Am I a good witch or a bad witch? A question about personality types
November 5, 2007 2:33 PM   Subscribe

Psychology: is there a term for someone who can't define himself -- who has a hard time saying "I'm an X person" or "I'm a Y person"?

Example: I was a lazy, unreliable kid -- the kind who always forgot to do his chores. I'm a super-responsible adult. Yet that kid is very much alive inside me.

Am I lazy or responsible?

I sometimes think of myself as a responsible person who works to resist a lazy impulse.

At other times, I think of myself as a lazy person who forces himself to be responsible.

I realize that this is just a matter of how you look at things, but my point is that many people -- even people with my mixture of laziness and responsibility -- seem to have an easier time thinking of themselves one way or the other than I do.

I also understand that thoughts are one thing and behavior is something else. And I DO behave like a responsible person. I think many people get into a feedback loop where behaving in a certain way makes them think of themselves in a certain way. "I am responsible because I behave in a responsible way." For me, it feels more like, "I behave in a responsible way, but I'm constantly aware of this huge irresponsible force inside me." (I'm not worried that this force will make me irresponsible. I have a pretty easy time doing what's right.)

This is not a question about laziness and responsibility. That was just an example. I feel the same way about many aspects of my personality. Am I an optimist or a pessimist? Am I an honest person or a liar? etc.

Most people I know think of themselves as honest, even though they're aware that they lie occasionally. But an occasional lie makes it impossible for me to think of myself as an honest person. Things aren't all bad, though, because my general honesty makes it impossible for me to think of myself as a liar. If you ask me what I am, I'll probably go by my behavior and call myself honest, but I'll have an overwhelming feeling that I'm simplifying myself for conversation.

I'm not at all worried about my behavior (I behave, in general, as a good, honest, loving person, and I doubt that will change), and I don't think that one necessarily NEEDS to classify oneself.

I'm just curious as to why so many other people seem to be able to classify themselves so easily -- and why I can't. (Or is everyone just simplifying themselves to make conversation easier?) Is this a recognized syndrome? The closest thing I can find to it is Borderline Personality Disorder. But -- thank God -- I don't think I have that. I don't fit the profile in other ways.
posted by grumblebee to Health & Fitness (40 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I believe the term for this is "perfectly normal".
posted by ND¢ at 2:40 PM on November 5, 2007 [18 favorites]

I think you're putting yourself on the wrong half of the classification, here, by classifying your inability to classify yourself as dysfunctional.

Really, a lot of schools of psychological thought would claim that what you're doing is healthy, and something everyone should strive for -- a balanced sense of yourself as an individual rather than someone who needs to live up to some label.

Narrative therapy actually encourages patients to develop the type of detachment you're talking about; someone who came in saying "I'm lazy" would be led to see themselves as a capable person who sometimes battles laziness, for example. Many Eastern philosophies, notably Buddhism, claim that all our suffering comes from our attachment to labels or stories about ourselves, that our need to define ourselves in these unchanging, narrow terms keeps us from experiencing our true natures.

That said... I really do think most people are just simplifying themselves to make conversation easier.
posted by occhiblu at 2:42 PM on November 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

You are evolving and experiencing constant permutation. Oh, what a wonderful world! Why try and categorize yourself? God knows there are enough people out there who are only too happy to do that for you. You are a river....go flow...
posted by 45moore45 at 2:50 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think it is very possible to have different facets to your personality and for them to even be logically inconsistent with one another. This isn't the same as being a hypocrite, it's just that in different circumstances different parts of you come through. I actually think it's a very good thing, it means you have range and you don't confine yourself.

It's also good to be aware of this. People who claim to be always honest, never jealous, always responsible etc etc are just lying to themselves. It's good to say I'm not a jealous person, except in those rare instances when I am. An occasional deviation doesn't negate all your past action.
posted by whoaali at 2:54 PM on November 5, 2007

Everyone is just simplifying themselves. We do dozens of things every day that fall on either side of these dicotomies. (I was responsible and paid my bills. I was irresponsible and didn't wash the dishes.) I think people usually have a certain view of themself, started in childhood and changes slowly with experience. Whatever fits the view, reinforces it. Whatever doesn't fit is ignored or explained away.

