Transitions. Or, Be Careful What Homework You Assign

The Class: Communication Studies 111, Interpersonal Communication

Self-concept: (noun) the idea or mental image one has of oneself and one’s strengths, weaknesses, status, etc.; self-image.

The Assignment: Please write a short, 500-700 word essay concerning your self-concept. What informs it? What factors have played out in your life that make you or define you? Do you believe these factors to be accurate? Do you believe you possess a healthy self-concept? How might you go about changing your self-concept?

I decided to take on this assignment myself. Not sure now if that was a good thing or bad thing. Maybe it’s just a thing.

It is not earth shattering news when I mention that a huge foundation of our self-concept is built during childhood. However, I learned a few years ago while attending an elementary school reunion, that it is not necessarily what happens to us during childhood that primarily informs our self-concept rather how we perceive ourselves during this time.

I thought of myself as an overweight, below-average-intellect, ugly kid whose only salvation was sports, as I was, quite fortunately, a very good athlete. However, as I spoke with classmates at the reunion, apparently I was the only one who saw me in this light. According to a group I was speaking with, I was the tough bully-type who thought his shit didn’t stink.

Wow. They were not even kidding. Yet it is not uncommon when insecurity comes across as pomposity.

Why did they think of me that way? Why did I think of myself in the other way? Well, some kids did call me “fatty” and a few used derogatory names at times—which never helps a self-image. However, a day did not go by that my father did not tell me I was very smart and handsome…problem was I just never believed him.

I realize now at age 50 (I am a slow learner I know), that what happens around us—all life experiences such as tragedies, promotions, interactions with people, everything—is only understood through the perception and meaning we assign to these experiences. While in a meeting with one of our excellent school counselors, Deborah Bogh, I was lamenting to her how difficult this empty nest transition has been for me, when she provided some excellent insight, “Nothing has really changed in your life at all, only your perceptions on how you view things,” this included how I viewed myself.

What seems like a “no shit Sherlock” comment that is worded just right, in the right context at the very right time, blossoms into a golden proverb of wisdom. My ears were ready to hear what my mind was ready to absorb. Such was this moment.

Do any of us really see ourselves for who we truly are? How can we?

We select, we determine, we decide how we choose to see ourselves. 

The last 25 years I decided to perceive myself, and the value of who I was, through the filter of being a father. Now, since that lens of self-perception is essentially over—at least on a hands-on, day-to-day basis—I struggle now to define myself.

I realize I cannot complete my own assignment. Or at least I cannot pass it.

We can be captain of our own self-concept ship and determine through what filters we see ourselves. During some periods in our lives we transition and change our filters to determine our self-concept. One might say I am in between filters at the moment. And they have a name for this.

Can you say crisis? Can you say mid-life? What many treat as a joke, you know getting the red convertible, dumping the spouse and dating people your kids’ age, is actually a real and important condition.

According to Dr. Dan Jones, “A midlife crisis might occur anywhere from about age 37 through the 50s, he says. By whatever term, the crisis or transition tends to occur around significant life events, he says, such as your youngest child finishing college, or a “zero” birthday announcing to the world that you’re entering a new decade.”

Damn. I am now realizing that the last few years were not mid-life crisis at all…it was just pre-game for the real thing.

I understand a crisis can be fairly debilitating and people act out all the time -yet I am fairly certain I am not going to destroy the few things working well in my life.  When I hear of men and women reaching this place and walking away from all they know and love, well, that ain’t me.  You might say I am pretty conservative crisis-er. 

I have already purchased the mid-level sports car and that is likely as far as the midlife madness will take me. Hell, it’s all I can afford.

So, let me give this self-concept thing a try. What informs it? I don’t know. Good  question. What factors have played out in your life that make you or define you? I no longer know. But good question. Do you believe these factors to be accurate? Yes. I guess. Because it is what it is. Great question. Do you believe you possess a healthy self-concept? It is hard to measure an unknowable quantity. Fair question. How might you go about changing your self-concept? I will write a book when I find out and let you know. Good question. Who wrote these? Brilliant.

I think I may have just failed my own assignment.


How, What, Where, When and The Who….I Sure Hope The Kids Are Alright

Some of you “mature” readers may recall an old “The Who” song, “Who are you?” As in “Whoooooo, are you? Who who who who?” Some 35 years later, I am certain Roger, Pete and the boys will now sleep better at night knowing I will attempt to answer that arduous -and probably artistically rhetorical- question.

It is very difficult for one to know oneself…accurately. If I were to ask you “who you are?” the likely responses will range from, “I am Joe” to “I am an accountant” to “I am a student, son and partner to my girlfriend,” perhaps including that you are Latino, Hungarian or Asian.  All these responses are indeed accurate yet do not capture the essence of who someone really is; true essence transcends one’s demographics.

