Learning about the value of our own self

Yes, I work in a lab using brain imaging to figure out how emotion and the regulation of emotion are processed and implemented in the human brain, but this is once more me trying to shine a philosophically inspired light on a matter I deeply care about.

One of the patterns that stuck out for me in several conversations I had with friends over the course of the past few weeks is that many (maybe most or even almost all) humans place upon themselves something like a “value”. This value doesn’t seem to be framed as a dollar amount, but rather as a more “relative” (or relational) value, which is flexible enough to shift a little “up” or “down” according to our needs and the context we find ourselves in. The reason for putting the terms value, up, and down into quotes is that I am convinced that those are, in fact, not one-dimensional–which is the most typical way we would think about value. Rather I think that what each of us considers to be “our value” is something much more facetted, something we learn and update over time, and that given a situation is then evaluated in a specific context, determining how we feel about ourselves.

Unpacking this last sentence a bit, I believe that the determination of this “value” has three main components: first, it is almost exclusively “fed” (learned) by feedback we receive from other people. It is true that at our most successful moments, such as when we achieve a specific goal that took enough effort to achieve, we also draw “value” (i.e. feeling good about us) from that, but unless other people reflect this back by telling us how well we have done (even if just by liking it on Facebook), the initial moment of bliss over the success may even turn into bitterness. So, first we need recognition. And as a side note, naturally it matters who we get this from. The more we care about someone in particular, the more it matters what they think of us in return…

The second component is our interpretation of the feedback. This may sound trivial, but is a crucial step! In fact it is the only of the three “parts” that is (to some extent at least) in our control. Just imagine that you have achieved a wonderful thing; maybe you just cooked the best meal ever, or finished writing a paper (or blog entry), or managed to book a vacation for an incredibly low price. Whatever it is, according to your goals and needs, you achieved! And now you tell this to a very good friend, and his or her reaction is something like, “so what?” Given that you chose this person to share your success with–or he or she is a person you share much more with in general–you were probably looking for something a lot more enthusiastic. Instead you experience quite a let-down moment. However, isn’t it possible that the reason for this so-what? reaction lies in your friend and not so much in your achievement or its inherent value for your friend? So here we do have a choice to take this personally or to allow us to consider that our friend might be very busy, feeling down himself at the moment, or some other explanation for the lack of positive feedback.

In my mind, the third component is context. For instance, someone may be a tremendously hard worker but consider himself a relatively poor caregiver. In the work context, say at a staff meeting, his momentary self-evaluation (relative value) would be quite high, whereas in a more family-oriented context, say a Thanksgiving gathering of family, he might think rather poorly (low) of himself. This might then lead to a shift in preferences, such that he would rather spend time with colleagues than with his family.

And why do I care about this topic? Well, for one I believe that whatever value we place upon ourselves goes a long way to explain how we feel about ourselves on a moment to moment basis. From a very early age on and throughout all cultures I can think of, humans learn to “collapse” evaluations of all sorts into a single dimension: good versus bad, positive versus negative, right versus wrong. And that’s pretty much what we care about most. We want to belong to the “good side”, and especially in Western cultures we are constantly bombarded with the message that positive feelings are better than negative ones–people in commercials at least are rarely feeling down, and if they are then it is portrayed as bad. And naturally, we also want to be “right” as much as possible.

Why do I bring this up? I think that this (over-) simplification of value is at the heart of a lot of suffering, given that it both enhances the force of context by at the same time also reducing the diversity in which our self-knowledge can shape context and thus endanger our emotional well-being: the more I think of myself in terms of this one dimension, the more influence will negatively interpreted feedback have on my value.

And now imagine yourself back into being a small and most likely less-competent-than-now child. You have been playing with the kid of the neighboring family, and after you get home, you overhear your parents talking about them as “bad neighbors”. Something the people next door did has upset your parents, but being nuanced and context-specific is difficult, so instead of making a complicated story, all you will hear is this one (unidimensional) judgment: they are bad–at least at that moment. And given that you are hardly in a position to argue with your parents but rather depend on their support and care, your brain may simply be forced to accept their statements as facts.

This one-dimensional thinking is so deeply engrained–although it could naturally also be genetically pre-programmed–that it seems difficult for us to overcome and look at ourselves in a more nuanced way: I for instance have done quite a few things in the past 12 or so months that certainly are not among the “proud moments” of my life; but I also achieved in certain areas (and in some areas, failures and successes even overlap!). Can I look back and learn from the things I myself consider to be less than optimal and cherish the successes at the same time? Can I feel “good enough” about myself from all of this?

When it comes to our bodies, we learn movement via self-observation and a long process of fine-tuning and adjustments. One part of the circuits involved in this feature is usually called the Mirror-Neuron-System. When we perform an action, our brains predict the outcome, including the whole trajectory to be able to correct in mid-motion, and this prediction is then compared with what we see, allowing us to continually improve our behavior. Given that we cannot directly feel the emotions in other people, we must rely on their feedback, including non-verbal cues, as indirect markers, which in turn allows us to tune our behavior. However, our emotional evaluation is being degraded from the multi-dimensional reality into a one-dimensional good-or-bad outcome. Instead of allowing the combined reality that our parents love us although they also and at the same time are feeling disappointed whenever we fail at something they predicted we would succeed in, we are made to choose, and in such moments the “I’m bad and worthless” point of view seems to prevail easily…

As a last, intriguing thought: after the financial collapse of the housing bubble on the US market in 2007/2008, many people were asking why no-one saw it coming. Well, one of the reasons may be that when it comes to our professional lives we tend to work in cohorts. And maybe only hearing back from people in your own trade, particularly when continually sending and receiving messages of success, simply does not provide a “factual enough” feedback to correctly assess the (objective) value of one’s achievements. This naturally applies to many work fields, but other professions have at least come up with ideas to improve control, such as having an internal affairs department to police the police, or having two houses to self-control government. And as much as there is financial oversight, it may simply not be “outside” enough to work properly.

