Selfie. How the Perfect Self Became an Obsession

So, I went into that bookstore in Edinburgh to buy a specific book I knew they had. I took it from a shelf and decided to walk around the store and browse some more. Not that I wanted to buy any more books… But then, one title caught my eye: Selfie. How the West Became Self-Obsessed. 

The book had one of the ugliest covers I ever saw: a design that was somewhere between symmetrical and asymmetrical, no focal point, letter sizes that were different but not different enough to achieve contrast, and quotes. Quotes everywhere: ‘Electrifying – Financial Times’; ‘Brilliant – Independent’; ‘So interesting I literally couldn’t put it down – Sunday Times’. Wait a minute, who couldn’t put it down – Sunday Times? And what does that tell me about a book: ‘Brilliant’? 

But I picked it up anyway, and I’m glad I did. Because the inside is not only much better designed and typeset, it’s also one of the most eye-opening books about the Western culture, and culture in general, that I’ve read so far. 

It starts with a discussion of recent rises of suicide rates, and of their causes. The author Will Storr inquisitively searches for answers as to why so many people take their lives. A recurring cause that many researchers notice is feeling like a failure. Not being able to stand up to other people’s expectations. 

To be honest, that beginning did it for me. If someone gave me a book about perfectionism and how it’s a product of our culture, I’d probably shrug it off saying, ‘Yeah, perfectionism. That annoying personality trait. I know a thing or two about it, I don’t need that book’. But Selfie is a book that digs deeper into that, linking perfectionism to suicidality, and then uncovering the historical, scientific and economical turns of events that have made us prone to a fatal kind of perfectionism, and encouraging readers to give some thought to their own feelings of not being good enough, to notice and question the cultural forces that make us feel like that.  

So yeah, after that first chapter, I was in for putting my other activities aside, and coming back from work just to spend evenings reading, for a few weeks. Much like the mysterious, anonymous ‘I’ from Sunday Times quoted on the cover. Did I mention I hate these kinds of quotes?… 

Anyway, since we’re talking about ‘I’… this book does a good job of explaining how it came about that the Western cultures are so centred on the ‘I’, so individualistic when compared to more collective Eastern cultures. Using John Pridmore, the gangster-turned-Christian preacher as a vivid example, it explores the tribal mechanisms that still function within contemporary societies, defining what makes a person a valuable member of a group, how to get along in a group, and how to get ahead of its other members to improve one’s status. Then it jumps right into a discussion of the origins of individualism – the ancient Greek idea that a person is distinct from other objects in the world and, more importantly, that every person is perfectible. 

And so it goes on through centuries, shedding light on various cultural, religious, and economical factors that influenced the contemporary conception of the ‘I’. I am good if I am free. I am good if I am devout. I am good if I am authentic. I am good if I am self-reliant. The author makes a point of keeping in mind that the self is a construct, a story people tell themselves. In itself, it’s never stable or easy to define; even our own feelings aren’t so: 

Since I’d learned about confabulation, it had become almost second nature to watch my feelings as I was experiencing them with a kind of alienated squint. I was aware, and increasingly suspicious, of the separation between the things I felt and the voice that interpreted those feelings. We really are, as people sometimes glibly say, a mystery to ourselves. I’d wake up, every now and then, feeling unaccountably happy and whereas once I’d have confabulated a reason why, I no longer bothered. It was the same when I’d wake feeling down. What’s the matter with me? Why am I in this mood? I have no idea. So I’d just sit in it, gormlessly, like a dog in a puddle. [1]

So we confabulate. We make up stories to help ourselves make sense of what happens and… we compare our stories to the perfect one; the one where the hero always wins, be it by appearing cooler than the other guy, going to heaven, or succeeding financially. We find it hard to believe that life isn’t necessarily a story, or that we’re not heroes. 

