Who We Are at Core — Episode Transcript
On this week’s episode, we explore what scientists are learning about the concept of the “self,” and how deep it truly runs.
Maiken Scott: This is The Pulse — stories about the people and places at the heart of health and science. I’m Maiken Scott.
I recently saw an old friend of mine for the first time in forever… His name is Thomas Zimmer.
We were colleagues at the first radio station where I worked shortly after I graduated from high school, when I was still living in Germany. Thomas was a reporter and editor there.
Thomas Zimmer: I had worked there for about four years, and then suddenly you came there as an, I don’t know how you call it? An apprentice? Is it, or voluntariat is it in German …
MS: Intern, I guess an intern …
TZ: Ah yeah, yeah. Exactly.
MS: And then a junior, a junior reporter.
TZ: yeah something like this.
MS: So this was a long time ago, I was 19, and when I think back to the person I was then, I cringe, in so many ways. I was working in a real job, in an office, reporting stories, but in so many ways I still felt and acted like a kid. I stayed out super late, all the time, going to clubs and parties. I was often unreliable – late for work, or I called out sick. I showed up wearing giant jewelry and golden leggings, and a faux tiger fur jacket.
TZ: And you obviously led a very adventurous life, where as mine was quite boring, no not boring, but I had just become a father, and everything was quite normal.
MS: I also brought so much everyday drama of my life to work, the failed romances, the general teenage angst.
MS: Did I seem unstable back then? Like, sort of, on the verge of breaking down in some kind of strange way? [LAUGHS]
TZ: Sometimes, I had the impressions, yeah. [LAUGHS] Sometimes, sometimes I thought, hmm is she goin crazy for real now? [LAUGHS] You know, the difference between crazy and crazy?
MS: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
MS: But – I was surprised that overall, when I asked Thomas what I was like back then, he didn’t seem to think I was all that annoying.
TZ: You had a special kind of humor that I think connected to my kind of humor, and let’s say, we both enjoyed laughing about absurd things.
MS: In our down time, we sent each other fictional press releases that we wrote, about completely nonsensical events – kind of like the Onion.
TZ: I wrote something, and you answered me and uh, yeah, we just invented things. [fading down]
MS: Who the hell was this crazy person? Like if I think of myself in those days, it’s almost like a foreigner, right? [fading down]
MS: I feel like I’m a different person now, I’m much calmer, no drama. I retired the animal prints and over the top jewelry. And I wondered if Thomas noticed how much I had changed.
TZ: The impression was not that different…
I think in those days I could never imagine that you would become a mother someday. [LAUGHS]
MS: We all carry around different versions and parts of ourselves. And then of course there is the way other people see us, like a mirror reflecting back on us.
And when you look closely at all of the different pieces that make you you it can feel like the whole image slips away the moment you want to grasp it.
What really makes us who we are? On today’s episode: reflections on the self – and who we are at core.
MS: There’s always this tension between who we think we are and how others see us. Our first story looks at this tension in the context of our cognitive abilities. When a person has dementia, loses their memories and starts to act in ways that we don’t recognize, are they still the same person?
Jad Sleiman has this story.
Are you still you even when your memory has faded?
Jad Sleiman: Esther Honig was the type of daughter with questions, lots of em.
Esther Honig: You know, when I was little, it was things like mummies and dinosaurs. And, you know, I would just ask him questions as if he was an expert.
And her father, Jordan, was the type of dad who tried to find answers.
EH: my dad loved to learn. He loved science. we would go to museums together. He would talk to me about things that he had read.
JS: Jordan was incredibly smart, a sculptor turned mechanical engineer who had a habit of hijacking Esther’s science fair projects. In retrospect, it was her father’s brilliance that masked what started to happen to him when Esther was still in high school. First, Jordan started having trouble with really advanced math.
EH: My mom remembers that it was probably around 2006 or 2007 that he came to her and he said, “I’m, I can’t do, I can’t do my work. I can’t do.” He was having trouble doing these math problems that he needed to do for his job.
JS: Then his sense of humor took a hit. Jordan was funny, he had dad jokes for days, and actually pretty good ones. Here’s a classic, from after he saw Esther’s first tattoo.
EH: it’s like a small little tooth.
JS: Her recently removed wisdom tooth.
EH: He told me, “So much for wisdom.” That is such a dad joke.
JS: He was always making little jokes, getting laughs out of the strangers in line with him at Starbucks.
