When we try and define who we are, we often generate a lot of labels for ourselves: ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘child’, ‘parent’, ‘teacher’, ‘footballer’ etc. But are these labels the truth of who we are? We were a person before we became a parent, we will be the same person when our parents die. We can leave our job and change our profession but we remain essentially the same person. So where is the real you? This can be a deeply spiritual question and some religions even suggest that there is no real you: even our bodies are continuously changing so that even within our physical bodies we can struggle to find our true core self. Our cells are thought to be renewed completely every 7 years, so today’s self has not a single cell in common with our self 7 years ago. If we look at our body we can remove many body parts, but no one body part is our core self as each could be replaced and we would still be ‘us’. The only organ we couldn’t replace would be the brain as it would change our thoughts and memories. But if we look at each thought we can’t find a single thought that defines us; our thoughts fluctuate and change. If our core self was the way we respond rather than the thoughts, then this would suggest we were inflexible and incapable of change- which clearly isn’t true.

The core self can be thought of as the stage on which all our experiences occur – our emotions, thoughts, sensations and memories are actors upon this stage. This self has endless possibilities and is always capable of great change. As we grow up, we come to know what we like and what we don’t like, and can justify why we do certain things. We unfortunately begin to believe that this narrative is who we truly are, even though these stories do not exist inherently. We are actually flexible and capable of change, yet we trap ourselves into following a script and acting out the same play for our entire lives. This play is the ‘conceptualised self’ – it is how we see ourselves. We declare that we are ‘A Professional’, ‘The Victim’, ‘The One Who Suffers’ or ‘The Dumb One’. We collect all the souvenirs of the play – the images, thoughts, and behaviours that bolster our belief that this is our identity.

It is useful for society if you have an identity – or more naturally, several identities for various aspects of our lives (e.g. as a parent, a professional, or a partner). Having an identity makes it easier for others to interpret our behaviour and categorise us. Unfortunately, this can make individuals feel trapped in one story, causing unhappiness and destructive behaviours. For example, an overwhelming need to play the role of ‘The Professional’ may result in someone sacrificing their familial and social relationships simply to continue performing the story of ‘The Professional’. Someone who identifies as ‘The Victim’ may mistrust others and avoid intimacy. Don’t trade the important things in life because of an attachment to a label. Be whoever you want to be, whenever you want to do it. You do not need to consistently act out the same play in life.

The true self is a stage that holds all of your experiences, thoughts, feelings and memories. This true self is larger and more foundational than any identity you may relate to. It is free from the boundaries and limitations of identity and cannot be categorised. For example, if you have the thought “I’m a total failure” – you can be the stage and observe it happening. You can wait a little while, and soon you will notice another thought appearing, and thereafter, another will arise. This is the flow of experience. Moments (and unhelpful thoughts) come and go. They will not destroy you, and you don’t have to let them have a hold over you. By putting some distance between your core, foundational self and the experiences that occur, you will notice that thoughts and emotions don’t control you. You don’t have to BE your experiences – you are the observer and you can use or dismiss these thoughts and emotions however you please. Your stage is a safe and stable place from which you can observe and challenge uncomfortable or feared emotions, memories, thoughts, or sensations.

Make contact with your ‘Core Self’

 

To make contact with our core self we need to develop strong mindfulness skills. We need to be able to view our thoughts, feelings and actions from a distance in a non-judgmental manner. When we can do this we can be in contact with our core self and see its limitless potential. It can be helpful to use metaphors when trying to understand your core self. Below are some suggestions:

  • You are a stage with melodramatic, troublesome actors (thoughts, feelings). You do not have to host the same play with the same actors for your entire life. You are able to hold endless variations on any theme.
  • You are a bus driver with a bus full of unruly passengers (thoughts, feelings). You are aware of your passengers, but you are not defined by them. You are the holder/observer of these experiences.
  • You are a chessboard with various pieces (thoughts, feelings). Some represent negative thoughts and feelings, some represent positive thoughts and feelings, and some are just neutral. We are not however the pieces- our Core Self is actually the chess board. Although some pieces might be sinister, they are not directly threatening to you, the board. Yes, you are making contact with them, but you can simply observe their battles. You are much larger than them, you are stable and whole.

When we are able to separate ourselves from the contextual self (i.e. our experiences, thoughts, sensations), then we are more free to make choices about our values, rather than what we believe a certain identity should desire.

Going beyond your labels: Cognitive Defusion

Surrounding the core self are all the labels/thoughts by which we define ourself. When these labels are stuck on we call this Cognitive Fusion. Fusion is when you identify with the negative self-evaluations (e.g. I’m worthless, I’m ugly, I’m a failure, I’m damaged goods) you give yourself. You do not need to fuse your self with these appraisals. We need to be able to separate ourselves from these labels and understand them for what they truly are: simply words that have gotten stuck on our ‘Core Self’ which can be removed with various strategies to create ‘Cognitive Defusion’.

Exercise: Description vs. Evaluation

Many people make the mistake of believing their self-evaluations to be concrete, descriptive facts. Learning to tell the difference between descriptions and evaluation will help you to notice when you are judging yourself. Observe the following exchange between two people:

A: This notepad is black with gold lettering and lined pages. Do you agree?

B: Yes.

A: I say that this is the best notepad in the world. Do you agree?

B: Uh, I don’t know. There are probably better ones out there.

You can see how the description of the notepad is different from the evaluation. “Best notepad in the world” is not a descriptive fact about the notepad. It is an evaluation, a personal opinion of the notepad. It does not exist in the notepad. In the same way, “worthless” or “failure” is an evaluation that does not exist in you. It is not a fact.

Exercise: Who Are You?

Focus on one of your negative self-appraisals. If you think “I am a person who is depressed”, try to imagine that depression suddenly disappearing. Imagine it not existing, without changing your history, without changing who you are, or changing your circumstances. Who would be shown to be incorrect? Do you feel a small sense of loss at even thinking about detaching yourself from this identity? We are invested in our labels and our life stories. Even if you hate that label, you are still invested in it. Humans naturally want to be consistent and stable – but if this means rigidly encasing yourself in an unhappy life, then it is not worth the suffering.

We can become very attached to thoughts we have about ourselves. We begin to distort the world so that these thoughts appear to be facts. Whenever you say “I am depressed” or “I am a failure”, statistically you can’t be telling the truth 100% of the time. There are definitely moments in your life when you are not depressed, or not a failure. It can feel a little unsettling – are we inconsistent, fickle people if we are not our ‘depressed’ identity 100% of the time? This discomfort may be related to a feeling of being wrong. Were you shown to be incorrect about who you are?

You are not these evaluations of yourself. When these judgmental thoughts arise, simply observe them and allow them to float away into the air.