I was talking the other day with a friend about how people can act completely differently around their significant others. Some people are super bothered by that. “They’re not being themselves!” these hypothetical people whine. “They’re changing!” There are a lot of people who argue that you shouldn’t allow other people to change who you are, that you should “be yourself”.
My friend and I went back and forth for a while about what this meant for your “real” self, but by the end of the conversation we had mostly agreed that everything we do and everyone we interact with affects our brain. Brains are malleable things, and there’s evidence that (especially when we’re young) even single interactions can have impacts for years to come. Relatedly, we all adjust our behavior and self based on context. We change our clothes when we go to work, our language changes based on who we’re around. When there are different inputs and contexts, our “self” has to adapt. This is part of being a successful and functional human being.
Brains tend less to be like a static identity and more like a processor: we have ways that our brains like to interpret things or respond to things, but there is always something there to interpret, there’s always stimuli coming in that will make slight adjustments to our processors. So it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal if you choose to be around someone who affects your processor.
What does this have to do with pills you might ask?
Well some of those things that people say about relationships that affect your personality are things that people say about pills. I’ve been listening almost nonstop to Neon Trees for a few weeks and one of their lyrics says “I’m stronger than the pills”. I’m so done with phrases like this. They imply that anything that affects your brain chemistry is a crutch, a cheat, a way out of being you.
The biggest problem with this is that just like a relationship that affects the way you act, there is no integral self to interrupt. “Self” is choosing which inputs you would like. There’s really no way we can figure out what we’re like without the influence of our environment and the food we eat and the sleep we get and the people we talk to and the job we have (see: Judith Butler). We’ve got influences from the moment we’re conceived. This is not to say that there aren’t some elements of personality and self that stay consistent across time, just that it’s silly to imagine that you can have a pristine, untouched self that would be horribly tainted forever by the introduction of meds.
Strength is knowing what allows you to behave positively and functionally and choosing to put yourself under that influence: because you will never be without influence. “Being true to yourself” is about what you choose to surround yourself with. Changing our inputs is part of how we remain independent. Unless you cannot choose to change your inputs, you are always stronger than they are.
Another issue some people have with meds or serious relationships is dependence. They don’t want to have to rely on something external to themselves. I hate to break it to you all but we’re all dependent on things that are external to us. we’re dependent on food and on sleep for god’s sake, and those things affect our brain chemistry and biology. There are things we need each and every day, whether that is a medication or 20 minutes of alone time or running or food or a book or your Facebook. We’re dependent on the world around us. And all of these things affect your brain in ways similar to your relationship or your drugs.
It doesn’t feel nice to realize how dependent you are on external things, how fragile you are. And when you’re dependent on things that others aren’t dependent on (like pills), it’s a reminder over and over that we have to choose our inputs but that we don’t get to choose whether or not there are inputs. That can be scary. It can feel like you have no control over your Self. But you do. You get to choose (to some extent) what things affect your Self. You get to choose whether to sleep enough or work a shitty, stressful job, or eat healthy, or be around validating people, or whatever it might be that turns you into a processing machine or a bumbling Windows ’95.
That’s all the power you get. So yes, your identity will be dependent on your pills. It might change who you are a bit. But that’s ok. Because everything and everyone you encounter does. If you don’t like how you change then you get a choice: you can continue to depend on it or you can move away from it. But if you want to stop being influenced, if you want your identity to be pure and unadulterated you, then you’re pretty much just going to have to die because that’s the only way you stop being influenced.
Making choices to change yourself so you don’t act like a dick is not selling out: it’s being an adult.