Most of us think of ourselves in adjectives. We see ourselves as funny or shy, introvert or extrovert, clever or boring.
But none of these are actually permanent qualities. They may be the qualities we are most likely to exhibit, but often they aren’t even that. Instead, they’re just the aspects of ourselves (out of the hundreds that there are), that crop up in our most often repeated memories of ourselves.
Whether or not that’s a good thing largely comes down to how positive those qualities are, and how accurate our sense of ourselves in relation to them is, but the important point here, is that even if we really have been, for instance, selfish, mean-spirited, anti-social people throughout our lives, these are not fixed, unchangeable qualities which he have no choice but to continue to live with.
In the early days of Microsoft Word, a team of researchers asked users to send them a file which showed which of the 150+ default settings had been changed. To their amazement, over 95% of users hadn’t changed a single one of them. The users assumed that the software had been set up to funciton in a particular way for a reason, by the experts at Microsoft no less, and so didn’t even bother to find out whether making some changes would have made the software work better for them.
Chances are you don’t believe that you were “set up” to function in a particular way, but nonetheless, few of us really question the way we are, or invest time in figuring out if we could be different, and what would happen if we were.
Our behaviour has largely been formed at random, in response to chance interactions and events in our lives. Perhaps a boyfriend or girlfriend treated you unkindly and so you’ve become someone who is mistrusting in relationships. Perhaps you had overbearing parents, so now you’re reluctant to express your opinions. Or you were bitten by a dog as a child, and so now feel terrified whenever you’re near one.
But as much sense as these responses might make to you in the context of the things that have happened to you, there’s no actual reason to make these behaviours defaults. If you hadn’t met that boy/girl, or had slightly more open minded parents, or the owners of that dog had had the sense to keep it under control, you might be a completely different person, at least in that particular regard, and there’s no difference at all between that you and the real you other than these points of random chance.
Even more deeply entrenched characteristics, introversion for example, can be overridden when necessary, as illustrated by Brian Little in his fantastic TED talk “Who are you really? | The puzzle of personality”(you really should watch this if you haven’t already).
Examining your behaviour and considering your choices is the metaphysical equivalent of opening up the settings app on your computer and tinkering around. It’s not that everything will suddenly become better, although this is certainly a possibility, but rather that if you don’t ever take the time to do this, you’ll only be aware of a fraction of the options that are available to you in a given situation, which leaves you no choice but to stick with the one or two that have been given to you as standard. Even if they suck.