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Are You Your Own Person?

Take the self-determination inventory to find out.

"Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct," said John Stuart Mill. "There is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress."

In other words, to be happy you need to be your own person. But what exactly does it mean to be your own person? And how do you personally measure up? These are questions that I want to address in this post.

There is certainly no formula for determining whether you are your own person. However, I will address some general questions, which in turn will be used to construct a self-assessment inventory to help you gauge where you stand and where you may need some work. Indeed, we all can use some work. If there is any settled philosophical consensus about humankind, it is that none of us are perfect.

In what ways and to what extent do you depend on others?

To be your own person clearly requires independence of thought, feeling, and action. This means that you can and do think, feel, and act without excessively relying on others to give you direction. However, as John Donne famously proclaimed, "no man is an island," and human happiness cannot be attained in a social vacuum.

So, being independent does not mean that you live outside cultural, social, and legal boundaries; or that your character is not shaped by a process of socialization; or that all social conformity is unhealthy. Still, there exists a personal sphere of personal independent existence characterized by autonomous thinking and acting, which cannot be subtracted from a person without taking away the capacity for happiness.

Indeed, some people may be so dependent on others that they feel (understandably) that their lives are out of their control. They may feel lost, confused, manipulated, degraded, and needy. They may feel as though an important ingredient is missing from their lives but really not even know what's missing—let alone how to attain it or get it back.

Some people may be easily intimated by others. They cave in to social pressures to think, feel, or act in certain ways, even if they know or should know better.

Some people live vicariously through others (for example, their children, partner, friends, or people they admire) instead of plotting an independent life plan. So, the accomplishments of someone else are substituted as though they were their own. Indeed, admiring, being proud of, or being happy for someone else are healthy responses to the good fortune of another—much more so than envy, jealousy, and disdain. But living through others is no substitute for living through oneself. The latter tends to promote and sustain happiness; while the former does not.

Others may isolate themselves from social interaction. As the words of Simon and Garfunkel's classic song go, "Hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock feels no pain; and an island never cries." But this is more properly a form of depressed thinking than it is a healthy coping mechanism.

Still others may tend to deliberately do the opposite of what is expected of them primarily for the sake of being oppositional. This is also counterproductive because it is not based on any rational determination of what conduces to one's own best interest or the best interest of others.

While too much conformity or reliance on others can leave you without your own sense of purpose or direction, too little thwarts your chances of attaining any goals you may have set. However, between relying too much or too little there is also a "golden mean." While no person in the course of living attains the perfect balance between these opposite poles, being your own person requires attainment of a significant measure of balance.

Such a balanced life is one where there is interdependence between you and others. There is reciprocity between the support you receive from others and that which you give, consistent with your own freedom and that of others to forge respective life plans and make reasonable strides toward them.

In this balanced state, you may be actively involved in helping others thrive but not to the exclusion of helping yourself to live contentedly. You know where to draw the line between healthy helping and becoming a slave to others. In this healthy state of interdependence, there is mutuality in friendship, business ventures, intimate relationships, kinship, and other social encounters. Thus, in intimate relationships between persons who are their own persons, each party is a partner and does not mooch off of the other. Sexual intimacy involves mutual gratification and neither party is the other's servant.

How authentic are you?

In intimate relationships, unequal power structures are typically incompatible with being one's own person because both the dominant and dominated are not free to be themselves. For example, in the traditional marriage between a man and a woman, the man is expected to "wear the pants" and the woman is expected to submit herself to him. This weighs heavily not only on the woman's capacity for authenticity but also on the man's. Simone de Beauvoir succinctly expressed the price paid by both parties:

A fallen god is not a man; he is a fraud. The lover has no other alternative than to prove that he really is this king accepting adulation—or to confess himself a usurper. If he is no longer adored, he must be trampled on.

In turn, the woman is expected to absorb her identity into his. "The supreme happiness of the woman in love," said De Beauvoir, is to be recognized by the loved man as a part of himself; when he says "we" she is associated and identified with him, she shares his prestige and reigns with him over the rest of the world; she never tires of repeating—even to excess—this delectable "we."

Relationships of this ilk are usually dysfunctional and can involve both physical and emotional abuse. And, while De Beauvoir portrayed the model of male domination, the same dysfunction can exist when the female is the dominant one. Only when there is mutual recognition of and respect for personal space can authentic relationships among intimates flourish.

Traditional gender role models are not the only potential source of losing your authenticity. Other social roles such as your job could also consume your individuality if you let it. Thus the company man who devotes his life to the bottom line prosperity of the corporation; the soldier who becomes a fighting machine; the accountant who views life as a series of debits and credits; the pedantic professor; the journalist who eavesdrops; the politician who sells out his constituency (and therefore his soul) to get reelected; the lawyer who gets off rapists and others he knows are (as a matter of fact) guilty; the devoutly religious individual who surrenders all his worldly possessions to a cult leader and is willing to drink the Kool-Aid; people such as these hide their personhood behind a social mask and as a result lose their individuality. But you don't have to allow a role to swallow up who you are.