But that quickness, that was the next thing to go.
EH: It was just weird. It was weird to see him talk to friends or, you know, it [unintelligible] it hurts me to say this, but it was really embarrassing, you know? Like, you’d see him strike up a conversation and he, he didn’t really like hit the notes that he would have normally. You know? He wouldn’t really, that, that joke that he’d told didn’t really land and people would kind of be like, “Oh,” like, you know, like people kind of walk away being like, “ah, okay. Yeah.”
JS: Things got worse in a kind of cascading way. He forgot little details of his day at first, then how to get home from the grocery store. He lost his job, really, because he couldn’t do any of the work any more.
EH: This was well before he had ever been diagnosed with anything. We didn’t realize what was happening
JS: Esther’s dad, still in his 50s, had early onset Alzheimer’s.
Over the next few years, as Jordan lost more independence, moved into an assisted living facility, Esther got the same question a lot. A question pretty much everyone with a loved one with Alzheimer’s gets:
Does he still know who you are?
EH: I remember I asked him how many daughters he had and he could tell me about my oldest sister. And okay, dad. Okay, so who was, who was your second daughter? And when was she born? And there was Manya, the middle child in the family.
JS: Esther was the third daughter, the youngest.
EH: And then asked him, “And is there anyone else? You know, what about your other daughter?” And he [said], “I don’t have another daughter.” You know, he had completely, I mean, it wasn’t anything personal. It wasn’t like he was, I was the least favorite or anything like that.
JS: She knew, alright I’m the most recent daughter, so there’s just fewer Esther memories in Dad’s head to begin with, and all his memories are getting chewed up by this disease. But despite that, at core, this version of Jordan still felt like dad.
At the assisted living facility, Jordan still had his social prowess. He was kind of a hit, Made all these friends. And other things, too. For example, his fussiness about food was still there.
EH: These little parts of him that, um, managed to, to peak through the fog, you know? Like, there would be just so little about him that I could relate to, that I could connect to. And then suddenly there’d be something like, you know, well, of course he’s complaining about the lunch that they served at Village Shalom. You know, when has, when has Jordan ever been happy with a meal that he didn’t cook?
JS: As time went on, though, these little peaks of Jordan would start showing up less and less often. The healthy Jordan she had grown up with would become more and more distant.
As the Alzheimer’s progressed, as it changed Jordan, took his memories and more, how long would it be until he became a total stranger to her?
How long would her dad still be the same person at his core? This gets at a fundamental question about memories and the self. Nina Strohminger is a psychologist and cognitive scientist. She tries to get at these questions through the lens of philosophy.
She’s studied the self, or our ideas of the self. Who we think we are, who we think others are. Basically, what makes us who we are as individuals.
For example, she turns to John Locke, one of the most influential 17th century enlightenment thinkers. Locke argued that it had to do with memory …
Nina Strohminger: So, what makes us who we are, um, is our memories. And actually if you look at this case that he discusses … [fade down]
JS: Locke used this story, of a prince and cobbler, who magically swap souls
NS: If the, the soul of a prince inhabits the body of a cobbler, everyone sees, he says, everyone sees, it’s self-evident that this new entity is the Prince.
JS: In the soul swap, they swap minds as well.
NS: Classically, this has been interpreted as him saying, it’s not just the mind of the prince, it is the episodic or autobiographical memories of the prince.
JS: The cobbler gets princely memories, and he becomes, to any observer, princely…
But Nina, respectfully, disagrees. She says, her research has found that people
don’t consider their memories the biggest part of who they are.
NS: I tell people, you know, it’s the year 2049 and Jim gets into a car accident and he loses part of his brain. It gets damaged and the scientists have to insert a microchip into his brain, to restore that part of his brain that’s just been lost.
JS: But there’s a trade off. Option one …
NS: One of the versions says now all of his memories are gone from his past life, right? So this is the condition where we say, um, we’ve obliterated the autobiographical memories.
JS: The other option, he remembers but everything, but …
NS: He no longer has a moral compass, no longer knows the difference between right and wrong. He’s lost his moral conscious.
JS: Overwhelmingly, people say this “future Jim” is no longer “Jim,” not when he forgets his entire life, but when he forgets right from wrong.
NS: They just say, because you’re a monster if you don’t know the difference between right and wrong. You’re just going to be a different person.
JS: Nina took that same question of “losing your memories” versus “moral compass” to the caregivers of people with different neurodegenerative diseases.