As a result there are branches of both psychology and philososphy which says that an integrated, monolithic view of self is just a convenient construction.

I can think of three different options which might fit - your choice...

Option 1: Recognize that you have a much more complete view of yourself in all your ambiguity and, unlike most people, you are just very aware that simple labels don't fit you or anyone else. Decide this is not a problem.

Option 2: Decide what kind of person you would like to be. (In Narrative Therapy this is called your preferred identity.) Pay attention to which actions help you be more person that you want to be and which actions pull you away from them.
Label yourself as a person who is working to increase these preferred aspects - the honesty, love and goodness in your life. Knowing that no one is perfect, to say you are working towards goodness is actually a much more powerful statement than just saying "I am good".

Option 3: Old labels from childhood are getting in your way and making it hard for you to give yourself credit for the changes that you made. A short session of therapy could help.
posted by metahawk at 3:02 PM on November 5, 2007

You are what you do. That's the easy way to look at it, and how others tend to see you.
posted by lubujackson at 3:03 PM on November 5, 2007

Best answer: I think the phrase you're looking for is "chronic self-overanalyzer." No one is completely consistent, nor is anyone ever-changing in all things. Can you think of anything that's not simplifying for the sake of conversation, by your standards, outside of the most objective truths?
posted by mikeh at 3:04 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

People aren't that simple, they are immensely complex. The only true label you could apply to yourself is that you are a "person" - the inability to pigeonhole yourself is what makes you that.

You can be spiritual, analytical, creative, serious, artistic, logical, emotive, aggressive, passive, practical, and off-the-wall. Just don't beat yourself up about flipping from one side of the coin to another as required. You're only human.
posted by robotot at 3:25 PM on November 5, 2007

Best answer: I just call it "indecisive" and I'm like that too. In short, I think there is some sort of switch in people's minds that allows them to be more or less confident that their categorical or organizational assessment is right. I have this when I'm doing certain things like cleaning my room or organizing things in the library.

I have it less when I'm trying to either explain myself to someone or explain myself to myself. I feel that my categorization of something that isn't objective [my own state of mind and how it's perceived by other people or something that happened so far in the past that it's no longer quantifiable in any real way] needs to be filtered through whatever contemporary meaning is. So not only am I not sure how exactly to explain this stuff, I actually feel that it varies depending on who I'm talking to and what the context is. This isn't to say that I don't have some facts down -- I was a messy kid. I spent a lot of time outdoors, I liked to read -- but that those things added up can equal different things when I'm explaining the entire gestalt of Me-at-11 or whatever.

So, some people feel more comfortable putting something in a box and leaving it there. "I am responsible but sometimes lazy. That is me." and have it be mostly true most of the time and that's great. They are decisive and have made a choice whether consciously or unconsciously. I always assume they feel decisive and confident about that choice. Others -- you and I perhaps -- feel that there is some sort of wiggle room or grey area to a statement like that and it makes them uneasy, speaking for myself, to have that level of confidence in something that isn't really "true" the way 2+2=4 (in base 10 math) is true.

At the end of the day though, I don't actualy care whether I'm healthy with a touch of sloth and gluttony, or fat and lazy and on a health kick, so my introspection on the topic ends there, that's where my decisiveness kicks in (this is boring to talk about when I could be drinking cocoa and reading a book). So, my short answer to you is that it has nothing at all to do with self-definition it has more to do with whatever in your brain makes the "I'm satisfied with this answer" and the "I'm sure of this answer" switches flip.
posted by jessamyn at 3:27 PM on November 5, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you for all the answer so far.

Just to me clear, I am not trying to figure out a way of classifying myself. I get along fairly well in life, and I'm okay being Mr. Grey-area.

I'm more interested in WHY I don't/can't classify myself. All my life, I've heard people -- ever so confidently -- say, "I'm the kind of person that..." I don't know how they can feel such confidence making these statements. Maybe they don't. Maybe they're all simplifying for conversation, but that possibility violates Occam's Razor.

Whether self-classifications are good or bad, bogus or truthful, I'm curious as to why some find them easy to make and others don't. Surely there are people out there who say, "I'm an honest person" and feel in their gut that this is true. They're not naive or stupid. They know they're not 100% honest in all situations. But they feel -- in some platonic sense -- that they are an honest person.