Jean-Paul Sartre admonished that, for human beings, "existence precedes essence." By this, he meant that people are not like manufactured items-like tables and chairs—that are conceived in advance and produced with a certain "essence," that is, for a certain purpose. Instead, we possess the freedom and responsibility to decide our own purposes in life. This is a constructive antidote against losing yourself in a social role. You are not a table or chair; nor are you just an accountant, politician, doctor, lawyer, teacher, or banker. You are a multifaceted human being with thoughts, feelings, and desires that cannot be subsumed under a job description or a social role. This is who you really are and what you can be, if you let yourself.

How willing are you to stand on principle?

If you are your own person, then you will be prepared to stand your ground when your principles or values are at stake. This does not mean that you must fight every battle to the death, but there will be times when surrendering your values in order to avoid a difficult situation would be to destroy the personal dignity that is requisite to being your own person.

Suppose you are a nurse and you are ordered by an incompetent physician to do something that you know would harm a patient. Refusing the order and suffering the consequences may be the price of continuing to be your own person. Standing on principle can take courage.

On the other hand, in telling yourself that you have no other choice but to follow the order, you would be lying to yourself, living in "bad faith," as the existentialists would say. This is because you really do have a choice even if you don't like the alternatives. In the end, people who maintain their dignity instead of selling their moral souls tend to command more respect and to be well regarded by others.

To what extent do you base your decisions on rational judgment?

John Stuart Mill also emphasized the importance of thinking rationally in being your own person. "He who chooses his plan for himself," he said, "employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision."

This means that, as your own person, you look before you leap. You do not act on personal whims. You welcome the opinions of others and remain open to alternative perspectives besides your own. You consider the pros and cons of your options; and, instead of vacillating, you actually make a decision. You are aware that you can never be certain about life choices and there is inevitable risk in whatever life choices you make. You are also aware that it is better to decide on the basis of a rational judgment than to make your decision by indecision. The latter can happen when you procrastinate and, as a result, time passes and the decision is made for you. When this happens, you lose the opportunity to act rationally, which makes it less likely that things will turn out the way you would prefer.

To be your own person, you will also need to do a reasonably good job at avoiding irrational emotional outbursts, fits of anger or rage, depression, intense anxiety, debilitating guilt, phobias, compulsions, and other irrational emotional responses to the events in your life. Such emotional responses tend to defeat your own interests and goals. These irrational emotions can control you rather than you them; and persons so out of control cannot be their own persons.

Dependence on chemicals such as psychoactive drugs or alcohol can also override reason and lead to irrational and self-destructive behavior. Indeed, many lives are turned upside down by alcohol and drugs like cocaine, heroin, oxycontin, or other psychoactive drugs and medications. A person who has an addiction to such substances can suffer a serious loss of autonomy. It can eventually adversely affect virtually every aspect of one's life.

As is well known, among the most daunting challenges with addictions is admitting to having the problem. Many people live in denial for years as their careers fall apart, their significant others leave them, and their friends cut off ties. No rational person wants these things to happen, but they can and do happen. This is because the chemical dependencies take over.

As Mill suggests, developing, honing, and applying your rational "faculties" is the best general antidote to whimsy, procrastination, self-defeating emotional responses, compulsiveness, chemical dependencies, blind subscription to custom or tradition, and other physical, social, or psychological factors that can undermine your personal autonomy.

Do you follow through on your decisions?

Making a rational decision, however, does not itself ensure that you will act on it. As Mill so aptly emphasized, you also need "firmness and self-control to hold to" your decision. Indeed, many times people decide to do things that they never follow through on. Such inertia, or weakness of will, can defeat the point of having made a decision in the first place. From individual decisions to collective ones, much time and effort can be wasted in reaching decisions that never see the light of day.

Putting things off until another time or day is a popular mode of inaction. This may be due to laxness, fear of having to deal with the repercussions of the decision, a sense that you just "can't" do it, or even forgetfulness (with or without Freudian undercurrents).

Building willpower to follow through on your decisions is profoundly important to being your own person. You can do this by practicing. As Aristotle maintained, you can cultivate virtuous habits through practice. The more you push yourself to follow through on your decisions, the more habituated you are likely to become in acting on them. Like a muscle, willpower gets stronger when you use it. Use it or lose it!

How self-confident are you?

