Know Thine Unself

Several years back I posted on the importance of being true to one’s nature (see Becoming More Like Who We Are). Today I post on the importance of being true to what one is not.

When work, family, or community expects us to behave unnaturally, and we consent to go along with them, we experience stress. McGill University stress researcher Hans Selye distinguished between eustress (healthy stress) and distress. One who loves their work and keeps long hours experiences eustress, while one who dislikes their work and keeps either long or short hours experiences distress.

Each of us has certain personality traits that are dominant. For me, imagination, love of complexity, independence, sensory pleasure, love of family, love of learning, and directness (my wife calls it lack of tact!) are dominant. I try to build on these basic dispositions. I do not have to pretend whenever I engage in any of those behaviors. I can engage in them for long hours without tiring. They may cause eustress (as in figuring out a complex problem), but not distress.

However, I am defined just as much by the qualities that I am missing—organization, calmness, ambition, love of leadership roles, comfort with repetition, and an affinity for maintenance-type activity. When others expect these of me—to lead, to compete, to stay organized, to clean house—I experience distress.

playbillIn early Roman times, actors wore masks that suggested the kind of character they played. These masks were named personae. Today, by “personality” we mean the mask we put on for the world. However, we only need masks for our unselves. I do not need to act in order to be imaginative, nor do I need to act in order to enjoy being with my family—no mask required. However, proofreading and leadership are unnatural behaviors for me, so engaging in those activities entails wearing a mask. If you were to see me acting as a leader or proofreading a document, you might think it natural for me, but it is an act—an unnatural, uncomfortable act. You would be seeing my mask, or my unself, not my true self. An associate once thought I loved dealing with details—this was because he only saw that side of me. He never got to see my other stuff.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we urge people to identify their unnatural traits, and plan with them how to behave when others expect these traits of them. We call these “compensatory” strategies—ways to compensate for, or work around, a trait that others need from us but that we lack in sufficient quantity. History comprises both successes at building on one’s strengths and successes at compensating for one’s weaknesses. Hence,

  • The architect who was low in organization, who sensed that sloppiness would derail his architecture career, and who compensated by hiring an assistant who had carte blanche to do anything she darn well pleased to keep him organized.
  • The nervous writer who became dysfunctionally panicked as deadlines approached, who began giving himself false deadlines in advance of real deadlines and subsequently eliminated his panic.
  • The extraverted insurance agent who worked alone at home, who countered her loneliness by turning up the radio and television in the background to simulate co-workers.
  • The ambiverted (not too much society, not too much solitude) elementary school reading consultant who demonstrated methods for teaching reading throughout the school day, who recognized that she had no more people-energy left when she got home to her three children, and who figured out that she could bargain with them to let her read quietly and nap in her bedroom with the door closed for an hour, and then give herself once again to others.
  • The creative, solitary, agreeable pediatrician who developed high blood pressure as the result of having to be repetitive, sociable, and confrontational every day, and who changed environments to work with problem children one at a time over three-days with an interdisciplinary team of physicians, social workers, and therapists. The high blood pressure went away.
  • The gregarious, creative statistician who disliked the solitary, repetitive proofreading required of him. He recognized his distaste for proofreading put him at risk for rushing through and making errors. He invited a teammate to join him in the task, with one calling out numbers from a computer monitor and the other verifying against a written list. This slowed down the process, made it more enjoyable/sociable, and minimized his distaste for the activity.
  • The plant manager who was private and quiet but had to wear a daily mask of beingsix masks public and outgoing—his quiet nature worked fine when initially hired as an assembly worker, but 20 years later when promoted to plant manager (promotion to management was the only way for him to get ahead) he had to wear the masks of extraversion in order to manage. As a result of the stress from pretending, he developed ulcers. His management ultimately recognized the misfit and transferred him to company headquarters, where he became Vice-President for Research and Development. This quiet, low-key environment helped him lose the ulcers.
  • The lawyer who was nervous, introverted, and polite, who had to litigate daily and be calm, outgoing, and aggressive. Even though he was good at it, he hated it—it made him nauseous to go to work in the morning. He recognized his need for a low-key, less sociable, and less confrontational mode of lawyering—he became a professor of law and learned to love work.
  • The career military professional who was naturally untidy and disorganized, who recognized that they’d never get promoted unless they engaged in military spit-and-polish, and who contracted with their spouse to lay out their uniform daily and to insure that the brass and leather shined like mirrors. They achieved high rank based on this mask.

 Each of these cases entailed an aware professional who recognized the need to find a way to compensate for a missing trait, attitude, or value. By finding an appropriate crutch to lean on, they were able to create an effective mask that the world might never know was in truth a false front.

What comprises your unself? How do you compensate when demands are made of you to engage your unself?

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