NS: In addition to asking them about the extent of different, um, psychological changes that the patient had undergone since their diagnosis, we also asked, um, a series of questions about who the patient was, you know? Did this patient ever seem like a stranger to you? Do you feel like the patient has changed deep down? Do you ever feel like you don’t recognize them?
JS: It turns out the people with a disorder called “Frontotemporal dementia” were least recognizable to their loved ones. Frontotemporal Dementia quickly deteriorates impulse control and decision making
Despite having much more intact memories than those with other cognitive illnesses- they felt like different people. In fact, when researchers broke it down by symptom, regardless of disease, memory loss was the least important factor.
With Esther and her dad, early on she still recognized him, or at least pieces of him. His moral compass, for example, was still going strong for some time. It was kind of amplified, actually.
EH: there was actually a period where we referred to him as “the rabbi.” Um, he took on a whole identity of being a rabbi and his congregation or the people at his assisted living center. It was, it was a whole thing. He refused to cut his, to shave his beard.
JS: But in time that faded. Eventually, Ester’s dad went from being this social butterfly at assisted living to being the opposite.
EH: He had gotten to a place that was really scary.
JS: It’s a word Esther had never used to describe her dad, that no one had used to describe him.
EH: He was still physically able, he was in, you know, like again, a fairly young, healthy body. And so he could be physically dangerous to other people. He would, had kind of fallen into a paranoia of people, being trapped, of being imprisoned.
JS: Esther tells me it got harder and harder to see her dad. And every time she did, it would create another memory of this version of dad
EH: And it just killed me, you know? To see him, there. There was such a small fragment of him there. It was not something I could really confidently say was my dad.
JS: Newer, harder memories of Jordan would swell in Esther’s mind with each visit as his condition deteriorated. There’s more to the self than our internal perception, there’s the self we see in others. That’s what was at stake for Esther
EH: You know, the person that they’ve become, each time, you know, each and every day that you live with them, that kind of erodes those, those golden years.
JS: And remember, Esther was a teenager when her dad was first getting sick. Her memories of a healthy dad, full of curiosity, full of “Check out what I read today,” they were a child’s memories, and fragile.
Esther was trying to hold on to a very specific self, her father before he was sick. Eventually, she would have to make a decision. Would she keep visiting this new Jordan, or would she stay away?
I remembered Nina told me, after our hour long talk about “the self,” basically, that she didn’t actually think it was real.
NS: I also think that “the self” is a, is a fiction or an illusion.
JS: That’s because, for one, even without dementia or Alzheimer’s or anything, we’re all always changing.
NS: I am changing a lot over time, and um, at a psychological, of course even at a cellular level, right? Um, we replace most of our cells about every seven years, so like …
JS: Right. That’s like the ship, you know, the ship
NS: The ship of Theseus?
JS: Ship of Theseus basically asks, if you replace every plank in a boat, one by one with new planks, throwing away the old, original ones, when do you start considering it a different, new boat?
NS: Right, so, all humans actually embody, in a kind of a literal way, the ship of Theseus problem.
JS: For Esther, clinging to that version of Jordan before the disease – the soul, the self, was real, but her idea of it was changing.
The ship of her father wasn’t changing plank by plank, he was becoming unrecognizable, almost all at once.
EH: My father’s essence was gone while his body continued to function.
JS: She decided to stop visiting this version of dad, in a facility, in order to protect the version of her dad in her head, and in her heart.
EH: Memories are a really precious thing. And if you have the privilege to try and maintain, or sort of safeguard the good memories? That’s all you’re going to have when they pass away.
JS: People can get a bit judgy hearing about this type of thing, see it as abandoning a loved one. Think it, selfish or callous.
But Esther thinks they’re missing the point.
EH: I think that it’s as much a service to yourself as it is to that individual to try and remember them at their best, because that’s what they would want, you know? And when they have finally passed on, those are the memories that you’re going to have to try and keep them alive.
Maiken Scott: That story was reported by Jad Sleiman. Jordan Honig passed away in 2019. Esther chronicled her father’s story in different podcasts and we will link to some of them on our website, whyy.org/thepulse.
We’re talking about our sense of self, who we are at core. And that seems to suggest that we have a core, right? One true self.
