Learning and Growth is a Constant Process of Rebuilding our Self-System


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“Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.”

[Epictetus]

Culture is a powerful driver of value systems. We absorb the most during our formative years. The currents of thought, ways of doing things, and implicit or explicit rules they produce have enormous influence on how we relate to others and respond to events. Because they involve us at emotional level.

Emotions drive our beliefs, which in turn lead us in how we interpret experiences. For example, a school environment that emphasizes popularity and social performance creates pressure and anxiety in anyone who does not fit the profile naturally. Very few do. 

Because it turns out that everyone on the introverted-extroverted spectrum enjoys when others listen to them. When there is less pressure to perform, we are likely more inclined to listen better. Listening well is a prerequisite to connecting.

We rarely talk openly about these kinds of things in school. Most of the time, the pressure is there, and it fills us with anxiety. It, in turn, encourages us to interpret the world irrationally. Which creates mental habits that sometimes become disruptive.

When popularity is the coin of the trade, a public personality is a must. In Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking Susan Cain retraces our steps to a time when character was more important than personality in North American culture. The difference, as she describes it:

In the Culture of Character, the ideal was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as one behaved in private. The word personality didn't exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality was not widespread until the twentieth.”

But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. “The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of the performer,” Susman famously wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.”

Outer charm replaced modesty and inner virtue as a door opener to opportunity. But the reality is much more nuanced and complex than that. Cain says, even the most effective salespeople are unassuming —they learn to read a situation and adapt their behavior to it. 

Our internal state of mind drives the quality of our life. When our interpretations of reality are inaccurate we try to fit reality into our worldview. Our state of mind is a reflection of where we are in our maturation process. Controlling what we can control, which is our erratic mind, sets us on the path to a calmer existence.

Most of us are at the point of maturation driven by the process of evolution. This is the chain of dependencies psychologist and professor Toru Sato describes in The Ever-Transcending Spirit. He says internal conflict is the root of our unhappiness.

“When we are paying attention to others,” he says, “we are giving energy.” Sato goes on to explain that the giving and receiving is part of what we try to figure out as we develop relationships. Some people are bothered by this stealing of energy, others aren't.

The reason why, says Sato, is that the giving and receiving is more a matter of perception than reality. Using what he calls “the internal conflict model,” he says:

When things are going our way, we are comfortable. When things do not go the way we want to, we feel discomfort. All of this has to do with what we desire (or need) and what has, is, or could happen. When what we desire (or need) matches what has, is, or could happen, we feel comfortable. When what we desire (or need) does not match what has, is, or could happen, we feel anxiety or some sort of discomfort.

We act to make what we want and what we think could happen match. When that doesn't happen, we repress or deny it to manage our anxiety or do our best to make our desires come true.

There is another option, says Sato:

The other way to manage anxiety is to do exactly the opposite. We can make what has, is, or could happen win over our desires. We can let go of our desires and just accept what has happened, what is happening, or what could happen without any resistance. Although this may be difficult to do in many circumstances, it may be more adaptive in some situations than trying to take control. We all know that being overly controlling can sometimes cause problems. Sometimes letting things (i.e., our desires) go is a much easier way to deal with our internal conflict than to take control.

Our choice becomes letting our desires control us, or letting them go.

Learning and growth is a constant process of rebuilding our self-system

Advance in our maturation process is highly dependent on our ability and willingness to break down and rebuild our self-system, which is the understanding we cultivate in our minds. It contains an elaborate program that says, “The world works like this and I can do this and this to maintain my energy.”

Our self-system guides our experiences and is also informed and changed by them. Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught us via Plato that “everything changes and nothing stands still,” and thus “you could not step twice into the same river.” Everything we experience in life is new.

Which means we are constantly in need of creating new understanding to make sense of what we are experiencing. This is why “learning and growth is a constant process of rebuilding our self-system.” Says Sato:

More specifically, as Jean Piaget (1973) noted, learning and growth involves two processes.

One of these processes is known as assimilation. Some experiences are very similar to a previous experience we had. When this happens we require minimal change in our self-system. We only need to widen the applicability of the understanding that we already had.

[…]

The other process is called accommodation. If a new experience is very different from any previous experience, we break down and reconfigure the self-system so that it incorporates and understanding of the new experience in addition to all previous experiences.

We process new experiences using a combination of both assimilation and accommodation along a spectrum, based on its newness to us.

However, if the level of accommodation we need is too high, we may repress or deny the experience, trying to move on as if nothing happened. Traumatic events excluded, this is often the product of fear or laziness on our part. We don't accept the limits of our ability to control those external events and refuse to let them influence us.

When we are able to focus on the present moment better, we are able to accept the new experience and assimilate it. Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius says, “Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous… Expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe.” 

Doing this allows the self-system to grow and develop, says Sato. Each new level of development brings us a certain chaos before we gain stability and then start again with new experiences.

Each time the self-system takes a step in its development, it develops into something that transcends but includes the previous self-system.

Interacting with others engages this process where we both influence and are influenced. If we think of our self-system as our comfort zone, what we are familiar with from past experiences, then we can see why the process of rebuilding it encounters resistance. We arms ourselves to go to battle with change.

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The Ever-Transcending Spirit is a treasure trove of insights on our human nature —why we are the way we are, and its applications to relationships, consciousness, and development.

 

[image via Wikipedia]

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