It just occurs to me that "platonic sense" is a good way of thinking about this. I suspect that some people feel (even if the feeling is based on an illusion) that there's a platonic version of them -- or, even if there isn't -- that they can imagine what such a person would be like: "He'd be scrupulously honest! I'm not always honest, but if you got rid of a few imperfections and boiled me down to my essence, I would be."
posted by grumblebee at 3:56 PM on November 5, 2007

It seems a bit that you have very clear boundaries for meanings, which means that you're looking at words like "honest" in their platonic sense and sensing that you don't measure up to that ideal, so you don't feel you can claim the label.

I think what you're getting at (and what I think jessamyn explained nicely) is that you see other people saying, "Well, I'm honest enough to call myself 'honest' and be ok with that"; they're expanding the definition of "honest" into a kind of real-world application that includes some shades of gray within the definition. You seem to be saying that "honest" is a very rigid ideal category that you may try to live up to, but you don't feel comfortable expanding the definition of the word itself to include your lived shades of gray.

I think most people just use words, or labels, less precisely than you do. They figure, "Eh, close enough" and don't push it much farther than that. (Which has both advantages and disadvantages, I don't mean to privilege one over the other.)
posted by occhiblu at 4:06 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I like to think there have been 10565 kisch mokusches, one for every day I've been alive. They're all different, and they've influenced me quite a bit. But they're not me (hell, I can't even remember half of them). I can therefore only define myself today, because tomorrow I'll be gone and another, different kisch mokusch will be here, and he'll do things slightly differently.
posted by kisch mokusch at 4:07 PM on November 5, 2007

You are evolving and experiencing constant permutation. Oh, what a wonderful world! Why try and categorize yourself? God knows there are enough people out there who are only too happy to do that for you. You are a river....go flow...

posted by jmnugent at 4:09 PM on November 5, 2007

Maybe you don't want to be limited. If you are classified as a night person, what about the mornings you get up early and revel in the quiet?
Maybe you're smart and versatile, so you're quite good at a lot of things, and you're spatially oriented and verbally oriented.
Maybe you see things in a complex manner, so that simple labels just won't cut it, because you understand the world in a much richer context.

Grumble, I think you are
a person who is good at/likes to analyse.
a person who is self-questioning.
always interesting.
posted by theora55 at 4:11 PM on November 5, 2007

I know what you mean but ppl tend to generalise about themselves otherwise it gets all confusing.
like if you call yourself honest when really you mean mostly honest. if you actually said mostly honest, ppl would start wondering whether to believe anything you said. the slightest bit of {cant think of the word} and ppl start imagining mountains instead of seeing molehills. its mostly human nature i think.

I think the best label for ppl is 'chaotic'. order within disorder or vice versa.
posted by browolf at 4:20 PM on November 5, 2007

Best answer: As you've noticed, one of the classic traits of someone with borderline is such a rigidity of their sense of self that they never adjust to a particular time/person/situation. Some degree of flexibility in your sense of self is required; too little and you're borderline (or some other disorder), too much and you're basically an amnesiac.

Having a stable story about yourself, that includes basic things like "I am an honest person" is useful in that it gives you a sense of continuity and consistency in your memory of your behavior (because who actually keeps a running tab of times they were dishonest v. honest?) and you can use that in your interactions and future behavior. I do think many people overstate the stability of their sense of self when prompted, but I think you're right that people vary on the degree to which they think of their own behavior as consistent. This book has a section on "The Self-Concept and Stability" that scratches the tip of what you're talking about. I can't find any good articles at the moment, but I think there is some tentative research that high extroversion leads to a more rigid self-concept, but I'm not sure.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:29 PM on November 5, 2007

Response by poster: I know what you man, browolf. When I was younger, I scared off a number of people by describing myself as "generally kind, but occasionally cruel" and stuff like that. In my mind, I was saying "like everyone, I try to be nice buy have the occasional lapse." To them, you don't mention the occasional lapse, so my statement must mean that I'm generally kind -- except when I kill small children.

