First published in Dutch on the 23rd of December 2014
I am currently counselling a Russian student who could be called “unusual”. He is stuck on his thesis because he does not accept the demands and boundaries of his study. This happens more often but he, let’s call him Ivan, fumes repeatedly about the poor intellectual capacity of his tutor, all employees of his study and actually the entire Dutch population. His brilliance and Russian heritage are repressed by our Western narrow-mindedness. He does not conceal this opinion in any way and many people consider him arrogant, brutish and offensive.
It could be simply the case that Ivan is deranged, as a colleague of mine claims, but I think it is too easy to take on this position. I admit that my conversations with him can become quite extreme, but is he really that different from “normal” students? Teachers sometimes confide in me about their struggles with certain students and in their descriptions they sometimes seem to be talking about a different kind of species. I always resist this. I am of the opinion that the “Ivans” of this world are not really all that different from many of the other students that I counsel and should not be branded as deranged.
A joint process
I am known for underlining a learning process that is applicable to everyone and looks the same for everyone. I focus on the joint processes rather than the individual distinctiveness. My justification for this is that we are all physiologically virtually identical. Logically, this means that we are also identical on the neurophysiological level and therefore also (development) psychologically. Without any hard data, I dare to claim that humans share 95% of their psychological processes.
My communal approach generally reaps good results, but I admit that it does not always work. Ivan did not react well to an explanation of facts, mechanisms and cause/effect relations. He resisted the form of counselling that did not pay attention to his “I”. He continually brought up his brilliance and Russian identity.
This is not as strange as it seems. Our learning process is an active process which means that our knowledge cannot originate passively like some kind of sedimented deposit. We must create it actively and therefore we need an “I” that does it. This I-perspective can have a huge influence. The perception I have of myself plays a role in how I interpret the situation and in effect what I learn. “What I take from a situation depends on what I am looking for” is a citation I once came across.
With every student, one’s identity (or the need thereof!) plays an important role. It is this singularity that hinders or stimulates the learning process. The eccentric Ivan, with his alleged brilliance and Russian-oriented identity, clearly reveals how his “I” hinders him in completing his study. But he is definitely not alone. There are also students who even delay graduating because they feel “student” is a much more pleasant element of their identity than “unemployed”. I also counsel students with a lack of concentration and who suffer from fatigue, due to an accident or disease, who are focused on the identity they previously had (“I want to be my old self again!”). This focus is very hindering because they cannot become their old self again by definition (see the citation of Heraclitus in my essay Tip of the Iceburg). Or what about the students that feel the dire necessity to become physician, psychologist, economist, or any such profession, and therefore feel that they MUST add this to their identity.
I won’t dare commit myself here to a full elucidation of identity. Through the centuries, an astounding amount of texts have been written about this by philosophers and later also psychologists. At the same time, I also don’t want to concede to the claim that “everyone is different”; a claim I often hear when I emphasize the identicality of people. Maybe it is still better to focus on that singularity and expand on my position.
If we are, as I claimed, 95% identical with regard to psychological processes, this also means that we are 5% different. This may not seem an awful lot, but appearances are deceptive. Chimpanzees and humans genetically only differ less than 5% and yet we agree that there is still some significant difference. It therefore seems reasonable to me to claim that 5% psychological variation is more than enough to subsume all psychosocial, cultural and emotional variation between humans. This may seem improbable, but we must not be too impressed by the superficial appearance of all our social-cultural variation. It is not to say that the underlying processes are really all that different. Chihuahuas and Sint Bernard dogs also don’t look alike but they still belong to the same species.
The experiencing and the narrating I
Let’s assume that the “I” is situated within the 5%. I don’t want to align myself with the theories that claim that we have all sorts of social, cultural, emotional, sexual, and historical identities. In that view, everyone can fall back on a unique composition where being other is centralized. I want to make more general claims about singularity.
Most contemporary (Western) psychologists agree that we can make a distinction in our singularity between the experiencing I and the narrating I. The experiencing I is the person that experiences the events directly. All bodily, sensitive, emotional, behavioral and cognitive processes are experienced in real-time. It is an “I” from which we cannot escape and that no other one can reach. It is the window from which we see reality.
For counsellors of an individual, the experiencing I is inaccessible. We cannot reach that experience because we cannot be that person in question. Luckily, there is also the reflective or narrating I. This “I” can narrate what the experiencing I has experienced. At first, the person does this to itself in order to create a sense of individuality and personal consistency rather than chaos, fragmentation and randomness. Secondly, the person can of course also talk to other people. This is not only pleasant but sometimes also necessary. When reflection stalls and the person does not understand itself well, aid can be found in counselors to stimulate self-reflection which eventually can improve self-governance.
I come across many students who do not understand themselves well and therefore have trouble in conducting a detailed reflection. “I really don’t know what is wrong with me.” But even if the student is capable of wording its experience, this still does not have to mean that it will end well. Thorough self-reflection does not automatically lead to good self-governance.
“I know my stress is unreasonable because I only have good grades. I don’t necessarily only want to get an A+ but because I am so incredibly afraid of failing, I continue studying. Then I get an A+ again, but the stress is still there, because I am still afraid that I won’t pass the next test.”
This student is very good at talking about her experiences but can’t find a way out of it. The experience, primarily the emotional aspects thereof, dominates. This is characteristic of many students that I counsel. They do not experience freedom of choice. They are subjected to an emotion (“I have to follow my passion!”), a diagnosis (“I can’t do it. I have ADHD!”) or, in the case of Ivan, to external factors (“narrow-minded Western intellectuals impede my potential!”).
In order to be able to function well, we need a third level in addition to the experiencing and narrating I. I call this the intentional I. This “I” is able to distance itself from an experience but is at the same time able to own the experience.
The distance is necessary for realizing that there is freedom of choice (also see my essay Crossroads). People are not at the mercy of their experience but always have different options in dealing with them. Furthermore, owning up to one’s experience is crucial for the realization that you have to do something with the situation and to make a choice that fits the “I”. That this isn’t obvious has been dealt with in my essay Other People’s Clothes”.
Who am I, what can I do, and what do I want?
Answering these questions is one of the main goals on which study and profession consultants want to focus. As far as I am concerned, they are talking about the intentional I and I believe these questions are not only relevant in choosing a study or finding one’s way in the labor market but are important throughout one’s entire educational career. I currently give a course on stress management to students who are in the early phases of their study who are afraid of not meeting the requirements of the binding study advice (BSA), but also students who are in the middle of their bachelor’s and only receive straight As, and even a student who already graduated and has a job. Their chronic stress convinces me that they all deal with these questions that are so important for the intentional I. They experience a powerlessness that does not disappear with accomplishing certain achievements and/or diplomas. They are at the mercy of the achievements rather than that they can distance themselves from them and subsequently own up to them.
“Don’t aspire to be able to do what you want, but to want what you are able to do”
Epictetus (Stoic philosopher from the first century AD).
We have to arrange that which we experience into a narrative of which we are not only the narrator but also the author. You live, tell, and redirect in accordance with the “I” that you want to be. This is the case for all of us, including Ivan. But maybe his “I” is too much alike the one of his terrible namesake. In that case, he might indeed be deranged.