The Foibles of Appraisal

A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it. —- Oscar Wilde

It has been said that there are many distinctions without a difference, but sometimes distinctions define the differences that matter most. Among a variety of circumstantial experiences, how we interpret undesirable situations in particular can determine our potential for encountering psychological damage in general.

Isolating the tyranny of circumstance from the tyranny of self is one of those crucial bifurcations that separates what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as the “experiencing self” from the “remembering self.” What we believe about ourselves in relation to remembering a traumatic incident or personal injustice can exacerbate the intensity of what we actually experienced at the time it occurred. Similarly, the acknowledgment of something being abysmal does not obligate one to endorse a perpetuation of the abyss.

Albert Ellis, the purveyor of all things rational, once commented, “People don’t just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness.” To be philosophically copacetic, this quote can appear dismissive and more than a bit depoliticized when recognizing the emotional devastation that could be expected on any spectrum of trauma. However, this proposition has merit when considering the black hole of masochism that often ensues whenever we assume full responsibility for random misadventures. In other words, to what degree does emotional incrimination and relentless self-criticism become a long-term liability in the wake of misfortune? To employ a useful analogy, sometimes our perception of temperature is disproportionate to the actual temperature. Variables such as wind, humidity, cloud cover, and the location of the sun influence perception in ways that can make temperature feel warmer or colder. Likewise, the fluctuating variables of experience are subject to a wide range of interpretations that can be negatively internalized or retroactively exported at the expense of those around us. Ironically, it’s the perpetual exchange of experiences that makes our lives possible. Similar to the emergence of temperature due to particle friction and the effects of thermal radiation, everything that can be classified as a positive or negative experience is inexorably tied to the onslaught of unavoidable interactions.

The development of a psychological “filtration system” to identify experiences that are central to constructions of identity rather than incidental is another distinction with a qualitative difference. For example, the arduous ethical convictions and philosophical insights developed through enduring life’s fluctuating variables should be central to our concept of self. On the contrary, being defined by the unpredictability of circumstance is not only unsustainable; it’s insane.

Post hoc assimilation of experience allows for the selective integration and re-interpretation of events without feeling conscripted to an immutable narrative. Likewise, validating the fluidity of process keeps us from emphasizing the significance of any interval within a process.

To be held hostage by a crisis should not result in being a lifetime apologist for the crisis itself.

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