Sunday, August 22, 2010

Who Do *YOU* Say You Are?

There’s a portion of the Bible wherein Jesus puts some of his disciples in the hot-seat. He asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s an interesting question. Earlier in Jesus’ life it is reported that he was tempted by the devil:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone." Jesus answered him, "It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test." (Mat 4:1-7 NIV)

These are events in which one’s identity is questioned. What question is more elemental than knowing who we are – yet it is a question that plagues many of us. It’s a question that for most of us is fluid. Some of us would say, “I know who I am.”

Really? Do you really know who you are? Maybe… or maybe not.

Have you ever said or heard someone else say, “I’m so mad at my self.” It almost sounds like three parties are involved. There’s “I” – and then the “self”, which is apparently owned by the “my”. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “I don’t know why I did such a foolish thing.” It sounds like two parties are involved.

Murray Bowen, MD discussed the concept of “individuation” (Bowen used the term in a very different manner than did Carl Jung, MD – try not to be confused.). Bowen suggested that individuation refers to one's ability to separate one's own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family of origin (including extended family for many generations). Bowen spoke of people functioning on a scale; individuals with "low differentiation" are more likely to become fused with the dominant family emotions they depend on others for approval and acceptance. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them, or they attempt to force others to conform to themselves. They are more vulnerable to stress and they struggle more to adjust to life changes.

Murray believed that to be “individuated” is an ideal that no one realizes perfectly. Usually, we recognize that we need others, but we strive to depend less on others' acceptance and approval. Hopefully, we do not merely adopt the attitude of those around us, but acquire their better traits thoughtfully, winnowing chaff from grain. If we are more individuated, we are less prone to impulsive reactions that were shaped by generations of emotional family traditions. What we decide and say matches what we do. When we act in the best interests of the group, we choose thoughtfully, not because we are caving in to relationship pressures.

As I’ve said in the past, I derive many of my ideas for these columns from my patient/teachers.

Recently, my patients have discussed their concept of self – some believe it is a monolith, for others it is plural. For some it is defined by the culture, their family or their imagined sense of what culture or family would want. The question has been asked, “Am I authentic or am I presenting a sham. This is an unusually difficult question that only the courageous can answer with honesty. My patient told me, “It’s a bitch when you start believing your own PR.” Another patient described it as a “soulless existence.”

20 years ago, I had a small library of perhaps 2000 books. At the time, I told my self (How many parties are in that last statement?) that I was buying these books because I might need them as reference; perhaps as I was writing some imagined ground-breaking book. In retrospect, I was amassing these books for the impression it might make on a visitor to my home. Probably, visitors would have thought, “A smart guy lives here.” I may have read 10% of the books. I told my self (There are those three characters again!) that I’d get around to reading the rest – “some day”. During a moment of unusual honesty with my self, I donated 90% of the library to a worthy cause. It felt like something had died… perhaps, some part of my fake, sham veneer. I was individuating – I felt lighter – I was less fake.

When one predominantly lives the fake life, the inevitable result is diminished self worth – because the real life is not lived – perhaps the real life is even disowned. We can develop a kind of emotional amnesia as we try to be someone other than who we really are.

I still recall the day when I received notice that I passed my State Board license; I ran five blocks to my parents home – without knocking, I burst in and threw the license down on the table in front of my father and exclaimed, “I passed the %$@#” A good, but sad example of an un-individuated person. In this case my father was baffled - it was my imagination of proving something. I was trying to prove something I imagined was important.

One patient described walking into a casino where he was known to be a big roller and bigger tipper. This self was a forgery – his real life is pedestrian. Perhaps Thurber described it in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. Another patient described the thrill of high-risk sex – “It such a relief not to be the boring me.”

How many remember the movie from 2002, “Catch Me If You Can”; it’s the story of Frank Abagnale whose real life was so painful that he embarked on a series of fake identities that helped him feel better. Ultimately his fakery can’t be perpetuated any longer.

  • Is your life an unauthorized biography written by someone else?
  • Are you trying to live up to the standards set by your mother or father – grandmother or grandfather?
  • Are you trying to keep up with the Jones’ or your brother?
  • How did your idea of “a fulfilled life” develop?
  • Who is/was the author of that idea?
  • Perhaps it was the reverse – you don’t want to be like your Uncle that was disowned so try to be the opposite.

Perhaps you are one of those very rare and courageous individuals who lives an autobiographical life. Those who live their own life have not chosen the easy way; they are an endangered species and will not commonly truck with those who have taken an easy path. These intrepid ones suffer from what my teacher called, “the disease of abnormal integrity.”

  • Who are you trying to please?
  • Is your life a forgery of what you feel is expected?
  • Have you chosen your own path?
  • Are you a people pleaser?

I will end this small essay with a quote from Martha Graham:

"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others"

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