On the Formation and Perception of Self

A Contrast in Self: Gaining Perspective

Whenever you look in the mirror, the person you see isn’t exactly the “you” that everyone else sees. Your entire self is flip-flopped. That scar on your right temple or that freckle below your left eye seems to be the opposite in the mirror. This is the only version of yourself that you see regularly which is why it can be disheartening to see yourself in a video or a picture; all of a sudden, the person you thought yourself to be is revealed to be a falsity—the half-self of “you.”

To this day I still remember the first time I saw myself in a video and recognized such a difference. Watching myself and hearing my voice, I felt almost repulsed because that person on the screen was not the person that I thought I was. My voice was certainly higher and my posture was better; I definitely looked more confident, and the left side of my face was not so droopy and alien. For the first time in my life, my perceived-ideal self has met my real self. They were not friends.

I did not discover the difference between my real self and my “spiritually” ideal self until much later in life—that is, who I morally thought and I was and who I actually turned out to be. It took more than a 4th grade video project for me to realize that who I thought I was and could be was not always synonymous to reality.

The first time I felt the splitting of my self was a night that I made some very poor decisions that could have ended horribly. I was lucky; things turned out fine, but when I woke up that morning, my real self—that person that had made a very monumental mistake—did not fit in with my ideal spiritual self. My ideal self never made mistakes or took uncalculated risks. She was an adult in a teenager’s body. That morning though, I felt so awful, physically and emotionally that I could feel the disconnect between who I was then and who I thought I was or who I ought to be. It was as if my soul had been ripped in two. That was the first time I asked myself, “Who am I?” and had no answer.

Most people likely go through some disconnect like this before their 20’s. It’s an age when we are somehow allowed to make some very big mistakes and as long as they don’t kill us, these experiences help us figure out not only who we are, but who we can realistically be with the faults and limitations we have.

Gaining a disconnected perspective of yourself can be painful, depending on how deep the disconnect is between the ideal and the real self. But these disconnects are essential to reform and self-betterment. Without perspective we would go on our whole lives without any self-directed change.

Thankfully, there are several ways to gain perspective like this. One of the most jarring ways is by making a mistake or any uncharacteristic action or drastic change. Anxiety, shame, fear, and regret can be very powerful forces that make it easy to realize what you like and dislike, the types of decisions you want to make in the future, and anything else that shapes who you are to become. Real mistakes that get you in the gut for days build you because they make you ask: was that really me?

People can also gain perspective from looking in on another’s life. It is another’s fears, loves, joys, thoughts, and ambitions that can be powerful enough to deeply contrast our own. If you are open enough, just meeting a person radically different from yourself in a facets of life can serve as a deep and meaningful contrast to things you assumed to be absolute truths. I’ve felt this many times in the past year. The first time I met an atheist (or at least the first time I met one that admitted it openly) I realized that for most of my life, I had experienced the same questions and doubts about religion, but it took that outside perspective to validate an intuition I was taught was incorrect. The first time I met a transgendered person, I was forced to re-evaluate how I thought about gender and personal identity. Both encounters served to open my mind to the lives, beliefs, and experiences that contradicted what I believed to be inherent truths. It turns out the world isn’t black and white. But I digress.

The final way I think a person can really gain perspective is through boredom. Boredom, in all of its forms, can tell us what we dislike, how impatient we maybe, how we react under stress or confinement or restraint. Because boredom can be a lot like the mind’s version of pain, it can provide contrast to an otherwise pain-free existence. Boredom, in its less mind-numbing and signaturely painful form, can also be used as a tool (and less like a self-inflicting weapon) for self-betterment. This form of boredom can lead down a path of self-reflection and out-of-bodiness. By allowing ourselves to feel bored (or sad or angry or any other typically yin emotion in our lives) we open the door to the yang–or positive–aspects of life so we may fully experience existence. 