And that’s fine, I guess. But… ever since I learned about confabulation, I’m not so confident in my beliefs about myself either. I mean, I still believe certain things to be true about myself, but I’m also aware that these are… just beliefs. I may think of myself as a good friend, but that’s because most of the time, I just don’t think about those few things I did that were anything but friendly towards my friends. You know what I mean? I guess I just construct a sort of cosy idea of myself to feel better about myself, sometimes. 

Back to the book, though. What I appreciated most was the thorough research carried on by the author, the many telephone calls and consultations he had with psychologists, sociologists and other people involved in building and/or analysing the contemporary idea of self, the hours he spent in libraries trying to track down events that have led the Western society to internalize its particular idea of a perfect self. And another thing: that all those people, their lives and ideas, and even places they inhabited, really come to life on the pages of this book. Here are some excerpts describing the Pluscarden Abbey and Father Martin, which I found especially memorable because Scotland: 

It was an early evening in April when my taxi halted outside Pluscarden Abbey, its engine cutting out to silence. My search for the self had had me out of bed before dawn and now, hours later, I’d ended up in a remote Scottish valley, tired and lost. We’d first pulled up outside a low building just off the road that meandered through the landscape, but that had turned out to be the women’s quarters. I was shooed away by a flustered lady in a woolly green jumper. My taxi drove on, at a respectful pace, past ploughed fields that ran with pheasants and rows of simple wooden grave markers, to the main abbey building, where it dropped me off before zooming back to twenty-first-century Elgin. I found myself in the quiet, utterly alone. (…) 

I’d chosen Pluscarden to look for answers because the connection these monks had to this period in our history [Antiquity – note from myself] was extraordinarily direct. There’d been a monastery here since 1290. (…)

Wandering around the abbey grounds, I saw empty benches, beehives along a distant hedge and a pile of torn guts in the grass, presumably left by a cat. Eventually I found a door at a side building that said it was for visitors on retreat. I knocked and stood back, looking up at it. Wondering about calling someone, I pulled out my phone. No reception. The wind barrelled down from pine forests in the hills above me and, huddling into my coat, I decided to approach the abbey itself. It was vast: pale stone with soaring arched windows, the structure itself the shape of a gigantic crucifix, shadows casting long across the grounds. Hearing footsteps behind me, I turned. And there it was, a vision from seven hundred years ago, a hurrying wraith, a phantom from the medieval, in a rough habit and sandals. He was a portly man, perhaps in his sixties, in off-white robes, large cuffs flapping around his arms, a rope around his middle, mud stains on his hem, pale-faced and slightly out of breath. (…)

My eyes flicked back to the crucifix above my bed … there he was, dying Jesus, looking just as he did in the churches of my youth, with his nearly naked perfect body – pecs, abs, pelvic v-line, his thighs and biceps straining with sexy agony. This ‘son of God’ might have been born in the Middle East, but in his nudity, appearance and spectacular display of kalokagathia, he was also as Greek as Hercules. (…)

‘So you’re singing the same psalms again and again and you’re growing veg for fourteen years and you’re never bored?’

Martin looked into the corner of the room, apparently searching for an answer that might prove helpful to me. ‘You … um … you can become distracted,’ he offered. ‘You can get so into something that you lose who it’s for. Unfortunately that can go for even the worship. I sometimes get intrigued by the mechanics of singing. That often distracts me from the praise aspect. It might even, but hopefully doesn’t, nullify it totally. One of the main dangers for those who really get their teeth into the mass and the asceticism and all that is that the Devil has a go at the vanity and vainglory aspect.’

‘So you’re thinking, “I’m the best monk”?’

‘Exactly!’ he said. ‘“I fast more than anybody else.” And when it’s my turn to cook and someone says, “That was really good,” I think, “Oh!”’

‘And that’s the Devil?’

‘Yes! Yes! He’s nullifying the whole thing!’ (…)

If the job of the self is to give us a feeling of control over our unpredictable selves and our chaotic environment, it sounded as if there was something in Father Martin’s character that needed this feeling especially badly. He seemed like a person who was unusually fearful of change. I wondered it that was why he’d been so powerfully drawn to this life of maximum predictability.