Who are you?

I recently was enlightened on this important and very difficult question through a connection I made while preparing to teach a culture class.  If anyone knows me at all, they know one of my favorite quotes:

“The last creature to discover water was the fish.”

The meaning of this quote presupposes that those things that are intricately a part of our everyday lives become so normalized as to eventually become invisible to us. We are blinded to them as they operate unevaluated, uncritiqued, and unanalyzed as we cycle through the daily grind of our lives.

Probably the best example of this is when I ask my culture class to identify and define their culture. The answer is nearly always, “I do not have one.” This response is akin to suggesting we do not breathe or eat. Of course we do. If you are alive you are living in a culture. It is just that our culture is so very implanted and permeated around and within us that it becomes part of our mental and physical landscape – as a result we stop questioning and examining it.

What does this have to do with knowing who we are? Good question.

We are so familiar with ourselves—our likes and dislikes, preferences, responses, habits, our loves and hates, etc.—that these things tend to create a Pavlovian dog type response, as we just hear bells and start to salivate without much thought. Like our culture, our own personal lives become so normalized as to become invisible. Typically, it is through life events that interrupt our normal flow that we learn something new about ourselves and who we really are—our “essence.”  If you really want to know your culture, remove yourself, visit another culture, and watch the blind spots to your own culture become oh so visible. It frequently takes interruption in our own personal lives for the blind spots to become visible.

Think of it this way, we do not know how dependent we are on our cell phone until it breaks…then the next thing to break is our nerves. Or when our computer goes down…or the internet goes out…or the car won’t start…or we forget our wallet. When those things we take for granted falter, it tells us something of our need and dependence on those things that we rarely give a second thought. If this idea was a show on Spike TV, the title might be: “Freaking Out: When Things We Take for Granted Fail Us!!” When they do fail us, our reaction can offer us insight into who we are

To answer the question “Who are you?” or in this case, “Who am I?” one must work through a johari_windowprocess of elimination. When we eliminate important and fundamental things from our lives, this opportunity will give us a glimpse into our fundamental selves. (For a fascinating theory on an understanding of self, check out the Johari Window).

NOW the point of this blog….from a very personal perspective.

I thought I always had a fairly firm grasp on who I was. I now realize I do not.

As my youngest son Stevie, 18, prepares to leave for college in just about 2 weeks, I am busy hammering the final nail in the coffin of eliminating my children from any full-time residency in our home. For many that may seem like a joyous occasion –the bliss of empty nest. In contrast, I am sad. I am afraid. I am afraid of what the now visible blind spot might reveal.

I am losing that which I have taken for granted for most of my life. I now feel like this fish is beginning to feel the coldness of the water.

I am afraid I will continue to uncover the ever-deepening levels of who I really am. I have realized that my identity for 25 years was that of a father. Not living through my children as much as living FOR my children. My self-concept was rooted in the collective, meaning my identity was formed through the group, not self; I was father to Jordan, Rosie, Tessa and Stevie. I am eliminating something from life that is revealing who I really am as I cannot hide behind the veil of dad/provider/leader. My people, the ones I played a hand in creating, are gone. “Who I am” is now rooted not in a role I played rather in who I really am.

And who am I?

I have found Jimmy is more emotionally vulnerable than he ever thought possible. (Pardon the third person…this guy is new to me). He never understood why so many around him suffered from emotional setbacks –in fact, truth be told, he held a level of negative judgment on these people deep inside. No more. He counts himself as one of them. He is as emotionally vulnerable as anyone.

I have found Jimmy, the once proud and independent rebel, truly needs people.  There, he said it. He cannot go through life alone. In fact, as he ages and loses what he once had (children), he is  finding out that he truly loves people. He is still very much an introvert and desperately needs his alone time, yet is finding out that he needs his “people time” just as much.

I have found Jimmy’s general nature is profoundly positive. Amidst the sadness and tears of the past weeks -and he is certain in future weeks as well- he just loves life. He looks forward to the silliest things. Sure he can still be a moody little bitch at times, yet his overall perspective is very positive; at least that is what those closest to him have to say.

I now settle back comfortably into the first person as I consider the notion that if you begin to take away some other things in my life -say technology, Captain Morgan, and weightlifting-I am sure I will continue to discover revealing and deeper (troubling) things in my life. Yet I am satisfied with hammering the nail in the “coffin of elimination” one casket at a time. I am not in that big of rush to fully know me….I could end up in said casket.

“Whoooo are you? Who who who who?”

I am the emotionally vulnerable, yet profoundly positive introverted man who needs and loves people.

In the meantime, I’m getting a puppy, “    “ damn it.

Get to sleep Roger and Pete.