I'm older and wiser now. I know not to say things like that, but when I say what I'm supposed to say, I feel like I'm lying -- or fictionalizing myself.
posted by grumblebee at 4:32 PM on November 5, 2007

I'm sort of like this in some ways, and I always figured it was because I am bipolar. I can be on both sides of a dichotomy, just at different times in different situations, and it's hard to say at times which predominates. It usually depends on when I'm asked, which side I consider myself to be on (that is, if I'm able to come down on a side at all). And of course sometimes it feels like a 80/20 or 70/30 split or something, and I have to recognize that both aspects are partly true at a given time.

This reminds me of typical Meyers-Briggs questions where a person is forced to categorize themselves as being/not-being a certain way. I always want to answer "sometimes". I wish I could find a version of this test with a 1-10 slider.
posted by marble at 4:48 PM on November 5, 2007

In my experience a lot of people who loudly categorize themselves are using it as an excuse for their behavior. A friend of mine occasionally says cruel things. If I'm hurt, he may apologize, but always with the caveat that, "That's just the kind of person I am - I say it like it is".

I've heard young women proudly proclaim, "I'm a bitch", as if it were a badge of honor, when basically it's an excuse to... well, be a bitch.

By classifying themselves, by saying "I'm this" or "I'm that", people relieve themselves of the responsibilities of their actions. They can't help themselves - that's just "who they are". It's lazy and it's comfortable.

I'm much more comfortable with people who don't need to wear a label.
posted by Evangeline at 5:57 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

The closest thing I can find to it is Borderline Personality Disorder.

BPD does not mean what you think it means.
posted by meehawl at 6:00 PM on November 5, 2007

Response by poster: BPD does not mean what you think it means.

Yes it does. In fact, I read that article right before posting this question. According to the article, BPD "includes a pervasive instability in ... self-image, identity, and behavior, as well as a disturbance in the individual's sense of self."

But in other ways, I'm not like someone with BPD, which is why, in my question, I wrote, "I don't fit the profile in other ways"?
posted by grumblebee at 6:21 PM on November 5, 2007

I find this a very interesting question and I completely resonate with what you are saying about how you see yourself (fuzzy for lack of a better word) juxtaposed against how you see other people's view of themselves (very categorical). For me, it was something that used to bother me because it seemed I didn't 'know' myself the way other people knew themselves. I think these feelings first surfaced in college where I met many people who seemed to 'know' themselves in this way. I never made a conscious decision, I don't think, to move beyond worrying about this (seeming not to know myself because I couldn't speak about myself in such categorical terms), but I have moved beyond it.

Your question (which I don't have a direct answer to) prompted some introspection and I have come to appreciate this aspect about myself because I think it makes me more open and accepting, not only about myself but about idiosyncratic things in other people. In fact, I sometimes get annoyed if someone categorizes me as X or Y because I think to myself, well I am only sometimes X or Y and this doesn't define me as a person.

Ultimately, I think that it is generally comforting for people to be able to categorize themselves and to categorize others (on many dimensions.) Perhaps this makes the world predictable in some important way. But I also think that these categorizations can create boxes with expectations and with that, judgments about who someone is that may be completely wrong.
posted by bluesky43 at 6:52 PM on November 5, 2007

I'm not like someone with BPD, which is why, in my question, I wrote, "I don't fit the profile in other ways"?

That's exactly it. In something like BPD, your sense of self changes subconsciously such that you are unaware of it. Except through intervention, you cannot perceive it as a conscious process.

As long as you're shopping for diagnoses, have you looked at Depersonalisation, HPD, or even Factitious Disorder? To be honest, why sweat the small stuff? You sound fine. This is not medical advice.
posted by meehawl at 7:36 PM on November 5, 2007

To put a finer point on this and to explain it in maybe a shorter way, I'm a mess at online dating stuff because as soon as I describe myself one way "bookish geek girl with a penchant for rivers and risotto" I say "hey that's not right at all" and start all over again "intellectual wiseass seeks snappy dresser for late night spelunking" and everything I write down seems wrong because of all the things it doesn't say, not the things it does, and I wind up not writing anything at all.
posted by jessamyn at 9:15 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: jessamyn, that happens to me when I take personality tests. I can NEVER just answer a question simply, with confidence. If the question says something like, "do you like being the center of attention?" I'm stumped. SOMETIMES I do. Other times I don't. Why are my only options yes and no? I answer it. I go back and answer it the other way. I change my mind and put it back the first way. In the end, my answer is pretty much random.
posted by grumblebee at 7:12 AM on November 6, 2007

grumblebee, i'm the same way as you and jessamyn.

