I was hit with a crippling polio virus when I was seven years old. As I look back on it now, other than my genetic makeup, I feel it was the one experience that most defined and shaped my personality. Yet, if you were to read anything I had written about myself, there were stretches of 10 to 15 years when I never mentioned the word polio. It was as if it never existed.
I ask: Did polio define me? Or, didn’t it?
My initial answer to the questions was, “It seems to depend on my vantage point. At times I thought it did, other times I didn’t.”
That answer did absolutely nothing for me until this thought popped into my head: “Life is a puzzle, my life is a puzzle. We’re here to try to put the parts of the puzzle together, to make sense of life, to make sense of each of our lives. I’m here to figure myself out.”
Over time I developed three techniques that have helped me use that insight:
1. Repeating the same thing about yourself cuts off insight
When I repeat the same phrases over and over again when describing myself, I know I run the risk of never figuring myself out.
If you think you know yourself just because you repeat the same thing about yourself year after year, you have missed the critical link in discovering yourself.
When you occasionally use new words to describe yourself to others it stimulates new ideas. With new ideas come new insights. And new insights let you see yourself in new ways. That’s a key to figuring yourself out: using new words and different ways of describing yourself.
For example, for many years I described my failure to get into a college of my choice as a lack of intelligence. I described it as a hard luck story. And that I was a kid who overcame obstacles. That I was a survivor. Recently, I decided to try another way of describing it. I said that as my friends went off to college, I went off to Hollywood to become an actor. I talked about how successful I was for the short period I tried it.
Then this new Insight broke through. Even though I had some limitations, I was always trying to achieve something. Usually I did not make it the first time, but in follow up tries, I usually had a degree of success. For example:
After being cut from the seventh and eighth grade football and basketball teams, I finally made the local swim team in eighth grade.
After being cut from the little league majors, I played in the minor league and hit nine home runs. Another insight: I realized that sometimes it’s better to be a big fish in a little pond than to be a little fish in a big pond.
Instead of emphasizing the “cutting” I started emphasizing the “trying.” Trying has eventually led to breakthroughs for me. As I look back, that’s pretty much describes me. I tried most everything. Things worked out for me one way or the other. That fits me. That’s a pattern for me. But I didn’t realize that until I experimented with describing myself differently.
Try it. Have some fun with it.
2. Being cynical about self reflection hurts your ability to confront superficiality
I avoid cynicism when trying to figure myself out.
Searching for discovery and meaning about yourself is hard. You have to work at it.
At times it has been so hard I have been tempted to say that spending so much time on myself is selfish.
Is it selfish or is it just hard?
It is hardly selfish. Tough, honest self reflection can lead as much to humility as to self centeredness.
Just becoming yourself is a daunting undertaking. For example I’ve known the rules of the game for a long time. Get degrees, get awards, live in nice homes, make money. Those are signs of success. If those signs stop, you work harder at maintaining them. And if you lose those signs, you feel less than adequate. Just being you becomes unsatisfying.
But all you are is you, naked and exposed. The older you get the more naked and exposed you become.
Hard, determined efforts at understanding yourself are almost entirely efforts at pealing back layers of superficiality.
Shakespeare’s King Lear was a tragic figure because he thought his worldly power was who he was. But with age both the power and the man diminished. Those he thought loved him because he had power ceased to love him when he lost his power. Lear’s mind was turned upside down. He had no idea what had happened. He hadn’t the slightest clue who he was. Consequently, he went mad.
When you get a title or you have a cool profession or you live in a big home or your child excels at something, keep pressing to comprehend that is not who YOU are. You do not become the thing you do or the thing you have. Fight hard to face yourself so that you will always be able to find yourself. There’s a good possibility you’ll become satisfied with yourself if you do.
3. Listening to unplanned comments about you informs you
I listen carefully to small clues.
Over the years, people will make extemporaneous comments about you that will give you fresh insights about yourself. Usually these are people whom you haven’t seen for a while, and they aren’t into what you are and are not sensitive about. Hence their comments come closer to being authentic.
For example, a couple of years ago, I met up with a guy I went to high school with. We were on the swim team together, although I didn’t remember him until he said, “one day at lunch you were limping and I said what are you trying to do, get out if swim practice?” He said I shot back at him angrily, “I had polio.”
Bingo, at that very moment I remembered him and the incident.
Yes, I was sensitive about anyone noticing and bringing up the fact of my polio. It did define me as I supposed, and yes, I didn’t talk about it because I was pretending I didn’t have it. I was fooling no one, but maybe myself. It shocked me when he said that.
Yes, that was a key that helped answer the question I started this article with: polio was a big, big thing that defined me. I was pleased to realize this, and comfortable in accepting it.