Carl Jung famously wrote something like:
It’s not that a person has an idea.
The idea has the person.
What did he mean?
Jung meant we were born into a culture which programs so much of what we think of as uniquely us.
We live out scripts, which is what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, in As You Like It,
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances.
In other words, you stride through life thinking you have certain interests, values, or preferences. But many of them were programmed into you. Before describing examples of your being possessed by certain ideas, or scripts, please note I’m not negating individuality.
Individuality, or authenticity, can absolutely be achieved.
It lies somewhere within the context of these external influences, however. We cannot entirely escape them. Through careful introspection, like occurs in depth psychotherapy or meditation, persons can access authentic parts of themselves—interests, values, or preferences which are uniquely them.
Searching for these is an uphill battle because of the frightening power of these external influences, a force philosophers also refer to as the Big Other.
Beginning with interests, we’re all extremely influenced by our early childhood environments. Most elementary school children these days are exposed to soccer, for example, but are they kids really interested in that specific sport? They learn a standard curricula with a linear bias—meaning that math and science tends to trump kids’ exposure to creative activities like art or writing.
And, along the way, children always seek to be the object of their parents attention. They exist acutely attuned to whatever they do that their parents notice.
I perhaps see this most commonly in unhappy professionals who consult me. A common theme is their memories of their parents insisting they go into law or medicine.
I remember a depressed physician who actually took a break from medical school to pursue an interest in writing and singing. His parents were extremely critical of his decision. They were baffled, judgmental, even angry. Soon, they cut him off financially. Because of the social prestige associated with medicine, he also felt unsupported by friends, other relatives, or former mentors.
He resumed medical school after the one-year break, always felt disinterested in it, and eventually became depressed.
Fortunately, over time, this gentleman re-discovered his more authentic interest in the arts, specifically writing and music. He worked through a great deal of self-doubt and guilt (at letting his parents down).
Eventually, he reduced time he spent at work. Financial demands prevented him from leaving the field altogether, but he was able to “find his authentic self” through pursuing interests that jived more with his being.
Finding your authentic values may be more difficult than determining true interests or preferences. We in the US are inculcated into a strong Judeo-Christian morality, perhaps even more powerfully a Protestant one which rewards values like hard work and sacrifice. Not that it’s a bad idea, but the Golden Rule, treat others as you’d want to be treated, runs through most of the major religions. Some religious traditions advise praying for material goods, like a new watch or car.
The point, returning to Jung’s idea, is that we’re all born into these value systems. They have us before we have them. Discovering that ideas from Buddhism, or Taoism, speak to you in a more authentic way requires sawing against the grain.
You can do it.
You can do it by looking inward for the truth while realizing the ways the Big Other asks you to comply with its agenda.
Turning now to preferences, consider how you might seek entertainment. Since the 1950s, most popular songs have run around three minutes. Movies last, on average, 90 minutes. We never really considered whether we wanted to listen to a song for a longer time, or see a longer or shorter movie. We grew up within an entertainment structure presented to us.
Even ten years ago, the near-ubiquitous effect of contemporary cable entertainment had less of a hold on us.
Who doesn’t follow one or more series on Netflix or Amazon?
Who’s not going to be watching the final season of Game of Thrones?
I explored this topic in the hope of stimulating your thinking about the influences effecting you.
Are you clear about your interests, values and preferences?
Because culture lives us, rather than we living it, it’s hard to find authenticity.
Empirical research confirms that people whose interests, values, and preferences are true to their hearts have more fulfilling, satisfying lives.
Don’t give up.
And, don’t worry about time.
It’s an endless journey.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP