We pass through life like a sponge, or a sticky surface, picking up bits and pieces of experiences every waking hour. A fragment of a sound, a flitting glimpse, or a powerful moment all enter our memory through the faithful conduits – our senses.
Once inside the memory, all “outside sensory fragments” gets progressively shuffled and reattached into an ever-changing mosaic. This experiential mosaic gets mixed with the “inside sensory fragments” – our perceptions, thoughts, memories of memories and all the fleeting emotions that are being generated at all times. And so, rather than a static perception of your own self, you have an ever changing internal image – a kaleidoscope. This is your subjective image – a fascinating picture of which you are the only spectator. The rest perceive you in a limited and myopic way – devoid of your memories, your emotions, your experiences, your thoughts and perceptions. Consequently, you have no one to share with the most existential question of all: “who am I?” Even the closest, most loving of your observers, are limited by their own subjective sense of self and the narrow spectrum they are able to perceive of you.
Whether liberating or scary it befalls up to you to define yourself to yourself. No one can tell you who you are because they do not know. And those who tell you they know are invariably missing a large part of the picture.
Since our perception of ourselves is constantly shifting, the question “who am I?” seems to be hopelessly elusive. Being able to observe yourself with detached objectivity, without your own self being involved, is impossible. As in quantum mechanics, as soon as you observe yourself you are instantly altered.
What is the “real you”? Is there a fundamental, essential core of who you are? A “you” who is independent of your observers and your own changing perception of yourself? Does anything gets created when you are born and continues “with you” for the rest of your life? You might even ask, is there anything that is me and is larger than my mortal life? Is there a me that existed before I was born and would continue after I die?
I for one do not believe there is a hardcore, immutable, real you, that hides under all the layers accumulated with the years. Of course our brain is wired in unimaginable complex way and some of the wiring seems permanent – at least less accessible to change. But our real self is ever changing. It is our myths about ourselves that freezes our evolution, as it is not in sync with the changes of our lives.
You may think: Does it really matter? I live my life very well without chasing after who I am. I don’t care for unnecessary philosophical paradoxes and existential angst; just want to live my life without complicating it.
Indeed, Many get extremely uncomfortable when asked, “who are you?” The most common answer I encounter is, I don’t know. Some even say emphatically, I don’t want to know! We are scared of having an honest self-evaluation. And so we create layers of myth to separate and isolate us from our “real selves”.
Most of us feel distressed by the irreversible. Simply put, you may be worried that if forced to really, honestly, look at yourself you will never be able to lie to yourself again. Perhaps you fear that uncovering the “real you” would justify your insecurities, and validate your self-loathing. You have worked so hard to convince yourself you are a certain way, and here comes the “real you” and throws the truth in your face. You may fear you will become aware that there was, after all, something to hide. And this awareness would irrevocably devastate your ability to hide behind your “tried and true” well-worn masks.
Successful psychotherapy is ultimately about self-discovery. And a desirable outcome is attaining authentic relationship with yourself. I find the fear of authenticity to be the major obstacle on the road to emotional recovery and strength. Often, while dealing with the fear of self-reflection I am tempted to “just let it go.” Just stay on the surface and be supportive and assuage the fear. There is nothing wrong with that, and frankly it is often very helpful, especially in crisis times. But my patient’s inner world is not as forgiving as I am. Disguising the inner core of who you are claims a severe price for the concealment.
Metaphorically, your ongoing relations with your emotional masquerade can be described in this way: Imagine that when you were very young you used to walk around wearing a costume. You were very cute and you felt great. But as you grow in years, the costume does not grow with you. Eventually you end up with an ill fitting, worn out costume maladjusted to your changing life circumstances. Hiding behind a badly adapted costume is actually worse than no costume at all.
And here lies the simple truth about life: we cannot lie to ourselves and we do not have to lie to the others. We cannot be “more” than who we are – we are bound by our own set of hard-wired neurons. But by hiding from our true self we risk living an ambiguous second-rate life. It is like looking at the world with fogged up lenses. You get the general sense but not the details.
Life becomes so much richer when the details are in focus. The little things, the everyday things, the places we always return to, where we mostly are.
The large picture is too large for our control. We cannot ensure that all the pieces would fit together. We cannot reach, we don’t complete, we have no time, we chase our own tail never fully satisfied.
That is ultimately the paradox of self-lies: you cannot lie to the person who already knows the truth. You know who you are. And it is not worse or better – It is exactly you! The wonderful reward of self-discovery is the ability to spend quality time with your own self. Nothing to hide, no need to distract. You are enjoying the company of yourself. Imagine your surprise to discover you had loathed the made up self! The self you really weren’t. Your guilt, your pain, your regrets owe as much to self-deception as to the other aspects of your life.
Once you are convinced that a genuine self-discovery will transform and upgrade your life, you are ready to embark on your psychological expedition. And you need a companion much like a deep-sea diver, to watch your back.
That is one of the sublime pleasures of my profession. Putting on the gear, making sure it fits, and plunging together into the depth. This is a journey that would allow you to feel yourself, rather than look at yourself, be yourself rather than conceive a made-up self.
In Metamorphosis Kafka never says exactly what Gregor Samsa turned into: Some sort of a giant, insect-like creature. Vladimir Nabokov famously said that Samsa was a big beetle with wings under its shell. It could have flown away. Instead Gregor Samsa, who was his family’s tireless provider, becomes increasingly a burden on his family, until he crawls back to his bedroom and dies to rid them of him. In my mind it conjures up the scope of old age – the sad metamorphosis into a burdensome existence.
As you slowly transform from a newborn into the rest of your life, your metamorphosis is preordained by your genes and shaped by your circumstances. You ultimately have very little effect on either one. But underneath the relentless river of time, in the depth of your mind, lies the secret to your happiness. You can plunge into the deep and soar up to the peaks charting another trajectory to your life. Something that you own, that depends on you, which transcends the reduction of your life into submission and growing exhaustion. You have a choice.