Are you a smoker? A junkie? Are you a good person? A bad person? A failure? How about a conservative, liberal, libertarian? A delinquent perhaps, or even a criminal?
This won’t be about what we are, we already know or think that we know what we are. This will be about how we have decided what we know about ourselves.
Let’s take the basic example of a smoker. If a person lights up a cigarette are they a smoker? Well, by the absolute criteria, the answer would be”yes”. on the other hand, we know that there is a huge difference between people that have tried a cigarette and those that have smoked for some years. So the question becomes: at which point does, “I’ll just have one smoke”, turn into, “I’m a smoker”?
The theory of secondary deviation explains it as follows
If an entity does an act that is devious toward his/hers identity they might and usually have the claim to attribute the mentioned act as an isolated event. This is known as primary deviation. If the person renews the act, then the claim for it being an isolated event is lost, and the person acknowledges the fact that the act has been repeated. This now becomes the secondary deviation. Having lost the claim of anything being an isolated event, a person incorporates his new behavior as part of his history.
The question still remains, whether the person will incorporate this behavior into their identity, and they usually pick from the following four options:
- Acknowledgment of the behavior and integrating it into our identity – I cheated, that makes me a cheater (spouse, exam, etc..)
- Acknowledgement of the behavior as contextual – it happened because of the circumstances
- Acknowledgment of the behavior but not accepting the imposed societal connotation – we rebel against the label that society has given the people with a certain behavior
- Acknowledgment of the behavior and blaming ourselves – we did something we accept as wrong and we hate our-self for it
So, what is the answer to a label that prevents us from ridding ourselves from it? Are we necessarily defined by our actions from our past, is a person that smokes always going to be a smoker? Is the alcoholic destined to be an alcoholic? – Even the term recovered alcoholic still holds a person to his past, dubbing him as sub-human in a very categorical sense, “you either are or aren’t this”
My favorite approach to this is to acknowledge the moment, and be rid of the past. Say we want to quit drinking/smoking, or perhaps we want to accomplish a goal that we have never yet accomplished – reading a particularly large book (no, novels don’t count). With this approach, when we are confronted with the event we give the answer that only concerns our momentary actions. So, instead of saying I won’t smoke – we say, I won’t smoke this cigarette. Instead of I won’t drink, we say, not his glass, or I’ll skip tonight. Instead of I have to do the dishes, we say, I’ll clean this one dish and see how I feel about the next. When confronted about our past, we acknowledge what we did and be honest at least to ourselves as to how we feel about it – yes, I lied and I feel proud of it, or, yes I cheated and I feel that I don’t need to have that experience again. Just as a remark, being honest with ourselves doesn’t magically turn us into a good person, but it does lift the veil that we put on for ourselves and allows us to confront our flaws – if we want to…