We are often caught up in how we are supposed to be, feeling guilt for the way that we are not, and even artificially crafting ourselves into the mold that is so desired. The problem is that if you are a circle in can be painful to be shoved into a triangular hole. If you dream of snowy mountains you will not really be inspired by sandy beaches. Our authentic selves, although not always consistent through time, are like a signal that we can choose to amplify or suffocate.

An Odd Peg

Let’s talk about an example. The first is about environment, and I’ll speak from personal experience. I found myself in a highly competitive graduate program, and surrounded by brilliant peers. I almost didn’t make it into this program because I was told in my interviews that “someone like me” that does not have burning questions does not belong there. I would be stealing the spot of someone else that did have such questions. I remember leaving this interview, trying to maintain composure, but walking quickly down the hallway to go in the stairwell so I could cry, regain composure, and go into my next interview like nothing had happened. I often look back on these interviews, realizing how young I was, and trying to find direction, and wonder what those faculty were trying to achieve by their direct harshness. I suspect they treated students that they saw as more like themselves differently, but that is just speculation.

When I was admitted, this need to find a burning question still haunted me. It was still unknown to me if was interested in answering scientific questions. What was clear, however, is that my passion for building systems and understanding technology expanded without bounds. I craved building applications and systems, and understanding complexity. And jumping around a bit between labs, at the end of my time I presented an impressive body of work. But the problem was that the best I could do is choose a question oriented toward building, one around reproducibility of scientific workflows. It wasn’t the same level of impressive as my peers that were doing machine learning on protein structures and even some having direct clinical impact.

Let’s step back and analyze what happened. At a high level, my specific interests did not perfectly match the expectations of the program, and I was told this explicitly. The things that the program valued were not what I wanted to, and was inspired to produce. At my graduate defense presentation, I was told by a member of my panel that while my span of projects was impressive, I myself was not very scholarly. If I thought a degree would resolve the internal chaos invoked 5 years earlier, this comment further prolonged the haunting. Hearing it again in a different context, and consistently over time, I believed it. I felt that while I had jumped through the hoops, I was a sheep in a wolf’s clothing. I had passed but I wasn’t really good enough.

A Tinted Glass

The perceptions we form about ourselves serve as a tinted glass through which we view the world. What might shatter that glass? Either asking questions, or stumbling on insights accidentally if we don’t know to do that. To continue, I further strengthened the story of myself as non-academic because I didn’t enjoy reading papers. I found most of them boring, or when I forced myself to try, would find my mind wandering to entire other landscapes when I should have been reading a Methods section. It wasn’t until I stumbled on a few papers that captured me, and many years later, that I questioned my self-bias. Indeed, it wasn’t that I globally don’t like exploring topics or reading papers, but rather that I have niche interests and my heart is captured by specific things. Why should my mind and heart be mindlessly accepting of anything that someone else deems interesting? My heart is not open for control or dictation by someone that tells me how I’m supposed to be. It also was the case that reading was not my chosen method of learning, but that’s a topic for another time.

These perceptions and life experiences go far beyond interests and environment and extend to the self. As another example, if you are in a serious academic conference and you want to expressively dance, you will often feel out of place. If your routine for living, whether that be eating, exercising, socializing (or not), or keeping your living space a particular way is very deviant, you might hide it or feel ashamed. The problem is that we like to categorize our world into buckets, and this makes it easier to engage in routine and meet expectations. Anything that deviates from our expectations immediately is labeled as strange and questioned. That feeling of being labeled as “other” can cause social distress, and then you must choose between alleviating that stress and honoring yourself. Even when not explicitly told, we are constantly bombared with messages about how to hone our own signals.

Learn Your Signals

It can take many years to intimately know our own signals, and compare them with the noise around us. The risk is that before we have this understanding, we often form perceptions of ourselves that are wrong or even hurtful. We start to see ourselves through others’ eyes, and lose perspective that our time is short, and we might regret a life of making choices that optimize making others comfortable. You can live up to expectations and try to make everyone happy, or choose to behave in a way that makes you feel most alive.

Once you have this perspective that our interactions are made up of expectations and choices for how to behave, you must decide what to do with it. The first easy thing to do is to decide to ask more questions. Instead of naively applying labels to yourself and others, look into the gray area. Ask why, and why not, and what if. Then you must decide how to behave yourself. The biases and push of the world around you will not go away. It becomes a decision to present your authentic self when confronted with environments that encourage you to do otherwise, or put up a facade. It becomes a decision to choose to exist in environments and surround yourself with people that make it easier to be your authentic self. Packaging yourself into a neat little box will never offend anyone, but you will never surprise or delight them either. The choice is yours, and the underlying foundation that drives that choice is yours to think about.

Suggested Citation:
Sochat, Vanessa. "Learning The Self." @vsoch (blog), 06 Aug 2023, https://vsoch.github.io/2023/learning-the-self/ (accessed 16 Apr 24).