the way i've tried to resolve this and have an inner sense of stability is two-fold, which I'll call meditative and empirical.

the empirical way is to apply the following litmus test to any questions about my self-image that can occupy a spectrum (eg lazy vs responsble):

"It's not who you are inside but what you do that defines you."

Of course, this is a line from the Batman Begins movie. Anyway, the idea is I observe my own behaviour and get a sense of where on the spectrum I am, and then, separate from this gauge, I try to note where outside observers of my behaviour would put me on this same spectrum. I then compare the two for any disparity, and work to try to resolve this disparity by changing my behaviour diligently. I got this idea from Sartre's writings on the Other. It says we can only see ourselves clearly through the eyes of others -- and therefore we're stuck with any bad perceptions that others have of us ("L'enfer, c'est les autres").

I find that curing the disparities then become a kind of optional endeavour. If I'm satisfied with people's perception of me in that area, I do nothing. Otherwise, I will work to try and change the perceptions -- when people start to notice the difference, it's a good motivator for further change.

The second approach I use is meditative. It's using breathing, body mechanics, martial arts, and other kinesthetic avenues to gain some insight into my own identity. I believe that the way we cope with the physical bumps and hills of life translate directly to how we deal with emotional and intellectual challenges as well. Human beings are an integrated whole, and insight into one area can help in the other.

I guess my point is that knowing who you are is inseparable from knowing who you want to be. Becoming is more important than being.
posted by growli at 8:59 AM on November 6, 2007

Response by poster: Interesting, growli.

Like many in this thread, your main technique/suggestion is to focus on behavior. I do that, but it doesn't quell the inner voice.

When I say that, I fear that I'll be misunderstood in one of two ways:

1) People will think I'm saying that I'm worried that the inner voice will alter my behavior. The inner child will force me to be lazy, rather than industrious. I'm actually not worried about that. I have faith (based on years of success) that my behavior needn't be based on "the voices inside."


2) Okay, so what's the big deal, then? If you're not worried about your behavior changing, then why do you care what the inner voices say?

I care for a couple of reasons. Partly, I want to know why I'm different from other people -- if in fact I am. Does everyone have these inner voices? Are they loud?

I was sort of hoping someone would come into this thread and say, "actually, I'm pretty sure of what sort of person I am. I'm honest and I feel honest on the inside, too. I'm caring and I feel caring on the inside. I have my lapses like everyone else, but I do feel like I have a core personality and that it has specific traits I can point to." No one has said anything like that. Is that because no one feels that way or is this thread just being answered by people like me?

I'm also care because ... how can you not care about a voice/feeling in your head? If you're in love with someone and you don't act on that feeling, the feeling still matters.
posted by grumblebee at 9:46 AM on November 6, 2007

I was sort of hoping someone would come into this thread and say, "actually, I'm pretty sure of what sort of person I am. I'm honest and I feel honest on the inside, too. I'm caring and I feel caring on the inside. I have my lapses like everyone else, but I do feel like I have a core personality and that it has specific traits I can point to."

I do mostly feel that way, about a number of aspects of my personality. I used to feel that way about a *lot* of aspects of my personality, but part of what I've been working on as far as personal growth for the past several years is to find more flexibility and openness in my life, which I think requires (for me) letting go of some of that certainty about "who I am."

Something that keeps popping to mind, especially with regards to the personality testing, is the Myers-Briggs model of "Judging" versus "Perceiving." People on the Judging side of the spectrum tend to make decisions easily and find uncertainty uncomfortable; they like things solved (judged). People on the Perceiving side of the spectrum like to examine all options and like to put off final decisions; they're more interested in seeing what's possible (perceiving) rather than eliminating possibilities by choosing one answer or solution.