Iris Berent: People are complex, right? We are changing all the time, we are capable of all kinds of actions, some are kinder than others. We change throughout life, we change on a daily basis, and yet we perceive ourselves, as well as others, such that underneath all this, you know, mumbo jumbo, there is a single protagonist. There is a single true self.
MS: That’s Iris Berent, she is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. And Iris says not only do we believe that we have one core, but also …
IB: That true self as we think about it is surprisingly a moral agent and a good moral agent. So we think about ourselves as inherently good, which is surprising given that we know that people are really so complex
MS: Is it perhaps that it’s just easier to believe that? I mean, it’s less complicated if I think, well but deep down inside I’m just this one thing and it’s pretty good and so are these other people.
IB: The truth is we don’t really know where this belief comes from, right? There are several guesses, although again we don’t know for sure, and one is that we tend to kind of essentialize things. So we think that things, especially living things, are what they are because they possess some inherent essence, something we are born with biologically and defines who we are really. That in turn can lead us to believe that there is some essence, a fixed immutable essence that defines who we are. We are also tuned to moral attributes, we want to make sure that other people are cooperative, that we can trust them. So that is another computation that might inform that. Why we think that people are good though? This is a little bit of a mystery, so maybe it’s just wishful thinking? Maybe, you know, I’m more likely to cooperate with you if I believe that you are inherently good. Although that can also have quite a bit of costs associated with it. So, no, we don’t quite know where this belief arises [from] except for [that] people have this belief.
MS: But Iris’ work has found that we also have a second way of thinking about “who we are at core.” And that those ideas are in conflict with each other.
MS: Where do we tend to locate this “good core” like where is it? Is it our soul? What?
IB: You put your finger exactly on the problem and the problem is that we are locating it in two different places and in fact we see ourselves as two different entities as mind and body, and each of them give us a different reading of who we are and that’s exactly where the conflict is coming from.
MS: Iris has done research where she presents people with information about a fictional person, John.
IB: John is this person who has this really erratic behavior and some of his actions are wonderful, and he contributes to charity, and helps this, you know, old lady across the street. But at other times he can be really bad and can be cruel to animals, and post hate messages on Facebook and so forth.
MS: When participants are presented with a behavior profile of John, they will say that he is still at core a good person. But when researchers show a brain scan to participants, and they say, “Hey, this is John’s brain scan and it’s consistent with brain scans of really bad people.” Based on that information participants will conclude that in essence, John a bad guy.
IB: So what it’s telling us is that our dearest notion of who we are, who other people are, is really an illusion
MS: We’ll make different assessments of people given different types of information. Biology versus behavior. And yet…
MS: So, I can hear all this, right. And I can think, yeah that makes a lot of sense, and then I’ll probably go and meet a person and once again think that they’ll have a core and that they have one self. It’s just, it is easier.
IB: Yes, and indeed, and we have this intuitive psychology that is whispering in our ears, under the hood and we keep listening to that and that determines a lot of our decision in many areas and this is one of them.
MS: Iris Berent is a cognitive psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
Maiken Scott: We’re talking about the idea of “self” and who we are at core.
When Brittany Brady was younger, even her friends would sometimes describe her in a way that’s not exactly flattering.
Brittany Brady: I was very frequently the mean one.
MS: Or, they would say…
BB: “don’t bring her, because she’s so mean.”
MS: And in some ways, Brittany had cultivated that mean side as a self-defense mechanism. Her parents are both ministers, and growing up, Brittany felt that her life was so sheltered.
BB: I wanted to make sure that nobody would find out that I was spending my Friday nights at church. So instead of you knowing what I was doing, I’m going to now show up in a way that doesn’t make you question what exactly I was doing.
MS: Brittany was mean to other kids and she would target or mock them in a way that would isolate them from the group.
BB: The small snickering or being the person to stew up while somebody else was laughing at someone, um, being that kind of mixer in that way. Um, and then, you know, actively choosing who, um, I would distance myself from and thereby causing some social isolation.
MS: Sounds like mean girl stuff. Excluding people, making fun of them, getting a whole group to reject somebody. Brittany thought of herself as tough, edgy, maybe occasionally mean, but she never thought of herself as a bully, until she was in college and she realized that her reputation from high school had followed her.
BB: A young lady that I had engaged with in high school, I did not recall the engagement, but she said that she did not want to take part in this student activity that I was in because my name was associated with it. And because she remembered how mean I was, um, in high school.
MS: Then when she was getting a master’s in education, she learned more about bullying.
