Learning to be yourself and one of us

We assimilate what and who we're exposed to at close range. If it's in our face, we'll do the "Vulcan mind meld" thing with it in order to get along with it. We learn to think like it does, see the world the same way and react to situations with some matching patterns. We're continually playing "monkey see -- monkey do" without conscious effort. Our unconscious mind gets acculturated by exposure, imitation and experimental replication.

In The Social Animal, David Brooks shows us how our unconscious is not some personal darkness, isolated from our world or cut off from others' unconscious minds. Our unconscious is highly relational and cultural. We initially get how to merge with our primary caregivers. Our character is an internalized combination of our parents' characters. With their models in mind, we branch out to assimilate our siblings, extended family members and neighbors. We're in that 'very impressionable age" where we take small incidents as big answers to our questions like "how do we fit in among these people?" and "how can we get along with them when they get in that mood again?".

We never stop needing to be a unique character while fitting into a cultural paradigm. High school and college provide many more diverse ways to "be yourself and one of us" than families of origin or life on the street. Employment settings usually evolve into cultural enclaves with each employee profiled as kind of character. Friendships, memberships and community activities perpetuate this ongoing process of character and cultural development.

When we're being true to ourselves and compatible with our clan, we're functioning unconsciously. We learned to be effective at fitting in and being different without formal instruction. No thinking is required to appear as an acculturated character. We fall into these roles, reaction patterns and outlooks spontaneously. We're inherently relational and attuned to others. We've all had experiences of morphing into someone else when we're suddenly plopped into a different social situation. We pick up the new vibes, mixed signals and clear opportunities on autopilot. We switch from being one character to another without hesitation.

When you consider the implications of all this, you may come to similar conclusions as I have:

  • We'll learn more from how we're taught than what we're taught when we're getting acculturated into being passive, powerless and intimidated by expertise.
  • We'll follow what someone is doing, not what they're saying, when they're not walking their talk.
  • We'll learn to become as pompous, paranoid, passive, etc as those who show us how its done and when it's time to be that way. 
  • We will fall for matching patterns of eating, exercising, recreating, relaxing, shopping etc. as those who are in our face.
  • We'll imitate our abusers and perpetuate cycles of abuse, victimization and personal violation ad infinitum.
  • We'll limit ourselves to ineffective "fight or flight choices" if our exemplars have provided no examples of diplomacy, de-escalation of adversarial contexts and creative reconciliation of differences.
  • We'll be as afraid of potential dangers and as courageous in the face of adversity as those we hang out with repeatedly.

As David Brooks suggests, we need new and better policies that change the social fabric of character and culture. Throwing money at problems overlooks how unconscious we always are. We don't need incentives for good behavior and penalties for misconduct. We need exemplars to imitate and cultural enclaves to join. Morphing into better citizens, resourceful problem solvers, community activists, etc. will come over us like all our prior unconscious learning at close range. We'll see the opportunities to fit in and be ourselves by assimilation.

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