Sunday, 16 February 2014

I am not my brain. But who am I?

Last night I was rereading Brene Brown's great book, The Gifts of Imperfection. I don't think I'm all that hard on myself, but I have some inner voices that are tough as nails, so I thought I might try to get back to some of the insight I was getting onto last summer, seeing the value in being imperfect and vulnerable. I was especially interested in the part where she talks about "trading your authenticity for approval."

Now, I'm not sure what I think about the idea of authenticity. Yes, I know I can feel like a fake at times, but some of those times I know it's just a feeling, that impostor thing many people fall into over and over again. For me, being in school is a tangly mess of this stuff. I returned to school because I was interested in psychology, but a whole lot of the study of psychology leaves the actual living people out of the picture altogether. I've had to weed through lots of stuff that doesn't make sense--the idea that the brain works like a machine continues to be popular, despite lots of evidence that the workings of the brain are not very machine-like at all. In American philosopher Alva Noe's highly readable book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness, Noe argues cogently that the person you are is not reducible to the brain in your head. Movement, interacting in the physical world, cycling to the beach and slogging away at work, talking and laughing and getting madly frustrated with other people (((not hell, not hell, remember they are not always hell!))), all the things you do are a part of who you are. It's not clear where you end and the rest of the world starts.

Strangely, that makes a lot of sense to me. I know different places, actions, and people bring out different aspects of me. My work can bring out a real kindness in me, or it can usher in the cranky, impatient person I sometimes am.  When I'm around some of my family, or some older friends, I can revert to ways of being me that I was sure I'd moved away from. When I'm riding my bike on the trail I use to go to school, I recapture the magical feeling I've heard associated with childhood, though I didn't encounter it myself until I was in my mid twenties. When I'm riding in traffic and a car cuts me off, the rage I do my best to tamp down quickly (do NOT make that rude gesture at the driver!)  is just as much me.

So with all that, I get confused when I hear people talking about looking inward to find their "authentic selves." Somehow it seems like setting up a hierarchy, so that some parts of who a person is are accepted, but some parts are cast out as unworthy. I have a bit of a conflict with school right now. On the one hand, I am a strong student with good marks, and I like the practical reminder of being a good student that the marks and comments from professors bring. I use these things when I need to remind myself that I'm not just a hollow shell of a person faking my way through the school. But sometimes, yes, the approval feels too important, like some idealized God from my childhood reaches out, pats me on the head, and says, "Good girl." It would feel safer not to need that. But without it, without interacting with people who are studying the stuff I'm interested in studying, and without some good comments or marks or warmth or something from them, how would I know that I was getting any better at any of this? Or how would I know that this was the best way to go about it, being in school and subjecting myself to tuition and deadlines at this decidedly middle age? If it were just the personal satisfaction of reading and thinking that I wanted, I could just read and write and think, save myself stress and money, right?

That's what rereading Brene Brown got me thinking about. It's hard to know when you're performing for approval, and when it's the real you. I think that's because, despite a whole lot of ideas in our culture that tell us otherwise, there is no one, stable, magic, inner real you. You are what you do. John Dewey says points out the fallacy of thinking that there is a fixed self; instead he says, "We arrive at true conceptions of motivation and interest only by the recognition that selfhood (except as it has encased itself in a shell of routine) is in process of making, and that any self is capable of including within itself a number of inconsistent selves, of unharmonized dispositions" (from Human Nature and Conduct, p. 137). I like what Dewey has to say here. Living is a process of being a self, making it up as you go. It's not looking inward to see what inner treasure I can find. I've tried that already, and man is it ever dull! I think it's more about me living in the world, paying attention to what I'm doing and how I feel about life as I'm in it.

This might seem unconnected to the ongoing subject of heaving the drink problem over once and for all. But I think that's exactly what I'm talking about. I'm not good at knowing what I feel about much of anything, and I know the drink has been a big part of that. I hate hate hate feeling sad and low and uncomfortable about life. Oh how much I like feeling easy breezy and laughing at all the funny things. But I need both. I need to figure out how to feel all those feelings, because that's how I'm going to know what I think about this ongoing project of becoming the person I am, and only when I know what I feel, and what I think, will I know what to do.

