March 11, 2016

3 Ways of I-am-thinking which can be harmful

"I-am-thinking" can be more harmful than we may realize.

How we think and talk about ourselves, and others, can have a great influence on our and others' emotions, behavior, results, and development. Research by Mueller & Dweck (1998), for example, has shown that different types of praise can have different types of effects. Praising traits and abilities can evoke a fixed mindset while praising effort can evoke a growth mindset.

One way of thinking about ourselves which I think we should be careful about is the "I-am" way of thinking. I am not referring to statements like "I am busy" or "I am happy", in other words about statements about a state of mind or about an activity you are engaged in. What I am talking about is three types of I-am-thinking which can be harmful:
  1. I am (characteristic): People can describe themselves in terms of their negative or positive characteristics. It may sound self-evident that describing yourself in terms of negative characteristics (I am lazy/stupid/bad) is not wise. By doing that you reinforce a fixed mindset. It is as if you chain yourself to that negative characteristic. But describing yourself in terms of positive characteristics (I am intelligent, honest, sweet) can cause the same problem. These positive labels can also evoke a fixed mindset. If I attach the label 'intelligent' to myself I will be more likely to start behaving in a way which is aimed at trying to appear intelligent. For example, I may try to make my achievements look as favorable as possible (and I may even lie about them). Also, I can avoid hard challenges out of fear of failing and losing my label of intelligence. And I may avoid putting in lots of effort  and showing persistence ("intelligent people surely do not have to work so hard, do they?")
  2. I am (type of person): People can also describe themselves as a certain type of person (I am an introvert, doer, morning person, neurotic, etc.). By doing this you are also likely to evoke a fixed mindset in yourself. By telling yourself that you are a certain type of person you may hinder your own development. By declaring that you are a certain way you may block yourself and reduce yourself unnecessarily. Such general descriptions often do not do justice to how you are as a person (the label is probably at best a very rough and most likely poor description of how you are) and does not do justice to the malleability of people (how you are is not how you must remain).
  3. I am (member of a group): people can also describe themselves as members of a certain category of people (I am black, white, Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc.). By doing this you again run the risk of blocking your development. Of course, people can feel related to a religion or ethnic group. But labeling yourself according to that religion or group can have unforeseen harmful effects. First, it can mask the fact that you are much more than only a member of that group. Second, we are generally not full members of such groups. Reality is nearly always quite fuzzy. In other words, often we are member of many groups at the same time, even when those groups appear to be very different or even at odds with each other. An English study, for example, demonstrated that many people who view themselves as Christians do not actually subscribe to many of the tenets of Christianity. Labeling yourself after the religion you follow can create us vs. them thinking which can cause great tensions between groups. In Northern-Ireland there have been great struggles between Catholics and protestants which lasted for a few centuries. This fact may seem somewhat surprising when you realize that these two groups actually have a lot in common with each other (they were all Christians, Northern-Irish, world citizens, to name only a few overlapping groups). The violence in Northern-Ireland is largely over now as is the strict association of people to Catholicism or Protestantism (in Northern-Ireland there is steep increase of non-religiousness, as there is in many other countries). Race or ethnicity is another topic in which pure group membership hardly exists. We can think about someone with a certain appearance as: "He is a Mexican". But to what extent is such a description valid if we know that the person was born in the US, lives there, and speaks English? Thinking in terms of black and white people (or even black and white schools) is another example. Purity of race hardly exists and I would even argue that we must seriously doubt the existence or human races altogether. So what is the rationale behind using these types of discrete categories as descriptors of individuals? Skin color and many other types of characteristics fall on continua. Categorical thinking about people is usually unrealistic. And it is not necessary. And it increase the risk of Us vs. them thinking. So why should we do it? We have the option to stop doing it.
We can learn to use a way of talking about people which does more justice to the individuality, complexity, and malleability of people and which also does more justice to the fact that reality is often fuzzy instead of neatly ordered in boxes. Instead of saying "I am X" we can learn to use different phrases such as:
  • I try to .. 
  • I like ... 
  • I find ... important 
  • In situation X, I tend to ... 
  • Sometimes I ..., at other times I ... 
  • I have learned to ... 
  • I want to learn to ... 
  • I feel connected to ... 
  • I am inspired by ... 
  • I some respects I feel connected to ..., in other aspects I feel connected to ... 
  • I have come to think differently about ... 
  • Of course, I have been influenced by my ... background 
  • I do not fit neatly into one category 
  • Perhaps
  • I don’t know

1 comment:

  1. The image is _Freedom Sculpture_ by Zenos Frudakis http://www.zenosfrudakis.com/freedom-sculpture/

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