I wondered, too, about the ultimate point of his lifetime of self-obsession. During my week at the abbey, I’d detected the presence of the Greeks in Christianity’s inherent belief in reason and progress, in its struggle towards personal perfection and in its near-naked, kalokagathia-filled images of its top celebrity, Jesus Christ. But I also had a growing suspicion that Christianity and the monastic life might be more badly, Greekly individualistic than even that. For thinkers like Aristotle, the ultimate point of self-pursuit was that a person would be of more value to their community. But didn’t these monks essentially believe that by doing the right thing they’d earn a fabulous future reward for themselves? Could it really be true that beneath all the outward humility and subservience there was a cold, steel heart of self-interest?

‘Are your activities here a kind of attempt to prepare for the afterlife?’ I asked, before I left.

‘Yes, indeed.’ He pointed upwards. ‘It’s a school for there.’

‘So you struggle and sacrifice here in order to obtain a better life in the future?’

‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ [2]

The book also touches on the issue of improving oneself through therapy, which I think is important for anyone who, like me, sought to address their imperfections in this way. Having read and interviewed psychologists from the field of personality studies, the author learned that personality traits, to some extent, are stable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change anything about ourselves. On the contrary, there are ways of improving our relationships with ourselves and with others, learning healthier behaviours and putting in effort to achieve reasonable dreams. But some dreams just aren’t reasonable. Says behavioural scientist Daniel Nettle: 

’We have this culture in which you beat yourself up if you’re not perfect (…) We endorse the supposed effectiveness of therapy. Everyone thinks they can sort themselves out. But I think there is a naivety about that. If you’re a more introverted person, or more neurotic, let yourself off the hook. Give yourself a break. It’s bad enough, all this shit we have to take responsibility for, without also taking responsibility for being screwed up. I’m not advocating the kind of fatalism of, “I find it difficult getting to work on time so I’m not going to try.” It’s worth getting to work on time. But imagining you’re going to be the kind of person who’s going to get up three hours before work and bake wholemeal bread is kind of senseless.’ [3]

So yeah. Overall, lots to chew on. Go read this book. But before you do, I’ll leave you with two final quotes that say it all, this time from the author: 

One of the dictums that defines our culture is that we can be anything we want to be – to win the neoliberal game we just have to dream, to put our minds to it, to want it badly enough. This message leaks out to us from seemingly everywhere in our environment: at the cinema, in heart-warming and inspiring stories we read in the news and social media, in advertising, in self-help books, in the classroom, on television. We internalize it, incorporating it into our sense of self. But it’s not true. It is, in fact, the dark lie at the heart of the age of perfectionism. It’s the cause, I believe, of an incalculable quotient of misery. Here’s the truth that no million-selling self-help book, famous motivational speaker, happiness guru or blockbusting Hollywood screenwriter seems to want you to know. You’re limited. Imperfect. And there’s nothing you can do about it. [4]

This isn’t a message of hopelessness. On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. The first step is to stop believing the tribal propaganda. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from its demands. Since I learned that low agreeableness and high neuroticism are relatively stable facets of my personality, rather than signs of some shameful psychological impurity, I’ve stopped berating myself so frequently. My head is now a much calmer place to be. I’ve even, perhaps ironically, become happier. [5]

***

Will Storr is a longform journalist and novelist. His features have appeared in various publications, including Guardian Weekend, The Times Magazine, Observer Magazine, GQ, Marie Claire and the Sydney Morning Herald. He is a contributing editor at Esquire magazine. He has been named New Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year, and has won a National Press Club award for excellence. In 2012 he was presented with the One World Press award and the Amnesty International award for his work on sexual violence against men. In 2013, his BBC radio series ‘An Unspeakable Act’ won the AIB award for best investigative documentary. [6]

*** 

[1] Will Storr, Selfie. How the West Became Self-Obsessed. Picador, 2018. Pages 89-90.
[2] Op. cit. Chapter “The Bad Self”, pages 87-109.
[3] Op. cit. Page 326.
[4] Op. cit. Page 317.
[5] Op. cit. Page 332.
[6] Op. cit. The author’s bio.

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What Stories Are You Telling Yourself?

In one of the best books on translation that I read during the course of my studies[1], there was a theory of collective narratives by which people live. The specific example was of the American dream narrative, told and retold by many people in different walks of life, subconsciously subscribing to the idea that their life should be some version of the rags-to-riches story. 

Kurt Vonnegut, in one of those books I used to like so much[2], explained all to poignantly how depressing the American dream story can turn out for somebody who stayed in the rags. Many people realize that actual life may be more complicated than a story they tell themselves, and that if they don’t succeed the way their hero did, it’s not necessarily their fault, or a reason to be down. But even for them, this whole process can be rough. 

So why do we subscribe to those stories? Why do we narrow down the range of possible stories that we could tell with our lives? Not all of us do so, of course; some people don’t really see their lives as linear narratives.[3] But some of us do. And, as all things subconscious, it’s neither a bad thing, or a good thing; it’s just a thing we do. 

And if it’s a rough experience to discover that a particular story we believed was true about ourselves is actually hindering us in some way, I’m all for immersing in the roughness of it. Because finding out how your own autobiographical narrative affects your life can ultimately be rewarding. With some patience, you can go from that to tackling the potential hindrances that your story conceived. 

We can subscribe to such stories collectively or individually. One of the collective narratives I hear around me is that of powerlessness. As one of the narrators in a book I recently read[4] asserts, in Poland, there’s a hundred ways of saying “let’s wait patiently until this ends”’. By some dreary coincidence, one of my individual narratives is no less pessimistic: it’s one in which I can’t change the habits that make me miserable because it’s the way I am. 

What are the stories you tell yourselves? Do they hinder you or support your growth? Whatever your narrative might or might not be, I wish you all the best if you want to discover, interpret, and perhaps question it, too.

***

[1] Translation and Conflict. A Narrative Account by Mona Baker
See also Mona Baker’s official site.

[2] But whose title I managed to forget anyway

[3] “I am not a story” at aeon.co 

[4] Nie to/Nie tamto by Soren Gauger

Overcoming Self-Abandonment

I so much wanted to get lost on the way
~ myself a few years back

I found a guy on the internet who accurately explains some of the ways in which I respond to difficult emotions. Pete Walker works/worked as a psychologist with PTSD patients, and has written extensively on the subject of recovery from the effects of traumatic experiences. In “Managing Abandonment Depression in Complex PTSD”*, he explains why and how people push away emotions they would rather not feel, how this affects them and what they can do to help themselves.

I suppose this can be useful for many people, even for those who don’t think they were abandoned or otherwise traumatized. People may react to difficult experiences in different ways. Some of us accept them and take care of ourselves to minimize the damage. Some of us criticize and punish ourselves for feeling a certain way. Some of us overwork to assuage an accompanying feeling of guilt. Some of us overeat or desperately look for someone to have sex with to make ourselves feel better. Some of us escape from the reality of our experience into imaginary worlds. For some of us, any kind of escape is much easier than staying present to our emotions.

I wrote a little summary of the points I found interesting in Walker’s article, and added some insights from my own experience with “making friends” with depression:

  • An unwanted emotion, for example depression, may trigger any of these four typical reactions:

becoming irritable, controlling and pushy;
busy productivity driven by negative, perfectionistic and catastrophic thinking;
becoming dissociated, spaced out and sleepy;
focusing on solving someone’s else’s problem and becoming servile, self-abnegating and ingratiating.**

