Shedding the false identity

Way back in 2012, I wrote an article called Our Sense of Identity versus Who We Rally Are. In it, I propose the concept that we often confuse our identity with various roles or circumstances we inhabit for a time, none of which is our true self. Now, I want to expand on that idea, particularly in regards to things we learned to believe about ourselves growing up.

As I’ve said, humans have a strong need to form an identity, to answer the question, “Who am I?” For whatever reason, we seem to be the only animal that has this need, as far as we can tell. It seems unlikely that cows or giraffes or blue-fin tuna are ever gripped with anxiety because they don’t know the real me. Lucky them! That’s one less thing to worry about. But we humans, with our big, sophisticated brains, do think about or even obsess over our identity.

When we use the term identity, we are talking about one of two possible things. The first and most common idea isn’t our true identity, but simply a set of beliefs we have learned about ourselves, not all of which are based in fact. We think of this as our identity, but it’s not, really. It’s just a set of beliefs. The second idea is our true identity, which for the vast majority of us, is unknowable – at least, on this particular plane of existence. Those lucky few who have glimpsed the truth of their identity will tell you the whole concept of identity is a lot simpler than you would think.

Because our true identity is mostly unknowable (and nothing that requires any worry), let’s talk about that first idea, the set of beliefs about ourselves. When we are born, we know virtually nothing, except that some things feel good and others don’t. But we very quickly begin to learn about our environment and ourselves. One of the first things we learn is the concept of good and bad. We are rewarded when we are good and punished when we are bad, for the most part.

As we grow, our brain develops and we become more capable of increasingly sophisticated thoughts. All the while, we are being bombarded with messages about ourselves and our worth. These messages come first and foremost from parents, but also from siblings, extended family members, peers, teachers, and the culture at large. So from an early age, we begin absorbing messages about ourselves. Some of them are verbal, and some are non-verbal. Here’s an example of a non-verbal message: when parents are emotionally unavailable to a child, the child perceives that as a message that says “I’m not important to them.” Here’s what a child is not going to think in that situation: “Gee, mom and dad are emotionally unavailable, which is unfortunate for me, but it is not a statement about my worth as a person, so I won’t let it effect my self-esteem.”

In a perfect world, we would all grow up learning to believe that we are loved just as we are, that our parents are glad we’re here, and that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with us. But that’s not the world we live in. Some people are lucky, in that they grew up in a reasonably healthy environment that fostered a belief in them that they are okay. This doesn’t mean they are never going to experience personal issues, but it does provide a fairly solid foundation to build on. I call this the “sense of okay-ness.”

Not everyone is so lucky. Many of us grew up learning to believe there was something wrong with us, and these beliefs are incorporated into our sense of self, our “identity.” The belief, “There is something wrong with me,” is at the heart of virtually all depression, and a great deal of anxiety. It’s very difficult to be a reasonably happy person when one is burdened with the belief that they are defective, or inadequate, or a burden, or bad in some way. This doesn’t mean any of those things are true, but if we believe them, they are going to have a profound effect on how we feel in general.

This is why an integral part of doing therapy can be referred to the process of shedding the false identity. Put simply, it means challenging and discarding beliefs that are false, and that perpetuate feelings of guilt and shame in us. 

This is not an easy task, for several reasons. First and foremost, these beliefs are deeply ingrained in us. Some of these messages go back to a time before we have concrete memories, and therefore feel as if they have “always been there.” But remember, when we were born, we were basically a blank slate. So, technically speaking, negative beliefs about the self weren’t always there. Newborns don’t have low self-esteem, or high self-esteem, for that matter. We have no concept of self-esteem at that age, because we have not yet learned the concepts of good and bad. So, while the feelings of low self-worth were not alway there, they might have been there for as long as we can remember.

Regardless of their origin, however, by the time we are adults, we have incorporated these beliefs in such a way that they feel like a part of us. They have become part of our “identity.” There is a term in psychology called “shame-based identity,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Again, this is not to be confused with our actual identity. It’s just a collection of negative beliefs about oneself, and that’s all it is. It just so happens that most of those beliefs are inaccurate, or exaggerations, or just downright lies. But this brings us to the next reason that they are so hard to let go of: because humans are deeply attached to their “identity,” even when it makes them miserable.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, humans have a strong need to form an identity. How strong? Really strong. So strong, in fact, that many of us would rather hold onto a set of beliefs that make us unhappy than say, “I don’t know who I am.” Imagine that! What this tells us is that the lack of a solid “identity” can make us tremendously anxious. So we cling to beliefs that create anxiety and depression as a way of avoiding the anxiety of not knowing who we are.

Some years ago, I witnessed a dramatic example of this. I had been working with a client who had been told repeatedly by his father that he was a worthless piece of trash that couldn’t do anything right. This assessment was completely absurd, as evidenced by the many accomplishments by the client, but he still believed it. In fact, it was that belief that drove him to accomplish so much; an attempt to prove to himself that he was okay. It hadn’t worked so far. One day, during a session, I basically told him he needed to recognize the falseness of his father’s claim, and to look at the evidence to the contrary. To my alarm, he proceeded to have a full-blown anxiety attack on my couch. For a moment, I thought I might have to call an ambulance (not that he was in any danger – he just thought he was). Eventually, I was able to coax him out of it. Later, I realized what had happened. I was prodding at his sense of identity by suggesting he wasn’t the horrible person he had been led to believe he was. His anxiety attack might better be described as an identity crisis. He became overwhelmed with the fear that he wasn’t the person he thought he was, even though that sense of self filled him with shame.

Not everyone is as attached to their “identity” as the client described, but most of us are pretty attached to it. (By the way, that was our last session, as he fired me soon afterward.) This means the process of shedding the false identity can create some anxiety, which is temporary. It might take some time to fully grasp the notion that not knowing who you are isn’t the slightest bit dangerous, and no one has ever died from it. Someone asked me recently if, after shedding the false identity, he should try to replace it with a new one, or simply get used to the idea that he didn’t need to know who was the “real me.” I replied by stating either one was fine. Some of us are going to really want to know who they are, while others are okay not knowing. 

An easier question to answer than, “Who is the real me?” is, “What is not the real me?” Here’s a short list of things that are not the real you:

  • your body
  • any job you’ve ever held
  • any label you’ve ever been tagged with, such as “loser,” “weirdo,” “worthless,” “failure,” etc.
  • any diagnosis
  • any illness, scars, or injury
  • any role you have ever inhabited
  • your “status”

Some people have responded to this list by stating, “That doesn’t leave much.” In a way, they are right. There is a whole bunch of stuff that we carry around that isn’t who we are, even if we identify with it. Some of these things are like an anchor around our necks. We have to drag them everywhere we go — or not. By shedding the false identity, we are attempting to get rid of as much baggage as we possibly can, once we realize it’s not us. This can be quite liberating. If you’ve ever had to carry something really heavy for a long time, you know what a relief it is to finally be able to put it down.

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