Balancing what you can accomplish today with what you’ve done in the distant past is a challenging feat. All the more difficult is balancing others’ conceptions of you with the notion of whom you believe yourself to be.
The American ideal of Rugged Individualism places us on the defiant path of self-creation. On it, we reject co-dependency, forgoing relying on others to teach us about ourselves; instead, choosing to do the grunt work on our own. The world is, thus, divided into those who need others to tell them what to think and those who don’t. Yet, while we glorify the man who refuses to be defined by his environment, we fail to grasp the consequences of isolationism, particularly for those around him.
The fear of public opinion is common. Why would anyone want to have her actions swayed by the promise of love? And why would she then want to be terrorized by the prospect of losing it? When you’re told that you’re beautiful one day, you can become ugly the next. When you’re told that you’re loved, it can wither away. In this respect, avoidance appears as the only legitimate solution, especially when public opinion is nothing more than a constellation of self-serving whims; in essence, when you believe that minds are changed along with desires, perceptions along with emotions.
But what happens when that fear evolves into pathology? What do we become when we’re apart from society? Unfortunately, Rugged Individualism doesn’t require much of a leap to Grandiose Narcissism (the former entailing one’s belief that he doesn’t need anyone else, and the latter that he’s superior to them), which is exceptional in its ability to withstand criticism. As its captive is robbed of the ability to trust others, he’s, in tandem, robbed of the ability to see himself as he is. Fearing becoming co-dependent and giving another too much power over his psyche, he resolves to undermine the world’s ability to define and, thus, control him. During my loneliest period, I was terrorized by the thought that I was, in some sense, a slave to public opinion. I hated how much I needed people to like me and how much I needed approval. In shutting myself off from the world, I believed that no one could ever know me as well as I did, so why would I then allow others to hold up to me their sickeningly distorted mirrors? Who the fuck were they to tell me who I was?…
It appeared that a full break was the only way out. Yet, despite the apparent brilliance of my plan, I had no clue who I was. I could tell myself that I knew everything and was always right because I had no one to challenge me or, even, to respond to my vitriol; I was a genius only in my own head. Back then, it seemed that I possessed only two options: dependence and freedom. So, I chose the latter. We’re taught that self-love is necessary before you can love another or they can love you, but self-love doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t love yourself without the love of another; so, you find yourself stuck in a catch-22. Or so it appears.
Co-dependence is defined as one’s over-reliance on a select individual or group to manage her emotional needs. Thus, the opposite is independence, or relying solely on oneself for validation. But, somewhere in the middle lies the concept of inter-dependence, wherein we broaden our perspective to the entire world. When relying on several people to define you, you may become subject to their biases and whims. If you upset them, they may come to resent you and, therefore, change their minds about you. So, as statisticians would argue, you need to increase your sample size to manage the noise (i.e. the data points that obfuscate reality). This, fundamentally, means that the more data you acquire, the more likely you’ll be able to create a realistic understanding of yourself, as the aggregate data increases the chances of forming a valid opinion.
When our friends find us attractive, or at least tell us we are, we can easily discount their assertions by telling ourselves that they’re just being nice. But what could happen if you allowed yourself to use that data to experiment further? Instead of stubbornly telling yourself that you know they’re wrong, what could happen if you, instead, tested the validity of their perceptions? If loved ones believe that you’re talented, what would it feel like to hold that uncertainty and pursue your dream? At least, if you lose, you’ll be able to brag about being right to begin with.
Because we’re prone to disqualifying positive traits and experiences, the more data we gather, the harder it will be for us to discount them. (I’m not saying it will become impossible at some point, as we tend to be pretty irrational.) The problem with our core beliefs about ourselves, and subsequent stubbornness, is that they barricade our potential for taking risks. Furthermore, rejection-sensitivity reinforces the belief that we shouldn’t let others define us because they’ll, then, control us. We seek ad-hoc justifications for our avoidant behavior.
But, in allowing the entire world to define us, no one, individually, can. In spreading authority across the globe and democratizing our self-conceptions, we can finally begin to gain a form of self-knowledge that’s based in reality, eliminating the noise of deception. In a twist of the old adage: when everyone has power over you, then no one actually does. On the other hand, however, no man is an island entire of himself.