  • The above described reactions are usually immediate and sufferers don’t realize them.
    For me, they seemed so natural that I just thought of them as my way of being.
  • Instead of learning how to handle their experiences, sufferers dissociate from them.
    This self-abandonment does not make the difficult emotions go away – they repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat because they want to be “listened to”.
  • What can be done is, first, learning that all emotions are okay to feel.
    They are not right, they are not wrong. They can’t be fought or thrown out. They’re just… there.
  • For some, practicing mindful “listening” to their emotions is a good idea.
    This is because experiencing emotions is not that easy if you’re used to rejecting them.
  • Another good idea is to seek support from a friend, partner, or professional.
    Having someone supportive at your side while you’re going through a difficult time is invaluable. Some people are not patient enough for that – it doesn’t mean they are bad friends or partners, but if you ask me, it’s a good reason to look for professional help instead.
  • Learning to stay present to our emotions without judging ourselves and without running away is not easy. It takes a lot of practice.
    A loooot of practice.
  • It can be tricky, too, because some of our emotions may mimic physiological sensations, such as tiredness or hunger, which are easy to dismiss.
    It’s good to remember that, and pay attention to these sensations. They may guide us to the emotions we wanted to leave behind – and that’s where we can start learning to respond to our experiences in ways that don’t hurt us.
  • However difficult it is to stay present to your experiences, it’s totally worth it!
    It’s a great way to learn to be more compassionate and supportive towards ourselves. It also gradually reduces feelings of fear associated with the difficult emotions.


* Pete Walker, M.A. “Managing Abandonment Depression in Complex PTSD.” See http://www.pete-walker.com/managingAbandonDepression.htm.
** Adapted from the above.

 

A Non-Constructive, Life-Saving Coping Mechanism

A while ago, I listened to this short talk from therapist Gilbert Renaud where he talks about depression as a coping mechanism that helps us protect ourselves from harm:

Gilbert Renaud on Depression

To say the least, this is questionable because clinical depression is an illness that often takes lives. However, if we’re talking about a depressive mood that is handled with support from friends and/or professionals, Renaud nails it. A depressive mood handled with care lets us go through the difficult emotions of grief, sadness and hopelessness, without inflicting too much harm on ourselves. It gets us preserved throughout the bad times — like a pickle in a jar.

Difficult emotions need acknowledgement. We need to take the time to listen to them, and see what they can teach us. They may be telling us that we lost something important, remind us about something that happened in the past, or simply indicate that our present life is just difficult.

I was surprised to find out that letting myself be depressed and listening to myself may help me in any way. Before I first tried it, it just seemed so counterintuitive. But now, I agree with Renauld that depressive moods may protect our lives and, with time, deliver us to a better place — where we can grow. A place where we can learn new coping mechanisms that are more conducive to our well-being, where we can accept and appreciate ourselves, and experience an array of emotions — good and bad — that we have kept frozen.

Some time after watching Renauld’s talk, I met with a similar approach to coping in an article by Alicja Senejko:

Senejko Alicja (2017). Szczypta optymizmu, czyli różne wyjścia z sytuacji bez wyjścia. In: Gdzie się podziało moje dzieciństwo. O dorosłych dzieciach alkoholików (pp. 85—94). Kielce: Charaktery.  In Polish, pp. 53-57 at scribd.com.

Senejko divided coping mechanisms into constructive and non-constructive ones. The former are reactions to stress that actually help relieve the stress, such as discussing the possible ways of resolving a problem. The latter are seemingly irrational reactions that help us adapt to the stressful situation without really getting out of it. Examples that Senejko gave were avoidance of situations and people that we associate with the stress, and engaging in activities that help us temporarily dissociate from it.

Arguably, a depressive mood is one of the non-constructive methods of coping with difficult emotions. Without promoting progress, it allows us to adapt, and preserve ourselves until the time we feel strong enough to confront the stressful situation. According to Senejko’s research, people who use both constructive and non-constructive methods of coping, cope with stressful situations more effectively.

That’s a reason not to beat ourselves up for feeling low and apathetic, but to accept this state, and employ some constructive coping mechanisms as well, such as seeking support from other people and/or professional help.

