Not many of us end up exactly the kind of person we thought we would be. Somewhere along the way we got derailed from our path towards our potential. The “me” that we have become doesn’t make us happy, yet something is holding us back from becoming a better me. We’re waiting for the right moment to set our changes in motion.
We know that, in theory, change should be easy — after all, it’s only a matter of doing something else than we usually do. We know where we want to go, but not how we would get there. “Sometimes I wish I was not myself. Yet this is who I am, this is the real me”. These are common thoughts. It’s as if our vision of our higher self seems unrealistic, unattainable, and too radically different from who we feel we are.
Intellectually we understand that we are often our own biggest obstacle, yet internally we don’t know how to overcome ourselves. How do you get out of your own way? To answer this question, let’s first consider what got you stuck in the first place.
From a very young age we form childish beliefs and adopt beliefs from others. We are all products of everything we have ever been exposed to. Our environment, our upbringing, our experiences and our culture, all these things have had some influence on who we have become.
Personally, I struggled in my teenage years. During high school I felt that my peers kept me from experimenting and growing as an individual. Whenever I tried doing or saying something different than usual, they’d ignore or disapprove of it. They chose my character for me and denied my attempts to alter or escape it. Slowly, I accepted the role I had been assigned as someone boring and insignificant. I came to see in myself what they saw in me, which was very little.
Those of us who lacked determination and self-esteem in our younger years would easily get caught up in such negative spirals. We didn’t notice at what point in time, after someone else had called us worthless or ugly or stupid long enough, we started to call ourselves the same thing.
This dynamic can persist through our adult lives and arise in the workplace too. Adults can be even more vicious than kids, and if we don’t fight to define ourselves, others will define us in a way that suits them. The wicked prey on the weak.
Even if we never experienced bullying, social exclusion or anything of that sort, society still installs beliefs in us that are limiting and detrimental to our well-being. We aren’t looking at the world through fresh eyes, we see it through the eyes of those who came before us. We aren’t reconstructing ourselves from moment to moment, we aren’t considering all possible actions at all times.
For good reason, of course. If we did, we would have to contemplate for all eternity what to do next and never get anything done. Instead we have patterns, habits, automatic modes of operation, and conscious as well as subconscious beliefs about ourselves and the world. We call this an identity.
Our identity is the compass we use to navigate through all the possibilities life presents. The benefit of an identity is that it lets us make choices and get things done. It instructs us on what’s important to us (and whether it’s okay for us to want the things we want). We use it to decide whether someone is an enemy or a friend, whether something is good or bad, and whether it’s congruent with our beliefs.
But since our identity is what lets us know we know who we are, where to go and what to do, it is also our identity that restricts and dictates our lives. It creates the trajectory we will follow until we either change or die. We can become anyone, we can do anything, but our identity narrows a million possible paths down to just one. We may even forego a choice that is better for us simply because it isn’t in line with who we think we are.
In spite of this, or maybe because of it, we become quite content with this narrow identity. When we see an opportunity to walk a different path or sense that change would be good for us, we can close our eyes and tell ourselves that path is not for us. “I am who I am.” Having made up our mind gives us a paradoxical kind of freedom: At least we’re free from having to choose, to think, to question. We never have to wonder how things might have been, who we could have been.
We encourage each other to think this way with maxims you’ve heard all your life: “Always be yourself. Follow your gut and do what feels right. Find someone who likes you for you. You’re good enough just the way you are.” We like these maxims because they’re comforting and inoffensive. They imply that we’re pretty much perfect and have no need to change. The freedom to be ourselves and believe what we want is even a democratic ideal.
This raises the questions of why our identity is so important to us. Why do we care so much about who we are and why are we so reluctant to change it?
Identification and Investment
The fundamental purpose of an identity is to give us some sense of knowing — where we belong, to whom we belong, who we are and how much we are worth. We want to know our place and purpose in the world.
We achieve this result through identifications. “Identification” comes from the Latin word “idem”, which means “the same”, and “ficare” which means “to make”. So to identify with something means to make yourself the same as the thing.
Using identifications, we mentally anchor ourselves to a place we call home, an activity that we call our career, a name that we call our family name, and so on. Or, conversely, we may rebel against such classical markers and define ourselves by the fact that we don’t belong in that place we came from because we’re world travelers, we are definitely different from our family and insist that we are something more than just our job. In either case, we tell a story about who we are in relation to the world around us.
Due to poor circumstances, some people fail to construct a healthy identity. In their own view, their most salient and defining features are that they never seem to accomplish what they want. They don’t have a job, their family doesn’t love them, or some other negative fact. They anchor their identity in things that don’t give them a sense of worth.
One might wonder why they don’t replace their identifications with better ones. When looking from the outside it isn’t apparent what’s stopping someone with depression or low self-esteem from focusing on positive traits instead.
