Friday, 31 October 2014

12. Labels, brands... because we are not worth it

Salvador Dali
Naming is an important process of the construction of the conscious memory. What we don't name, we can't recall -even if it is stored unconsciously-. What's named, exists in our consciousness and can be remembered. If we imprint an emotion on top makes the memory even stronger, it gives it a meaning. That's why some experts advice that when you had any accident in the water that made you felt scared, the best thing to do is to go straight in again, so the emotion with which we store the memory will not be as strong and we don't build a "water is dangerous" belief.

In this process of naming, we build some sort of inner drawers that we classify with labels. Some of the labels (and beliefs) will be written by ourselves out of our own experience, some will be copied from our peers but many of them are just inherited from our parents, our culture or our religion. The ones that hold our strongest judgements are normally linked to a strong past emotional experience (ours or not). Even though, this process of naming is a natural organisation mechanism of the psyche, it is also very limiting when we fail to challenge these structures in our ever changing reality.

When being wrong is right
In the TED talk: "The best stats you've ever seen", Hans Rosling speaks about preconceptions regarding our view of the world. In his work as a professor of International Health in Sweden, he discovered his students had a preconception of the world that divided it into "we and them: the Western World and the Third World".
 However data shows that the views the university students had, were more aligned with the reality of 1960's: the one that describes the world their grandparents lived in.

Without realizing, we see the world only in accordance of the structure of our drawers. When we see it in a way that fits with them we think: "everything fits therefore I AM right". In judging and categorising, we feel reaffirmed. So we go out to the world, looking for evidence that proves "we are right". The stronger the belief, the more we pay attention to cues and hints, up to the point of deforming and forcing facts and stories to fit into our drawers. At the end, we will find what we are looking for, whether it exists or not. This week, newspapers shared a study showing how much of a difference there is between measured statistics and our beliefs. The Guardian title was "You are probably wrong about almost everything", showing how much unemployment, teenage pregnancy and immigration are being overestimated in people's minds. So if we feel quite negatively about these topics, probably whenever we hear of a case of a pregnant teenager, walk down the street and recognise a foreign language or hear of someone struggling to find a job, we'll pay more attention to the information that reinforces our belief and overestimate their actual incidence (it is called confirmation bias, if you need to label this concept). 

Making up an statistic will be in any case tricky as we don't go about counting (unless we have some sort of OCD), but this also happens in a more generic way. The Pope speaks about the poor and criticises the economical system, so the corresponding label is "communist", particularly in the US where this label comes attached with a very strong emotion. And Russell Brand? Rebel? Anarchist? Communist? Are you a politician? Do you want to run for mayor? Damn you. You don't fit. You must be confused.

When being right is wrong
Salvador Dali
Anthropomorphic drawers
Believing "we are right", however, does not mean that we love or approve of ourselves. We can believe we are "right" in hating and punishing ourselves and we can be quite nasty. In feeling guilty and worthy of long and harsh punishments, we don't limit ourselves to situations when we hurt someone or committed a crime. It can be triggered by anything that goes against a belief. If we hold a belief that being fat is wrong (or gay, or a woman, or short or whatever it is), we'll feel right if we exert a level of self punishment, for example paying special attention to the people that judge us. If we are a perfectionist, we'll have a very neat set of drawers and, of course, we'll overestimate our failures: proving ourselves right can be our own doom.

Labels, labels and more labels
Brands help us judge ourselves and others with regards to our choices. They make it so easy for us, that we all go about our lives literally wearing labels, putting people in the drawer of "good person" -when they are wearing a label we approve of- and trusting they will do the same with us. Therefore, in a world where "we are our choices", choice carries a high level of anxiety. This is brilliantly explored in Grayson Perry's documentary "All in the best possible taste", particularly when he explores the middle class in the UK. When we submerge in this anxiety we "identify" and adopt mother figures (brands, nations, even religions, etc) that can make the choices for us and tell us how to judge others. We follow their guidance because we think that we'll be "seen" and appreciated; we follow their guidance because we don't trust our own judgement and think that if we make a mistake we'll be judged as not worthy of love or recognition, probably because deep down this is part of our core belief, our shame.

We carry our drawers around and if we ever experience something that put this structure to doubt, we have a crisis. If we ever act (or felt like taking action) against them, too. Even if many beliefs are just adopted and are not of our own creation, somehow this structure can be perceived as "ourselves", but it's not. There is a deeper inner voice that sometimes disagrees (this inner voice can talk through unexpected explosions of emotion or through our body by not letting us sleep, having a breakdown or getting sick). This means that our beliefs are not us and that we should be able to reflect on them and disown them when we need to. We need to learn to hear these other inner voices before they take over our bodies to shout, to swear or to get us sick so we listen. We need to learn to redecorate our interior, rearrange our drawers, knock down some walls with the ultimate purpose of being coherent with ourselves. Our true self, without shame.


Other links:
Eleonor Robertson, "Why are baby boomers desperate to make us millenials hate ourselves", The Guardian

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