Saturday, 13 September 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 17

I think most people I know now would echo Vincent's advice that 'there is no need to judge ourselves by anyone else's standards, let alone "official targets"' (comments ~ part 15) It's something we've come to live by, especially since the sixties - to be yourself - not worry what anybody else thinks or says. Authenticity, naturalness, truth to one's self. We admire the creative, the original, the individual, and despise the toady, the yes man, the sell-out. Almost more than anything, we find people who try too hard to be popular almost repulsive - too needy, too desperate. We are contemptuous of attention seeking behaviour.
And yet often those exact same people will turn around and tell me I'm being too intense, too serious, too sensitive, too angry - that I should just accept things the way they are, be more socially acceptable, be more normal, fit in more. In short - to not be myself.
Which is it to be guys?

Of course like most things it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes being ourselves makes us more socially acceptable, sometimes not. What the Be Yourself advocates forget is that some individuals are more socially acceptable than others. When we think of the people who are admired for being themselves we think of artists and wits, geniuses and national treasures, glamorous and enigmatic, not the embarrassing guy at the party who always ends up saying something inappropriate or the woman who invariably gets into arguments and brow-beats everyone with her opinions. We love the witty and sexy individualist but loathe the quiet and awkward misfit.
When you think about it, none of this should come as a surprise. It's inevitable as a social species that some things will be socially acceptable and some won't and those things change over time and from place to place and even from one social situation to another and can be quite arbitrary. Some people seem very adept at adapting to these different situations, others - not so much. Ultimately, you can be yourself as much as you like, as long as you don't mind having no job, no friends, and possibly getting arrested. Most of us I expect would like to be ourselves and yet also have friends, have a job and stay out of jail. 
The other end of the spectrum is to try always to be as normal as possible - to never do anything that might conceivably offend someone, or appear like you're showing off or trying to be better than everyone else. The change over from the Know Your Place society to the You Can Be Anything If You Want it Badly Enough society happened during my childhood. 

I bring all this up because I've always had terrible difficulties with fitting in. My dad, after becoming aware of what autism was, put it to me that perhaps I was autistic. I was offended partly because I knew well what autism was (I did care work for many years) and apart from being socially awkward I had none of the characteristics. I was also offended because his suggestion showed he had so completely failed to understand me. Mainly though I was offended because it neatly let him off the hook parenting wise. I'm sure he thought I objected because I didn't want to know the truth. Something about my dad made him hard to argue with. 

I don't think I was particularly inhibited as a small child and would have been singing and dancing and talking to myself incessantly wherever we were, or making up a little game - pretending to be an animal most likely. But at some point quite early on - certainly by the age of eight, I became incredibly self-conscious and wouldn't do anything that might draw attention to me. Anything that involved any kind of public performance (PE for example, or learning tricks or games) made me sick with worry. I didn't want to join in with the singing and dancing at family parties and would never in any way 'show off'' for fear of being shown up. I didn't start conversations or tell jokes. I didn't feel I could go up to other children and make friends, because why would they want me hanging around? I expected to be seen as a nuisance and an embarrassment. I did weird things. I didn't talk about normal things. I didn't do things the way everybody else did them. I don't remember anything in particular that might have caused this change but I do know how it felt - it felt as if people would shake their heads and roll their eyes and tut at me, that they would give up on me, pretend I wasn't anything to do with them, and make little jokes perhaps among themselves. Even if they tried to involve me there was something so laboured, so dutiful, so exasperatedly patient about it. I knew they didn't really want to - just felt they ought to, and honestly it was better to just stay out of it - to go somewhere away and do things on my own. I didn't ever try to work out what exactly it was I was doing wrong. There didn't seem to be much point because there didn't seem to be any pattern to it.

As my life has gone on, when things get difficult I find there is always some way in which how I am is somehow at fault, and it can never be blamed on anybody else in any way, because that is just making excuses. Even when the problem is unequivocally because of something someone else has done, it is still my fault for not having allowed for it. For example, since I've been ill I've had to go to the doctor about my ears. I was talking to my mum about it and she was going on at me about hassling them to give me an earlier appointment. I actually think there's nothing much more I can do about it but I quickly came to feel it was my fault for not hassling, rather than the NHS's fault for not getting its act together. When I was bullied at school (hardly at all really, but I was always very afraid of tough boys) it was my fault for not standing up to them. In every situation, under any circumstances, there is this voice telling me how my way is at fault, because I'm disorganised, or I don't try hard enough to fit in, or I try too hard. My ideas are weird and unrealistic. I say inappropriate things. I come over as too intense and serious. I am arrogant and opinionated. I am paranoid and over-sensitive. I think too much. I don't fit in. I am defensive. I am naive. I get angry about things I can't change. On and on... it is how I am that the problem - no one else. It's just me. 

