“I can tell for myself” is the kind of knowing that nobody can take away from you.
Nobody can take it from you, but they can get you to hide it from yourself. They can put pressure on you to cover up your own knowings—pressure that’s particularly hard to withstand when you’re relatively powerless, as a kid is. This pressure can come from the threat of force or punishment, or simply the pain of not being able to have a shared experience of reality with caregivers if you know what you know and they don’t allow such a knowing.
Ideally, we integrate others’ word with our own sense of things, and smoothly navigate between using the two in a way that serves us and them. Others would point out where they can see that we’re confused about our own knowings, and we’d reorient, look again, and come to a new sense of things that’s integrated with everything else.
But, if you’re reading this, you were probably raised in a culture that, as part of its very way of organizing civilization over the past millennia, relied on getting you to take others’ word for it even when you could tell that something about what they you being told was off… to the point that you probably learned that your own knowing was suspect or invalid, at least in some domains.
Did you cover up your natural sense of appetite, with politeness, when parents or grandparents said “You haven’t eaten enough! You have to finish what’s on your plate.”? Did you cover up your natural sense of thirst when parents or teachers said “No, you don’t need a drink right now.”? Did you forget how to listen to the building pressure in your lower abdomen, in the face of a “You don’t have to pee! You just went!”?
Did you override your sense of relevance and honesty when someone said “You can’t say that!”? Maybe someone close to you said “You didn’t see that!” or “you didn’t hear that!” or “that didn’t happen!” — as a command, not a joke… did that make it harder to listen to your own senses or vision or hearing? Not altogether, but in situations where you could tell others wouldn’t like you to know what you know. Did someone say “Come on, you know I would never lie to you,” twisting your own sense of trust in others’ honesty and dishonesty, around the reality that you did not, in fact, know that, and (since this was coming up at all) may have been doubting it?
Did you, as a boy, hear “boys don’t cry” and lose touch with the obvious reality that you are a boy and you are crying, gerrymandering your sense of boyhood to fit? Did you, as a girl, hear “girls don’t play like that” and lose touch with the obvious reality that you are a girl and you do?
When you were balancing or climbing at a level of difficulty that felt good, did a call of “Be careful!” interrupt your own sense of safety, replacing it with uncalibrated externalized concern and a desire to not upset anyone? Perhaps the sharp interruption even destabilized you, making what had been within your capacity suddenly seem like it hadn’t been. Animals don’t need this voice in their ear in order to not get seriously injured—they play and pay attention and get hurt a bit and learn and calibrate.
Did you ever learn for yourself how much candy is too much? Or was your candy consumption always rate-limited by the candy-meter in mom & dad? Moreover, did they tell you “that’s too much candy”, as if they could tell and you didn’t? Or did they own their role and say “we’re not allowing you to have any more candy”, which sets the same limitation, but it doesn’t put the very knowing of the desire for more candy at odds with being in sync with parents.
How many times did you hear “You should know better!” when what you did made sense to you given what you did know at the time? Did an “You shouldn’t have done that!” distract your process of learning from the direct consequences of what you did on you and what you care about, and instead get you to prioritize the question of whether someone else would be upset at you for making a mistake? Or did you have the clarity and courage of the little girl in this story?
Once when she was 4 she dropped her slushy lemonade and I did the typical mom “you shouldn’t have been careless” She looked at me and said “Mummy I dropped my slushy and was already feeling bad. You could have just said you felt sorry for me.”
This kid could tell that the actual bad consequences that she needed in order to learn from her mistake were already salient and apparent to her, and that her mum’s chastisement was a distraction that was in opposition to her learning process. Could she have articulated that sentence I just wrote? I mean, she very nearly did—I mostly just used longer words.
As far as I can tell, animals in general and humans in particular as the animals with the most neuroplasticity, have an innate sense for their own learning process, that gravitates towards things on the edge of their ability. I recently watched a toddler toddle up and down a ramp for upwards of 10 minutes, because walking on flat surfaces was something he was great at but the ramp was just enough of an additional challenge that he could sense that it was a great lil learning environment for his skill level. He knew where he needed to practice, and was motivated to do so.
Yet in a typical school, if you became obsessed about wanting to learn or practice something, even something endorsed by the school such as spelling, the teacher probably moved you along to the next lesson, casting doubt on your own drive towards mastery. Teens and adults don’t just mysteriously lose the sense that the toddler has—to the extent you can’t find yours, it’s probably because you were taught to prioritize something else. What was that? When did it happen? Do you remember?