I've found that people who often have trouble with personality quizzes tend to fall on the Perceiving side of the spectrum. (Though my sample size is small.) I tend to fall waaaaay over on the Judging side of the spectrum (which is why I think my path right now is to ease up on needing so much certainty).

I'm not sure the Myers-Briggs model is the ultimate explanation of what you're talking about, but it might be an interesting way to conceptualize some of it.
posted by occhiblu at 11:40 AM on November 6, 2007

Response by poster: occhiblu, your post reminded me of something that occurred to me shortly after I posted this question: a model for the way we reflect on our personalities. Like all most such models, it's 100% conjecture.

I think there are three main components to reflecting on one's actions:

1) Consciousness of the thoughts and feelings that lead up-to the action, including thoughts that tried to persuade you not to do the action. These thoughts and feelings will be present even if you don't carry out the action, e.g. guilt might cause you not to lie, but you'll still feel the guilt.

2) Consciousness of carrying out the action.

3) An "application" which takes 1 and 2, above, as inputs and outputs an assessment, e.g. "I did X, so that makes me a good person" or "I felt Y, so that makes me a bad person."

Sometimes 1 and 2 seem to be in conflict, and that confuses the application. How can this be? If the most powerful part of 1 is a voice that says "LIE!", why would part 2 be an action of not stealing?

Upthread, I mentioned that I don't really worry anymore that "my inner demons" will cause me to act badly -- even though I DO have inner demons. I think that's because, most of the time, the demons (and the angels), don't get much say in the resulting behavior.

When I was younger, this would happen:

DEVIL: go ahead, tell a lie!
ANGEL: no, don't do it. Lying is bad.
[titanic strugle. angle wins]
BEHAVIOR: truth.

But having lived this way for years, I think certain moral rules have become relatively fixed in my head. So now...

DEVIL: go ahead, tell a lie!
ANGEL: no, don't do it. Lying is bad.
KING OF MORALS: devil, I don't care what you say. Angel, you're preaching to the choir. I decree that truth wins, and I'm always going to do that, no matter how long you guys argue.
BEHAVIOR: truth.

I'm not claiming that I'm incapable of lying. But I AM much less likely to lie than I was when I was younger. Which is good, but it means that there's a greater disconnect between my behavior and my inner voices than there once was. Notice that, in the second example, above, the inner voices are still audible, even though their argument doesn't contribute to the behavior. They still feed into the application.

Pushing this model further, I'd bet that 1 and/or 2 are stronger in some people than in others. I don't mean that some people only act and don't think/feel. I mean that some people probably aren't as CONSCIOUS as others of one of these two components.

Some poor souls are probably largely unaware of what they DO. They base "who they are" mostly on how they feel/think. Others may be way more aware of what they do than what thoughts/feelings lead up to their actions. These people will naturally think of "who they are" as "what they do."
posted by grumblebee at 12:07 PM on November 6, 2007

I don't have enough Freudian theory to be sure, but I feel like what you're describing maps pretty well onto id (devil), superego(angel), and ego (King of Morals (heh)). We have the things we want to do (id), the things we should do (superego), and ways of balancing those desires and constraints in order to deal effectively with the world (ego).

Ego theory would also support your sense that you've developed a stronger ego over time; that's expected in normal psychological development.

You're also getting into the interesting debate between "I am what I do" and "I do what I am," and I think there are good arguments on both sides of that; and I think you're right, sometime emphasize doing over being, others emphasize being over doing. Neither one is "right" or "healthy," they're just different philosophies with which to confront the world.
posted by occhiblu at 12:17 PM on November 6, 2007

Oops, also meant to add that some psychology is based on looking at how over- or under-formed ids, superegos, or egos are, and how that would affect one's ability to function in the world.

More info.
posted by occhiblu at 12:21 PM on November 6, 2007

(Why post twice when you can post three times in a row...)

Bringing back all the Freudian models to your original question: I think people, especially in the individualistic Western cultures that gave rise to the theories themselves, are mostly going to identify with their egos. (The Wikipedia article points out that Freud actually called that function "The I.") But that's the wheelingest-dealingest part of our personalities, always trying to balance internal and external demands, so there's likely going to be a little slippage between our self-concept and how we actually deal with the world. Which is where various defense mechanisms step in to help us get over that dissonance.

