Shifting My Own Bits – Part 3

In Part 2 I explained the central conundrum I’m facing:

TL;DR: Participating in life makes me feel like a fraud, but I need to participate in life in order to be happy.

I have made some progress in understanding the origins of this position.

In late June I read Atlas Shrugged and was fascinated by the prolific discussions of morality. As I pondered, I realized that I don’t have a well-defined moral code. Morality here answers the question of “why live.” I wasn’t brought up religiously, so I don’t have a third-party morality instilled into me. I was always a good kid (mostly) growing up and wasn’t into drugs, acting out, or rebelling, and so never had an drastic event that made me stop and consider morals — a common scenario in many coming-of-age movies. I was able to obtain approval from parents, teachers, and supervisors easily due to my talents and didn’t stray far enough from the path early on to have to stop and determine my course.

I have always been exploring and tinkering, likely due to how I was brought up. Early on in my schooling I had an attitude of “I must be more interested in this since I’m doing the extra credit and others are not”. Over time, this shifted to “I’m doing extra credit because I can and others cannot”, to “I’m doing extra credit because I am better than others,” and finally to “I am intrinsically better than others.”

The last leap is critical and requires additional explanation. At school, I was able to obtain recognition for superior results on assignments despite whether I put in more, equivalent, less, or almost no effort; whether I was interested in, neutral about, or bored by the subject; and whether I knew a lot, no more, or nothing about the material beforehand relative to others. There are many explanations for this: assignments that were very easy, awards that were handed out plentifully, or my natural talents.

The conclusion I came to at the time was that I was intrinsically smart; I wasn’t simply good at a particular subject to the detriment of others, I wasn’t simply good at learning new things, and I didn’t simply have knowledge above and beyond what was required. Morally this meant that pride in my identity, the will and desire to live, came from this belief that I was just better, intrinsically, than others, and I could use this to ability obtain the success, approval, and love that I desired. Through this lens I interpreted events in interesting ways. If I did well on an assignment, or received an award, it recognized an ability I had, rather than something I had learned. If I did poorly (which did happen on occasion), it meant that I just wasn’t really trying.

When I got to the point of my life where I was really thinking about the future, likely when I started thinking about college, I began to wonder what I could be. I began to explore media that showed some potentials; I was particularly attracted to characters that appeared initially to be normal, yet not quite fit in. These characters would later on demonstrate some extraordinary, innate ability that appeared as as result of achieving their potential when certain events caused them to give their all in a way they were unable to normally. I started to identify strongly with these characters and begin to incorporate the idea that I had some innate hidden ability that was waiting for the right moment to appear. I would get all the success, appreciation, and love I could ever want if I could just release this inner ability.

I began to crave this feeling of potential power, in the way that the anticipation of a thing is sometimes more gratifying than the thing itself, and sought out this feeling in the fantasies of movies, comics, and music. My favorites were the ones that made me feel an anticipation of power to achieve. When working on a task, I could transform initial interest into exuberance by convincing myself that the task was too difficult for mere mortals, but that I was going to do it. It wasn’t the task itself that was meaningful, but the belief that I could do it as no one else could that resonated with my moral core and became little glimpses of happiness.

This lust for potential power continued into my college years, where it ran headlong into my inability to breeze through assignment as I had in high school. Far from being recognized for extra credit work, I wasn’t even achieving A’s on the normal assignments first quarter first year. I figured I just wasn’t trying, but after trying harder and harder and still failing, I could no longer make that excuse. I expected my abilities to come forth, to be able to transform any task into one at which I could succeed, but this didn’t happen. My moral code couldn’t handle this new situation: I suddenly didn’t have the ability to excel and achieve recognition.

Going to study sessions or asking profs for help as did most people in my situation felt wrong — I had to force myself to ask for help, despite the knowledge that I would benefit immediately from doing so. Unknowingly at the time, I began to have to perform actions that went against my moral code and in doing so began to lose sight of my identity. If I was no longer better than others, gifted with an innate ability just waiting to come out, then who was I?

With this uncertainty in my identity and moral code, I began to drift; I was going rapidly between pride in my accomplishments and self loathing at my failures, unable to account for the events in conflict with who I thought I was. The inability to recognize these as moral issues led to an increasingly confused, insecure definition of self that compounded with each new event. I was stuck. I would feel bad for doing certain things and bad for not doing other things, but I didn’t recognize the pattern. It became a pain that wouldn’t go away because I didn’t know its source. I could escape it for a little while but I could never be at peace with it.

I’ve been slowly searching for a way to understand this pain over the last 8 years. I understand now why this journey has been so difficult; my moral code does not permit me to ask for help or to discuss these issues with anyone. The conclusion of Part 2 was that despite knowing what I need to do, doing it feels wrong; the conclusion I make here is that my moral code is corrupt, does not reflect who I really am, and is preventing me from achieving my goals. I choose now to recognize and reject this corrupt code and determine instead a conscious definition of morality that accurately reflects my unconscious self.

I’ll start with something like this:

  1. I exist
  2. I choose to live as a rational being
  3. I choose to hold my life as the basis of my values; that which preserves life is good, that which destroys is evil
  4. I choose to hold reason, purpose, and self-esteem as my ruling values; reason, as my tool for knowledge, purpose, as my choice of happiness that my reason must achieve, and self-esteem as the certainty that my mind is competent and I am worthy of happiness, worthy of life.