Weak willpower can also be symptomatic of low self-confidence. As Aristotle instructs, to be self-confident is a mean between being self-deprecating and being vain. The self-confident person unconditionally accepts himself and avoids self-rating. So, if you are self-confident, you will avoid trying to prove (to yourself or others) how bad you are or how wonderful you are. Instead, you will make a realistic assessment of the merit of your actions. If you do something wrong, you will attempt to learn from it and move on. What you won't do is degrade yourself by calling yourself names or otherwise engage in a vicious self-defeating game of self-devaluation. This is because being self-confident requires being self-accepting, and self-berating is incompatible with accepting yourself.

Healthy self-acceptance must also be unconditional and not depend on what others might say or think. Unfortunately, some people devote their lives to doing what they think would please or meet with the approval of others. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to please others or to get their approval; and it can be preferable to gain and sustain the approval of others, especially if the person whose approval is sought has some power over your life-for example, your employer. A problem arises, however, when you seek to please or gain the approval of others in order to validate your own self-worth. When the latter is the case, you can live a roller-coaster existence whereby your self-worth rises and falls on the fickle barometer of getting and remaining in the good graces of others.

This is a good way to frustrate your personal happiness. On the contrary, a self-confident person, Aristotle admonished, is also a self-lover and perceives herself as her own best friend. Indeed, best friends do not demean and degrade but encourage and inspire. Nor do they make their friendship contingent on who likes or approves of their best friend. So too is this true in the case of a self-confident person.

How comfortable are you with trying new things?

As a self-confident person, you will also be prepared to spice things up by trying out new and different things—within reason of course. So, Mill also talked about "experiments in living" in which people try out new living arrangements to see which ones work and which ones don't. As Mill eloquently admonished, "there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically when anyone thinks fit to try them."

So we can and should tinker a bit instead of simply sticking to doing what tradition or custom dictates. Are you largely driven to accept things because they are customs or traditions? Are you uncomfortable with trying out new and different things?

Here, "customs" or "traditions" can be broadly understood to include social routines and even the way you earn a living. So, you may have gotten used to engaging in the same recreational and social activities and now routinely engage in them even though they have become boring and unrewarding. You might go to the same restaurants, eat the same foods, play the same games. You may have worked at the same job for many years without any changes or variations in how and what you do.

Such routines can take the vital spirit out of your life, leaving you uninspired and uninspiring to others. You may feel emotionally flat and reflect the same in your social interactions with others. If this is you then making changes-seeking out new and different social activities, making new friends, cultivating new hobbies, and altering work routines—can add new vitality to living. So you might "experiment" a bit.

Take the self-determination inventory

Now that you have a clearer idea of what it takes to be your own person, taking the below inventory can help give you a better idea about where you stand. For each of the impediments to being your own person given below, choose which answer best applies: Disagree, Somewhat Agree, or Agree.

For example, if you disagree that you tend to rely on others to tell you what to do, say, or how to feel, then write "Disagree" for impediment 1. On the other hand, if you think you have some aspects of this impediment but not all of them, such as that you think you often ask others too many questions that you can answer for yourself, then you can answer "Somewhat Agree."

Self-Determination Inventory

Impediment to being your own person:

  1. I tend to rely on others to tell me what to do, say, or how to feel.
  2. I tend to try to live through others.
  3. I tend to be intimidated by others and to cave to social pressures.
  4. I tend to keep to myself and avoid social interaction.
  5. I tend to sabotage my goals by intentionally trying to do the opposite of what others expect of me.
  6. I often feel as though I am playing a role instead of being the person I really am or want to be
  7. It's like I'm a servant in our relationship, like what I want doesn't matter and what he/she wants does.
  8. I tend to do things that I know are wrong and feel guilty afterward.
  9. I tend to act impetuously or out of emotion without first considering the consequences and regret it later. Or, I become obsessed or anxious about making a mistake and have a hard time deciding.
  10. I often take alcohol or drugs to make myself feel better.
  11. I tend to put off following through on my decisions; or make excuses, or somehow get sidetracked and don't do what I intend to do.
  12. I often feel incompetent, stupid, or otherwise inadequate to make decisions for myself.
  13. I often try to please others or get their approval in order to validate my own self-worth.
  14. I am afraid to try new things.
  15. The first step in self-improvement is always to identify what needs to be improved. Being your own person is essential to your happiness. So, identifying these things can be a first step in increasing your happiness.

Where do you go from there? The general answer is to work cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally on the impediments that you need to remove. Each of these obstacles to being your own person will have cognitive, behavioral, and emotional dimensions that you can work on. Getting professional help from a therapist can be useful, especially if you are feeling depressed or in desperation. You can then focus on the impediments you need most to work on.

Also, many self-help books take a cognitive-emotive-behavior approach. In my book, The New Rational Therapy, selections of which are available on Google Books, I address all of these impediments by providing some useful antidotes to the faulty thinking undergirding them. For example, see the chapter on Being Your Own Person; the chapter on Building Respect; the chapter on Controlling Yourself; and the chapter on Becoming Morally Creative.

More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
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