On Plastic Horns & Identity Confusion

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Someone asked me, the other day, about my relationship with this blog. I’m paraphrasing, but the thrust of the question was about what purpose it serves for me. I started to explain that at this stage it’s not something I take seriously, and that my goal is mostly to have something to look back on (or to have for my son to look back on) at some future point in time. Then my explanation led into the fact that – even though it wasn’t that long ago – my objectives were drastically different at this site’s outset. If you’ve been following, you’ll know that this was initially a form of therapy; an outlet for humor as a coping mechanism, in the midst of a livelihood that categorically wasn’t doing it for me.

But in revisiting those beginnings from some distance, I was struck by the degree to which – whereas it might seem to have been mere documentation – the blog itself actually caused me to depart from white-collar purgatory. I set out in pursuit of homelessness nirvana almost exactly a month after starting this site; had I never begun writing, I honestly don’t know what the future might have held.

The urgency of my change of course was brought on by the powerlessness I described in my last post: with every successive entry, railing (if satirically) against the weight of my confines, the loudness of the inherent futility in my actions rose to deafening levels. With the fact that it was so easy to identify (so many) things that bothered me in the environment, I felt like a buffoon for not staking claim to my own destiny.

The inner warning siren I just described can vary in intensity and has a fancy name in the field of psychology (a field that I’ve never studied but in which I will hereafter pretend to be an expert): cognitive dissonance.

‘Cognitive dissonance’ – so says the Google search I just conducted – is, in one context, “the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person […] when performing an action that contradicts [his or her] beliefs, ideas, or values.”

I would wager that, for many people, low-grade cognitive dissonance comes with the territory of a livelihood that pays the bills but doesn’t stoke the embers of passion; like the low hum of a faulty neon bulb that, while ever present, can be ignored without much effort. Elsewhere on the spectrum, there I was, shouting anonymous criticisms about my surroundings into the void, all while being a wholly culpable party to them. The cognitive dissonance was to my skull, at that point, what vuvuzelas were to every stadium at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Now having told of this inner cacophony intensifying in the month leading up to my departure from the corporate world, I’ll back up and clarify that it certainly existed long before that. I’ve written previously about the fact that, throughout all but the most recent stage of my career, I routinely felt a certain sheepishness on account of my professional efforts being devoted primarily to helping myself. But in exploring these memories through the lens of cognitive dissonance, I’m noticing another interesting thing.

I recall, vividly, that I used to have multiple personas. (That’s one step short of multiple personalities, a fact which I’m sure is found nowhere in the annals of psychology but that I made up because it sounds like it could be a thing.)

These multiple personas didn’t usually hang out in the same places: there was Family Me, Friends Me, Work Me, and maybe a couple of others. A consequence of this was that I tended to cringe at any prospect of my personal life being discussed in a work setting. Not that I necessarily had anything to hide, but when – for example – I showed up to work with a sports-induced black eye, for some reason I preferred to pretend it wasn’t there than to offer any sort of explanation. (I remember one particularly awkward meeting with my then-boss on the day in question. Evidently we both preferred that she assume I was in a street brawl than to have either one of us bring it up.)

I can’t totally explain this phenomenon of having maintained multiple personas, in part because I can’t isolate all of the potentially causal factors: notably, I was young (the memories I’m drawing upon go back to my early 20s) and the corporate culture at my then-employer was relatively stodgy (which might have contributed to my wanting to maintain an accordingly low profile there).

But here’s what I do know: the current era marks a historical high in terms of both the convergence of my previously split personas and the absence of cognitive dissonance in my life. And while you won’t catch me mistaking correlation for causation, I have a strong suspicion that the two developments are linked.

These days, I feel like I’m pretty much the same person in professional, social and family settings – or any other. Aside from maybe fitting speech patterns (read: slang; use of versatile words that start with ‘f’) to the setting, I think I have about the same disposition everywhere I go. And while that’s going on, I’m also finally (for the first time in my life?) experiencing zero frustration with the way I spend my time and energy. My actions now fit with the things that I’ve long since believed that I value.

What’s my point? It’s this:

The brain (or the so-called “gut” as its proxy) is pretty good at calling one’s bluff. As was my split-persona phenomenon, so was the discomfort of writing ultimately ineffectual satire: symptomatic of friction between actions and values. Whether or not we have ‘cognitive dissonance’ or other language by which to formally acknowledge the experience, its effects are involuntary and tough to avoid. Only a direct intervention to align the mismatched actions and values will bring lasting relief.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to Wikipedia the latest episode of Cake Boss so that I can start passing myself off as a baking expert.

*****

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