The new year brings reflection, a time for us to think about what worked and what didn’t in 2022, as well as what we want to change in 2023. That’s why when I stumbled upon this article in the New Yorker, I found myself both intrigued and a little leery.
After all, self-reflection can be daunting – sometimes you discover something about yourself you’d rather not know. But I do love a good psychological piece, and I was pulled into this one. The author, Joshua Rothman, researched this topic extensively. He found that some people look at their lives as a continuous thread. Each stage naturally leads to another, with all of your life experiences building you into the person you are today. Others look at their lives as distinct stages – I was once this person, then I became this person, and now I’m this person. They define each period of their lives by these stages, as if they’ve lived several lives.
Rothman reported that the vast majority of us cannot remember most of the details in our lives. We do remember specific details, but they are few and far between. For instance, what do you remember from when you were 4 years old? What about when you were 12? What about 30? He questioned that if we can’t remember, how much influence could those years have had on us? Did we actually grow or change from incidents we can’t even remember?
I find these questions fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that I’ve posed these questions to various friends in our get-togethers during the holidays. I asked, “Do you think you’re the same person you’ve always been, or a different person entirely?” Then I asked, “Has what happened during the course of your life changed you?”
Answers were as different as the people sitting before me. One said, “Oh my, I hope I’m not the same! I paid a lot of money to a therapist to make sure of that.” Another told the tale of considering himself a completely different person until he returned to his hometown for a high school reunion. With each conversation he had with his old pals, he heard the same sentiment: “You haven’t changed a bit. You’re exactly the same as you were in high school.”
One person mentioned the trauma she endured and said she hasn’t been the same since. One said she wishes she could return to the person she used to be, someone she remembers as happier and oblivious to suffering and pain. One said he’s fundamentally the same, but his opinions have evolved with greater life experiences.
One of the clearest lines of reasoning came from my husband, who argued that the answer is a little of both. He believes that we are born with certain natures, and we are nurtured into certain beliefs that become the core of who we are. But we don’t live in a vacuum. Every relationship we have, every decision we make, and every consequence of those decisions, he argued, played a part in who we are today.
It makes sense. If we surround ourselves with people just like us, if we never leave our hometown, and if we choose one career and stick with it our whole lives, we are unlikely to see major changes in who we are. We will hopefully grow and mature, but we won’t push ourselves too far outside our comfort zones, making it likely we will stay relatively the same. On the flip side, if we make major changes, expose ourselves to different kinds of people, and expand our worldview beyond our tiny bubbles, there’s a good chance our beliefs and attitudes will change.
The perfect example of this is the growth and change we see in kids after they go off to college. They may still retain their fundamental personalities, but many alter their beliefs based on their exposure to a wider variety of people, their opinions and ideals. As they age, they develop the freedom to think for themselves, versus adopting the beliefs of their parents, which is why these years are so important to growing independence.
There are no right answers here, as everyone is entirely unique. But this makes for a very cool discussion to have with your loved ones as you enter a new year. Or, if you’d rather your introspection be private, take some time to ask yourself the questions I posed to my friends.
Then ask yourself how you feel about your answers. Discovering that might give you some direction for the coming year.