Maybe you were taken from one lesson or concept you were still struggling with to a more difficult one, and you learned to mute the inner voice that said “I’m not ready”. Maybe being expected to learn something without adequate scaffolding for learning it had you override your sense of panic and flailing with a sense that “this should work”. Or maybe you were forced to do nothing in learning environments that were too slow or understimulating, and you learned to override the message from your sense of boredom, to play and experiment or go somewhere more engaging.
Did you lose touch with your own sense of contextual importance, in the face of being assigned mandatory bullshit schoolwork? Did your sense of tempo and priority atrophy in the face of years of being rushed on the timescale of seconds or minutes (as a kid or as an adult) when you could tell that the real time-sensitivity was days or months or non-existent.
In a math class, unable to quite follow what it means that 12 divided by 4 and 12 divided into 4 are different in some sense but the same value, did you learn that if you see “12÷4” you’re supposed to write “3”, but lost your sense of “I can tell that’s how it all fits together”. In the face of learning specific methods and getting penalized unless you show your work, did you stop trusting yourself to take your own route to the right answer, and check your own work? Did a classroom experience of math as a social exercise block your ability to recognize math as the sacred art of relating to truth on your own terms. Math is precisely one of the most potent arenas for honing our sense of “I can tell for myself”, and instead many math classes do the opposite—here’s a friend’s rant about this.
In a history or english class, or writing a report for our boss at work, or wherever, did you learn how to guess the teacher’s password and write something that will get a good response from the other person, while practicing ignoring your own feedback loop of writing what you actually think. This one is tough to articulate, because of course sometimes we all can learn a lot from others’ standards. But there’s something about submitting to the authority and writing stuff you know is bullshit because it’s the thing to do, that can repress your innate desire to figure things out on your own terms.
The pressure comes from peers too, not just authorities. Maybe you were sincerely interested in something, but when people said “that’s lame” you went along with it anyway because you’d rather have friends than be a lame-o. Maybe you experimented with a new way of dressing or interacting, but the response from your classmates not only told you that the results weren’t great, but that experimenting and developing your own taste wasn’t socially safe to do. Or did you have a crush on someone, only to hide and obscure your sense of attraction when others made fun of the person? Or perhaps you somehow found yourself in bed with someone you weren’t attracted to, and their “you know you want me” convinced you that your anxiety was arousal.
How many times did you get told “it’s (all) your fault”, when you could tell that other people also contributed to what happened? Did you let that override your own sense of fairness and the full picture? Or, perhaps, did you fight back with your own blame, asserting “no, it’s his/her/their fault!” so that you wouldn’t get punished, and lose touch with your own sense of response-ability in the situation? (This losing touch with your own sense of response-ability can also come from someone else overtly blaming a third-party in a situation where you played a role.) In any case, any simplified “it’s this person’s fault” as a kind of acceptable explanation may have diminished your trust in your personal and social capacity to figure out exactly who did what, not to blame but to learn.
Did you learn outdated or oppressive group stereotypes, that biased what you noticed about yourself and other people, and got you out of touch with being able to tell for yourself what people are like (as a group or individuals)? Did someone say “you don’t want to be biased” as a way to get you to discount your own pattern-recognition and intuition? (After all, biases and intuitions are both forms of implicit knowing, inseparable and distinguishable only by their effects or compatibility with others’ worlds).
Did you lose touch with the obvious reality that the reasons you do things are your own, when you were forced to justify your preferences or behaviors in others’ terms?
Here are some sneakier and more advanced traps you might have fallen into at some point:
“You can tell this is a problem, right? So you need to buy (or work on, or donate to) My Particular Solution” (usually implied, not quite so overt) might cause you to transfer you self-grounded confidence that the problem exists and is as described, onto a particular solution even if another part of you can tell that you don’t have what you need to trust that the solution is viable (that it’s not snake oil, or a dead end, or likely to cause worse problems or backlash, or whatever). This works in part because people aren’t comfortable having the problem in awareness without knowing a good solution, or because they don’t want to seem like the sort of person who isn’t doing anything about the problem. And the salesperson has collapsed your awareness such that you don’t see another choice.