BB: So I was born in the late eighties. I grew up in the nineties. Bullying was very much portrayed on TV as like pulling somebody up and stealing their lunch money. I’m petite, you can’t see me, but I am a very small woman. And so I was like, Oh no, that can’t be it. And then when I got to grad school, I better understood what social isolation meant and how, um, bullying is not just always a physical, or an, a thing that we would typically identify as aggressive. Um, but can instead show up in these more insidious, subtle, um, manipulative ways. And that behavior I did see within myself. And it was very, um, to be honest, troubling for me to see that within myself, because in friendships and relationships and family, I’m a very loving and caring person. And so realizing that I was showing up in that way as a mode of almost self preservation, it makes you wonder like, okay, preserving yourself at what cost, right? Like where is that line? Where is that barrier? I mean, it was a very, very fruitful reflection for me.
MS: But, that kind of deep reflection, to see and accept that part of herself, was difficult
BB: And really I cringed the most at it when I worked, um, in a middle school earlier on in my career. It was shortly after social media really had its boom. And I’m working with middle school students who are struggling, suffering, broken hearted because of the social isolation. And because I understood the other side and the behavior of the kids that were creating that I had some really deep dive in conversations with bullies earlier on in my career. And I cringed at the rationale, it’s so young, you know, and so juvenile. And so, um, quick witted, like what can I do? What’s the quickest way for me to get what I want? Right. And so unpacking that with young people really, um, made me cringe in my own behavior, but it developed a sincere, sincere empathy in me for all walks of life, all backgrounds, all mindsets and what might be generating that kind of behavior.
MS: This episode that we’re talking for is about who we are at core. Like who are we when it really comes down to it. And if you think about those things you did and the person you are now, does that, is that unsettling to think that that’s all part of the same package?
BB: It is unsettling, but it’s necessary. If that makes sense. I noticed there’s a tendency, especially in like wellness spaces or mindfulness practitioners or whatever the case may be to kind of remain positive. But those sides of yourself that you turn away from, those things that you’ve done, that you’re ashamed of, those are worth exploration, especially. It is unsettling, but I also don’t think that I can tell people to show up as your whole self, to love all of your sides. And then I actively avoid my shadow. I actively avoid the pieces of myself that have really, um, caused pain or cause harm to others. I think it’s really, really a disservice that we do when we say “I’m new. Again, I’m different, I’ve changed.” And we fail to, um, acknowledge how much that initial groundwork has impacted who we are today.
MS: What do you do with the traces of the bully within?
BB: You know, I’ve realized that’s the trauma response. Um, and so for me, when the bully pops up, I’m like, do I feel afraid? Do I feel like I needed to protect myself? If so, why? And also to be very transparent, sometimes the bully has to come out. I am a black woman and there are oftentimes where I am undermined or, not listened to. And that is when those old bullying techniques come out, right. That manipulation of, “Oh, you’re not going to listen to me. I’m going to find a way for you to have to listen to me.” or, “Oh, you’ve treated me in a, in a poor way. Let me figure out what I’m going to do to make sure that you never do it again, but also to make sure that you know, I’m not the one.” And that’s not in a mean way, but in a, I’m standing my ground very clearly. So when I feel that that instinct to say something smart or be ugly or ignore someone, I’m like, okay, what exactly is going on? And so that’s really how I have repurposed that energy because the truth is it does not go anywhere. It’s still here. It might be smaller. You know, it might’ve been taken up my whole back when I was in high school and now it might be down to, you know, something small at the, at the base of my spine, but I can not act like it’s not still part of my being, um, that would just be untrue.
MS: Brittany Brady is an educator, she works in philanthropy in Dallas, Texas.
In thinking about her past behavior – the way others experienced her – Brittany has become what many would call “self aware.” Sound a bit of a buzzword, but what exactly does it mean?
I talked about that with Tasha Eurich she is an organizational psychologist and has done a lot of research on this.
MS: It’s a bit more tricky than it seems, at first. You think yeah, sure it’s sort of who I am or how others see me. So there’s an internal and external component to it?
Tasha Eurich: That’s exactly right. And I naively thought that we would be able to very quickly come up with a definition. We reviewed almost a thousand empirical studies on self-awareness, we collected data with thousands of people around the world and it actually took us a year to just define what self-awareness was empirically. And here’s what we came up with: Self-awareness is understanding who we are internally and how others see us. And one of the big surprises from our research was that actually those two types of self knowledge are completely independent. So you could be someone who is very clear on sort of who you are and what you stand for and yet has absolutely no idea how other people see you or how you are coming across to others. Or you could be someone who is so focused on how others see you that you are not really clear on, you know, what makes you happy and what are going to be choices in your best interest.
