We’d all like to think of ourselves as independent, autonomous individuals, but the truth of the matter is that we are more influenced by external forces than we would like to admit. Notions of success, failure and happiness are often dictated by our peers and the class we live in. This month Talk explores issues of class, society and the individual with psychodynamic counsellor Luis Murillo.
Whether one is a working class janitor, a middle class software engineer or a high class, jet-setting executive, taking on these roles in society is full of certain expectations and constraints. These constraints can lead to conflicts in our own lives and with others around us. In terms of psychoanalysis, “the relationship one has with class can be seen as a part of the super-ego, the part of your personality that keeps you in conformity with society’s needs and desires,” says Luis Murillo. And while society grants us advantages by conforming, it can be often at the cost of our own desires and wishes.
Much of this can be seen in the way that we create stereotypes in order to differentiate classes in society. We note the way that others dress or speak, the cars they drive and the places they live.
And while many of us might be aware of the negative effects of stereotyping others, Murillo finds in his practice that we often end up stereotyping ourselves. “Stereotyping yourself means conforming to a set idea of how you should compete socially, to the point that it represses some of your individual drive and your ability to get in touch with yourself.” The up and coming Shanghai expat is expected to satisfy certain norms or behaviours, and not doing so threatens to alienate him not only from his peers, but also himself.
Our stereotypes provide a system of beliefs, or schema, that end up colouring even our reflections and memories, reinforcing a certain picture we have of ourselves. “There was a famous study in the 1930s by a psychologist named Bartlett, which involved the telling of a Native American legend called ‘The War of the Ghosts’ to a group of very different people. Later, Bartlett asked these people to retell the legend and found that the longer it had been since they had heard the legend, the more people would distort the tale to conform with their own culturally defined perceptions of the world.” Extrapolating from Bartlett’s insight, it seems as if we are doomed to be the person society wants us to be.
However, Murillo notes that psychologists have now become aware of a phenomenon called ‘role distance’. “We all tend to identify with a certain role or a certain schema. It’s natural; we are social animals, always looking for social cues. With role distance, you take that social information with a grain of salt, refusing to completely assimilate and identify with your place in society.” Therefore, finding ourselves in a world that wants to find ourselves “for us” becomes a matter of cultivating a healthy bit of scepticism. A janitor can also aspire to be a novelist. A humble software engineer can also be a raucous daredevil skier. And even a high-flying CEO doesn’t have to mind a game at their local pool hall.