Artist's Inspiration

The Real vs. Theoretical Self: How to Stop Getting Drunk on Other People’s Visions for You


“To be mature you have to realize what you value most.  It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity.  They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them.  They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own.  Perhaps they have imbibed the values of their particular profession or job, of their community or their neighbors, of their parents or family.  Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste.  You have missed the whole point of what life is for.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

When I stumbled across this quote the other day, something about the word “imbibe” struck me.

What was it about this little word that etched itself in my brain?

After giving it some thought in typical nerd, English major fashion, I realized “imbibe” perfectly captures how we take on the values of other people.  We unthinkingly guzzle the psychotic materialism and accomplishment-mania of our capitalist culture like frat boys chugging cheap beer.  9-to-5 work days.  6 figure salaries.  Trendy job titles.  These things are endorsed everywhere from glossy magazines to HBO.  Our parents sustain the myths and, with adult-like practicality, tell us to opt for the higher paying job that will make us miserable.

Flash forward and we suddenly realize we have acquired all these things but are no happier than before.  We are drunk on other people’s visions for us.  Is it any wonder so many of us wake up hung over with no clue as to who we are or what we actually value?

The Real vs. the Theoretical

This is a useful tool for distinguishing your genuine values from your official ones.  According to Brenda Ueland, beloved author of If You Want to Write (which, if you haven’t read, please do…by far the most rousing book on art/creativity/the human spirit I’ve ever read), there are two selves: the Real and Theoretical.

The theoretical self is not who we are but who we think we should be and is a byproduct of years of intense social conditioning.

More than anything, the theoretical self wants to impress other people and craves peer approval.  If the theoretical self were a kid in high school, he’d be the guy who bought a new pair of Air Jordans just to seem cool.

The theoretical self is why we compute our success in terms of hollow, meaningless numbers.  Salaries.  Vacation days.  Busy, planned hours.

The theoretical self is why we feel like life is a race and that, if we stop for even just a moment, we’ll fall behind and have to frantically rush to catch up.

The theoretical self is why we have a fidgety need to always be productive, to always be doing something.

The theoretical self is why we can’t stand vacancies in schedule.

The theoretical self is why we are always pushing and willing and striving.

The theoretical self is why we brainlessly shop to accumulate piles of useless, needless stuff and why we struggle to buy things we don’t want and can’t afford.

The theoretical self is why we spend our lives comparing and measuring and assessing ourselves by the rigid expectations of other people and come up short.

The real self, on the other hand, is real and honest and idiosyncratic and reflects what it is that we truly want.

The dilemma?  For most of us, it’s difficult to distinguish the theoretical from the real.

So how do we disentangle the real self from the vague, hypothetical self we are in theory?

1.  Avoid busyness & carve out time for reflection

Busyness-the insane, restless refusal to sit still of the accomplishment-crazed and success-oriented-will never fulfill you, only drain you.  The only thing busyness does is inflate us with a sense of our own importance.  People who strive endlessly to be busy, who nervously try to schedule a meeting, an obligation, every hour, are desperately afraid of themselves.  It is only in solitude that we can tap our greatest creativity and power.  Empty, trivial conversation.  Endless obligations.  Pointless commitments we take on for the sake of filling hours.  These things only serve to distract us.  Not that we shouldn’t participate in life- we should and absolutely have to-just that most of us place undue importance on outward living, on noisy, chatty socializing, and neglect quietness and solitude.

2.  Ask: “Do I care?”

I’ll give you a personal example:

I’m not usually a flighty, unpredictable person given to sudden impulse or whims of fancy (in fact, I’m more of a Container Store fanatic/hyper-organized nerd) so when I impulsively quit my job last May, no one was more shocked than myself.  At first, I felt exhilarated, like a total badass, for uttering those few simple words- “I quit”-that so many of us only half-seriously dream about.

But as the initial adrenaline wore off, I could hear the theoretical self come around the corner with boxing gloves and clenched fists:

“You idiot!  How could you be so stupid?  What are other people going to say?  How are you going to explain this to the countless people who are undoubtedly going to ask, “So what do you do?”

Rather than revel in my brief respite from tyrannical bosses and claustrophobic, overly air-conditioned offices, I felt guilty, like it was pathetically self-indulgent to take a couple of months off to decide what I wanted to do.  My productivity-obsessed, Puritan work ethic heightened my insecurity:

I was being lazy, I thought, for taking this time to reflect.

had to hysterically peruse Craig’s List ads till I went cross-eyed.

had to obsessively tweak my resume in the cramped corners of cafes till my mind went numb.

had to or I’d never work again.

After all, the longer I waited, the wider that gap on my resume got; the wider the gap, the more likely potential employers would view me as a liability and on and on and on until I somehow convinced myself I was an unreliable, irresponsible, worthless fuck up who would never get a job.  Who, I wondered, would hire me now?

But then, amidst my irrational tailspin of panic and worse case scenarios, I had a moment of clarity: Did I care if I was unemployed?  Did care if I took my time finding another job?

This simple question was enough to bring on a radical shift in my consciousness.  I had been obsessing about landing another position and being “productive” when, if I let myself be totally honest, I didn’t really want another job, at least right away.  Theoretically, I was eager to work, stifled by endless hours of nothing to do, but in actuality, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted from a difficult year of teaching and wanted a break.  I had been so caught up in how others might perceive me, in the person I thought I had to be, that I never stopped to consider what I actually wanted.

So next time you’ve knocked back one too many of other people’s judgments, stop and ask yourself “Do I care?”  Chances are doing so will help you clarify your own values.

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