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Breaking People to Their Core

March 29th, 2015 | Posted by pftq in Essays | #
     Where do I find people like myself? That question has consumed me for as long as I can remember.  Over the past few years after college, I've managed to only come across maybe a handful of people out of the thousands I met who I can really relate to or consider like-minded.  In the eighteen years of school before that, there were maybe three, each at different times of my life.  What do I consider as being like-minded or similar to myself? For me, understanding a person is all about understanding the person's motivations - seeing through their actions, breaking them down and figuring out what really drives them deep within, what would cause them to crumble if they lost it but what would also make them truly happy.  While I have never considered this a formal skill or talent, I have gotten quite good at seeing into the motivations of those I meet.  This is a hard topic to discuss simply because it can easily be misconstrued as arrogance or prejudging others, but I am not referring to first impressions or character judgment.  This is being able to actually realize why a person has certain values and how that leads to various decisions or actions, being able to predict what that person will do next, what would trigger them to do that and seeing that play out before your eyes.  This is not thinking of people as machines with buttons to push but instead quite the opposite.  It is being able to understand what people are truly after, what drives them at the core, their most underlying motivations.  It is being able to be that person, even if just for that moment, and live their life as they would, to tell their story as they would tell themselves.
     Some describe me as a person who sees through others.  Given an open one-to-one conversation, I can often drill into a person's mind, strip away all the layers of their character, the personas they wear to others, and break them down to their core, that core that if taken away would destroy them.  Often it changes the person over time, so while I can do this to most anyone around me, I generally do not like to (what right do I have to change others?), and if I do, I try to only do this with people who really trust me.  Sometimes I jokingly call this manipulation or brainwashing only because in the wrong hands, it can result in that and is therefore a very dangerous thing to do.  Nonetheless, besides helping me really understand those around me, I have had on occasions gotten those I meet to realize what they really want, what would really make them happy as opposed to just content, and why they are pursuing the goals they are.  In effect, I can also see those who are truly interested and passionate about the same things I am as opposed to just trying to get on my good side.  Sometimes people mistake me for being very good at persuading, but it is rather the opposite.  It is figuring out who genuinely shares your vision, your values, or your motivations, so there is no persuading to be done.
     I don't remember when I started thinking like this.  It might have always been there at some level, allowing me to navigate the variables I see to get where I needed to go and fit in with the people I involved myself with.  At the age of 12, I was already a staff member of an online game modding community as both a designer and a community moderator.  By 15, I received my first job offer at a game development studio based on my contributions and strong involvement with such communities; ironically they had to wait until I was 16 to formally extend me my offer.  No one had realized how young I was, and in my naivety, I did not realize I was the only teenager amongst many college and post-college adults.  Naturally, this skill extended to my student group involvement through high school and college that followed; in both I started my own organizations as well as involved myself in the staff and decision making of no less than eight others.  I was good at understanding what others wanted, knowing what their expectations were, and warping both the situation and my persona to fit that.  It was not so much pretending as much as it was letting the world be my stage, arranging the props as needed to fit the scene, and living in the act.
     In college, however, I finally broke down.  I was living too many different lives at the same time.  I had been doing so since I was 12, where I had a different life on each website I visited.  Now, however, I was becoming a different character, creating a different persona, at every hour and in the real world, depending on what organization I was in or what group of peers I was with.  I was dividing myself when I desperately wanted to just be one person, to just be me.
     The introspection that followed is likely where I first formalized this thought process.  A lot of people that know me on the surface will often think me an extrovert while those who think they know me better consider me an introvert.  These classifications to me are meaningless, simplistic views of the world though.  It is an attempt to classify a person based on one's behavior without understanding intent.  An introvert is defined as a person who is grounded in one's own mental view of the world, who makes decisions based on an internal measuring stick regardless of what anyone else might think or say, while an extrovert is defined as someone who does the opposite, whose world is defined externally and who bases decisions and opinions on the interaction with others.  To me, there is no such thing as an extrovert or introvert.  Deep down, even the most textbook example of an extrovert can be broken down to his or her core, which will ultimately not depend on what others think.  That extrovert is just a resulting behavior of this core desire or motivation.  In other words, the person behaves like an extrovert because of this core, not because the person happens to be an extrovert.  Once you identify this core, you can bring it the surface, even redirect it, and this character that you thought was an extrovert will suddenly collapse.  Put in another way, it isn't difficult to imagine a situation in which even the most extroverted person might fall into the classification of an introvert or a scenario in which the most introverted person would fully embrace the surrounding world.  It all depends on the underlying reasons for the current persona.
     Once I could consciously see my own core, my breaking point as well as what truly would motivate and make me happy, seeing this in others became intuitive.  Much of it comes down to being able to conform to others' expectations and essentially play their game, be in their world.  It's like acting in a play without knowing the script but just knowing that there is one.  If they "play" along, then you have found their script.  Everyone has some expectation of both themselves and the world around them, and the goal here is to figure out what those expectations are and then the motivations that drive those expectations. This can easily be misunderstood as pretending to be someone you're not, but that is not what I am describing.  Again, it is not so much pretending as just understanding your place in their world; you are being yourself but in the constraints of their world.  If someone sees you as an older sibling, then you take the role of the more mature adult.  If they think you less wise, then you listen as the student first before asserting what you do know.  It is you but you in a different context and one that aligns with those before you.
