Yesterday I wrote, “Most of us spend our lives trying to change ourselves through alternate praise and condemnation. Indeed, we are trained to do so. But praise and condemnation are not paths to lasting change and anyone who embarks upon them will backslide again and again.” In response, The Cognitive Dissenter insightfully pointed out that bending ourselves to the praise and condemnation from others was a very good way to alienate us from ourselves: “So tempting and easy to do but so betraying to our true selves”.
I would like to make two comments here on her insight. First, and most simply, I think it is possible — perhaps even commonplace — for us to become alienated from ourselves not only through bending ourselves to the praise and condemnation from others, but also from bending ourselves to the praise and condemnation from ourselves.
Consciousness functions a bit like an editor or censor. “She has green eyes…no, emerald.” “I am happy…well, somewhere between happy and really happy.” It often second-guesses what we’re doing. “Did I do that well enough?” “Did I do it the right way?” “Should I have called Sally?” “Have I started too late on my taxes?” It can be extraordinarily critical at times, and yet lavish with exaggerated praise at other times. “Damn! I can’t get the remote to work. I am so worthless around electronics!” “I can’t believe I scored that goal. I am completely more awesome than I ever thought I was.” Anyone who has had the fortune of experiencing an awareness when consciousness was not present knows that all of that editing, censoring, second-guessing, blame and praise goes out the door with consciousness.
Now, consciousness is to varying extents a useful tool in dealing with the world. How many of us could get along without it? Yet if we take it too grimly — say, by paying undue attention to its praise or blame of us — it’s constant and often contradictory chatter will toss us one way and another until we become alienated from ourselves.
Of course, there is quite often a very close relationship between the praise and condemnation we receive from others, and the praise and condemnation that originates with us. For one thing, we often amplify, put on an endless loop, or otherwise modify the praise or condemnation we receive from others. But in practice, it’s not always that hard to differentiate between what began with others and what began with us. Hence, we can sometimes find ourselves misled by our own praise and condemnation of ourselves.
Next, The Cognitive Dissenter’s insight raises to my mind the question of how we can be true to ourselves? As it happens, Sey intelligently raised a closely related issue the other day on a different post: “I’m sort of scratching my head trying to understand this true to oneself thing. If we systematically peeled off the layers of socialization, would we find a core ‘self’ — or nothing?”
At first glance, it would seem we cannot talk of being true to oneself without first defining what is the self. And as Sey points out, that is no easy task. Yet, I believe we have a work-around here. Instead of first defining what is the self, we might simply state in general terms what happens when one is true to themselves. Thus, as I wrote yesterday: “I propose being true to oneself occurs when what you feel, what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony with each other.” By “harmony”, I mean that what you feel, think, say, and do compliment each other, rather than conflict.
Now I believe that is a key test of whether you are being true to yourself. That is, you will find it to be the case to the extent you are being true to yourself, but not the case to the extent you are not being true yourself.
Now, it’s my contention the harmonious relationship between what you feel, think, say, and do can be broken up depending, among other things, on how we respond to praise and condemnation. Furthermore, when me handle praise and condemnation unskillfully, we seem very likely to lose that harmony, and thus become to one extent or another alienated from ourselves.
Ultimately, I suppose, we should ourselves take full responsibility for how we respond to such things as praise and condemnation. I would argue for our taking responsibility on two grounds: First, not many people will take responsibility for us, so we should, for the sake of our well-being, take it for ourselves, and next, because we don’t actually need others to take responsibility for us given it is possible for we ourselves to deal skilfully with praise and condemnation.
Those, at least, are my views on this issue of the role praise and condemnation perhaps too often play in alienating us from ourselves. To those of you who have patiently read all 881 words of this tedious blog post, my profound thanks. To those of you who have cheated by skipping most of it and who are now only reading the second to last paragraph, my profound admiration.
At any rate, what do you make of the role, if indeed there is one, that praise and condemnation can play in alienating us from ourselves?