Let’s Think About what we Let Define Us.

I’m relieved to say that my college application process, a long period of resounding stress and pressure, is finally over! Not a great hook to an article, I know, but it sure feels great to say. Back in June at the start of the process, I was given the responsibility of filling out my “senior profile.” In this profile, I was to answer ten-ish questions about myself so that my guidance counselor, someone who barely knew me, could write me a glowing recommendation to college. They ranged from What’s your proudest accomplishment to What’s a motto that you strive to live by. First looking it had me going, “Bruh I don’t know,” but as I worked through it, I enjoyed a nice opportunity to engage in some personal reflection. Of the questions asked, the one I struggled most with was Describe yourself in three words. There’s only so much power that words can hold, and it’d be impossible for them to capture who I am as a whole. In fact, I don’t think the 17 page document I ended up submitting did the full job either. While I’ll save myself the embarrassment of sharing which three words I eventually settled on, I still haven’t stopped thinking about how I define myself.

Here’s a quote from the rapper Logic, “People in my ear telling me talk that… actions speak louder than words I’d rather walk that…” What he’s saying is that the things we say don’t define us, but the things that we do, our “walk,” do define us. Personally, I both agree and disagree. From an external perspective, yeah, words mean nearly nothing. I could say to you that I’m an amazing writer with profound insights, but until you read something that either proves or disproves my claim, you won’t actually believe me. But what about on a more internal level? That’s where I disagree with Logic. 

Let’s say I set a personal goal to read more – I’m going to read 10 books this year! I start strong, but January becomes February becomes March, which eventually becomes December, and I’m looking back at my measly three books of the year, scratching my head. Now, I’ve got a few pretty instinctual options. One is to judge myself, “Gosh Pranay! You’re such a fool! You didn’t even come close to your goal! You’re never going to be successful in life if you can’t keep with your commitments or work hard!” This negative self talk may sound hyperbolic, but I’m going to guess that for some of us, it’s no exaggeration at all. I’m also assuming that you’d agree with me saying that, frankly, it sucks. Hearing such negative statements, things that seem to be empirically proven by the past, coming from a seemingly qualified and informed perspective (your inner self) is discouraging. 

It’s counterproductive too, hindering what we see ourselves doing in the future. If I’m kicking my own shins for failing to reach my reading goal, the odds are in the favor of me saying, “I’m just not cut out for this whole reading thing” or “I’m not a committed person.” Then, when next January rolls around, I’ll feel even less inclined to push my limits and set a new goal. That’s bad. From my research, I’ve found that people who set more goals, reach more goals than people who set less goals. Go figure.

It’s essential to hold a somewhat high opinion of ourselves because at the end of the day, our own opinions matter most. Let’s say that I, Pranay the internet stranger, told you the same thing you might tell yourself, “You’re this, you’re that. Grr!” At least in this case you might have the impulse to prove me wrong, shouting through your screen, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, chump!” (or something along those lines) People value their own opinions of themselves pretty highly compared to others, so it’s in one’s best interest to see themself in the best light.

I feel a bit opinionated writing this, and admit that there are some counterexamples to my points. One that I expect is the so called “realist” chipping in. In my book example, the realist might tell me that I might genuinely just not be cut out for reading and I shouldn’t waste my time forcing it. This could be true, however I’d argue that dismissing my failure to accomplish my goal shrugs off a greater problem. Claiming that there’s something intrinsically wrong with oneself, a sizable judgement, neglects the growth oriented mindset and has overarching implications. It quickly eliminates the opportunity to actively learn from one’s experiences and apply lessons going forward. Further, it simply conditions a person to avoid engaging in opportunities to learn. I could start by saying I’m not a good reader, but then I might say I’m just bad at English, and then I’m just bad at school, and the higher tier implications of the dangerous spiral of self inflicted, loosely validated self-judgements just get worse.

Good or bad, the past is out of our control and the most we can take from it is any lessons we learned while we were there. Additionally, the future is only subject to our influence in the present. I think this past-present balance plays a pretty big role in college applications – the bridge between high school and our futures. Schools are eager to hear about your accomplishments over the past few years of your education, but also are thinking about how those experiences will shape you to have a productive experience on a campus. Even with my senior profile, to get a feel for who I am, it asked me both questions about my past accomplishments and struggles as well as what I want to do going forward. 

We aren’t defined by our failures, simply how we learn from them. But regardless of our responses to the difficulties that life inevitably brings us, we’ve got to keep our chins up. Look forward to a brighter future, for there’s a lot you’re going to do. I think that the most enjoyable journey to becoming your future self is to love your present self and strive to improve them. As always, feel free to completely disagree with my opinions. I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments, and hopefully use my perspective to help optimize your own to better your attitude towards mental health. Take care and stay safe, everyone!

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