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.

el verdadero tu

Now that my ladder’s gone, I must lie down where all ladders start, In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart. W.B. Yeats.

Some say there exists a core selfa fundamental essence or default personality lurking within us. I would argue that humans exhibit a natural proclivity and front-loaded disposition towards certain behaviors or thought processes; but the idea of an unmitigated, essentialist-imbued persona is not empirically defensible when comprehensively considered. Instead, acknowledging that our identity is composed of a genetic and experiential amalgam is not only intellectually honest, but it allows for the possibility of adaptive malleability. Rather than obsessing over discovering our true selves, thinking of consciousness as a flexible platform for navigating psychosocial terrain suggests that we are beings in process. Fluctuation of circumstance and variations of subjective experience are not optional, they’re inevitable. If the emergence of consciousness is based on integrative information processing (i.e., parallel processing), any definition of the self will always be vulnerable to vicissitudes despite the sensation of continuity. It’s not that streams of continuity don’t exist in consciousness, it’s just that no primary thread of subjectivity is consistent. The brain, in its attempt to sort through competing neuronal data streams, will converge on an optimum range of experience (a user-friendly operating template) that “adjusts” based on environmental circumstances. These shifts in perception are often subtle and occur on a subconscious level that allows for the persistence of memory and our sense of pragmatic identity to remain intactalbeit as a functional illusion.

Aggregate concepts of self and volition, or the lack of, owe their historical roots to Eastern philosophy. However, the idea of a “true self” in the field of psychology was initially proposed by the English psychiatrist Donald Winnicott. As the doctor suggests, one’s true self is defined in relation to one’s (preverbal) instinctual sense and capacity for spontaneity prior to the influence of social variables or categorical descriptions. In contrast, the philosopher Michael Foucault referred to the self as an ephemeral construct based on repeated subjectification. According to Foucault, expectations of self and others are manifestations of gender formations, complex interpersonal relations, and socially-influenced “selection pressures.”

Whatever can be provisionally agreed upon as “the real you,” it must invariably be understood as an ongoing process without an exact location.

*Painting by KwangHo Shin.