Something about existential hats

We all learn to wear more than one hat throughout our life. From infancy onward we learn our boundaries are different with each significantly different person or context, and we adapt our behaviour accordingly. Also, we sometimes behave differently “just because” (or at least it may appear like that), our mood prompts us to engage differently with people even in routine situations. However we define that behavioural variation, or change, be it as generated by hormonal variation, or calling it venting, change of heart, breaking with the “old ways” of doing things, or using any other term, what we essentially do is change the hat we wear. Nevertheless, despite these unplanned changes of hats, we have a routing of rotating the hats we are given or choose for ourselves.

One’s hat drawer is as large as one can accommodate it in an aware manner. And the array of sizes, colours and designs we love to wear fits the range of values and the flexibility we can hold and display without crumbling. This is the size and content of the hat drawer that we want to see. As with the unconscious mind, we hold more hats that we want to see or admit.

This is the point which takes me to the way we develop our sense of self and how we engage in activities, or we make decisions which push are toward or over the edge of that flexibility. Beyond that our inner structure begins to crack and it may disintegrate if we don’t take one, or several, step(s) back to re-evaluate our position in our own existence and the value of our life.

Developmental theories and research studies (not referenced here in a blog article) support the view of popular wisdom (coming also from parents who went grey with worry and desperation) that the young display more flexibility in wearing different, even divergent, types of hats. They can be a rebel daughter or son, but a loyal friend, a brilliant student or vice versa. Anecdotes from our friends and acquaintances and the pop culture is full of such examples, and we all know they are not told and retold in a calm reflective tone. Until the young find the hat that fits them best, the search doesn’t stop. After that moment, trying on divergent hats becomes a rare endeavour, if at all, or just a way to remember the past wild years.

But this happens in the lucky situations when the search is over, at least for some time, a search which James Marcia called “moratorium”. Adults can fall back into that moratorium in certain aspects of their life and that can happen time and time again during one’s lifespan. We may question our relationships, our values, our career, or even the purpose of our life all together when we find ourselves on automatic tracks toward a goal which no longer serves us well, or it lost its existential value.

And, be it in their teenage years, or later in an adult moratorium phase, some individuals choose, or are strongly pushed towards, the “stable” life style which is the very ”soul” searching process, the moratorium. Being the dare devil and having a self-destructive approach toward one’s own goals and values became the automatic tracks on which they run. In such a phase one may continuously and routinely try divergent hats, leading to the crumbling of their inner structure, or choose one very destructive hat to wear forever.

In such a time, a friend, parent, role model from the popular culture, a character in a book, or movie, a glimpse into the future of those wearing that hat, or a professional counsellor, psychologist or coach, can help that individual outline the hat drawer to stabilise and maintain their self-identity and inner structure.

If one believes in a healthy body, wearing the work hat of a tabacco company employee, as opposed to that of an employee of a company developing resistant plants for water-deprived regions in which people starve, can make all the difference in preserving and growing one’s inner structure and believing one spends their life in a meaningful way. At the same time, growing up in a toxic environment because of family conflicts and unhealthy approaches toward life can lead one toward similar combinations on one’s personal life, and while the conflicts become familiar, and provide a sense of “stability”, they are clearly still toxic and can make the change of hats a lot more difficult than for a person who grew in a calm and nurturing environment (most of the time).

For example, engaging in smoking when one grew up with parents who smoked and are nicotine dependent is more likely than if the parents are not nicotine dependent or even quit at some point in one’s childhood. Additionally, quitting smoking is harder, and relapsing is more likely when partnered with a smoker than when your partner is a non-smoker (which is only in one-third of cases). These are but a few examples that support the idea that in general, we have a tendency to choose the hat that is more easily available, even if it comes at a higher cost in the long run. We tend to overestimate the effort we have to put into choosing a better, more authentic, hat for our values when it comes at an immediate cost, even if the benefit for doing so for one’s self and the ones around them is larger than the cost, but it comes at a later time. Therefore, we choose the current cost in small increments over the larger future benefit because the future comes with uncertainty, and that uncertainty is cast over that future benefit.

The time perspective of the person, proposed by Prof. Philip Zimbardo, can partially explain why changing hats in such cases is so difficult. Being more present-oriented and more fatalistic in relation to the future, makes it more difficult to engage in life-changing behaviour.

Another explanation lies in the tendency to avoid the sense of disintegrating one’s self which comes with that change. A similar effect comes from wearing divergent hats on routinely basis. Acting on conflicting values at work vs at home or with friends, can have that effect. Imagine the strength one must have to live peacefully in an inter-racial and/or gender/ethnic diverse family while having to work in an environment which promotes racial, gender and/or ethnic discrimination. If the passage from one environment to another comes easily there may be that the person has a superficial approach of affairs in one or both contexts, which can eventually lead to the giving up of one hat or to a life lived without personal growth. But when that is not the case, the switch of hats on a daily basis comes with a heavy burden. It is as if one explores the depths of a field half a day and the other half they have to engage in discussions about the basics of that field and pretend they know almost nothing about it because giving away what they know most likely will come to their detriment. Those two hats tear apart that individual and this should not be a long-term engagement, if at all. The healthy and authentic way to resolve this situation would be to admit which hat is closest to them and give up the other one, which comes with a price.

Choosing or creating your hats may be partially determined by where you were born, in which family, religion, or country, and with which genetic predispositions. It is not easy to choose/tailor a healthy hat assortment when you are surrounded by destructive ones. Technology makes it easier to search for a wider variation of hats and combine them in more healthy ways throughout our life without bearing a heavy price for a very long time. In the absence of a mental health professional, a role model, a friend or a reliable person to guide you and offer support throughout that transition, you can always try and use fictional role models from books and movies, or applications made to give you some support until you can build relationships with people wearing the hats in a way you want to wear yours. In this what sometimes appears to be a randomly determined chaos of an existence, it’s easy to lose track of how different hats match your life purpose. Maybe self-awareness and vigilance are the answer to this issue in that we should make all the effort possible to ensure we only have and wear the hats made for our momentarily drawer, so we can see and foresee how they fit together and what risk they pose for our future style and never exclude changing the hat drawer all together if that change leads to personal and social growth.

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