Self-Reflection and Seeing Your Place in the World

When we think of ourselves and who we are as people, we can easily fall into a trap where the best parts of who we are standout and shine, while the worst parts of ourselves are hidden in the shadows where we are not able to recognize them. We are rational beings, and we are so good at being rational that we can explain away almost anything. Our bad behaviors are never just our own bad behaviors but they are a result of someone else’s bad behaviors in the first place, and our bad habits really are not habits and they really are not that bad, and our lack of initiative on that thing we tell everyone we are working on is due to how hard we work on everything else and how busy we are. In the end, we paint a picture of ourselves in our mind that makes us really awesome. Our decisions are motivated by all the right reasons and we are on the correct side of any given political debate, parental decision, and freeway driving style.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats grew up constantly questioning and challenging this instinctual way of thinking. In my last post I described his mother’s method of punishment when he got in trouble as a school child. His mother would make him sit down and write about his poor behavior and answer questions about why he was disrespectful, why his behavior was frowned upon by his teachers and by society, and why he thought it was ok for him to do the things that got him in trouble. He explains that all this writing did little to change his actual behavior as a child, but it gave him a unique skillset, the ability to look at the world, ask why it was the way it was and why people acted the way they did, and to then turn inward and ask if he himself acted the way that others did, and why he acted as he did. His mother built a sense of self-awareness in him that shaped his life and the way he understood the world.

 

What Coats found when he became more reflective of himself was a world that was not as innocent as many have believed growing up. Each time he got in trouble he was forced to recognize that he was not the perfect person that he wanted to see in the mirror. He was forced to acknowledge his shortcomings and negative instincts, and he began to make connections from himself and his behaviors to other people. About his reflective writing Coats writes, “Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?”

 

We all act in ways that best serve ourselves, or ways that we think will best serve ourselves and our tribe. We shape the stories we tell about the nature of the universe to align with the lifestyle, the privileges, and the opportunities we have. This is part of our human nature, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. When left unchecked, this part of us does not always lead to perfect outcomes for everyone. Our impulses may lead to tribal decisions that reflect discriminatory biases and our habits may disempower other people. If we cannot build a practice of self-reflection in our own lives, then we end up searching out and defending our decisions with information that is comforting to us, but not connected with the reality of our actions and the reality of the world that other people live within. Coats began to question the world around him because he understood his impulses and his own thoughts and behaviors. He understood why he got in trouble, and began to see that other people were not just the perfect individuals they presented as, but dealt with the same impulses and the same dark side that he dealt with. From this perspective, Coats could ask new questions of himself, his society, and how everyone built a shared understanding of who they were and where they came from.
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The One Policy

In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright discusses the way most people approach romantic marriages and finding a spouse to spend their life with. In the United States our culture is a little obsessed with the idea of “The One” or the thought that there is one person in the world that is the perfect custom tailored match to who we are.  Wright is critical of this vision and describes the reality of finding a partner.

 

“In real life, however, The One is a concept that isn’t just irrational, it’s potentially harmful. The idea that there’s someone out there who is customized to make you whole implies that you’re not capable of being complete on your own.”

 

I enjoy Wright’s thoughts of The One and his vision of completeness. I think it is important for us to always be authentic in who we are, and that includes being our complete self. If we cannot be a complete version of ourselves without being in a relationship and being with another person, then we cannot say that we truly know ourselves and we cannot say that we are truly stable. Self-reflection and awareness can help us better understand who we are and what we need, and can show us that we can be complete all on our own. If we cannot reflect on who we are and if we cannot be full people without another person, then we are going to be asking an awful lot of anyone else to be a complete person on their own and to fulfill us at the same time.

 

Wright is critical of The One not just because it is self-centered in the way that it uses other people to serve us while also being self-pitying in saying that we cannot become whole human beings on our own, but because it implies that relationships with anyone who is not The One are in some sense a waste of time. The concept of The One puts pressure on us to be somehow more than who we are, and it pressures us to doubt relationships and undervalue anyone we don’t think we will marry. We lose the ability to learn and grow within relationships, because we simply look for someone else to do all the growing so that we do not need to.

Do We Actually Want Our Goals?

In the book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright is honest about his goals and explains a feeling that I think is not well addressed by most people. Focusing on the times when the direction of our life seems to be able to shift, Wright comments on the difficulties and challenges of pivoting. He encourages us to reflect on our path and destination, and be prepared for moments when our path takes a sudden turn, and we find ourselves moving toward a new destination. At these times, when our course changes, he encourages us to ask why we were on our original path? What set our goals and built our motivation to reach those goals? What are the stories we have been telling ourselves as travel toward our goals? These self reflective practices dive deeper into who we are and what we want than we often allow ourselves to think, and they can help us be more flexible in our journey, and more aligned toward goals that actually help us get to a place where we belong.

