Dad used to get embarrassed every Christmas.
After our nuclear family completed the ritual of opening gifts, cleaning up packaging, and breakfast, we would visit his aunts in the early afternoon.
Most adults referred to Dad as Tom, but his aunts always called him Tommy.
And Tommy was a real trouble maker.
Remember the time you broke so-and-so’s window?
Remember the time you stole….
Remember the time you smoked a whole pack of cigarettes….
Remember the time you borrowed your father’s car and drove it into a tree….
Remember the time you and your friends broke into the liquor cabinet….
Remember the time I had to come down and talk to your principal because you….
Stripped of all of his moral authority as an upright citizen, Dad would revert to a commandment that we didn’t learn in Sunday School. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
The Relative Self
It was hard for me to see the Tommy in Dad. The stories that his aunts told had a ring of truth about them because my Dad never denied them, but the actions seemed to belong to a completely different person.
As I accompanied my family on these Christmas rounds over the years, I discovered for myself that the version of Bruce that Dad’s aunts tried half-heartedly to engage in conversation was just as uncharacteristic of me as stories of Tommy were of Dad. They often referred to things that used to interest me but now seemed like ancient history. And, to be fair, my idea of my Dad’s aunts probably had very little to do with who they thought their true selves to be.
The Mythical Self
The podcast Invisibilia episode “The Personality Myth” explores this premise: “We like to think of our own personalities, and those of our family and friends as predictable, constant over time. But what if they aren’t? What if nothing stays constant over a lifetime?”
When I took a Myers-Briggs personality test a few years ago, I found that not only had my personality changed over time, it was challenging to pin it down from question to question. My honest answer to most of the self-revealing hypotheticals was, “depends on the situation.”
Art Markman’s Psychology Today blog post, “The True Self,” offers another way to look at the idea of a fixed personality. “The idea that there is some deep hidden self that may be independent of a person’s actions for much of their life is probably best thought of as a valuable fiction.”
If I think of my true self as fiction, what are its characteristics? It’s first person subjective. I know that memories can change every time I recall them. I know that my mental projections are never accurate in detail and often inaccurate in predicted outcomes. So, what causes us to identify so closely with this particular story?
The Ruminative Self
If there’s one thing that has held true about me over time, it’s that I have an unhealthy relationship with toothpaste. I don’t have a problem brushing my teeth. I do have a problem buying toothpaste. When I get close to the end of the tube, I think, “I need to get a new tube of toothpaste.” But, I never write it down.
Each time I go to the store, I could easily, and cheaply, remedy the situation. Each time I forget, I beat myself up a little, but I still don’t put it on my list.
I know that it’s impractical to allow such an easily solvable problem to vex me. I understand that each time I don’t write toothpaste on my grocery list, I reinforce the behavior of not doing it in the future. But, I’ve grown so comfortable ruminating about this action that I sometimes think, “I’ll never change. This is just the way I am.” And then I beat myself up for thinking that.
“We learn to see the world through a particular set of glasses over and over, to the point that we take the view they provide at face value as who we are.” Judson Brewer writes in his book The Craving Mind, “The self itself isn’t a problem, since remembering who we are when we wake up each morning is very helpful. Instead, the problem is the extent to which we get caught up in the drama of our lives and take it personally when something happens to us (good or bad). Whether we get lost in a daydream, a ruminative thought pattern, or a craving, we feel a bit of tightening, narrowing, shrinking, or closing down in our bodies and minds. Whether it is excitement or fear, that hook always gets us.”
A byproduct of “getting caught up” in this first person unreliable narrator drama is noted in Vladimir Maletic and Charles Raison’s book The New Mind-Body Science of Depression. They found that a common trait to most forms of depression is an inability to escape self-referential thinking: self-referential thinking: seeing everything in relationship to I, me, and mine.
How to Find Value in Your Fiction
For a path to getting our true self out of its self-referential mind loop, we can look to an old, slightly gruesome, Zen story. A student seeks out a teacher for advice on how to calm his troubled soul (true or permanent self). The teacher ignores him until the student cuts off his arm and presents it to him as a token of his sincerity. At that point, the teacher grudgingly rejects the arm and asks the student to present his soul instead since that is the part of him that is troubled. The student replies that he would love to obey the teacher, but when he goes looking for his soul, he cannot find it. The teacher replies that the student’s soul is now at peace.
Every fiction writer knows that a story has no value if it’s just rattling around inside your head.
As Joan Didion puts it, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
If our self-referential thinking nags at us to the point we can’t escape it, one way to transform this fiction from annoying to valuable is to follow the storyteller’s cue and write it down.
Jess Lourey’s Ted Talk “Use Fiction to Rewrite Your Life” offers up a recipe for a ten-minute exercise on how to do this. It’s well worth listening to in its thirteen-minute entirety, but here’s a version of the instructions if you have only ten minutes to spare.
Ten Minute Exercise
1. Set a timer for ten minutes.
2. Envision your last stressful experience, the one your true self won’t let you forget about.
3. Note where in your body you’re feeling that stress.
4. Write down a few words describing your stressful situation and where you store it. This will be your plot.
5. Think of a character that’s a lot like you but a little bit different, perhaps with some qualities you admire in others but feel you lack yourself. Write down a short description of that character. This will be your protagonist.
6. Using third person (he or she instead of I to avoid confusing the character with you) write about how your protagonist confronts the experience non-stop until the timer goes off. Don’t stop to correct spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Fight the urge to rewrite. Just get the story down.
7. When done, see if shifting the perspective from first person to third person changes the way you experience the stress.
For a first-hand account of how perspective can help, check out this episode of The Science of Happiness Podcast: Getting Some Perspective.