Most people are inclined to believe they are guiding their own life, living authentically, and behaving on their own accord. Many people would be correct in thinking this.
But many people would also be incorrect.
Ask yourself: what has a greater influence on your behavior, your own values or the values of others?
In his book Being and Time, German philosopher Martin Heideggerdescribed the concept of “the They,” an impersonal yet omnipresent authority that can be the source of an inauthentic life.
“The They” is unspecified, vague and abstract. It’s an amorphous, strange and imperceptible part of our day to day life. It is non-existent yet nonetheless deeply rooted in our reality. Despite it’s ambivalence it remains a commanding voice in society.
“The They” is implied in the very words we speak. Our linguistic habits make it nearly impossible to avoid speaking of “the They.” For example,
That is just what people do…
They are going to laugh at you!
People will think you’re weird if you dress/speak/act in this manner…
“The They” refers to both everyone and no one at the same time. It is both a public and private persona; it exists externally and internally. Because of how familiar it sounds, we adopt it as genuine opinion, a tangible source of information.
Heidegger’s “They” influences how we perceive ourselves and, therefore, influences how we act.
We can gauge fairly well how we feel at a given moment. This is done innately, with little need for introspection. A stable self-perception, one that isn’t easily swayed by “the They” can make a difference — authenticity stems from this.
Them and Us
Self-perception influences our behavior. It is a guiding force in our life. Our actions are malleable, a manifestation of our thoughts and beliefs. How we view ourselves — our self-worth — varies. This can be swayed by “the They.”
For better or for worse, our perceptions are highly susceptible to external influence. They can ebb and flow gracefully or violently. Think about how often your feelings about yourself change — it can happen moment to moment, year to year.
As Heidegger points out, how we think we are perceived by others impacts how we perceive ourselves.
Often times, introspection happens when we get too caught up in thinking about how others perceive us. Whether we like it or not, a loud and present influence in all of our lives is the combined opinion of those around us.
When people treat us a certain way, our behavior can change. It can be difficult to notice a shift in our own behavior, as it often is subtle, or it can be met with a positive reaction from others.
Or, if people thrust a set of expectations upon us, our behavior can alter to try and fit the mold of the expectations. Meeting these demands or falling short of them holds gravity. These, too, are an interplay between our own perception and the perceptions of others.
The perceptions of “the They” is not always a sound barometer to measure ourselves up against. It is often comprised of chatter and trifles. We have enough obstacles amidst our own ambitions, we don’t need to internalize the opinions floating all around us too.
What makes an authentic life?
In 2019, with social media at the tips of our fingers and “influencers” trying to persuade us what is good and bad and ugly, Heidegger’s wisdom is as pertinent as ever. It is easy to fall into whatever is in vogue.
The trends of the masses are not enticing because they are inherently trendy, but because they are advocated by the masses.
Leading a life guided by other people’s perceptions and opinions is a one-way ticket to an inauthentic life, according to Heidegger. To avoid this, he recommends taking action because you believe it to be the right action, not because “the They” say its the right thing to do.
To truly choose, to act decisively, to embrace your uniqueness of perspective — this is authentic. Allowing the perceptions of others to determine your behavior is inauthentic and can remove us from a meaningful life.
Build your life upon a structure of concrete, personal values rather than what is fashionable.Live with intention. Don’t let “Them” dictate your values and behavior.
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