Maybe some of what you're reacting to, both in yourself and others, are those defense mechanisms?

(I'm not meaning, with any of this, to say that Freudian personality theory is the only way of looking at this. Just figured there's no sense in reinventing the wheel.)
posted by occhiblu at 12:51 PM on November 6, 2007

re: inner voices.

I know the feeling. The drive to just "be", which allays any nagging feelings of self-consciousness, is at the heart of Taoism and many asian martial arts. The concept of mushin or no-mind is similar to your ideal where the act cannot be separated from the actor.

I aslo don't think anybody can have perfect self-knowledge, or even the permanent illusion of having perfect self-knowledge. You won't have somebody coming in the thread to say they know themselves perfectly in all situations, unless the person is lying to themselves. The realm of experience is just too huge and complex, and our choices in the face of this complexity is too vast. It's only the most sheltered and immature of us who would be so wedded to an inflexible self-image.

I think in the end, you're (to my view) expressing some fear or discomfort at the very thought that you have free will at any given moment to behave in however way you want, regardless of your self image, or social expectations, or biological imperative, or superego, or etc etc.
posted by growli at 12:43 PM on November 7, 2007

succint version:

grumblebee: Am I a good witch or a bad witch?

answer: it's your choice, every single time you ask it. Either deal with that or give up free will to somebody or something else.
posted by growli at 12:45 PM on November 7, 2007

Response by poster: growli, thanks for your input, and please continue to post -- your ideas are interesting.

But I think we're coming from very different places (maybe even talking past each other). I may be misunderstanding where you're coming from, so feel free to correct me if I don't do justice to your point of view.

Your focus on free will suggests, to me, that you're interest in ACTIONS; Whereas my interest is in FEELINGS.

I can choose not to steal while still feeling the desire to steal. I can even be 100% sure I'm not going to steal yet still feel the desire to steal.

If you're thinking, "Well, if you're absolutely sure you're not going to give into a feeling, what's the problem?" The problem is the feeling itself -- the FEELING that I'm a thief as opposed to the reality of my actions (which make me not a thief). It's fair enough if you think that feelings that don't manifest themselves in actions are unimportant (though even if you don't think they're important, you'll still feel them, no?), but I do.

You also seem to think I'm trying to change myself. I'm not. I'm trying to UNDERSTAND myself. I'm wondering why I'm the way I am (when other people seem to be different). I'm not saying I want to change (this aspect of) the way I am.

grumblebee: Am I a good witch or a bad witch?

answer: it's your choice, every single time you ask it.

No, it's my choice whether to ACT like a good witch or a bad witch. It's not my choice to FEEL like I'm a good witch or a bad witch. I don't have much control over my feelings. I can say to myself, "well, the feelings aren't really what's important," but that's a lie -- at least to my reality -- they are important because they FEEL important. Or maybe it's better to say that I don't care whether they're important or not. I don't even know what it means to say that feelings are important or unimportant. Feelings are feelings. All I know is that -- important or not -- they're strong and the affect me profoundly.

I think in the end, you're (to my view) expressing some fear or discomfort at the very thought that you have free will...

Maybe this can of worms is best left for another thread (though I'm happy to discus it here), but I don't believe in free will. I think we humans have a persistent illusion of free will, but I think it is just an illusion.
posted by grumblebee at 4:40 PM on November 7, 2007

Grumblebee, I think you're confusing "feelings" with "feelings about feelings."

"I want to grab that trinket" is a fairly morally neutral feeling. Desire is a pretty basic feeling, expected from most human beings.

"Because I feel that I want to grab that trinket, I'm a thief" is a judgment on the primary feeling of desire. It's a judgment that your base feeling (desire) is wrong. Feeling like a feeling is wrong is therefore going to lead to secondary emotions like guilt, shame, and anger.

So, by choosing to judge your primary emotions as bad, you're choosing to see yourself as a bad witch. You could very well think "I want to grab that trinket. I like having desires, they motivate me!" and choose to see yourself as a good witch. You could very well just think "I want to grab that trinket. Huh, that's interesting" and see yourself as a neutral witch.

A great deal of therapy work (and meditation practices) centers on learning to separate out those judgments from our emotions so that we're not trapped in belief systems about what feelings are "right" or "wrong" or "good" or "bad."