 

Wright asks, “If one’s goals are suddenly within reach but one doesn’t take them, what does it say about one’s knowledge of oneself and the truth of those goals?” I interpret this quote in two ways. The first being that we are complacent and our goals are impressive, but not more important than the status quo in our lives. And second, that we strive toward goals that were never in alignment with what we actually wanted. Wright continues in the book to detail what the second interpretation means, and I will explore both briefly.

 

Tyler Cowen, a George Mason professor and author, is relentlessly striving to wake people from what he describes as the complacent class. He believes that people too often favor the status quo, don’t push for change, and don’t have a strong enough drive toward worthwhile goals. My first interpretation of Wright’s quote aligns with Cowen’s views on the complacent class. Sometimes our goals are out there and within reach, but we need to take uncomfortable steps and put ourselves in challenging positions to reach the goals.  We can achieve what we tell ourselves and others that we want, but we make excuses for why we can’t actually achieve our goals or why this moment isn’t the right time for us to take the tough steps toward our goals. When we stop and reflect, we can see how far we truly are from success and begin to ask what we can do to move forward. If we see that we can achieve our goals, but do not put in the effort to reach them, then we must assume that they are not important to us, and that we are more comfortable where we are. This can exist at a base level of an individual who says their goals is to get a job, but instead plays video games, or at the executive level with an individual who states that they want to be a CEO, but never steps forward when an opportunity arises.

 

The other view of Wright’s quote is that we are striving toward goals that other people have set for us, or that we have adopted to try to please others. It could be that the individual in my second example above has felt pressure to be a CEO because her parents always wanted her to succeed and challenge barriers in society, but she may feel perfectly in alignment with her current position and lifestyle. When we put goals in front of us that do not fit who we are and what we truly want, steps toward our goal will actually be a detractor from our overall happiness. When we see the way to reach out goal, and we recognize that we are procrastinating, we should reflect to determine whether our goal is something we actually want and if it is in line with who we are or want to become. If we see that it is, then we should lean into the obstacles that slow us down, but if not, we should redirect ourselves and find goals that better fit who we are as opposed to who others want us to be.

Redirection

Author Colin Wright reflects a lot of stoic principles in his writings, and in his book, Come Back Frayed, he echoes thoughts about the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection. He writes,

 

“Some people who take the time to explore who they are and what they want — not the stories they’ve been telling about themselves, to themselves, because it’s convenient socially and suits the image they’re trying to portray, but who  they actually are and what they truly want — find that they return to their lives with a re-magnetized compass. The direction in which they’d long walked wasn’t their North after all. Perhaps they’ll need to do some backtracking, explore new territory, eschew the familiar path they’d become comfortable walking in favor of something unfamiliar. Something that takes them through sparsely lit, maybe even completely uncharted and uncarved wilderness.”

 

Self-reflection can be much deeper and much more involved than what we often imagine. Constant evaluation of our actions, thoughts, and desires is challenging, but ultimately more rewarding than simply moving from moment to moment reacting to the world around us. Wright’s quote shows that the type of reflection needed to truly understand our path and ourselves goes beyond simply stopping every now and then to briefly think about where we are and why we are doing something. The reflection he writes about is a deep and continual practice, baked into each moment of our life in a practiced awareness.

 

I recently listened to an episode of the Rationally Speaking Podcast where host Julia Galef interviewed Tim Urban about rational decision making. Urban described the problems we face focusing for the long term, and described the easily distractible part of our brain as our “instant gratification monkey”, to represent the idea that we constantly lose track of our focus by taking the easy rout and indulging our impulses. When Wright describes the importance of self reflection, he is in part explaining the importance of building a system of reflection that is not driven by our instant gratification monkey, but is instead driven by controlled mental processes. A practice of self reflection as described by Wright will help us learn more about who we are, and will also help us overcome the impulsive nature of our instant gratification monkey.

 

Ultimately, by continually focusing on who we are, who we are becoming, and what stories we tell ourselves and others, we can begin to ensure that our path and actions are in true alignment with the person we want to be. Focusing beyond ourselves and striving to become more aware of ourselves and how we interact with the world will help us find ways to better use our time, wrenching control back from our instant gratification monkey, and will help us navigate new waters on our journey.

