We continuously experience varying states of self, and how we feel as selves seems to vary remarkably on the context. When we are interacting with others, we bring forth something known as ‘The Social Self’.
During one period of university, I experienced this flip-flopping between different ‘versions’ of self within a very short time frame. Initially, I met with my Final Year Project tutor to discuss my work. I had spent a significant amount of time preparing the structure of my project, sources I would use and other key parts. Within a few minutes, my plan was torn apart like a dog with a cheap chew toy. The pieces were metaphorically scattered all over the floor and I was left without being given a real solution other than ‘start again’.
It’s fair to say that I left the office feeling like a shitty, lost student.
When I got home, I was routinely scrolling through a backlog of emails and came across a very brief but extremely kind message. Some stranger over the interwebs had taken the time to say that they were getting a lot of value from my posts and offered me a simple thank you.
In almost an instant, that shitty student self evaporated and what emerged in its place was a very proud and slightly giddy 22-year old. A completely new self.
Upon reflection, I realised that who I was in each of those situations seemed to be governed by my sense of how the other person saw me. A kid with no clue and then a kid with maybe something good going on.
But we all experience this situation. We all have encounters with people that seem to destabilise us. Where we don’t feel we have access to our full capacities as human beings.
To our best selves.
Our sense of self in any given moment is susceptible to being thrown around by how people see us or more likely, how we think other people see us.
So many encounters with other people are less than satisfying. And what makes them less than satisfying, is generally the degree in which we’re encumbered by neurotic self-concern.
Another example of this influence is, say, you’re going home for the holidays and spending extended time with your family. Now, your family will tend to see you as continuous with who you’ve always been for them, so there’s often a special dynamic there. No matter how much you’ve changed, your family will find a way to fit you to the pattern of who you used to be. And then, as if by magic, you might again begin to feel like who you used to be.
With these changes of self in different situations, the best thing you can do is to become curious. It is unlikely that you can change things favourably straight away, but if you become curious, take a step back and watch how your sense of self and identity changes in each scenario, you can begin to unravel some of the inconsistencies.
Why is it you feel so comfortable with one person, and so awkward with another? Why do some people and situations make you feel free, while others make you feel trapped in yourself? How is it that other people have that much power over your mind? These changes are fascinating and of course, none of these changes are who you really are.
There is no one who you really are. There is just a flow of experience.
There are patterns to this though and you can predict how you are likely to feel with certain people, but you’re only tending to conform to these patterns.
You are not condemned to be the same person you were last time around.
And whatever happens, when you leave a social situation, mindfulness and living only in the moment allows you not to carry it around with you like a 1000kg bag of worry, shame and frustration.
You don’t have to keep finishing whatever argument you had with your sister in your head. You can let thoughts go. The time to talk to your sister was when she was standing in front of you. The moment you leave, you’re now talking to yourself, telling yourself a story about the interaction and how it went. And if you find yourself doing that, which you will, you should confront this paradox of self-talk. You know how that conversation went with your sister, you were there. So who are you telling now?
If you find yourself especially self-conscious or anxious about how you are coming across to others and the world, it is worth remembering that the people you are dealing with are suffering with similar thoughts, just like you. Almost everyone you meet is practically drowning in self-concern.
Just look at them. Listen to them. When they are boasting about some feat or directing a conversation in a certain direction, they’re likely broadcasting their own self-doubt and anxiety and disappointment. They’re worried about what others think of them.
Everyone is to some degree.
If you can manage to get out of yourself for just a moment, if you can just take a step back from feeling implicated in what is happening around you and simply observe, you will generally see that you are surrounded by a carnival of human frailty.
So compassion is available. Compassion for your own worry, other people’s worry and your jumbled sense of self.
Whatever is true out in the cosmos, this is it for us. And wherever you are, whatever circumstance you find yourself in, however strained the conversation, this is the only life you have in this moment.
So you might as well enjoy it.
Enjoy it and try to cultivate the freedom to be able to bring forth your best self in any given moment, with any given person.
This post is an adaptation of Sam Harris’ meditation lesson ‘The Social Self’