As a psychologist, many clients want me to help them understand themselves better. Who am I? Who is the ‘real’ me? How do I become more like the real me?
And because I am all seeing and knowing, I am able to tell them and their lives are transformed.
In particular, people going through a transition (for example a career change) are understandably keen to understand who they really are, because this will help guide them and inform their decisions.
It is very easy to believe that if we can just understand who we are, then we can be liberated to be that person. It is an alluring thought, as the pull to certainty always is.
The problem is that whilst the idea of a ‘core’ you; a fixed, immutable essence of you (that sounds like a brand of perfume: Immutable Essence of You by Chanel) is alluring, it is also dangerous. It can lead people to see their lives from a narrow perspective, as the content of their history and experience. Then we create powerful stories of who we ‘really’ are – I am an introvert, I am bad at Maths, I am depressed. In ACT this is known as the self as content perspective.
Yet there is another perspective of the self which is where we are the context or the holder of our ever changing experiences. This allows us to take a more fluid, flexible perspective of our selves. One exercise I like to do with people to explore this idea is to take their Myers Briggs ‘type’ and then list all the ways in which they regularly act against their type. It is easy to do, and helps loosen the power of the self as content perspective.
In this short video Julian Baggini explores exactly this idea, but what’s interesting is that he does this without any knowledge of ACT, thereby bringing a fresh perspective. He asks whether the self is an illusion, and concludes that this is not a helpful question. It is more helpful to see the self as a process, rather than a thing.
It is this view of our self as a process which can liberate us. Instead of something fixed to discover, our selves become something we create. Instead of ‘being’ depressed, I am someone who sometimes experiences feelings of depression. What I like about this advert is that it takes just such a view – I have pain and my life is bigger than pain:
In turn this flexible, ‘context’ perspective helps us act more flexibly. We are free to experiment, and to transcend narrow, fixed views of ourselves.
Instead of asking who we really are, we can begin to see that we are the person we create, one behaviour at a time.