“You can tell my argument is correct” can leverage your ability to tell that a line of reasoning may be valid and sound in its own terms, to override your ability to tell that it’s missing something key. Perhaps you can tell it’s missing something because it concludes you (or everybody) should do something that is clearly bad, but you ignore that under pressure from an environment that judges as irrational or unintelligent those who aren’t willing to bite weird bullets and accept repugnant conclusions as absurd.
“You know you can trust me” functions as an injunction that tries to get you to generalize from one way in which you trust someone to a stance of naive trust in some other way that you actually don’t feel non-naive trust in. Likewise, “you know I love you” can shift your attention off of some way in which you feel someone’s love for you has gone sour or rotten in a particular way, by reminding you of some other sense of love that you have, which you can tell is there but which doesn’t contradict whatever issue you were trying to raise.
Relatedly, “feel the divine spirit moving through you right now? That means [specific ideological claim]. You can tell for yourself—you don’t need to take my word for it!” hijacks peoples’ resonance or insight process to use some direct experience of something ineffable as justification for a particular meaning or validity of something that is vaguely related to the insight but not directly implied. You can tell that something big just happened for you. But just because someone else can put some words to parts of that feeling that you can tell resonate on some level, doesn’t mean that their interpretation of the whole thing is correct (and supportive of your own learning, versus their loyalty or bank account).
Have you ever tried to critique your coach or spiritual teacher, and they respond with “that’s your projection” or “you’re stuck in a pattern”? And perhaps, because you can tell on some level that you are indeed in a projection or pattern (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) and they’re accurately pointing that out… and you do want to learn how to transcend our projections or patterns… you allow them to redirect your attention back to yourself, overriding whatever you were sensing that generated our critique in the first place. You might (conveniently for the guru) forget that just because you’re stuck in a pattern or projection about whatever your guru is doing, and part of their role is pointing this out to you, that that doesn’t mean the guru isn’t also doing some weird shit that is hypocritical or dishonest or manipulative or, for that matter, simply also a projection or pattern! And maybe they aren’t, but if you can’t tell, then it’s appropriate for you to be guarded as if they are, and if you repress your own sense of whether or not they are, you’re setting yourself up for betrayal.
In a sense, the earlier examples in this post also involve some form of pitting part of your own knowing against another part. Insofar as you trusted authorities over your own sense of things, you did so in part because you did also trust them to know things you didn’t. That may be from past experiences of this adult (or adults in general) being reliable sources of knowledge you later found accorded with your own experience, such that you reasonably expected their words to align with what you’d eventually be able to tell for yourself. Or, it could be from past experiences of this person (or other people) being physically violent or emotionally aggressive when disagreed with, such that you could tell for yourself that it was in some sense right by your own values to override your own beliefs and sense of reality to match—not in the name of “truth” but for the sake of your own safety.
Or plausibly, there may even be a genetically encoded prior that inclines young homo sapiens to treat what older homo sapiens say as true. But even if kids are willing to listen to adults using naive trust, doesn’t mean that adults couldn’t respect the kids’ own experience and help them connect what the kid knows and what the adult knows.
And many times adults do! Some adults/parents/teachers more than others, but all of them to some extent. I don’t want to imply that everyone is literally constantly overriding everyone. Just that it’s common enough that most people have major ways in which they’ve learned not to back themselves. And that, as I said at the top, this is not incidental, but structural to the evolution of culture over the course of human history (prehistory is likely a different story). If you want to read about that, it so happens that the same day this post you’re reading now is going live, one of my favorite essays on the exact topic has just finally been released to the public: The Evolution of Culture, by David Deutsch (I had the fortune to read it 5 years ago through a mutual friend with the author). I have critiques of the essay as well, which I’ll write up soon, but the core ideas remain a powerful linchpin in my thinking.
The next post in this sequence is Oppressive cultures: you don’t get to know what you know, which also talks about some of these structural dynamics.
(Meta: I tried to keep this post mostly made of questions, so as not to presume anything about you, the reader, in particular. But linguistically I still used plenty of presupposition, and I made claims about the sorts of things that happen and the impacts they have. Did any of what I said here strike you as somehow incompatible with your own experience? If it did, did you override it with what I was saying? Or did you listen to yourself instead? Were you able to hold both at once, in a juxtaposition? Right there, in any of that distrust and how you responded to it, is the phenomenon I’m talking about.)
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