     What I've found over time, at least in my own experiences, is that deep down people generally are not that different.  It's more like everyone is just buried under a different amount of bandages, some buried so deep and for so long they forget a world of walking without crutches or walking at all, even if they all technically still have muscles underneath that have long healed or were never damaged to begin with.  On the surface, everyone has drastically different values and prioritize different things, but that is more the result of how we perceive our limitations and what's possible in the world.  The underlying dreams, the core of our motivations, more often than not is the same.  What happens is we believe that we cannot attain our core ideals, so we chip away at them and settle for the next best thing.  We let our limitations define us rather than find ways to overcome them.
     Many I've met have become so transformed by their perceived limitations that they essentially buried their core deep down under layers and layers of fabricated personas.  More recently is when I've found I'm actually been able to sit down with a person and just piece-by-piece peel away these layers.  An easy way to see these veils or masks is when the person openly states their motivation to be one thing but are then unable to explain what they mean or contradict themselves in their examples and behavior.  Sometimes they say they are so motivated by some dream, but when they talk about it, their voice remains monotone and their expressions blank.  Funnier is when they cringe as if not believing their own words.  Other times when they attempt to explain, the explanation turns out to just be a wordier version of what they just said.  Some have told me they want to "contribute to society," but when asked in what way, they either "don't know" or rephrase it to some other vague statement like "wanting to be an innovative person" or "helping others reach their goal."  When asked to imagine what that would look like, they cannot describe it because there was never a picture behind their words in the first place.  They were not seeing the meaning behind their own words.  They themselves could not see their own dream.
     When I find this inconsistency, this crack in the shell, I poke deeper and start breaking down the character they conveyed to me, start deconstructing the person they thought they were.  I suggest thought experiments to have them imagine what they would do in certain circumstances.  Sometimes they point out the impracticality of the scenario, but the key is to get them to imagine, to let go of the reality they are so bound to and with it the limitations they have put in their minds.  First I take away their supposed motivation to see what happens.  For example, in the case of the person wanting to help others, what would they do if there were no others to help? What if they were on an island? Then I try to take things forward by fulfilling that supposed dream of theirs.  What would they do if they achieved it already? What if they were God and had all the power in the world to do anything? What next? What's interesting to see is when someone is so focused on one thing for so long that they never even considered a world beyond or without it.  It's like they've built this wall in their mind that they never look over in order to keep themselves convinced they are on the right path.  They've been so locked into this reality that it's as if they've been conditioned to never question it.  Sometimes, they try to again repeat that they still want that same vague goal, even though it makes no sense in the scenario provided; the guy wanting to help people would try to search the island for people to help even if there were no others around, as if having become some dysfunctional robot or an actor with the wrong script.
     For many that I get to this step, there is a sense of having become uprooted or disoriented.  This is notable because it confirms that they had been subconsciously avoiding these thoughts and possibilities in their mind for some time.  What further confirms this is if they can then identify a time in which they first started thinking this way.  Often the dividing point is some time in childhood, which they might describe as a past life.  The method of description is interesting because by describing their past as another person, it's almost as if the division in their mind is so strong that they walled off a former piece of themselves.
     From there, I poke even harder to get at what they least subconsciously want to explore.  Eventually, through more thought experiments, there comes a point where the person no longer adheres to the character he had created.  Instead he does something entirely different, perhaps even starts to show genuine emotion in both his voice and expressions, starts to actually tell a story and convey images that he himself is seeing.  It is as if it's no longer the same person who had first sat down in the beginning of the conversation.  That is how I know I've found the core, the source behind all other goals or motivations he had and will have.  Whereas previously the removal of his supposed motivation may have caused him confusion or discomfort, the reaction to how I manipulate this core either inspires or destroys him.
     One common theme I've run into is that of a very painful time in the person's life, sometimes even a trauma, that resulted in the person walling off from the world.  Sometimes they call this "growing up" in an attempt to justify why they can no longer be the person they once were.  At the time, they might not have had the knowledge or experience to deal with their pain in any other way, but the bigger problem occurs when they continue to carry this mindset long after the problem has subsided.  It becomes a way of life for them without them realizing that the conditions for their reduced self no longer exist.  I've come across people who spend their lives climbing the corporate ladder, on paper seeming motivated by materialistic gains when in actuality they turn out to be trying to prove their own worth against the doubt they endured in younger years; the problem though is that the doubt that person experienced many years ago no longer exist around him, but he still acts as if it does.  I've had a person who thought he'd be happy being left alone on an island, only to actually do so because he was tired of being an outcast; he had forgotten there could exist a world with others like him, what that would feel like, and settled for second best, where he was merely trying to avoid pain.  