When I make a mistake, forget something, mess up something or miss an appointment… is it just what I do sometimes, or does it say something about who I am? This is a crucial question whose answer can make a difference between a healthy or a not so healthy opinion of one’s self. Answering the question requires an understanding of the difference between “being” and “doing.” It is the being that determines a person character, true personality and, ultimately, his or her true self. It is the doing that often is out of character and does not accurately reflect the personality or the true self. The problem is, the doing is often confused with the being. Said another way, what a person does is often confused with who that person really is. Think of it this way: mistaking the doing for the being can lead to a misunderstanding of the person in almost every case. Take for example the immoral, cheating, antisocial individual who writes a large check to a charity and then receives a public recognition of generosity. Or, the church-going, honest, and caring individual who drives by a person in need and does not stop to render aid. Both individuals simply do or don’t do something in a specific situation. Their doing, however, can be interpreted by an observer as representative of the individual’s character, personality or true being, without it being the case. When the doing is not sincere or reflective of the true being of a person, it does not stand the test of time, the test of consistency, or both. In the first example, the evil nature of the individual may never become known to the charity that received the donation, but it is certainly going to be known to anyone who interacts with this person on a regular basis because the true being can never stay hidden for very long. In the second example, the good nature of the individual may not be reflected in the failure to stop and help but it would be known to others who see this person being good in many other situations. So, as far as a person’s social image is concerned, the difference between what people occasionally may do and who they truly are is straightforward: time and consistency will always tell the tale.
There is, however, another more significant problem that affects all individuals who do not understand the difference between what they do and who they are. They tend to misinterpret their own occasional or inconsistent actions as being reflective of their true being. In one scenario, they may form an opinion of themselves which is narcissistically positive by focusing on their occasional good deeds and conveniently ignoring their more frequent missteps. In another scenario, they may have an overwhelmingly negative view of themselves by focusing on their occasional (but perceived as too frequent) missteps and ignoring their good nature, sound character or engaging personality. Either positive or negative misinterpretation of a person’s true being is produced by focusing attention on infrequent, occasional, or inconsistent behaviors. Evaluating a person, or one’s self, based on too few observations (or data points) can lead to the wrong conclusion. A good example of this type of evaluation is that of a new couple who has just fallen in love with each other. Both parties, temporarily blinded by love, need, want, passion, lust or a combination thereof, may gather very little “hard data” on the other person and pay an inordinate amount of attention to what the other person does, misunderstanding his or her actions as being consistent, stable over time, and reflecting of the person’s true nature, character and personality. In many cases, thank goodness, this turns out to be true: he or she IS truly wonderful, and not just temporarily doing wonderful things. In some other cases, however, after the honeymoon is over and things settle down, the behaviors that are inconsistent with the person’s true being become rarer, while the behaviors that are reflective of the person’s true being become more frequent and consistent. At this stage, either the couple accept each other’s finally discovered true being, or they break up.
The hard truth in all of this: the opinion that I have of myself and others must be based, to be valid and usable, on time and consistency of behavior. The good news: this opinion can be changed (and indeed should be changed) on the basis of acquiring additional information on the true nature of the self or on that of others. In individuals who suffer from low self-esteem the opinion they have of themselves is often distorted by a negative observational bias: what they “do wrong” matters far more than who they truly are. The perverse reality in this is that, often, what they “do wrong” is based on their own poor observational skills, on a misinterpretation of motive, or a harshness toward the self that is frequently unjustified. They will say negative things to themselves such as, “I am such a failure, I always mess things up, I can’t get anything done, I am so stupid,” at every turn, many times, every day, no matter the circumstances. What they do becomes a definition of who they are which is far from being objective, measured or consistent with their true being. How many otherwise fairly successful, decent, good human being are walking around believing themselves to be otherwise and are therefore fighting depression, anxiety, and pessimism?
To break this cycle of despair, to change one’s opinion to a more balanced view, to truly find out that what we sometimes do is not the same as who we consistently are requires introspection. It is only by taking a look at our actions in context that we can see the many variables that have caused us to behave a certain way: the lady did not stop her car to help the person by the side of the road because she was traveling through a neighborhood that she deemed unsafe, or because she was running late to pick up her son, or a variety of other legitimate reasons. The man who gave to the charity did so to gain the advantage that an image of generosity could provide to him in certain business deals, or to impress a would-be girlfriend, or to soothe guilty feelings caused by a previous misdeed. Ascertaining our true self also requires honesty of intent, whereby we seek objectivity in knowing who we really are so that we can change what we can, accept what we cannot, and have the wisdom to know the difference.