Are you familiar with the constructivist theory of learning? Essentially it’s the idea that we actively “construct” and maintain networks of understanding in our minds. New information is both viewed through and tacked onto existing concepts. We’re never “blank slates.” Each person comes into any given situation with pre-existing set of understandings and that profoundly shapes what they experience and learn. Our constructs can be true or false and they filter what we do or don’t take away from any given experience.
I love this idea. I used to sit in classes and think about how we’re each having a unique experience even though we’re sitting through the exact same lecture. Those sitting near an open window have an entirely different experience than those sitting near the open door. Those at the back of the room don’t have the same class as those at the front. Differences in interest, previous knowledge, misconceptions, biases, temperament and a whole host of other variables profoundly chances the experience of people sitting mere inches from one another. Constructivism hints at parts of that idea.
In a book I read recently (sorry – I can’t remember which one!) the authors discuss first impressions and how we tend to generalize our earliest impressions of people as accurate indicators of their overall personality. If a chipper, upbeat person is having an awful day the first time you meet them, you’re likely going to form an impression of them as negative or withdrawn. This impression holds true even if you have many subsequent encounters which are unambiguously positive. We tend to weight our first impressions much more heavily than later interactions. Incidentally, if you really like someone when you meet them and they later prove to be annoying, self-absorbed, and negative, it’s going to take you a long time to shake that positive impression even if they drive you crazy for a really, really long time.
But I digress. I’ve been thinking about the weighting of impressions lately as I continually work to contextualize and understand my history. I often wonder why I feel so compelled to process, process, process my childhood. It’s like a hard drive that won’t keep spinning. My brain whirrs endlessly trying to make sense of what did (and didn’t) happen to me. It’s exhausting, and I often want it to stop. But it doesn’t.
But the discussion on the heavy weight we put on first impressions helped me make some sense of all this. My earliest impressions of life do not mesh with my current experiences. For example, the idea that people are caring, reliable, helpful, and genuine is not something I experienced in childhood. So I am forever trying to learn to really trust people while also trying to protect myself from the excruciating vulnerability that was mercilessly exploited when I was a child. Even though I don’t think the people in my life are “out to get me” I default to that mentality because the pain of betrayal is still sharp and poignant.
Our earliest experiences profoundly shape us. When I talk with friends of every age inevitably there is always at least one story of something their mom or dad did that was influential. Sometimes it’s a joke, a disciplinary action, or a moment of connection. It’s a rare conversation where people don’t share something about their first caregivers. Many, if not most, people I talk to have many good things to say about their parents. They can share their stories because their stories don’t make other people uncomfortable. They can talk about and thus process and fully integrate their experiences. I sometimes tell stories that are dark, sad, and perhaps frightening. My need to talk about, make sense of, and integrate my experiences is no less than others. The social acceptability of my experience is, however, very different.
So with those ideas in mind, the drive to process, process, process, seems less pathological. It’s the result of a natural need to understand and integrate. As people we tend to place heavy emphasis on early experiences and use those as a benchmark for understanding new ones. Because my earliest filters are poorly equipped for understanding my current experiences, I experience a lot of discord. Additionally, because we construct meaning and understanding in from previous experience, it’s not surprising I have a lot of processing to do. Then, to add fuel to the fire, I have less opportunity to do so because there exist few social contexts where that conversation is appropriate.
Although this presents no clear solutions, understanding is waaaay more than half the battle. At least I can let go of the nagging guilt that my need to process is overblown and exaggerated. I do think I need to choose to think about other things sometimes, but that’s a story for another day.