Monday, May 14, 2012

Congruence: Fitting with Yourself

To thine own self be true.

While Polonius is not perhaps the most stellar of role models, his advice to his son has some resonant value in this piece -- despite both father and son ending up a little worse for wear at Hamlet's hand. I suppose my interest in 'being true' (not to be confused with 'telling the truth') surfaced for me in a definitive way in early grad school. I'd been approached by my supervisor to examine some possible reasons for a disproportionately high attrition or drop-out rate amongst first year engineering students -- when compared with their parallel numbers in other faculties. Once the more obvious factors were accounted for and statistically removed (differential difficulty of the course material, academic ability of applicants, too much beer and partying, etc.), I was left with an interesting variable: congruence. 

Back in the bad old days, when math made sense (for me, in mid-high school), I had the, at the time, questionable good fortune of studying plane geometry. Of all those propositions and corollaries, the proof that stuck was one dealing with 'congruent triangles'.  And so my fascination with how two things -- be they geometric shapes, statistical distributions, or people and their chosen paths -- show compatibility one with the other began to emerge.

For our less than fortunate engineering ingenues, I speculated that the expectation a particular student brought with him or her into first year might have some bearing on the measure of success they experienced in the early going of the program. Specifically, I'd identified two very different views (well three, if you include the opportunity to party hardy!) of engineering as a discipline: one being that of the hard core scientist (lots of chemistry and physics!) and a second, that of a glorified auto mechanic or draftsman, closer perhaps to a designer. It seemed that those newbies with the former orientation tended to do better than the latter group -- quite possibly because they were greeted with course work that was more consistent with, more congruent with their preparation and expectations coming in. The latter group tended to be left with a 'that's not what I thought I'd be getting into' kind of disillusionment; with an attendant measure of increased dissatisfaction (which I also measured as a part of the study) and decreased interest and motivation in applying selves to the material. The 'blind-sided' crew didn't necessarily fail -- but they were more open to the idea of shifting to other areas of study -- and out of engineering.

The material I'd considered in an earlier blog around solitude in general and the introversion - extroversion dimension in particular finds its way into the congruence issue as well. When we identify ourselves as living in a particular way (alone rather than in partnership) or experience our measure of social comfort and mode interaction as 'less valued' (shy or introverted versus ebullient and outgoing), a tendency can be to become disenchanted with, even critical of that way of living or that style of connecting -- and 'buck the system'. In short, entering some form of denial around 'what is' and investing large amounts of energy into being something or somebody we're not. I don't suppose there is a 'law of congruence' in the sense of a 'law of gravity' or other universal, physical truths. But if there were, it might read something like Polonius' words to Laertes. First figure out who and what you are -- no mean task in itself. Secondly, cultivate an attitude of compassion and acceptance of that identity. And thirdly, identify those places where you best fit -- that lovely and elegant sense of congruence between self and environment; self and choices.

Having spent a good many years assisting people with 'job 1' -- bless all those wonderful personality tests and typologies -- I've come to realize that that might just be the easy part. Job 2, as it were, is the real challenge. Helping people with self-acceptance, particularly when the 'news' is not what they, a parent, or a partner, might want it to be, can be an unpopular task. The obsession is much more directed at change, re-invention -- not that these are undesirable ends in the right spot -- but always accompanied by a measure of denial of an existing (and just maybe, immutable) 'truth'.

My oft-referenced mentor spent a great deal of his professional life facilitating the search for congruence. In his language, helping individuals identify when they were on 'their path' -- and equally, when not. And eschewing the negative emotion attaching to, once again, discovering that 'I'm not where I want to be -- but I am where I am'.

A mindfulness practice provides a number of invaluable tools in this endeavour: awareness, acceptance, compassion.

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