Opinion: Forgetting Our Autonomous Culture

I’ve often wondered when we could stop beating ourselves up for all the little things we don’t understand — like how to live our lives in a way that’s true to ourselves while still accommodating the world around us. I’ve spent a lot of time lamenting how much we’re in our heads, how constant chatter we’re expected to be in our day-to-day work, dating, parenting, and just about everything else. It’s all so much automatic stuff — so much that our heads have become a sort of sanctuary from the world around us.

But when we’re constantly questioning, stressing, analyzing, and second-guessing our lives, how can we trust ourselves to follow our own paths and dive into the nitty-gritty of growing? When can we have trust in a world that demands so much from us but has so little to offer? When do we learn to let go of our worrywarts and egoists, and embrace the softer version of ourselves?

Being honest about our shortcomings is a necessary first step. We should put our failures out there and take responsibility for them. We should find out who we really are without thinking, “I should be doing X.” And we should stop beating ourselves up over things that we can’t change or keep perfect. Sometimes, our brain’s antennae are so finely tuned to something that we think it must be true, and we will interpret any problem or instance where we don’t exhibit it, or don’t meet some other standard, as proof of the end of the world — because that’s a strong feeling to have.

We need to accept that our lives may be atypical, and that sometimes we will make mistakes. (People are imperfect.) That we are not the only one to get frustrated by taking too long in the shower, or to feel frustrated that our kids don’t want to do our bidding or to get excited about a new ball. That we may seem wrong to our peers, or caught off guard when a colleague doesn’t treat us with the respect we would expect — especially if we’re living in a place where hostility is the norm. It’s natural and healthy to wrestle with how to better shape our life so we can live it the way we want to. But there’s a lot of brainwashing going on about what we should be: “You should look this way” or “You should do that.” Some things are just out of our grasp, and we need to figure out why that’s the case. “You are who you are” is not a statement that we necessarily want to believe, and trying to find a new way to say it will only make us more concerned about changing who we are in some way. Sometimes, our brain will listen to what we say, and at other times it’ll refuse to. And when it won’t, don’t beat yourself up over it.

There are long-term strategies for tuning out our thoughts and abandoning our parochial identity, but some of the best are at the forefront of our minds now. Self-reflection is one. In this scientific age, it feels like our minds are never at rest; we’re constantly alert for threats to our health, our studies, or our way of life. So we have to keep reminding ourselves that our stress doesn’t necessarily mean we’re out of tune with ourselves. Self-reflection may just be the most direct step. It’s not easy and it may not always be positive, but it’s our best hope of living a life worth living.

For more thoughts on the day, read Virginia Ragsdale and Connie Wang’s “Beyond the Mask,” written as part of New York Times Op-Ed Project. You can read previous Op-Ed columns from these authors, as well as others, on the program’s website.

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