Although their identity is psychologically painful, it gives them a sense of knowing; it provides answers to those fundamental questions: Their identity lets them “know” (others have convinced them or they have convinced themselves) that they are worthless, belong nowhere, deserve to be lonely and have no purpose except to suffer.
It’s a well-known fact in the psychology of investment1 that the more we invest in something, the harder it is to let it go. If someone has spent lots of money on a particular stock and gotten their hopes up, they’re unlikely to sell it again even if the stock is losing value and turns out to be a poor investment. Similarly, if we’ve invested lots of time in a romantic partner, it’s hard to emotionally let go of them even if we can see they have a negative impact on us or we rationally know the relationship can no longer work.
So it is with our identities: Once we’ve invested years into fusing ourselves with particular traits, achievements or beliefs, our whole reality depends on our continued identification with them. Without these, with no principle to guide us, our existence would seem meaningless and disorderly, we would lose our sense of belonging.
The fear of this uncertainty is usually greater than the pain of low self-esteem. Even if our identifications are depressing and detrimental to our well-being, they are difficult to relinquish because a sense of knowing is a very fundamental human need, and is generally a higher priority than having a healthy idea of who we are. We prefer a negative self-perception over having no self-perception.
But if we are more fortunate, we come to identify ourselves with things that give us a sense of pride or worth. A positive identification may be something like, “I know I am valuable because I do good work and my colleagues respect me”. At its best, an identity can give us a feeling of self-esteem.
So you might say that at least our positive identifications are good for us. In the short term they might be. But they come with a catch: As long as you define your worth by some external thing, some fact or something that is currently true but will not always be true, then your worth can be taken away.
The confidence you gain from your identifications is temporary and, unfortunately, shallow. The job, the achievement, the status, the partner or the looks you have may disappear, and when they do, how can you be valuable? No matter from which object you derive your value, this approach is a double-edged sword: If having a certain thing is what makes you valuable, then losing that thing will make you worthless.
Essentially, the problem is that these things are situational and therefore not fully under your control. It’s not up to you whether you attain the things you strive for or whether the things you cherish will always remain in your life. You can choose how much you practice before a competition, but not who you’re up against. You can make sure to let your partner know how much you love them, but you can’t force them to love you back. Your feeling of being of value depends on reality staying the way it is, and nothing ever stays the same forever. As I’ve discussed before, nobody from the outside, no possessions and no amount of fame can ever be a permanent proof of your value.
The only solution is to drop the search. Let go of whatever it is you think you must have, do or be before you’re lovable. Your parents’ love, your ex, your peers’ recognition, whatever it is you identify with that is supposed to give you value — release it. You’ve been asking yourself if you are good enough, but as long as you are addressing the question, then the matter is up to debate. It’s an impossible quest. Don’t engage in it, don’t dwell on an insolvable problem. When the doubt arises again, a moment of meditation is all you need to leave it be.
In my experience, this is the only approach that gives peace of mind. It is the only method (if you can call it that) that frees you from the problem. It doesn’t mean giving up on creating self-esteem, on loving yourself, on having great relationships or on doing meaningful work — you only need to see the futility of, and therefore dropping, all efforts directed at proving your adequacy to anybody. It’s not about letting go of all goals or becoming indifferent to life. It’s about realizing that you are much, much greater and infinitely more amazing than the things you identify with.
You might fear you’ll lose yourself if you don’t hold on to your identifications. If you let go entirely of the ideas you’ve anchored yourself to for so long, there’ll be no “you” left. But let’s take a moment to look at this self you’re afraid of losing.
Becoming No One
Think of a thick, solid candle. When you first light its wick the candle is fresh and new. The next day, after the candle has burned for a while, when it has become shorter and its wax is rolling down its sides, is it then the same candle? Yes and no. It is not a new candle, but neither it is the same candle as before.
So it is with you: You are always someone, but you’re never the same as you were the day before. Even if the changes are unnoticable to you, you change every day. Either you have new experiences that affect you, or you do what you usually do, and so your old habits, routines and opinions grow stronger than before. In any case, you aren’t the same as you used to be.
Since that’s the case, what’s noble or meaningful about striving to be “yourself”? “You” will always be changing, “you” can never remain the same anyway. The exact person you are today will never be seen again.
No matter how well you think you know yourself, how certain you are of your core personality or destiny, there will always be, at the back of your mind, a tiny, almost inaudible voice that you would rather not hear because it asks questions you’ve tried to suppress: What if everything you believe about yourself is a lie? How far are you from your potential? Can and should you change? What if you ought to stop being “you” and start being someone else?
