Counselling Insight: Finding Your Purpose

A recent quote by Alex Haley caught my attention: “To be a writer…you’ve got to want to write, not want to be a writer.” It reminds me of the realities we face when seeking out our purpose.

Many have dreamed of being writers only to find out they dread the task of writing.

In psychology, this draws attention to the distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self is how you feel “in the moment,” the remembering self is how you feel about something after the fact. Some events in life are actually quite dissatisfying “in the moment,” but rewarding to tell stories about later. Other events are quite enjoyable “in the moment,” but make boring stories.

Take these two examples: 1) Polar Bear Dip: you willingly submerse yourself into near freezing cold water, often for no reason other than to say you’ve done it. If I were to say to you, “I am offering you a polar bear dip, but afterward it will be erased from your memory and everyone else’s memory,” do you think there would be a lot of participants? Probably not. It is an imbalanced experience, made for the remembering self.

2) On the other hand, say I offer you a tropical vacation with the same condition: afterward it will be erased from your memory and everyone else’s, with no pictures to show for it. How much would you be willing to pay for it? Probably significantly less than a normal vacation that is remembered. Even though your experiencing self is getting the exact same experience, we pay a large premium for our remembering self.

To find our purpose, we cannot focus solely on one or the other. Our experiencing self is important for the purpose of day-to-day satisfaction and our remembering self is important for our self-perception and long-term satisfaction. While most people thrive better when focusing on their experiencing self, many people spend a tremendous amount of time and resources on their remembering self. Too much of one without the other is a recipe for an imbalanced life.

I also like to acknowledge our perceived self, which is the person we strive to be in the eyes of others, a close cousin of the remembering self. This is the part of us that is trying to impress others in a particular way. It is the part of us that Kurt Vonnegut refers to when he says “we are what we pretend to be.” The perceived self, like the remembering self, can cause us to chase many dreams that are actually quite dissatisfying in the moment.

The keyword here is balance. When we depend too much on one “self” for our well-being, we are bound to neglect other important parts of ourselves. Finding our purpose does not happen apart from our reality, it must account for what we find genuinely fulfilling in the moment.

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