 Here it is important to note that boredom itself is not what we feel when we reflect internally. Introspection is not boredom. Introspection is a state of mind that we can reach through the circumstances the lead us to be bored. When we shut off the noise of life and allow ourselves to be swallowed whole by boredom, our minds search for something to fill the void. So, when there is no proverbial pill to curb the thirst of stimulation (social events or emails or TV shows) our minds turn in on themselves, searching the essence of “self” for relief.

It is then through boredom, it seems, that we can hack through the underbrush of distraction to reveal uncharted territory that you cannot read about in any journal, book, or play and cannot access without either making a mistake or exposing yourself to a world much different than your own. It is through boredom that we may allow ourselves to journey through the “who” of our own existence.

 

Can We Live without Boredom?

What then, if we were to take away boredom? If there are avenues that lead to introspection, why bother ever allowing ourselves to be bored? (And staying away from boredom is not hard to do. In fact, I already spend most of my time burying it under my stack of work, responsibility, and preoccupation with the future.) If we were to take away our ability to be bored, it would be drastic to say we would take away self-discovery. Really we would only be taking away one avenue for self-discovery, butone that I argue is the most natural, powerful, and least potentially damaging of them all. The path to self-discovery through the dull-enchantment of boredom is a lot like slowly revealing the deep, colorful layers of a jawbreaker. When induced from an outside source (some previously discussed), self-discovery can become a lot more like shattering the jawbreaker to reveal the layers inside.

 

Importance of Self-Directed Discovery

One of my favorite books of all time is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and I think that the main character’s journey to enlightenment touches on this inwardly facing method of self-discovery. One of my favorite lines reads, “One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking—a detour, an error.”  This carries the idea that we all try “seeking” for ourselves through the outside world and through other people, but this will never lead us to discover who we really are. Really, the entire theme of Siddhartha points to the idea that gradually discovering yourself is the only way to “clear out the underbrush” of outside distraction and learn who you are and who you want to become.

I think one of the best (practical and observable) cases for the power of self-discovery is that of a religious convert. Take, for example, any person affiliated strongly with any religion. In my experience, I have never seen a person persuaded to convert to another belief system because someone convinced them they were looking at the world incorrectly. (I’m talking to you mother. No matter how many times you explain to the Mormons that they are, in fact, a cult and do not follow the true savior, you are not going to change their minds.) Instead, most people I know that have changed belief systems have done so after a long saga of introspection, study, and thought. It seems this is because self-discovered and self-perpetuated change is the most pure and powerful of transformation. This is something that the outside world cannot give you.

Boredom as a Part of Yin and Yang

Without boredom as a route to self-directed introspection, I imagine we would all go long periods of time without looking into the “source” of the self. As time would go on, our habits, our thoughts, and the very essence of the self would harden like amber.  Without the occasional stirring, what we would be willing to change about ourselves would diminish. When we would encounter change via the outside world, we wouldn’t mold to the new ideas and insights. We would brace against that insight, standing fast in our stagnancy, afraid of the contrast between the self and outside world. Self-discovery would become a jarring experience instead of a fulfilling one.

As you see, it holds that boredom is essential to discovery. Without pain, we would not be able to fully understand pleasure. Without throat clenching grief, we would not be able to fully feel the rapture of joy. Without confusion we could not know the refreshing taste of direction and clarity. There is balance in the world. Each force has an equal and opposite reaction. So can you know black without white? Can you truly know yourself without looking within?

What do we do with Boredom?

Boredom is not something you can overcome or should overcome. Inevitably, we will all be bored.  It is a part of life, like all mental-emotional states we face. And boredom should not be hampered just because it can be unpleasant. Boredom is the mechanism for evolution of the self. Like all things in life, its presence balances something on the scale within us. Too much or too little is bad for us, but if you can get it just right, boredom is no better or worse than the other yin-forces we experience like grief, guilt, fear, and anxiety. Boredom simply is and was and may always be a part of the human condition. It is up to each of us to determine its role in our lives.

 

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