Self-definition is by its nature a difficult task to undertake. By virtue of being yourself it is almost impossible to take a good hard look in the mirror. Everything is backwards and requires translation no matter how hard you stare. The words are backwards, right is left and the spots may or may not be watermarks. Add to that the fact that for those of us adept at lying, the very easiest target is one’s self. Spiritual quests can leave one even more impoverished, as the goal is an unstated self-improvement, and reflection tends to overemphasise the positive or fixable negatives in one’s character.
While few of us can claim to have never spent a good night’s rest lost in thought about who we are and what that means, knowing thyself remains a maxim that we embrace but struggle to follow. And we trick ourselves into thinking that we have achieved something on that front through spurious means. For those of us who do take the task seriously, the road is strewn with many obstacles – doubt and anger, and most of all a desire to put our best foot forward, even to ourselves.
At the same time though, to try to get to the bottom of the mirror virtues – those vices that we covet and caress – can be so very difficult because the trend towards self-aggrandizement is difficult to buck. We exaggerate our faults to try to make ourselves look better when we overcome them, to sound more important that we are, to seem stronger, to harbour more plagues, to be more tragic than the next guy. “See”, we say, “my life is so hard because I’m x, and y and z horrible thing”. Right. Plainness becomes the worst trait of all because there is no dramatic cure.
So, to know the self requires a level of pre-existent honesty that few of us possess. The job of getting to the bottom of just who we are is therefore one where the terrain cannot be trusted, where the answers that are offered have to be taken with a grain of salt. And to that end, the project of getting to the bottom of this whole self thing is potentially doomed from the start as it can be well argued that there is no kernel of truth, no independent self at the core of who we are waiting to be discovered. Possibly all there is are the many constructed faces that we choose to cobble together for public consumption.
Intriguingly, if the latter is true then we have an easier task. All we have to do is pick out a new personality the way that most people choose an outfit. If that is all there is to our personality, then switching it up is sickeningly easy. And really, that leaves little excuse for hanging onto dysfunctional personalities when we find ourselves in possession of the same. But it can’t be that easy, surely, or people would do it all the time. And they don’t – that much is obvious.
We become attached to parts of our personalities making a wholesale housecleaning of our traits unpleasant and seemingly impossible. To change who we are on a whim violates our common sense, and if it is so easy, it makes us look tremendously bad for having not done it sooner. And then there is habit. We are, quite simply, used to responding in specific ways to specific situations. We take meaning from our reactions, and in turn use them to describe who we are. The fact that these reactions are firmly in the past, to things that have already happened seems lost in translation. Every time we are faced with a new situation we have an infinite number of reactions possible to us. Acting on habit is just a way of refusing to choose – and not an indicator of personal integrity or internal consistency. Of course, it is difficult for others to plan their reactions to us if we are unpredictable on that level, and it is a lot of work to actually make a choice each time we are in a situation where we are required to make a decision. Playing nice by society’s rules requires us to lay a framework or at least a range of reactions, and to communicate to others what to expect within that paradigm.
This is not an argument for the tabula rasa, or blank slate, theory of personality. There are visceral emotional reactions wired into each of us that we have to deal with when we come up against evocative situations. While emotional reactions are manageable they seem like the most daunting of personality traits to change. Feelings of jealousy and anger, of love and lust are difficult to take ownership of because we so often see them as things outside of our sphere of choices. The idea that one chooses to be angry, or in love seems to invalidate the experience of the emotion itself. However, if we see emotions as simply another aspect of our experience of self that we can choose to indulge, or not as the situation requires then we are one step closer to acting with intention.
We have at our disposal the concept of intentionality, which is the most important tool in making changes that bring one more in alignment with who we want to be. It is reclaiming the “I meant to do that” cover that is so often used for screw-ups. Intentional living requires one to be able to say loud and clear, at each decision “I meant to do that” and mean it, as a statement of purpose and not as an excuse. Part of this intentionality is building up a personality that supports the ability to make these sorts of decisions. Whatever else one chooses to exhibit as their chosen self, the intentional personality has at its core a deep sense of personal integrity, answerability and responsibility.