You’re not what you think you are. If you think about it, it goes without saying. You cannot possibly be the same as what you imagine you are. You have made a series of assumptions about what you are like… that you are beautiful or unbeautiful, strange or normal, intelligent or stupid, loveable or unloveable… but most of what we think is a myth, a story created in collaboration with those around us.
HOW THE IMAGINARY SELF GETS BUILT
When you grew up, you were offered a series of voices, of possible stories to tell yourself. You fell over. Perhaps your mother said, ‘Oh dear, never mind.’ That simple phrase fed a myth of yourself as someone who doesn’t mind. In adulthood, perhaps you still say to yourself ‘Oh dear, never mind.’ This becomes part of the voice of your imaginary self.
This imaginary self has a lot of phrases it has adopted. Perhaps your father, or others in your childhood, said aggressive things to you. If they said ‘You idiot,’ then this phrase becomes available to you. In adulthood, you may find yourself saying to yourself ‘You idiot’. You are incredibly absorbent when young. You will adopt a huge number of phrases from others, but in particular you will unconsciously internalise the core phrases of those closest to you. You will pay close attention to your parents or your primary carers as they interpret the world for you. Eventually, what you have learned becomes a phrasebook of ‘you’ language, and you take it through your adulthood.
FROM LANGUAGE TO ‘REALITY’
When you are older, this instinctive language informs a set of pictures of yourself. Furthermore, the absence of language can make you form ‘blind spots’, things about yourself that you cannot see. Thus, if your father called you a ‘numpty’ when you were clumsy, but was silent when you looked beautiful… then you will be able to see ‘numpty you’, but you will be blind to ‘beautiful you’. It will be as though beautiful you does not exist.
Your adult reality is made up of all these perceptions, informed by whatever phrases and images were offered to you about yourself when you were young. So your adult self, as you see it, is as imaginary as a character in a fairytale, an amalgam of what you believed and internalised from the so-called information fed to you by your carers. You believed them! But what else were you supposed to do?
FAIRY TALE YOU… OR A NEW STORY?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of growing up with this weirdly wrong picture of yourself? Of having a brain stuffed with the biases, perceptions and blind spots of your ancestors, of those who had power over you?
Well, it depends what you want to do next. It can be somewhat comforting to grow up with, and then hang on to, a myth. Donald Trump, the US president, had a father who gave him a fairytale based on doing deals, on never giving in. He has used it, for better or for worse, to continue to develop an adult self-image as a bull-headed dealmaker. It has benefits. It goes with an idea of ‘protecting your own’, of defending the ‘family’ of America. But this self-image came with blind spots. Some people who thrive on a language of self-protection, of ‘us and them’ strength and challenge, find it hard to find the time to empathise with the weak, or even to see themselves as weak. If your father taught you self-talk that eliminated self-doubt, then you can grow into an adult that can’t afford self-doubt… it doesn’t fit with your self-image.
Donald Trump is changing, as he realises for himself the limitations of hard talk. And he’ll change his view of himself accordingly, finding new languages that express kindness and compromise. I’m sure he will be happier for it, as his hard side will have a balancing softer side.
CHOOSING YOUR FUTURE
What you choose for yourself will depend on what you like and dislike about your current self-image.
I will offer you this idea as a starting point: YOU ARE EMPTINESS. The reason I say this is that it is important you realise that everything you think about yourself is, by definition, wrong. It is a fairy tale, all of it. It all depends on perspective, and therefore none of it has authority over you.
This frees you up to decide where you go next. You can choose whatever labels and phrases best suit your intentions. You do not need to make use of those internalised stories you picked up when young. In case you hadn’t noticed, the past is, well, past, isn’t it? Why hang on to things that are irrelevant now?
I would like to suggest that you choose your future, start collecting friends, stories, language and pictures that reflect the ‘you’ that you would like to develop.
Take some time, perhaps a few hours, to go collecting. Use the internet, or a library… or simply go out for a walk in a town. Notice for yourself what things, words, phrases, styles, and images appeal to you. When I say appeal, I mean make you feel somehow more than you are, that liberate you in some way, that make you feel lighter, happier, more content. Probably, they are the people, objects and stories that want to support your next stage of development.
Collect a few pictures that inspire you. Note down some phrases that free you up.
As I say, it need only be a few hours, but give yourself that time to escape your usual ‘stories’, and seek some new ones that work for you.
WHY THE EXERCISE?
The reason for the activity is this. Your past stories are like a city that has built itself inside you. They have an advantage, in that they are ingrained from your childhood learnings. If you are going to create a new self-story, then you need to escape, for a while, those old languages and ways.
A FINAL THOUGHT
Good luck collecting your new self. I hope you find some nice new things to say, be and think. Don’t forget, though, that this new self will be as much a fabrication as the old self. We cannot escape the fact that YOU ARE EMPTINESS.
So, in among it all, try relaxing occasionally into emptiness. Drop all your self-definitions and just watch everybody. You may find it brings you a lot of peace.
Whatever you think you are, this is an imaginary story. This is good news for those trying to escape negative self-talk. Your negativity is inherited from childhood carers. These childhood carers had significant blind spots, and their views about you, and the stories they offered you, were as mythical as fairy tales. Right now, as always, you are free to start selecting your own new story. Imagine yourself as EMPTINESS, ready to be filled with whatever you find helps you next. As an exercise, seek out and collect some pictures and phrases that inspire you. Give yourself a break from ‘old self’, and let ‘new self’ start developing.
But remember, at the end of the day YOU ARE EMPTINESS. All stories are made up. This is quite liberating, and brings a wise peace.