I'm confused about school. I started out with some vague ideas about counselling, but after working in my current job as long as I have, I realized I do not want to become a counsellor, and no one else should want that from me either. (Don't tell ME your problems! You think you've got problems?) That was an emotional reaction before it was real knowledge, but it started as a feeling. I like research and writing, but I can't figure out how my studies and what I'm doing with them all fits together. Now that I've really quit drinking, I can think a bit more clearly, so I want to, all of a sudden, just plain know what to do already: what I want, and how to get there. Now, dammit! I think it doesn't work that way. I have to pay attention to Dewey: I am a person in progress, and I always will be. There will be no one great figuring out, after which we can all go home and sleep forever. And I have to pay attention to Brene Brown too, because what she is saying, I think, is that she felt ashamed, and that was how she knew that she was playing for the audience, not being authentic. So figuring out how I feel will help me find what authentic is and, like being a self, authentic is probably an ongoing project, not a fixed and final goal. One that's never finished, and surely never perfect. And I'll take from Alva Noe that I am the person who lives and thinks and acts and does, not a brain nor a mysterious inner essence. So of course there really is no answer to the "who am I?" question, and I just have to keep keeping on despite that.

That may sound convoluted. I've been trying to think my way through this for a while, and writing helps me think. I'm not clear yet, but I do feel a lot better than I have for a while. It's a big surprise to me that I expected there was some answer that everybody else knew but I didn't, somewhere on the other side of a wall I couldn't quite get through. Now I've set aside the drink and the elusive Big Answer, and it actually feels like a relief. There's lots of work to do, but it feels like good honest work, the kind a person can do.

If you have read all this, I really do deeply thank you. Peace and joy to you, and the strength to keep on.



  1. Hi Thirsty, Another meaty, thought-provoking post Thank YOU. "It's a big surprise to me that I expected there was some answer that everybody else knew but I didn't, somewhere on the other side of a wall I couldn't quite get through." When I read that I said, "WOW. Yes, yes, yes!" That is such a clear expression.

    I am also going through this thing of learning how to feel what I actually feel, without numbing it or kicking/thrashing away at it, which I've been doing with my feelings for decades. I think for me that is the journey into authenticity. Not doing stuff or saying stuff that's "real", but feeling real feelings. It's hard work. But like you say, it's good honest work. And I think the whole world's a better place for us doing it. XX

    1. Sue, I'm so glad you get what I'm saying here. Thanks for your comment. It's so strange, isn't it, starting to realize that your own feelings might the the key to that mysterious thing that's missing? I had worried that this post was completely incomprehensible, so I'm doubly pleased it resonates with you! Warm wishes to you, and many thanks. xo

  2. Oooh I love that my friend Sue is here appreciating your words too (she and I had a face-to-face coffee last week and walk around my garden, she rocks!).. I love that you are sharing your academic thinking with us.. musing aloud and trying to process all that you are learning and how it relates to yourself.. there is so much figuring out to be done, and our busy busy brains always work overtime to find answers.. when sometimes it's just the you on the bike planning on how to navigate the curve up ahead that is what is truly authentic. Authentic is such a key word for me now… sometimes I think the me that snaps testily at my sons is the truest part of me.. because when i was boozing I never let myself get grumpy.. (must be happy and upbeat all the time said my boozy personality).. maybe being authentic is realizing that there are a million different parts of us that come out when need be or do things certain ways at certain times and it's accepting and flowing with all of those bits that is the most authentic being we can be. NOW I'M GETTING CONVOLUTED. need to go to bed. Bye bye. and thanks xxxx

    1. Mrs D, it's so lovely to imagine you and Sure walking in the garden, talking about life. What a wonderful image to send me! I feel lucky to know you both, even if it is over blog waves instead of over flowers and veg. Thanks for your comment. And no, I don't think you were convoluted at all. I agree with you: authentic is important, and it includes a whole lot of different bits and pieces of being me, but it all has to hang together somehow and that's what I have to figure out. Thanks so much for your continued moral support! xo

    2. Oh darn the typos! I meant Sue, not Sure!!!