MS: Tasha says one part of being more self-aware is knowing your values.
TE: What are the principals we want to live our lives by? What are our passions, what do we get excited to leap out of the bed and do in the morning? What do we aspire to achieve and experience? All the way to an internal understanding of how we impact others.
MS: And then If I were to want to get the view from outside, would I ask the same question of others about you? Or is that a different set of questions?
TE: It’s the same set of questions. The way I like to think about it is, internal self-awareness: Knowing ourselves, and external self-awareness: Knowing how we’re seen, are like two different camera angles. Interestingly they don’t always agree but what we found in really kind of diving into, what do highly self-aware people do differently, is that they were almost OK with that polarity. Right? Knowing that maybe I see myself one way, other people see me another way. At that point I really have a choice to make, does it matter? Do I want to change my view? Do I want to work to change others’ views? Or is it okay to be slightly different?
MS: When you assessed people’s levels of self-awareness you had some surprising findings there, what did you learn?
TE: This was even greater of a problem than I sort of expected. What we discovered was that 95 percent of people believe that they are self aware but only about 10-15 percent of us really are.
MS: In their research, Tasha and her team found what they dubbed: self-awareness unicorns – people they found to be highly self-aware.
TE: We found fifty people, 50, from all around the world. There were no patterns in the sample by age, by industry, by gender, by job type. We had everything from fortune 50 CEOs to teachers to artists to stay at home parents and what I find really important about that, just as a data point, is that it shows that with the right approach anyone can get there. People say, well if you are just old enough and you’ve had enough life experience, you’ll be self-aware – as it turns out, that is not true. There is a 0.0 correlation between age and self-awareness.
MS: So did they have anything in common? Did they have any quality of life that I would want, that kind of thing?
TE: Definitely, [LAUGHS] part of what we learned about why self-awareness is so important is that these and other highly self-aware people are better performers at work. They get more promotions. They are more satisfied with their lives and their jobs. They’re better leaders. They lead more profitable companies. And then at home, people who are self-aware are better parents who raise more mature, less narcissistic children, they also have more deep and fulfilling romantic and platonic relationships.
MS: Tasha says the people in her study who were really self-aware did not spend a ton of time ruminating on themselves. Which seems kind of counter-intuitive.
TE: You would think that just focusing on yourself and asking yourself questions would make you self-aware and what we discovered was there is a small nuance in the types of questions that help us versus the types of questions that hurt our self-awareness. And the questions that hurt our self-awareness usually start with the word “Why.” So it might be, “Why didn’t I get that promotion? Why did I get in a fight with the people I am in quarantine with? Why am I so bad at time management?” And the reason those questions are actually not particularly helpful is two fold. First, psychologists have shown that no matter how much we try, there are certain parts of ourselves, our unconscious thoughts and feelings and motives, that we actually can’t access no matter how hard we try. So what we tend to do is pick an answer that feels true, but almost always is not the actual answer, so it kinds of leads us away from self-awareness. Another reason asking why can be dangerous is it harms our well-being. You think about these “Why” questions they sometimes turns into a shame spiral or they turn into blame, or they turn into a feeling of paralysis about how we are going to change things. And so we did in-depth interviews about people who are self-aware and what they do differently and they were asking slightly different questions. So they were asking “What” questions instead of “Why” questions. So the example of, let’s say, I didn’t get a promotion. Instead of saying, “why didn’t I get a promotion?” they might ask a little bit different questions like, “what have I learned from this experience?” Or “what information don’t I know about why this decision was made?”
MS: Along those lines, Tasha said there are some questions that you can ask yourself everyday to improve internal self awareness:
TE: Number 1: What went well today? Number 2: What didn’t go so well? And Number 3: How can I be smarter or better tomorrow?