At this point I have to ask (1) Do I actually have all these faults or (2) am I just incredibly sensitive to others' opinions?
If (1) then are they really faults or just personal characteristics? Could they equally well be turned slightly in the light to a more positive view? (I am self-sufficient and independent. I am individual and original. I am spontaneous, creative and open-minded (not a characteristic of autism). I am good at reasoning things out. I am in touch with my feelings and those of others (also not a characteristic of autism). I am right to be angry about some things. I am idealistic. I have a strong morality.)
If (2) then to what extent do people really have these opinions of me (2a) and to what extent is it just what I've come to expect from past experience (2b)?
And if it is their opinions (2a), why should I care what they think?

This needs laying out as a diagram. I don't know how to do that so you'll have to bear with me.

According to some I'm really not that different to other people and nowhere near as bad as some (comments ~ part 14). We all have our foibles. In that case the problem would be 2b - my perception of the nature and power of others' opinions of me. This is not a trivial problem. Others' opinions are enormously powerful to me - even when I think (or know) they're wrong. They have a power mine don't, even when I am convinced I'm right and I am horribly susceptible to them. It's what my CBT guy called hypervigilance. I see potential bad reactions everywhere and they really worry me. I don't really trust anyone. Children who grow up in homes where things can go bad at any time become hypervigilant - so they know to get out of the way in time, but ex military and victims of violent crime also become hypervigilant. Some call it paranoia (which I have also been accused of) but I think that's slightly different. I think paranoia is more of a delusional state but I'm sure the two grey into each other. 

2a. The idea that a person can go through life cheerfully oblivious of others' opinions is insane. As I keep saying - we are social beings. Almost all of us want to be among friends. We want to be accepted. Irrespective of whether the way I am is actually objectively wrong, it is hard to go through life alone - not able to rely on the help or support of others - material or emotional. Compromises and negotiations have to be made all the time. The problem is if your whole view of life is somehow at odds with almost everyone else, or at least, too at odds to work out long term. This is where the question of acceptance comes in - how much should a person just accept of the way the world is and how much should one be prepared to change, simply in order to fit in, even when one thinks the world is wrong?
How much can a person change? More profoundly, if so much of how a person is is wrong, should they try to be a different person? Is that even possible? 
If not, how much can a person pretend to be someone else? I'm rubbish at it, I know that.  

Finally (1) if I really do have these 'faults', what can I do to come to terms with them? Can I find a way of habitually seeing their more positive perspective, or, if they genuinely are faults, again, how much can I change? Or can I in some way come to accept myself, faults and all?
A lot of questions there for next time.

to be continued...


Vincent said...

This is going somewhere exciting and important, thanks to the clarity of your analysis and expression. Gives me a lot to think about before replying and then I think it will be in private conversation, not here.

"To be continued . . ." - it's a cliffhanger, all right!

Vincent said...

It's an extraordinary coincidence that you should have written "how much can a person pretend to be someone else?", in that I have jotted some notes for a forthcoming post which asks whether I can become a fictional character, and responds yes, to the extent that I'm someone who exists only on the Internet, called Vincent. Not quite as easy in flesh and blood contacts but still possible, with a little tweaking.

More seriously, and not to preempt any private discussion, I think it happens from the inside out. By "inside" I mean a place inside you which isn't subject to the conscious will. You find that it has simply happened. In Kafka's famous short story, the man wakes up one morning to discover he has become some kind of insect, but that is the negative side.

In Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge suddenly becomes a kindly man, not as far as I recall through conscious effort, but as a result of visitations from a series of ghosts who confront him with his past. Something changes in him.

And this seems to be a paradigm of what is happening, or likely to happen, as a result of your series of posts.

There is much, much more. Perhaps I should get on and write that post about becoming a fictional character. I'm pretty sure that was inspired by dipping in again to dear old Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet, he being famous for creating multiple literary "heteronyms", each a different personality.

So from your reader's point of view, the only sense of Steve Law that he gets is through what he writes about himself. Which could be fiction, intentional or inadvertent.

But as I said before there is surely much more that can be said, no doubt more cogently, but can anyone say it? The whole thing is paradoxical.

Steve Law said...

I grant you that we behave differently in different situations and with different people. I don't talk to my mum the same as I talk to Emma, or to you, but they all feel like part of a single personality. I feel like perhaps I can put on an act for a time - to help get on with people, get a job, or smooth over a situation, but over time, and especially under duress I find myself reverting to my usual self. In fact the very strain of keeping up the act can speed the reversion, especially as I fear being found out. Maybe other people are more adept at being different people at different times and places. I feel like I'm always pretty much me, or else I'm faking it.

Making up fictitious characters on the other hand is, by comparison, a doddle