My title for this post is ironic. How could I possibly know who you are or how you should be “more yourself”? But surely you’ve known some people who sincerely believed that the world would be a better place if other people were “more like them.” When people think this way, they are probably not referencing the “self'” that is known to others – warts and all – but rather an idealized, cherished self-image. I believe that all of us have a cherished self-image that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the consensus image of ourselves as others know us. When you hear someone say something about you and your reaction is “I’m not like that!”, you’ve probably identified a piece of your cherished self-image.
Attachment to this cherished self-image is especially strong in people who have tried throughout their lives to live up to others’ expectations of them – parents or extended parental entities such as church and culture. Many of us are taught how we “should” or “shouldn’t” feel in this or that situation. This attachment can also be strong in people who have tried hard to shape themselves in reaction to “parental” expectations, i.e. “I refuse to be who my parents (or the church or the State) want me to be.” I’ve known quite a few parents whose cherished self-images kept them from seeing that they were dealing with their own children in just the same dysfunctional ways that their own parents had dealt with them. When you’ve sworn to yourself, “I’ll never do that with my children,” it’s often hard to recognize when you do.
Each of us – even those with low self-esteem – is the hero of our own personal drama, because we all live at the center of our perceived world, and none of us can be completely objective about ourselves. Our “heroic self” may wear the mask of the conquering hero or the rescuer or the wronged victim. But this heroic self is just as much an artificial construct as any image of ourselves projected onto us by others. I remember an epiphany I had as a young man. Seeing my reflection in a mirror, I thought “That’s who they think I am!”
One’s true self isn’t a thing, fixed and immutable, but is best seen as an evolutionary process, a work in progress. Buckminster Fuller put it this way: “I seem to be a verb.” Rather than trying to nail down some finished portrait of one’s self, I think that it is more helpful to have a picture in mind of who you are today, in the here-and-now of your experience and behavior. Your actions, not your thoughts, ultimately define you as the unique person you are.
A concept that was important to me as a psychotherapist was authenticity. In studying gestalt therapy in grad school, I became aware that many of my habitual behaviors were what gestalt guru Fritz Perls called “phony.” I was a people pleaser, always trying to guess what was expected of me in each situation and to behave in ways that were attempts to please or impress the people around me. I realized that I wanted everyone to like me – even if I didn’t especially like them. But, to the extent that I was phony, if someone seemed to like me, what they liked was my act, not me.
I knew that if I was going to be a good therapist, I had to become more spontaneous and authentic – even if that meant that some people wouldn’t like me or approve of my actions. I stopped making phony excuses for myself, like saying “I really have to leave now,” when I really just wanted to leave. I stopped rehearsing for social occasions such as parties. I learned to walk into a roomful of people with an “empty mind,” primed for spontaneity. I wanted to get to know the person behind the masks that I wore. Some people may have seen me as blunt or curt, or even rude, as I worked on becoming “more myself.” I knew that not everyone liked me, and that was okay. The work that I did on myself enabled me to help therapy clients to identify and confront their own inauthentic behaviors, and to work on changing them.
Gestalt therapy is especially effective for working with people who want to discover their authentic selves. Some gestalt techniques (which I described in a prior post) serve to unmask phony roles that people play, leaving them bereft of their usual defenses, and open to sudden insights. Fritz Perls is perhaps best known for what is called the Gestalt Prayer: ” I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find one another, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.”
More about authenticity, and the related concept of congruence, in my next post.