MS: To improve external self-awareness, how others see you, Tasha suggests something she calls …
TE: The dinner of truth. [LAUGHS] I know, and if it sounds ominous, it’s supposed to. But hear me out. You find someone, I would suggest in your personal life but it could be at work as well, who you are close to who you trust, who you want to improve your relationship with. And you take them out to a maybe a virtual drink in this world or when we all get back together, lunch or dinner. And you ask them the following question: “What do I do that’s most annoying to you?” And then you listen. And I would never ask my clients or my readers to do anything that I myself haven’t done multiple times and the reflection I have on doing this exercise more times than I can probably count now, is just how positive of an experience it is. Oddly, I think we all predict that we are going to hear our friend is going to say, “You know I never liked you. I am glad that you asked.” [LAUGHS] But what we typically hear are really specific, actionable, pieces of feedback. Given with love and support. And so for me, I’ve never had one of these conversations that hasn’t had a net positive impact on my mood.
MS: So can you tell me what kind of thing you heard when you asked friends that question? I mean, if a friend asked me that question I would say “Ah, oh you don’t do anything annoying.” I don’t even know what I would say. So what did people tell you?
TE: It’s important to find people for this exercise that you believe will tell you the truth. The person who says, “Oh no, your new haircut looks great,” and you know it’s a bad haircut [LAUGHS] I would say, be strategic. Figure out who are these people, I call them loving critics, who want me to be successful and who will be honest. So that’s the first piece. But I’ll tell you a brief story, this is the first time I ever did this, just to make it interesting for myself, I picked my most crotchety friend, Mike. And so I asked him the question and I had all of these fears and I was really concerned about what I was going to hear. And he said this, he said, “Tasha, I love you in person, but I hate you on social media [LAUGHS]
And I said, as you must say when you get feedback, “Thank you, Mike. Tell me more about this.”
MS: You didn’t say, “What the hell?”
TE: What the hell are you talking about?! No, no, no – you can’t do that – that’s against the rules. But what I learned was actually a game changing piece of information of how I was coming across and it’s something that we are all susceptible to, is that I was being what scientists call a “me-former” on social media. Instead of posting things to make other people happy or help other people, or brighten their day. I was posting about one person: me. The reason I share that and think it is so important is because he didn’t indict me as a person. He said I love you in person. I want all these people on social media to love the person that I love. And so from that point on I actually completely changed my social media presence and we had a good laugh and it really strengthens a relationship to have an honest conversation like that, so to me there was no down side.
MS: Is there a scary aspect to self-awareness? I sometimes wonder about that because there are people who do years and years of psychoanalysis and my gut instinct has always been “Oh god, no I really don’t want to know that much about myself.” Right? So sometimes, it can feel like I’ve crafted this thing that is me and it works and maybe it’s not great, but it works and maybe if I start digging in there maybe I see something I really don’t like or maybe it gets really complicated?
TE: That’s a fair concern to have. I worry when people spend an inordinate amount of time self-reflecting and trying to excavate our psychological unconsciousness when we know that we can’t. So I think that is a really important takeaway, you know and a reminder. Our unicorns were not largely not even in therapy, there were about 60-70 percent of them who practiced mindfulness meditation. So there really is no right or wrong way, but I also feel like we have to be smart and strategic. It’s not just something that we should just turn on and let the water flow forever. We can turn the water on and off and really kind of think through: what is it that I want to get out of this? Because otherwise we can get in that sort of, spiral of shame. Or, there is another piece of this too, where people who have a high need for an absolute understanding of themselves, not only are they less self-aware, they are much less happy. They have more anxiety, more depression. So I think it’s sort of the gold me here, thinking about what do I want to do in this life? What kind of person do I want to be? Curiosity – kind of an upbeat curiosity of “I’m waking up today and I could learn anything about myself and that’s kind of interesting.”
MS: Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist and author of “Insight: The Surprising Truth about How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think.”
You’re listening to The Pulse, I’m Maiken Scott – subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts.
We’re talking about the idea of “self” and who we are at core. Coming up, what can our old diaries really tell us about ourselves?
PROMO: “Today’s a science test. Boohoo. I’m buying a Hershey Bar today.”
That’s next on The Pulse.
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Maiken Scott: We’re talking about our sense of self, and who we are at core.
We change over time, morph into new versions of ourselves. Many people keep diaries, not just to reflect on the day to day activities in their lives, but to keep track of who they were, and who they’ve become.
Reporter Mycah Hazel has kept a diary since she was 11 years old, writing multiple entries a week, and she has this story:
Can diaries reveal our true selves?
