On being yourself

We may all want to change part of ourselves, but there are something untouchable within all of us

1412 words · 7 min read

And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.

— Leo Tolstoy, Three Methods Of Reform

This is one of the most quotable quotes by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. I don’t know the exact context of that quote, but since nobody cares, so I will leave it aside for now.

I’m not entirely sure, though, how many of us do intend to change the world. We all wish the world were a better place, but most of us aren’t arrogant enough to believe we can change the world. In fact, I can’t even change my friends and family, let alone the world. The act of maintaining this blog may be my attempt to change the world, but look, I told people to quit facebook a while back. How many people have done so?

Changing ourselves, in a certain sense, is much easier, for there is no external factor to stop you from doing so. In fact, most people strive to become more like an ideal person in their imagination. I want to be a better writer. To those ends, I set up this blog to maintain my writing output so that I won’t stop writing altogether when I’m not working on a full-length novel. I also look for ways to improve my focus so that I can sit through a long reading session. I also want to learn German and read Goethe in German.

You may want to be a more sociable person, or learn a new skill, or make new friends, be more confident, be a better parent, a better son/daughter, and so on and so forth.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to change yourself. In fact, we do so all the time. But over the years, I’ve found, in myself and in other people, that while some variables within our psychological make-up are easily altered, there are some constants that we can’t and shouldn’t touch.

For as long as I can remember, I’m not a happy person. For most of my life, I feel miserable, and I am good at feeling miserable.

Being miserable served me well, except when it didn’t: after suffering a breakdown, I was depressed enough to warrant medical attention (as mentioned before). I was so depressed that I didn’t even want to wake up, get out, and do anything.

And so I saw a psychiatrist who gave me some drugs, the names of which I can no longer recall. Anti-depressants were wonderful, it made me feel alright, even though there was nothing alright. I felt so happy and alright that I didn’t want to wake up, get out, and do anything.

That was absurd: I couldn’t do anything because I was depressed, and I couldn’t do anything because I was too happy being on anti-depressants.

Soon, I stopped going to the psychiatrist. The anti-depressants ran out, and I became sad again. Then my productivity picked up.

I have to be sad in order to function. If I were happy, I would fail to find things to be discontent about, so that I would lose all motivation to do anything.

Why would I want to do anything if I am happy about everything?

I was a psychology major back in University, and I can’t remember having read anything that said being sad and angry could be good for you. When I explain my logic to other people, most react in disbelief. The psychiatrist thought I must change this logic, and my mother wondered if I were indeed her son.

The only one who agreed with me was my cat.

Although many things can be changed in me, part of my psychological make-up isn’t malleable at all, or even if it’s in fact malleable, the result of changing it isn’t as expected. I’ve been trying to change myself prior to my breakdown, and that changeover was a complete disaster.

No one will disagree with the idea that we are born with a certain qualities, like talents for learning a certain skills, physical strength that makes you a good athlete, or a lively disposition that gathers people around you.

It is also hard to disagree with the belief that developing skills for which you have talent will give you a higher chance of success than developing skills for which you have no natural gifts. If you are bad at mathematics, your teachers will perhaps advise you to study something else. If you have no talent in music, your music teachers will probably suggest you give up instead of banging on the piano for eight hours a day.

But when it comes to personality, people seem to take a different view, as if the it is different from the possession of natural gifts. No one will urge you to become better at musician when you are born deaf, but if you are an introvert, they will suggest you to become more sociable; and if you are born depressive, they suggest you to not think too much and be happy.

The desire to alter our own psychological make-up (and our urge to tell other people to change theirs) is, at least in the society I’m in, because of the perceived advantages of possessing a certain traits as oppose to others. People who have the ability to navigate different social situations and take pleasure from socialising always seem to command an advantage over those who are either less capable or those who don’t take pleasure from it. Those who have a better emotional tolerance against annoyances are viewed more positively than those who are more easily annoyed and get angry.

As there are very few or no successful role models of the quiet or the easily-annoyed types, anyone who with ambition will look for those who are successful and will attempt to emulate their ways. Being good at mathematics is probably not a common attribute among “successful people,” but being good at playing golf (while cutting deals at the same time) is.

If, in a different world, being good at mathematics can make you a billionaire, people will be try harder to overcome their lack of numerical sense. And if being nasty is conducive to success, we will all become nastier to one another.

Changing ourselves isn’t wrong in and of itself; in fact, it’s harmless in most cases.

Indeed, if your goal, like most people, is to climb the career ladder in the traditional sense, then it will help if you soften your rough edges, smile a little more when you meet your clients, be able to enjoy yourself in networking events, and so on.

It’s when what you would like to become is so far away from what you naturally are.

People who have no aptitude for mathematics often fail no matter how hard they try: I used to study in the science stream back in high school, and one of my classmate was one such individual. He was hardworking, but he failed all the time, which stressed him. In the end, he dropped science and studied English language in University, and he did well.

It was after I recovered from depression that I discover the cause of my chronic insomnia: I am nocturnal, and very much so.

Having a job that required me to get up at six in the morning was a torture, because I couldn’t fall asleep at the right hour. I would feel extremely tired and irritable during the day, and I would fall into small naps here and there. Yet as the clock struck twelve at night back at home, I would come alive, even though it should be the time to sleep. I would roll inside my bed for a long time, and would fall asleep at two or something.

Now, I embrace my nocturnal tendency and work while others are sleeping.

Later, I learned to embrace my weirdness and my disinterests in socialisation with people I don’t care. And since unhappiness and discontent about things is what keep me going, pursuit of happiness is not for me. I am in pursuit of sadness.

Strangely enough, through the embrace of sadness, I feel better about myself.

I don’t think too many people are determined to change the world: most people are just too busy getting on with their lives.

What more people should really do is trying to be themselves, or, at the very least, discover who they are, what they are, and what they are not.

 Essays    18 May, 2016
 Psychology    Personality  
Copyright © Peter Y. Chuang 2019

Peter Y. Chuang


Peter Y. Chuang is a novelist, short story writer, and a music critic. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s probably listening to classical music or tinkering with his computers. He uses Linux (current distro of choice: Arch Linux). Read more about his Linux stuff.

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