I’m living proof that this combination works — after a long time of going through depression and staying in therapy, I’m in a place where I can grow, learning and trying out new things, trying to reconcile my past with the more self-aware person I’m becoming. Placing carefully there a strange thing and a known thing here… Carefully moving a perhaps fraction of flower here placing an inch of air there… Yes, spring is coming, and I had the urge to finish this post by quoting e. e. cummings.

Sociability Isn’t About Partying

Hey, fellow introverts! The internet says staying at home is a sociable thing to do. So… it must be right, right?

Why Truly Sociable People Hate Parties

Well, I think it’s about right.

Start Where You Are

I meant the thoughts I’d take into the new year to be more powerful and positive, but at the end of the last one I found myself repeating this one to remind myself that change doesn’t start somewhere you haven’t been yet — it starts where you are. A simple, neutral thought whose logic can hardly escape anyone.

Broadford, Isle of Skye | September 2017
Broadford, Isle of Skye | September 2017

Whether you want to change your profession, eating habits or attitude to adversity, you need to start in the place you are now. Not a place you want to be, probably. A bad place, perhaps. But it’s not possible to become the idealized image of yourself in no time.

It starts with realizing where you are.

It may take some courage and seriousness to take the first step towards change.

More courage and seriousness to step back and try again if the first step didn’t take you where you wanted.

A shit-ton of work to find the right path!

Patience to stay put if your heart, mind, lungs and the rest of your lovely self don’t quite keep up with the pace.

More work to keep searching, and stay on the right path if you’ve found it.

And perserverance.

And more of it.

 

Good luck, everyone.

A Lesson in Resigning

My twenty fifth birthday was one of the saddest so far. I didn’t feel like celebrating it, few people remembered about it, and at the end of it I couldn’t fall asleep: I was projecting the things I heard about being over twenty five onto my future. It made me cry. I was anticipating that I’d have the same problems I used to have, and that the only difference would be that I’d be less emotional about them. I was anticipating a resignation from my ambitious plan to gradually change the things that make me unhappy.

That’s what I heard people over twenty five become: emotionally cold, and resigned. Everyone gets those projections somewhere. They might be ridiculous and untrue, but they stay with us.

But, of, course they don’t have to define our future. We all have our needs, dreams, and plans that run against any bleak visions of the future that other people or the present feed into our minds. I, for example, need to listen to myself more. I dream about filling my life with interesting books. I have the ambitious plans I mentioned above.

And all of it didn’t go away when I turned twenty five. Quite the contrary: with each success and failure in fulfilling the above, I’m more and more aware of what these needs, dreams and plans mean to me… and in the end, it’s them that define me, not the projections.

Resignation is tempting, very tempting sometimes. It makes things so much easier to say: “this is too hard,” and give up. But I wouldn’t want to do so when I care about something deeply. And of course I care about my needs, dreams and plans deeply!

There is another kind of resignation, though, one I didn’t know until this year. It came unexpectedly naturally to me – a person used to fighting her own perceived weaknesses – after someone casually exposed my “people anxiety” by pointing out that I curled up when someone else sat beside me.

I always tried not to draw attention to my fear of people, wanted others to see me, ideally, as a confident person, and hated it when somebody made comments towards the contrary. I wanted to become confident, there and then, even if only in the eyes of some random beholders.

But at that moment, I resigned from pretending, and from my own hasty efforts to get rid of the anxiety (one of the things that make me unhappy, part of the big plan). I acknowledged the state I was in at the moment, and accepted the exposure, thinking: “yes, I am scared, why would I deny it?”

And, even though I’d never have expected any kind of resignation to be good, it was good for me. It had a calming effect. I’m not really sure how else to comment on this, or what to call this new kind of resignation, so I’ll just leave this discovery here for your consideration, and mine too. Maybe it will make us both more accepting towards ourselves…?

Post scriptum: Two days after I scheduled this post, during a yoga class, the teacher unexpectedly summed up my roundabout reflections on resignation by saying that all work starts from the place we’re in at the moment, and it can’t start from the place we would like to be in. It seems that everything around me conspires to teach me something.