Being Vs. Doing

Being Vs. Doing March 11, 2013

Before I launch into this post, I’m going to publicly proclaim my intent to write at least 2 blog posts per month. Hopefully this will motivate me to follow through on that intention. I manage to find a little time to relax here and there, so in theory I could make the time to do it. And goodness knows I’ve got plenty of thoughts rattling around in my head that could be transformed into blog posts. So there’s that.

In the rest of this post, I’d like to discuss a distinction between being and doing that I’ve noticed, in terms of self-esteem but other things too. A post by Samantha at Not Your Mother’s Playground caught my attention and helped me articulate some of these thoughts.

Titled On Being Amazing, the post discusses why it’s tough to hear “But… you’re amazing!” in difficult times. In particular, this passage really resonated with me:

I’ve noticed that in times of despair people will often reach out to me, offering their words of comfort. These internet hugs are lovely and certainly appreciated – at least for the intentions behind them, but they can also fall flat when presented like this:

“Don’t feel sad. You’re amaaaaazing!”

I have learned how to take a compliment over the years. If you think that I have done something to warrant being told I’m amazing or awesome or insert compliment here, I will certainly take it. I will blush and I will be genuinely grateful. However when it’s used as a blanket response to “I’m sad or angry”, it’s a lot harder to digest.

I agree that this sort of statement can sometimes  feel dismissive, as though by accomplishing all this amazing stuff I somehow shouldn’t get bogged down by anxiety or depression, or I should be smart enough to think my way out of it, or something. This comes dangerously close to the “but why can’t you just choose to be happy” advice given to people dealing with mental health issues that, while often well-intentioned, is dangerous and thoroughly misunderstands what it’s like to deal with mental illness (see this fantastic blog post by Naamah_Darling for a deconstruction of this rhetoric).

I also think that this tendency to conflate being and doing (you’ve done amazing things so you are an amazing person) can be dangerous for another reason: it makes the parts of one’s identity blend together in a potentially judgmental way. For a long rant on the ways we in Western culture tend to conflate various aspects of people’s identities – especially when they pertain to sex – see my post on the adjacency effect over at MySexProfessor.com (basically, the laws of sympathetic magic plus stigma and pollution, condensed and written about in non-academese with sexuality as the primary topic). People who engage in certain acts are thought to be a certain kind of person, and those sorts of judgments often lead to hostility, stereotyping, and violence.

For these reasons, I think it’s important to uncouple the being and doing parts of people’s identities, even while recognizing that there are some links, but those links need to be put into context. I’m a firm believer in actions speaking louder than words, for example; so if someone says they’re my friend, they’d better be there when I need them (and I’ll do the same). I always try to make sure my actions are consistent with my values. Stuff like that.

Otherwise, let’s think very carefully about how we conflate being and doing when it comes to personhood. I’d love to hear about more examples of this phenomenon if people want to leave a comment!

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  • KC

    This is interesting to me because I do believe that you are what you do. In a somewhat contrasting but similar way I think it’s dangerous for mental illness because I’ve seen a lot of people feel like, “But I’m AMAZING!” because they’ve disconnected their identity from what they do and accomplish and identify themselves only by what they *know* they are internally… but then they still struggle with self esteem and depression because intuitively they don’t feel successful or accomplished in any way. Which is often worse because they then struggle with the contradiction of feeling like they’re going to feel like crap no matter how “awesome” they are and it feels even more hopeless as opposed to feeling in control of their actions and therefore emotions and identity. I haven’t studied it enough to know that there’s a direct connection, but it’s interesting to me that women tend to identify by “who” they are and men tend to identify by what they accomplish and yet it’s women who struggle so much more with mental health issues.

    However, agree that it’s important to apply doing as being very carefully. People do tend to apply it too broadly. Doing a bad thing doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, but it does make you a person who does that bad thing. For instance, I am harsh and judgmental and often uncompassionate… but that’s not ALL I am and I’ve felt a lot healthier since being able to accept and acknowledge those parts of myself rather than differentiate my “being” from those traits/actions. It feels more honest to me and makes it possible for me to see there’s no contrast in *being* those things while also being wildly compassionate, considerate and understanding.

    • jeana

      Hi KC – thanks for your response. I agree that disconnecting one’s sense of self-worth from one’s actions can be problematic in light of mental health issues. Self-knowledge is an interesting topic because on the one hand it’s so subjective, since the only person who can see how you look from the inside is you, but on the other hand we all have our blindspots and things we miss about ourselves (due to ego, low self-esteem, or whatever). So yes, it’s an intriguing line or inquiry. I think there might be something to the gender division you mention, too, though I’d also want to see more research on the topic.

  • Stephen Forrest

    Back when I cared about dating and frequently browsed different dating sites there was a filter I commenly applied. When a woman focused on what she does and what I do (activities, hobbies, and such) I would pass, no matter how hot she was.

    We like to say our actions define us, we are what we do, and in classic superficial narrow mindedness there are many who are concerned only in the activites of a perso. When we say we have things in common we are taking about activites and past events.

    I believe we are defined by our behavior and attitude, which most prefer to gloss over in favor of looks and perception.

    • jeana

      Thanks for your comment, Stephen. I wonder if your filter might’ve caused you to miss out on getting to know some people who take a different view on being vs. doing than you do. If someone thinks that her actions define her precisely because they reflect her beliefs and attitudes, does that automatically make her shallow or incompatible with you? I think there are a lot of ways to view the belief/behavior continuum, and just because someone defines their identity differently than I do, doesn’t make their take on things less valid.

      I acknowledge that I bristle at the implication that I might be superficial because I focus a lot on what I do… this is partly because I’m a really active person with a lot of goals in life that won’t get met simply by having a positive attitude about them, I have to act on them!