This is the basic, objectivist morality proposed in Atlas Shrugged. The three primary values then require all of the virtues: honesty, integrity, rationality, independence, justice, productiveness, and pride. I like that it starts with a fact (existence) and then builds upon it with a set of choices, rather than commandments. Fully realizing these choices for my self will be a good start, but will only be the first step in the journey; I will have to come to terms with the actions of my past, repair my self-esteem with forgiveness, and repair what hurt I have caused others. I don’t know how long it will take, but I expect it to proceed efficiently; if I am working in accordance with my values, then I can begin to feel pride in earning my values, and in doing so, experience the happiness that is the result of using the mind’s fullest power, rather than the joy of escaping the mind.

Posted in Self | 2 Comments

2 Responses to Shifting My Own Bits – Part 3

  1. Filip says:

    I’ve just read your three-part personal story. I’m writing this response because it reminds me about my own struggle with my personality.
    Similarly to you I have problems with making friends, not to mention deep and lasting relationships. I haven’t really been able to make any satisfying relationship apart from these with my parents, my sister and with one or two friends from elementary school.
    Meeting with people is often an unpleasant experience. While I’m trying to connect somehow with others in a conversation, simultaneously my mind is occupied with niggling thoughts: ‘what to say next?’, ‘when I say this, what might he/she think of me?’, ‘is this topic boring? should I continue it?’, etc. I think that such behaviour is a result of my internal, subconscious demands to always be perfect and perform impeccable, with every person, in every situation; but I don’t know (yet) what caused these unreal self-requirements.
    Ok, now something on the up note. Quite recently I decided to move to another city. This big change in my life helped me come to a conclusion that it’s about time to do something about my problems. I reached for help to a psychotherapy center; I’ve been seeing a specialist for five moths now. An honest relationship with empathetic psychologist has allowed me to examine my behaviour more thoroughly than ever before.
    I understand that sharing these personal things face-to-face with someone might be problematic (as you write: “my moral code does not permit me to ask for help or to discuss these issues with anyone”) but talking about them is, in my opinion, a step up.
    BTW it has been over a year since your last post. I’m wondering how the ‘morality construct’ you described worked out for you.

  2. Devin Lane says:

    Hi Filip, thanks for your comment! I didn’t realize anyone actually read this stuff :)

    The morality construct has actually be working out very well, with some ups and downs. By defining a set of values to live by, I’ve made a definition of happiness and satisfaction, so I don’t need to rely on external approval. If someone is critical of me, I can examine my conduct against my values and determine if I was actually in the wrong. If so, you can fix it and if not then there’s nothing you need to do. As she says in Atlas Shrugged, “it only hurts to a point.”

    This matches will with reality as you don’t always get approval from others even if you do the right thing. This was hard for me to overcome as we’re trained in school that approval and doing the right thing are the same. There are still some times when I get a “subconscious anxiety” that, for me, means I’m not acting according to my values. I’m still not adept at recognizing this and so sometimes I try to run away or repress the feeling, which just makes it worse. The rough spots come when I don’t know what the right thing is (need to think on it) or don’t want to do the right thing for other reasons (the worst.) This can get me in a pretty deep funk if I don’t fix it quickly.

    Once I get thinking straight though, I can perform an analysis to see how my actions stack up against my values. Usually this means I just need to fix what I did wrong, but sometimes I have to spend some time exploring what the interpretation of my values should be in a particular situation (not unlike how lawyers interpret law.) For this I try to think of what my actions looked like externally. Would the other person have said “yes, he performed with honesty and integrity?” Fortunately, this is easier than it sounds as my subconscious serves as a absolute judge. I know inside when I’m wrong, and when I’ve fixed it.

    This explicit understanding has helped me in social scenarios as well. It’s now easy to realize that sometimes others don’t hold themselves to values you respect, meaning that you don’t have to take their criticisms as fact. The only scale that matters is your own values. I’ve gone from “oh crap this person doesn’t like me what’s wrong with me” to “wow, I don’t respect their opinion at all as they’re a total hypocrite.” While this may sound a bit elitist, if someone can’t hold themselves to their own values, what business do they have judging you? The only friends you need are those who have values you respect. They will be your greatest allies, as their criticisms will be honest, not petty, while their complements will provide an immense self satisfaction, because not only have you acted according to your values but someone you respect has noticed. To the vast quantity of people who don’t find it important to have a set of values they hold themselves to, and instead spend their lives complaining about their lack of satisfaction, I feel a sense of sadness, as I wish I could help them understand that their problems come within. But at the same time, I don’t feel the need to drag myself down, to burden myself with their endless suffering. I’m happy to help anyone that takes steps towards solving their problems; but now I just ignore those who just want someone with which to share their misery and never look for a solution. If you accept this burden you’re just sacrificing yourself and I’m not willing to do that with my life.

    I’m glad that the specialist you’ve been seeing has been helpful in your introspection. I know for me it helped a lot just to write it down, just to be able to see it on the screen. It seems that you understand that the change comes from within and the specialist is just helping. This is important as I think many people expect a therapist to just “fix them” and it will never work with that attitude as you just put more layers on top without fixing the underlying issue. I can’t say for certain in your case, but for me the requirement of perfect came from incorrectly tying happiness and self-worth to approval from others. Now that I have a moral code that requires only self-approval, I notice I no longer have this requirement. Instead, I can focus on self-actualization: achieving to my limits, the ultimate self-fulfillment. The only thing I *have* to do is act according to my values, both those that tell me what is right and wrong and those that push me to achieve. Conveniently, this helps me figure out what my goals are in life. Maybe I’ll do another post on this, given that I’ve written half a post here already :)

    If you think there’s something I could help with, I’m at your disposal. I can email you directly if there’s something you want to discuss privately. Thanks for reading and enjoy your journey!

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