From the first time that,as babies, we recognize ourselves in the mirror, we learn to base our sense of identity on our outer appearance. If someone asks us to describe ourselves, we give our name,the colour of our hair, our height and shape, and then perhaps our occupation, our marital and economic status,our religion,and so on. But is this really who we are? For most of us there is only a very small chance that a stranger could truly know us by the labels we have given ourselves. If probed further, we might go on to describe ourselves by our feelings or circumstances: “I am a sad person”, “I am unlucky”. This approach,however,is just as inaccurate: we may feel sad, and we may have been the subject of misfortune, but these facts are not what we are.
We cannot be our emotions or our circumstances, because these aspects are transitory. Identifying with our labels gives us a sense of personal security. We feel comfortable with the descriptions that we give ourselves because they provide us with identity without our having to face the deeper aspects of self. However, the idea that our labels (the boundary posts of our comfort zone) represent safety is a myth. By fencing ourselves in, we run the risk of another person pulling up a post or two by perceiving us differently from the way in which we perceive ourselves. The gap in the fence undermines our self-confidence because it goes against what we have taught ourselves to believe.
Even if the label challenged is a “bad” one, such as “I am unattractive”, our confusion may prevent us from deriving positive value out of the other’s esteem. Identity can be easily confused with the roles that we play (parent, boss, and so on). As a result, we might find ourselves playing the wrong role in a certain scene. If our role as a professional becomes our identity, we might, while at home, behave as if we were in the office. This can lead to friction as we interact: our partner may dislike being treated with the distance that we should reserve for our colleagues.
Matching our thinking with the scene we are in means learning that our roles are merely the leaves of a tree whose roots are our true self. Awareness of the differences between our roles and our true identity (and of the influence of our roles on our actions) also helps us to cultivate an understanding of others. If someone does something wrong, or something against us, we are able to see that they too may be acting from an inappropriate sense of self. They have momentarily lost the plot.This insightful understanding is the basis of compassion, enabling us to reach out with more relaxed and forgiving hands.
LEARN TO RELAX
by Mike George