Another would come from the most competitive schools, ascend the most competitive careers, but be the most passive and unassertive person socially, even in just board games or conversation.  He said it was because he didn't want to be "poked" by others nor inflict the pain of being "poked" on anyone else, but the truth was he either couldn't tell when others were being playful or he couldn't get himself to ever trust again that someone was not secretly trying to hurt him.  And that person who wanted to help others so much - at one point in his life he wouldn't have cared, but because there was no one to help him when he was younger, he felt obligated to help others through the rest of his life, whether he really wanted to or not.  I've had individuals, who were at first so jaded when describing what they thought was their passion, only to suddenly light up when thinking back to the "olden days" in the past.  The question is whether that reality really only exists in the past or whether it is being kept there by the person's own mind.
     Another theme is that the change is more gradual over time, such as the pressure to conform to societal expectations or the confines of an environment that did not let them remain the person they wanted to be.  The difference here is that time itself has made the person forget who they really were.  It is like a frog being boiled slowly in a pot, where the change on their person was too gradual for them to notice.  Or perhaps they were kept too busy by life, by work.  Often times the person's emotional range is even tempered down to always being moderate, never truly happy nor truly sad in any situation.  It isn't until they are free to really be alone for an extended period of time that they reflect and realize what has happened.  The effect of them realizing this is sometimes like watching a person awaken from a deep dream.  They start to question why they let the years slip by, why they spent so much time going down one road when the original reason to endure it had long passed.  They took a road of discomfort originally on short term goals, only for their short term goals to become long term and their discomfort become their new reality.  They shut themselves in, told themselves they'd only have to do pretend or act a role for a temporary period of their life, only to be trapped playing that role and forgetting there was ever anything else.  The hard part is catching this before the person wastes years of their lives.  Much of the time, it is comfortable for the person to passively conform or let things happen that individually might not be significant but together can be analogous to death by a thousand cuts.  It takes effort to be the odd one out or to constantly push back against the many smaller things that might add up to sidetrack one's life.  It takes foresight and imagination, both of which are often lost like unused muscles in the brain, to notice the end result of gradual change.  Often the only way for them to see it themselves is when they've actually gone through the years and looked back.
     The important part of all this is to tie together the bigger picture across their life rather than isolating any particular thing.  There is a core, but it is not necessarily explicit or even known to the person himself.  It's not so much about digging up some "true" version of them from the past as much as it is seeing what it took to change them, why it changed them, and where they naturally wanted to be if given absolute freedom.  This composes a portrait, a character with a complete and rational story.  Follow-up questions often then suggest new thought experiments and scenarios to confirm these suspicions, and from there you can see what it would take to make or break that person deep down.  There is a school of thought that supposes a person is like an onion, that no matter how many layers you peel off, you will never find the one thing that defines it, but what I've found from my own experiences suggests the opposite.  It is buried, but deep down, there is an essence to that person.  There is a centrality to the person deep down, a core that no matter what happened this person would remain true to whether consciously or not.  Everything else is just that core manifested in different ways.  Perhaps the core is instinctively masked or hidden out of self preservation, and sometimes it is so obscured that the person himself is not aware anymore who he really is.  Similarly, it is easy to say that things in life are often random or humans are often irrational, but I think otherwise, that humans and life in general are very rational.  The difference comes in what they believe is true and the limitations they define for their "reality," which is where their rationality is in reference to.  Just because you may not know the reason does not mean there isn't one.
     Lastly, throughout this process, what is also important is to not only think of the right scenarios and the right questions but also ask them in the way they would ask themselves.  You need to see the real world from their perspective as well as the hypothetical world from their expectations.  There are textbooks that emphasize using certain styles of politeness or using the right keywords and pronouns, but it is naive to me to think that words mean the same to everyone and that we parse words like a pattern-recognizing machine.  What is more important to me is to know their own voice well enough such that you are telling them the situation the same way they would describe it to themselves.  It needs to be an exchange of imagery and ideas as opposed to an exchange of words because the last thing that needs to happen is for them to lose focus on being fully immersed, on imagining what they would really do or feel given a scenario.  Sometimes, especially if the person is actively resisting my questions or suggestions, I do not even bother with thought experiments.  I go ahead and create situations in reality, so they actually live through what I would have asked them to imagine.
     A person who has buried himself for too long may spend his life believing his real dreams are not possible, but upon seeing the conditions for his belief are no longer valid, he suddenly sees that he is free to pursue anything in the world and feels as if he can do anything.  Of course, whether the person has the aptitude to actually execute on his dreams is a different story, but the important part is having identified the core of who the person is.  The true value is if the person can learn to direct this core himself; the danger is if others discover it first and manipulate it.
564 unique view(s)

Responses

  1. Jennifer R. said,
    Jan-19-2016, 04:55pm

    "What I do not know, I do not think I know."
    "The unexamined life is not worth living."
    ~Socrates

  2. Aaron said,
    Nov-21-2017, 06:15pm

    Really appreciate you writing this. Valuable. Thanks.

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