective from which to observe and it’s not a neutral position.

Why do we have certain prejudices? Why do we have certain beliefs? Why do we have specific desires? To some extent our genes may determine that we have these propensities. But where we were reared and the demands of modern life have focused them in a particular way. The “mass of expectations” that we are is not based upon informed thoughtfulness. Our expectations are based on a combination of the ideas of others; on unexamined, untested received opinion and on marching orders from our genes. How little of what is already done did we do with our eyes open?

And, as happens to most of us, what that perspective yields is a narrow and simplistic picture of the world. But in fact the bigger picture of the world that we are trying to acquire by studying autonomy and life includes, complexity, complication, intricacy, mixed messages, irony, layers of meaning, messiness, disorderliness, conflict, paradox, shades of gray, ambiguity, inconsistency, friction, disharmony, disunity.

Think about it. Think about just how “un” black and white the world is. In fact, the issue of conflicting or incommensurate values or truth comes up all the time—with children, peers, employees, spouse and with oneself.

Judgments, choices and decisions made by the smartest of us, as well as those made by the most naive, still effect consequences unforeseen and unexpected. Is it not true that obviously “right” and “wrong” decisions, choices and actions are few and far between; that many of the informed choices we make in good conscience still subject us to great pangs of regret and to consequences such as loss, failure and grief; that solutions or adaptations we choose give rise, themselves, to a new set of problems.

Is it not true that nostalgic dreams about lovers or friends we’ve chosen to leave behind crop up while we’re sleeping, as do nightmares portending misfortune or loss associated with choices well conceived and strategized; that there are limits to what relationships can provide — whether or not we choose to marry; holidays can look bleak whether we do or do not choose to have children; that choosing to allow truant older children to live at home may be risky and that choosing to ask them to leave may result in unthinkable consequences.

Is it not true that choosing to retain incompetent or deceptive employees may be risky and that choosing to fire them may result in crushing lawsuits; choosing to ignore the odd behavior of the neighbors may be risky and that interfering with their privacy may cause great disruption to your own family; that if we don’t choose to practice religion, we may experience moments of hopelessness and meaninglessness and if we do choose to practice religion, we may still have to fight down existential anxiety.

Is it not true that choosing to indulge our passions may cause pain to those who would have us choose otherwise and that if we don’t choose to go with our passions, we may grow old feeling we have lived terrible and little lives; that we can expect to have feelings of blame, shame, remorse, guilt, anguish, loneliness, indifference, hostility, disgust, self-reproach, regardless of the excellence of our judgments, decisions and choices?

Arnold Siegel – Seven Instances of Self-Misdescription

By Arnold Siegel

What follows are seven instances of self-misdescription. Think about them. Do any apply?

One: Do you have a tendency to “buy” your own press or believe your boasts? If so, are you unwittingly hiding from yourself pockets of ignorance and inexperience? If you’re “over-confident,” do you sometimes fail to evaluate the risks inherent in reality and, consequently, charge into situations wherein your actual resources are insufficient? Said another way, do you give yourself credit for holding a card that you do not actually hold and proceed as if you had intellectual, educated or social assets you don’t really possess?

Two: This one is complex. Does your oversized ego “posture.” Though it’s no saint, does it feign indignation, shock and disbelief at the conduct of others? Does it say, as if it’s a virtue, “I was naïve,” or “I like to see the world in black and white,” or “I had faith in him or her,” or “I thought I could trust him or her,” or “I think people in leadership positions should be perfect role models?”

In fact, isn’t such posturing irresponsible, disingenuous and self-deceptive? As no one on this earth is free of the brute and primitive fears and desires that prompt the rest of us to occasional or frequent selfish, stupid, duplicitous, unkind, irrational actions, isn’t careful assessment your responsibility? If you’re posturing innocence, aren’t you denying what you really know to be true about nature, motives and fickle feelings, including your own? [This is not to say, of course, that we can’t hold others to account. It’s merely to say that naïveté and childish faith are irresponsible and undermine the remarkable sense of individual responsibility we are intent upon creating.]

Three: When your efforts to persuade others are not taken seriously, could it be that your actual way of being contradicts the image you think you are presenting?

Four: As your professional, peer and private relationships begin, do you extend yourself generously, showering new friends or lovers or employers with time, effort, appreciation, resources, patience, listening and benevolent judgment, perhaps seemingly of a personal nature and beyond the call of duty? In these cases, charged by “good” feelings, are the issues of reciprocity and an exchange of equivalent value perhaps not discussed; are careful deals not made?

Later, as the everyday realities of the relationships are manifested, is it true that the generosity may not come so easily? However, instead of recognizing the need now for a straightforward, tactful, dialogical adjustment to the commitments and expectations, do you begin to “keep score,” including, of course, retroactively? Eventually, do disappointment, grudges, resentment, argument, self-antagonism and feelings of being exploited occur?

[In this case, the misdescription is a result of misunderstanding why the generosity was extended. Perhaps you did not acknowledge, up front, that you expected to be paid back in kind. In the first flush of new relationships or associations, generosity feels real and authentic. Perhaps you did not recognize (or perhaps you forgot) that you extended the generosity strategically — as a means to securing and maintaining relationships. Generosity as a function of heartfulness must be creatively and consciously commanded.]

Five: Do you sometimes misdescribe reflexive self-indulgence as “natural” and justify—in the name of authenticity—cruelty, pettiness, vengeance, nonfeasance, or excessiveness? When you do not exhibit self-possession, self-creation and self-mastery as it is expressed in heartfulness, could it be because, in those situations, you do not yet command the competence to enact it?

Six: Do you want to be popular, liked, thought nice? Does the unexamined desire to be thought nice lead to you being nice instead of straight? For example, when your level of competitive competence does not achieve the desired result, do you tend to explain away your loss or retreat by saying it was more important to be nice than to succeed? [Sometimes, of course, it IS more important to be nice.]

Seven: Do you tend to walk away from projects, assignments, interactions, encounters and challenges saying to yourself, “If I had just put my mind to it, I could have done it better”? If so, are you describing yourself and pragmatic reality accurately? Sure, had your engagement taken place in a benign hypothetical Disneyland-like reality, had you been at your perfect fighting weight, had you done all your homework, had all the participants been gracious, loving and appreciative of your efforts, then, yes, the results might have been different. But given your current level of competence at, say, reflection, discipline, persuasion or heartfulness, given the playing field you were on, given the omnipresence of the vicissitudes of everyday life, could you have done it better? Or, given the facts about external pragmatic reality and about your current competence at discipline, pragmatic thinking, ethical persuasion or heartfulness, are you misdescribing yourself when you say you could have done it better?