So, while you may not have much control over your emotions, you *can* (and do) have control over your judgments of those emotions -- it *is* your choice whether to feel like a good witch, a bad witch, or a neutral witch.

It's not always a conscious choice, or an easy choice, but it is a choice.
posted by occhiblu at 11:38 AM on November 8, 2007

You cant separate choice from feeling and non action is still a choice. the only way to get free will is to separate feeling which most people cant do. You dont even have a choice over how to feel about feelings because core beliefs dictate those and its extremely difficult to change your own core beliefs without outside interference.

fortunately just talking about stuff can be enough to alter core beliefs. Which I suppose is why therapy works.

however this situation is exacerbated by the fact the english language is rather black and white. things are either good or bad and theres nothing inbetween. Its much harder to alter your thinking to a completely polar opposite whereas if there were lots of words inbetween we could sneak our way across in smaller increments.

the best we can do is try not to think of things in such stark terms.
posted by browolf at 2:23 PM on November 8, 2007

Response by poster: I think I've stacked the deck in a confusing way by using examples that are connected with ethics. So lets try this: introvert vs. extrovert. And let's assume, for the sake of this discussion, that neither one is bad or superior to the other. I certainly don't think introverts are superior to extroverts or vice versa.

So: I FEEL like both an introvert and an extrovert. I act like an extrovert. (This is an oversimplification of me, for the sake of argument.)

No matter how much I act like an extrovert (or an introvert), I can't shake the feeling that I'm both an extrovert and an introvert.

I don't see where judgment comes in. Or choice. (Other than choosing to act like an extrovert.)

I don't think that it's important that I label myself one way or the other. I don't think I'll be a better (or worse) person if I can attach a label to myself. I don't think my behavior will change if I can attach a label to myself.

But I do notice that other people seem to be able to attach extrovert or introvert to themselves. I'm curious as to why they can and I can't.

I know that when someone says, "I'm an extrovert," he doesn't mean 100% of the time, on all occasions. I wouldn't need to feel 100% that way to feel like I could label myself an extrovert. But I don't even feel CLOSE to 100%. I don't even feel like I have a bias one way or the other.

And I don't want us to get caught up in the introvert/extrovert example. That's just an example. The point is, if you pick any personality trait that has multiple versions -- even if it's a mundane, morally neutral trait "likes to read mystery novels -- I will have a harder time labeling myself than most people I know.
posted by grumblebee at 2:25 PM on November 8, 2007

ah maybe
you're just more complicated than most ppl you know. Ive always said im complicated. I like loads of different things. like I read different genres and like opposing types of music and my behavior often depends on the situation.

My other half who is the yin to my yang. Is decidedly uncomplicated. her likes and range of behaviors is pretty narrow, I'd go as far as to say fixed and she's reasonably predictable.

the litmus test for complicated is try to describe yourself adequately on a dating site. I always found it tremendously difficult.
posted by browolf at 4:44 PM on November 8, 2007

Best answer: I will have a harder time labeling myself than most people I know.

From what I've experienced of you on this site, though, you kind of have a harder time accepting anything than most people I know. I don't mean that as a put-down at all; you just seem waaaaaaay over on the "must have clear boundaries and completely hashed-out definitions and NO wiggle room or room for interpretation before I can accept it" scale. (Granted, that's a scale I just made up, but I'm sticking to it!)

So I don't think it's just that you can't label yourself very definitely; you seem fairly (consciously) averse to labeling anything very definitely -- or, at least, labeling as definite any sort of abstract or emotional thing that is, by its nature, a bit fuzzy.

And I think there are different models or names for that. In college I would have shorthanded it as "science major." Myers-Briggs might have you as a Sensor rather than an Intuitor, and (as I mentioned earlier) a Perceiver rather than a Judge. Others might just call it a preference for concrete thinking; I think at its extreme (not necessarily your extreme) we start getting into the Asperger's spectrum.

Basically, I guess I'm saying that your discomfort with labeling is kind of in itself a personality trait, or at least, it falls within a standard spectrum of human personality.
posted by occhiblu at 7:43 AM on November 9, 2007

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