The social emphasis upon the unique individual is one of the central developments of, and requirements for, capitalism. It rests upon the idea that each of us has unique skills and vision, that we are free to pursue activities and livelihoods to which we're best suited.* In theory, individuals compete to attain productive roles on an even playing field; our value or role isn't predetermined as it was under feudalism, but derived solely from our individual skills and creativity. All of this mirrors the ideology of "free" market relationships, in which businesses—supposedly—connect independently, and deals are made based on the value and quality of services and goods provided, not arranged by favoritism, bribery, extortion, etc. Of course, the freedom and equality of the individual in this model is, to a great degree, a fiction, as individuals arise in the competitive arena with unequal advantages; some are born into privilege, provided with the means for education and access to technology and social connections, countless others are less fortunate.** Morever, very few people attain any level of felt security in a country driven by competition, bereft of the safety nets that other country's routinely provide. Yet we believe the hype and blame our insecurities on the delusion "I'm axioms because there's something wrong with ME."
This myth—that our difficulties and characteristics are unique—prevail as the we're surrounded by an ideology that our individual traits are the driving force of our successes. This is a story told in every film we watch, every story we encounter in the news, and reinforced in workplaces and family interactions. The "I'm different and it's my fault" can color how we interpret every moment of experience: it means to take so much of life personally, how others talk to us, our frustrations, fears, suffering, setbacks, separations and losses seem to be uniquely hours. When we encounter roadblocks in life, external or emotional, we suspect they've arisen because, in some way we can't clearly discern, we've made a mistake, or we're limited in vision and skill, or in some undiscovered way, we're unworthy. We feel trapped and alone, and react in ways driven by survival impulses, furiously defending our vulnerabilities, relying on strategies to conceal what we believe to be our particular faults and foibles. We furiously counterbalance and offset these perceived weaknesses as we take them so personally. "The fact that I may hate my job means I didn't try hard enough, and that means I won't be acceptable unless I'm funny and upbeat in social gatherings."
The outcome of Story of the Flawed Individual is a lot of sweat and struggle in the hopes of attaining the external appearances of the socially enshrined ideal individual: chasing body shapes, hair styles, abilities we can't attain even under brutal diets and workout regimes. Similarly, we chase unattainable financial security or status. Americans work, on average, 500 hours more each year than our european counterparts. Why? It's how we look for a sense of security, acceptance and self-esteem. And no matter how much we work, we're still not enough. In place of finding ease with our current skills and experience, we continue to compare ourselves with imaginary, faultless abstract others. Eventually we become severe critics of our every effort and endeavor, providing an internal commentary of how we should be doing better; sadly, often we internalize the voice of the least attuned and caring caretaker or adult from our childhoods—we bring the very voices into adulthood we so desperately longed to leave behind in earlier years. These voies constantly call attention to any missteps we make while overlooking our best intentions and efforts. And how many commodities must we obtain, for "there's something wrong with me and how I feel" myth propels us into consumerism as a distraction from the attendant stress.
While believing ourselves to be 'flawed individuals,' and developing into proficient self-critics, we ironically live in fear of being judged or ridiculed by an imaginary social Other: an unseen social entity that's out there, shaking their heads at our efforts and tsk-tsking our mistakes. How many posts on social media can be found with the demand "Don't judge me!" But exactly who are these judges, and why would we care what they think even if they existed? How frightened many of us are to dance, for example, simply due to the perceived presence of the imaginary social judge observing us? In the mindset of individualism, one's reputation determines one's inner happiness. So we interpret our mundane experience through the light of how the Other might review it, and create stories about how 'they' are effortlessly capable, not to mention free of fear, for look how confident they appear. The anxiety of how we're perceived keeps us trapped in limiting stories and fearful inhibition, so as not to be judged by 'the Other.'
And the greatest damage of the fallacy of the individual is the way we hustle and move about, continually moving in hopes to avoid touching any emotional discomfort. We struggle to keep the mind preoccupied so that it doesn't have to feel emotional energies that require attention and care; for emotions are awkward baggage for the individual. As a result the mind races ahead of the body below, where any deep experience is felt; when we work on computers, our heads literally arch forward, straining towards the screen, as if trying to detach from the body, with its inconvenient needs. And when we do consider our physical experience, its from the perspective of an auditor sitting on perch behind the eyes, judging how everything should appear below, visually centered, rather than directly connecting to inner sensations.
The sad outcome is that self-doubt keeps us stressed and anxious, creating a feedback loop, wherein the more we get caught up in our "flaws" the more awkward and defensive we become when attempting to address the supposed deficits. As we create projections of failure or envision our evaluation by the Other, we create 'personality' out of anxiety and misperception. In hiding our feelings of deficiency, we deepen the myth that our imperfections are exclusively ours. As we try to win approval and impress, we increase the distance from self-acceptance. No matter how much we accomplish in life, if our endeavors are propelled by a belief "there's something missing unless I succeed,' then the achievements will be hollow, for there was nothing missing to begin with, and we've simply been filling an imaginary lack.
The first step on the way out is less daunting than it seems, though it requires effort. We have to seek and find safe relationships with wise friends, with whom we can express the feelings and belief that we mistake as unique and individual, and so seek refuge in the understanding and empathy of real others, not the illusory judgements of imaginary Others. In being heard, and in hearing others, we chip away at the story of 'there's something wrong with me,' and replace it with 'I'm not as different or alone as I thought.' And that's a far better place from which to develop ease and serenity.
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*Under feudalism everyone's role in the social order was fixed and established; one's skills or personal interests rarely, if ever, influenced the livelihood and activities performed throughout life. One's role was inherited; even those lucky enough to secure an apprenticeship would spend decades in servitude, and learning a trade invariably entailed mistreatment, twelve hours a day, six days a week of work, without break, until one's body eventually broke down.
**Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, eloquently presented the truth that belies the "talent" or "genius" myth, how dependent one's achievements are upon unhindered access to an undertaking, and the hours of practice that results therein.