Friday, 8 June 2012


Greetings one and everyone,

Today's thoughts are not especially business related, but it's been something I've been thinking a lot about, and felt I should try to develop my thoughts in writing a bit.  I haven't done a literature review nor even taken courses in this...  I just think a lot.


For many years when I talked to people about self improvement, there seemed to be a certain model of the self they were working with.  They saw themselves with many layers, like an onion.  On the outside were masks, barriers, and layers that we put up to deal with the outside world and protect us from various hurts that came our way. Underneath these masks was the true self, and we needed to look at the pain we had gone through in order to take down these layers and reveal the true self.  Different people had variations on this idea, but it was quite a common concept.

I've always been big on self-improvement, and have spent a lot of my life using this model, soul-searching, journalling, trying to get at the root causes of whatever is holding me back, with a certain degree of success. Recently, however, I've had a thought that won't go away:  What if this approach to self-improvement is a bad approach?

What if soul searching doesn't unearth the true self, but rather entrenches you in negative feelings and dwelling on the past? 

If that's the case then self-improvement based on this model would be ineffective for becoming the person you want to be.

What if the true self is more like a lake than an onion?  You can siphon off water to get deeper but the deeper parts aren't any more the "true lake" than the surface. If this view of the self is more accurate than the "masks" model, then soul searching to peel off layers would not be effective.  

The self in a role

The alternative model of "the self" that I propose consists of two overlapping components: Core and Role.  Internally you have your predispositions, thought patterns, natural ways of responding to stimuli, as well as values, skills, talents, traits and abilities.  This internal core interacts with the world through various roles, which is a set of beliefs about yourself, how you should be, how you should interact with the world, and who you should identify with.

The role helps us fit into society and understand who we are.  It is the answer to the question "Who are you?" There is comfort in the fact that we know what to expect and what is expected of us.  It can be the cause of our success and our failure. Some of the most traumatic events that people can experience in life involve the loss of a role:
  • Losing your job: Most people self-identify with their job.  It's "I'm an engineer" or "I'm a hairstylist" more often than "I do engineering work" or "I am employed as a hairstylist".  Losing your job is partly equated in people's minds as losing their role in the world.  
  • Death of a close relation: Added to the gravity of the loss of someone you care about is the loss of your relationship to them. You had a role as a friend, as a lover, as a parent, a child or a spouse.  Now who are you and how do you fit in the world?
  • Divorce/breakup: Even if the relationship was bad or abusive there is pain in the loss because you lose your role. 
The role can help us understand why we get trapped in negative patterns.  Why is it hard for a homeless person to get a job and leave the streets, even in cases where severe mental illness is not involved?  It is their role, and to change means leaving a known role for an uncertain future. Why is so hard for many parents to relate to their teenagers?  Because the parent's role with a teenager is so different from with a younger child.

There is research whose findings support this model.  The famous Stanford Prison Experiment took normal college students and put them in roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison.  The students fell into their roles so completely that the situation became abusive, and had to be terminated just 6 days into what was supposed to be a 2-week experiment. 

Changing roles

Any role change is unsettling, but it's easier to gain a new role than to lose a role.  Getting a new job, getting married and having a child are easier than losing a job, getting divorced or losing a child.

This fact can be useful for helping people make difficult changes.  A good example of this is Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the better known support groups for alcohol addiction.  They recognize that people have to be ready to self-identify as an alcoholic in order to be able to overcome their addiction. They assign that person a new role as a recovering alcoholic, give them a community and responsibilities that go with this new role, and as a result many people have turned away from a destructive habit.


I'm sure there's a lot more to be said on this subject than I have written.  But going back to the subject of self-improvement, I believe that this information can be very useful for breaking out of old patterns.  Patterns of negative behaviour, for example, may not be because a person has a bad core, but are rather in a role that has been shaped by their own expectations and the expectations of the people around them.  Changing your role may be as simple as deciding on a new role, and surrounding one's self with people who will reinforce this role.

I suppose it lends credence to the old adage: You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.


Anonymous said...

you should check /r/Meditation/

and specially

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