In short, I think we do need opposition–or at the very least an outside perspective–to form accurate views of the world and the consequences of our actions therein. In terms of emotional value, this opposition may best be offered by people we care about, but should then be presented in a way that does not support the uni-dimensional thinking we have been raised in.

What do you think?

Who am I? — reflections on a queer identity…

Whew, while I never planned to put in some hiatus in October, I must admit it was nice to take a little break. But now, back to business!

At the beginning of last month, I went to the opening ceremony of Queer Awareness Month (QuAM) at Columbia University, and the keynote speaker, Rebecca Jordan-Young, gave a wonderful talk about how allowing aspects of identity to be defined in possibly overly narrow ways can be harmful to the individuals to which these identities are “applied”. And her insights into how studies on gender identity and sexual orientation in the past have used overly narrow selection criteria in the hope of improving observable differences between groups strongly suggest that the idea of a clear-cut biological mechanism that leads to a “female brain” or a “gay brain” may better be revisited.

Since then, I have been wondering again about where I fit into the “gay world”–or maybe better queer world, using the more general, and less easily defined term–and why people feel such a need to “label” others as well as themselves with more or less narrow and fixed categories at all? And here are some of my thoughts…

Even when I was growing up, I already had a fairly strong sense of not fitting into the mainstream. My parents did not feel any particular urge to play the “follow the fashion” game that seemed to have taken hold in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the German middle-class. A lot of my clothes were inherited from either of my three-and-a-half or five-and-a-half-year older brother, which, given the fact that fashion changed quite a bit between when they and I went to elementary and junior high school, was probably a tell-tale sign of either my parents not giving a damn about fashion or us not having a lot of money. And with young kids being somewhat consciously unaware of issues such as group pressure, my guess is that some of my class mates decided that my family wasn’t too well off… Please don’t get me wrong: that in itself certainly wasn’t the reason for me to feel “queer” (i.e. unusual or maybe even not-belong to the group), but is rather one example in which I differed but clearly one that increased that sense a lot. Even more importantly, my parents made it a point to tell their kids that, eventually and essentially, we were (and have thus learned to be) responsible for our lives. And while this led to a certain amount of friction whenever we had gatherings with wider family, I must say I am tremendously grateful that I was allowed to explore the concept of self-determination at an early age!

When it comes to applying labels to other people, one of the most important reasons I can think of for doing so is that knowing certain “facts” about someone I interact with might help me in forming more accurate expectations concerning future outcomes of those interactions. For instance, knowing that someone is married with children may suggest that, in a certain situation, this person is more likely to behave in a certain manner. In short, the added value of applying a label to someone else is gaining a (false?) sense of increased certainty when it comes to predicting someone’s behavior.

An additional reason is that different aspects of identity help in forming social groups, which usually leads to group cohesion and an increase in the willingness to share resources or defend other group members against outside aggression. On average, I might be more willing and likely to help someone who shares certain characteristics with me, such as being gay, compared to someone who is different. And naturally, this also requires me to apply labels to myself…

But this comes at a potentially hefty price: first of all, if I apply a label to someone and then have stronger expectations for that person’s behavior, my own actions will reflect or at least incorporate part of those expectations. For instance, if I assume that someone is superficial and not interested in a serious conversation, I may very well start a small-talk and then, surprise, all we will ever talk about are relatively superficial topics. And when it comes to personal liberties, which is a much graver thought, as soon as labels have been sufficiently fixed, such as what “being gay” means, other properties like rights or specific privileges and restrictions become attached to this label or identity. In the case of (e.g. gay) rights, this could mean that if someone does not fully fit the label, as with bisexual people, they may or may not be granted those rights.

For me personally, applying a label to myself naturally means that I can or will “identify” with the label and whatever traits, actions, beliefs, and values that are usually associated with it. In a way, this gives me added security because I do not have to question myself in every aspect of my life all the time. But on the other hand it may also restrict my liberty. If, for instance, I identify with being Republican, I may feel a very strong urge and motivation to publicly defend some other Republican, even though without the labeling (or shared identity) I would not do so based on the other person’s character or actions.

Additionally, I am wondering: how stable is my identity? Obviously there are aspects that are factual, such as that I was born in Germany, a historic fact, or that I am white/caucasian, something that is in all likelihood true for the remainder of my life. But besides some few identities that are unlikely to change (or even unchangeable), I would argue that the entire “rest” is up for grabs. And there are a lot of possible identities to choose from, usually depending on the context. I could for instance identify as a member of Columbia University, and more specifically as a neuropsychology researcher at Columbia, as a Harlem resident, or more generally as a New Yorker, as politically left-leaning but with strong beliefs in personal liberties and responsibility, as someone in their mid-thirties, as a dependently-employed worker, as an Apple product user, as a fan of Natalie Portman, and so on. The list of potential identities is endless, and in a way it seems that each of them both adds to my sense of self while at the same time taking away the liberty to be the opposite. To be clear: each of these identities is usually only helpful in the context of contrast, like being a New Yorker in midst of people from Texas. Being a white man in his thirties among fellow mid-thirty caucasians isn’t a very “helpful” identity at all. Otherwise we could all just identify with being human and that’d be enough!

In the end, I guess that’s why, just like Rebecca Jordan-Young, I like to identify as queer. It is a “label” with a relatively strong notion of what it adds in terms of my sense of self, allowing me to be different and unpredictable, but more importantly not restricting me in any direction (other than being absolutely and dead-center average). So, yes, I love being queer!