The voice reminds you that even though everything appears the way it appears, maybe things aren’t as they appear at all. Your life could have turned out totally different. Maybe the identity you’ve created is no more “really you” than any other identity you could’ve found.
Self-development is often based on the idea that you are upgrading yourself; that your mission is to go from version 1.4 to 2.0; that you grow by adding more to yourself. An idea that obviously appeals to us, because there is no subject we find more fascinating than our own identity, sometimes to the point of obsession: We believe that the more we talk about it, dig into it and describe it, the more we will grow and illuminate our own true selves. We think a list of adjectives truthfully describes who we are.
But the opposite is the case. The more we describe ourselves, the smaller we become. Until you say who you are, you could be anyone, but once you’ve said it, you’ve limited your scope and possibilities. You’ve squeezed yourself into a box with your name on it.
An identity is a creation of the mind, it exists nowhere else except in our heads. If you close your eyes and look for your self, you won’t find it. Sure, we have habits, we have opinions and patterns, but these are all subject to change. Our identity is only a story we tell ourselves about ourselves.
A dramatic change of who we are is difficult to fit into this story. We try to find an explanation why our changes make sense in our personal narrative, but if we can’t explain a change with a better reason than, “I realized I was wrong”, we think this is an admission of defeat or lack of spine. We may choose not to change lest we reveal that we are incongruent or have weak principles.
But to change in the face of a new insight, experience or realization is the only mature, indeed the only sane, response. It is an indication of honesty and intelligence. It’s the only true way of living: Accepting the world as it is. Tenaciously holding on to beliefs that are either false or detrimental to you will, in the end, cause you more misery than the temporary feeling of uncertainty and internal contradictions during a period of change. In the end, uncertainty (of which path to take, of who you are) is favourable to certainty if that certainty ultimately leads to pain or a limitation of your potential.
So what I propose instead of upgrading yourself, instead of telling a story, instead of holding on to old beliefs out of comfort, is to drop it all. You don’t become wiser or greater by having a stronger or more intricate identity, but by letting go of it. It’s not about adding more to it, but chipping away at it and removing everything superfluous. Don’t upgrade your “self”; slowly break it down. Don’t step up to version 2.0; reset and go back to alpha version 0.0. Face the world with openness, curiosity and excitement.
For example, I thought I wasn’t a very masculine man. I had somehow picked up the story that being manly was about being reckless, having large muscles and a fast car. I eventually rejected this idea — not to release myself from the hard work of achieving things, because I’d still like to get in better shape and maybe own a car someday. But it turns out masculinity means different things to different people. A man who’s considered masculine Northern Europe might be considered a soft or excessively vain man in Russia or Argentina. I think masculinity is more about living a purposeful and exploratory life. A vague definition, and in any case, I’ve chosen it’s not important for me to live up to other people’s ideas about manhood.
Cut off all the labels, all that is old, all the ideas others have given to you. Remain open. If you eventually come back to some of the same conclusions, no harm has been done. If you sometimes contradict yourself, so what? You are vast, you contain multitudes, you grow each day.
Besides, the only person in the world who actually cares about which “you” is the real “you” is yourself. If others admonish you for changing, it’s not because they know better than you who you really are — nobody knows, because there is no true self. The reason they want you to stay the same is because they are comfortable with you who are.
If they accepted your changes, they would also have to critically examine themselves and whether they, too, ought to make revisions. If you take a critical stance to your shared beliefs, it calls their reality into question. If you suddenly begin to unleash a previously suppressed power, it forces them to consider whether they are falling short of their potential. Most people don’t want that. They want to stay right where they are, right where they think they belong, because it’s comfortable.
It’s okay not to have an identity that dictates what you ought to do next. Choose right then and there, in the moment, be spontaneous. Or examine your patterns and thoughts with a critical eye and make a deliberate choice to do something else than you’ve done before.
When you start making changes, people may look at you weird, but don’t bother with them. Ask yourself who is more real, more alive: Those who do what others tell them to do, who remain the same out of comfort and who keep their dreams and desires secret out of fear? Or those who dare — dare explore their limits, dare try something new, dare look like a fool, dare present themselves to the world, full of flaws and vulnerabilities, and dare believe they might amount to something greater than what they’ve been told?
Rather than trying to define yourself or creating an impressive story, try adjusting your attention. What you focus on in life determines what stories you create about it. If your focus is to enjoy your day to the fullest, to express yourself and engage in something you find meaningful, I bet you will feel more alive and confident than ever before.
As you open the door and start stepping out of your identity, you can step into the unknown with more curiosity than fear, because you cherish integrity of belief higher than any particular belief. The self-doubt that you experience during uncertainty becomes less important than the wisdom which follows it. Excitement, confusion and freedom awaits. If you think you’ve figured it out, it’s time to start over again. To a wise man and woman, every day is a new life.