Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.Alan Watts
In today’s society, we are expected to define who we are and take that self-image as a basis for making life decisions. For example, I’m an introvert, and from that point of view, I choose my career, my social life and, basically, the way I interact with society.
But aren’t we selling ourselves short if we live that way? Are we truly who we are? Or are the attempts to become who we are the reason that we aren’t?
So, why aren’t we who we are? And who do we think we are, which we actually aren’t?
It all begins when we leave the womb. From the moment parents lay eyes on their newborn children, they begin to define what they are. Many observe certain personality aspects in their offspring very early on, and quickly draw conclusions. The child is sensitive, or sporty, shy, or perhaps the strong and silent type.
Based on these observations our parents begin to push us into certain directions that fit the narrative that they have created about us. An energetic child may be pushed into becoming an athlete and the personality of the shy and sensitive kid could be enforced by overprotectiveness. And thus, the children become what the parents designed them to be.
The identification with our self-image continues through adolescence and adulthood. Based on who we think we are and what society tells us to be, we decide what education to follow and what career path we should take. An introverted creative type probably chooses a job as a designer while the extroverted, social butterfly may go for a career in sales or management.
In this case, there’s nothing wrong with introversion or extroversion. Both can be valuable traits. The problem lies in our identification with these traits.
The benefit of a strong identification with, let’s say, introversion gives us the idea that we create order out of chaos. We create an identity for ourselves. In the same way we do this with any label, from INTJ, to alpha male to being a ‘spontaneous’ or ‘boring’ person.
It’s quite convenient to decide that a set of characteristics is simply you. That the evasion of social gatherings and spending every Saturday night reading books or browsing the internet is who you are. Am I a loner because that’s who I am? Or am I a loner because I’ve developed a pattern of behaviors that lead to me secluding myself from social interaction?
By strongly identifying ourselves with a certain label, we close the door to many possibilities. One may say: I get angry quickly. Why? Because that’s who I am.
Well, not so fast.
Is there actually a permanent self? Or are we nothing more than a collection of patterns and habits that have become our comfort zone?
We are more malleable than we think. By applying different habits we break with existing patterns of behavior. And by repeating these over and over again, we’re able to transform our personality into something entirely different.
Moreover, isn’t it so that certain radical events can result in a personality switch overnight? Aren’t we going from role to role, adapting ourselves to every situation, being a different person everywhere we go, in the presence of every different person we meet?
Am I not Einzelgänger online, but a son to my parents, a brother to my siblings, a friend to my social circle, a spectator during a play and a passenger in an airplane? Can I possibly be one personality, always, anywhere, or is it just that I identify with the traits that I deem favorable?
Looking at how flexible the mind actually is, and how we can change roles all the time, and how we have the ability to erode old behavioral patterns and cultivate new ones, it seems quite clear to me that we, in essence, aren’t our story.
So the question is: who are we?
Is there one central self that is unchangeable? Is there something beyond what the Germans call hintergedanken, what Carl Jung called the Shadow, what the Stoics call the philosopher and what the Taoists call the sage?
If we look deeply inside: can we feel it? Can we smell, taste, hear, or see it? Probably, when you do, it’s not the real you. As the Taoists say that the Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao.
But what is it then? And why can’t we grasp it? Why, if we try to define it, we can’t get past what our senses perceive and only come up with vague concepts and descriptions of what we think could be the self?
This is the tragedy of being something that we cannot define. And that’s the reason why all religions and philosophies that ponder over the question ‘who are we?’ can only describe the next best thing. This is why we cannot see the eye that sees, bite the tooth that bites and touch the finger that touches.
This tragedy unfolds in people grasping anything that gives them an idea of who they are, like a drowning person holding onto a wooden plank after escaping a sinking ship. We can’t stand the idea of ‘not being’. We can’t comprehend what it’s like to ‘be’ without thinking and sense perception.
And because we fear that the unpredictable and ever-changing universe will swallow us, we create a strong sense of self: I’m an accountant, I’m an introvert, I’m a YouTuber, I’m a loser.
We choose to pursue certainty in a universe that is inherently uncertain by creating a story that anchors us in the wild waves of the ocean. Unfortunately, by saying yes to a strong and fixed sense of self, we (for a great part) say no to life.
We become rigid and brittle like a dead tree, as opposed to grass that blows along with the wind without resistance and, thus, grows tall and flexible. Or we become a rock in the river stream. And even though we stand strong and firm; the liveliness of the water passes us by until we become eroded and diminished to nothing more than dust.