Deliberate Growth

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we often look at our selves, our abilities, and the situations in which we find ourselves.  We tend to think that who we are is set in stone and shaped by forces beyond our control: I am naturally good at writing, I was not born with a good singing voice, I like to go to the gym, I don’t know how to do computer programming. In some way with all the examples above, we are looking at the things we do and do not do as if they are given parts of life, and not conscious choices that we make. When we look at who we are, what we excel at, where we struggle, what we like to do, and what things are not part of who we are, we begin to narrow our lives and place ourselves in a box. We define ourselves not by our ability to grow and change, but rather by who or what we perceive ourselves to be during a point in time. Holiday challenges this thinking, “We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body).”

 

His quote on its own speaks to the importance of mental and physical fortitude, but the section in which he includes the quote speaks to more than just the idea of mental and physical strength. The focus of Holiday in the quote above is on the word craft. We do not simply have mental strength by chance, and we do not simply have physical strength without working out. As Holiday explains, we must put in the effort, work, and focus to build our lives to match the quote above, to have a sound mind in a sound body.

 

Deliberate action and focus are the only things that will lead us to the growth we wish to see. We will have to put in real effort and work to develop the person we want to be, and if we do not strive to improve ourselves, we will only atrophy, and wither away as a result of the limitations we accept. Holiday continues, “Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.” Looking at the qualities we want to develop, and preparing ourselves for the challenging road to acquire those qualities is a must if we want to find growth. From Holiday’s perspective, self-reflection and awareness are key, as a greater understanding of self and vision for growth will build and shape who we are and the actions we take, opening opportunity and improving experiences.

 

Holiday’s advice in forging ahead on our path is similar to the advice of Richard Wiseman, who wrote in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, encouraged journaling and reflection on the challenges we expect to face along our journey. By explaining how we will plan for obstacles in life, we can develop our sound mind, propelling us beyond our challenges. Thinking ahead and reflecting on not just our success but our failures and difficulties can help us build the strength necessary to develop our steel backbone.

Ultimate Strength

Author Ryan Holiday writes that his ultimate inner strength is his will, and he dives into what that means in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. He explains that our will stretches beyond simply our desire to do something or the degree to which we want something, and looks at will in the context of stoicism and our every day lives. Holiday writes, “Will is fortitude and wisdom — not just about specific obstacles, but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it.” In this context our will is driven beyond the world of sports or promotions where it is analogous to hard work or grit, and it becomes transformed to an internal power plant that generates strength to persevere in all aspects of our lives during challenging times.

 

For Holiday, our will is a decision that comes from our mental ability to focus and reflect on our lives, which means that it is under the control of our conscious mind. Our actions, efforts, and energy can be shaped by other people and contribute the obstacles we face, but our will can be external to those events, influenced only by our own thoughts, perceptions, and self-awareness. By taking control of will, we can build it into our own lives to power our own engines.

 

Stoicism is helpful in building will since it focuses on self-reflection and self-awareness to shape our perceptions of the world. Recognizing the power of opinion and perception helps us take control of our mind, and allows us to focus our actions on our goals with intentionality. The will that Holiday explains results from the mental fortitude that develops when we realize that the only thing affecting our mind is our own thoughts and opinions.

The Need To Be Present

Author Ryan Holiday writes about what it means to persevere through challenges and struggles in his book The Obstacle is the Way. He builds on ideas of stoicism dating back to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, and helps us understand how greater awareness, presence, and focus can make a big difference in the world in 2016.  Looking at those who marched forward in the face of adversity, Holiday presents us with a list of major businesses that thrive today, but were founded during economic challenges and depressions. These companies, he argues, found success in difficult times by staying present, and not focusing on the doom and gloom around them, but rather on their own strengths and innovation.

 

When we incorporate this into our own lives we can find the same benefits, and Holiday writes, “…in our own lives, we aren’t content to deal with things as they happen. We have to dive endlessly into what everything “means,” whether something is “fair” or not, what’s “behind” this or that, and what everyone else is doing. Then we wonder why we don’t have the energy to actually deal with our problems. Or we get ourselves so worked up and intimidated because of the overthinking, that if we’d just gotten to work we’d probably be done already.” Through this quote holiday writes about the ways in which we focus on things which distract us from our true goals and worry about things which lie beyond our control. These fears and worries steal our energy and focus, preventing us from driving toward our goals.

 

Holiday would argue that we would be more productive in our lives and reach better outcomes by turning inward rather than being distracted by things external to our mind. It is not up to us to determine what others think or do, but it is up to us to decide how we will react to others. We can think deeply and critically about the world around us, but we can never be certain of the forces surrounding us and the thoughts and ideas of others. Living in a world where external validation and success is determined by what others think of you is dangerous and unpredictable. When you value yourself based on how you perceive others to value you,  you are giving up control of your own life. Building in more reflection of your actions and dropping a worry about the opinions of others will help you find more freedom and power in your own life.