Mycah Hazel Archival Sound: “So I keep my diaries in a box under my bed. I’ve never actually counted them. 1, 2, 3…”
Mycah Hazel narration: I have 10 diaries total. They’re ratty spiral notebooks, covered in stickers like “Boss Babe,” or “Girl Power.” I even have some video diaries from when I was 15, and they’re just as mundane as you’d think.
ARCHIVAL: I love Taco Bell. I love them. I eat everything they have. When I see a commercial, I will get it.
MH: Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been journaling more and more. In writing and on my camcorder.
ARCHIVAL: “So today is August 13, 2020 and there have been reports of, like, a covid spike …”
MH: Some of my entries are still about daily details. But I’ve noticed that my diaries have become a lot more emotional over the years.
ARCHIVAL: Okay, so I found these entries, 10 years apart. On March 26, 2008, I wrote, “Today’s a science test. Boohoo. I’m buying a Hershey Bar today.”
MH: This was when I was 11, but since then my entries have become less about what I did that day, and more about my state of mind.
ARCHIVAL: And on March 20th, 2018, I wrote, “I’ve explored so many parts of myself these past four years, parts I’ve hated and parts I don’t want to forget.”
MH: Besides keeping track of good memories, my diaries have helped me keep track of who I am and who I want to become.
And some people who want to focus on that aspect are turning to “guided journals,” which get you right to those big questions.
Mo Seetubtim: Guided journals are more about you and digging deeper inside of you and your childhood, your thoughts.
MH: This is Mo Seetubtim, founder of The Happiness Planner, her guided journals have prompts, like “What’s the most courageous thing you’ve ever done.” Or, “What does success mean to you?”
MS: I have friends that have never journaled before. So, to have never done a lot of personal development work. And when they start using the Happiness Planner or the journals, it scares them. They’re like, “It’s really scary! I’m too scared to even open the books you gave me!”
MH: Self-awareness grows the more we practice. A guided journal is like a practice book that gets us closer to our true self.
MS: It’s a tool that basically forces you to reflect more. It’s basically like if you want to get more toned and grow muscles and you buy dumbbells and you use it every day, the dumbbells are going to help you grow some muscles.
Ryan Howes: Journaling is very therapeutic because it helps you to hopefully grow and accept yourself more.
MH: This is Ryan Howes, therapist, fellow journaler and author of “The Mental Health Journal for Men.” Ryan says when you’re journaling to improve self-awareness, it’s important to get rid of some of the high expectations.
RH: When someone gets a new journal, oftentimes they start off with a bang and then the next day, they don’t have as much time and then they feel like, “Oh, now I’m failing at this, and I’m not doing so well.” So, I actually like to encourage my clients, if they’re going to start journaling, to really start small. You know, a few words even, of just, “What did I feel today?” or “What did I notice about myself?”
MH: It also means paying attention to your writing style, which can affect what you learn about yourself, says Kate Culkin.
KATE CULKIN: Diaries, I think they really sort of have two functions.
MH: Kate is a biographer and a professor at Bronx Community College.
KC: On the most basic level, they let you know, where people were, what they were doing. The other way that they can be used is, how was someone emotionally responding to what was going on in their life?
MH: She’s currently working on a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Edith Emerson Forbes.
KC: She had what I thought were going to be very valuable diaries. When I saw them listed in the archives, it was, like, years of diaries, and when I got them, they were really, there was nothing in them. There was nothing emotional in it.
MH: The diary was less feelings and more …
KC: “Here are a few things that happened today. Here’s who I saw. Here’s who I had lunch with. I have a doctor’s appointment,” those sort of things.
MH: Kate says that the diaries that get to someone’s core are ones where there’s a balance of events and emotions.
KC: The dream diary is of course the one where the person records everything that they do and records a thoughtful, emotional response to what happened and how they’re processing it.
MH: I admit, re-reading my own diaries, I’m not always good at including as much emotions as I do factual details. Still, as Ryan says, getting to know yourself is a continuous process.
RH: Whether it’s daily, whether it’s yearly, you just check in with yourself and say, “How am I doing right now?”
Maiken Scott: That story was reported by Mycah Hazel.
That’s our show for this week — The Pulse is a production of WHYY in Philadelphia.
You can find us wherever you get your podcasts.
Our health and science reporters are Alan Yu, Liz Tung, and Jad Sleiman. Sojourner Ahebee is our health equity fellow. Charlie Kaier is our engineer. Xavier Lopez is our associate producer. Lindsay Lazarski is our producer.
I’m Maiken Scott, thank you for listening.