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There's a lot of talk these days about the authentic self. The common advice, "Just be yourself," is today's take on Shakespeare's, "To thine own self be true." But what most of us don't know is that there is a difference between identity and the authentic self. In fact, most of us have so identified with our identity that we don't know that it is often operating on a level of consciousness that excludes our authenticity.
An identity is a mask and costume we unconsciously wear, to which we have become so accustomed over the years that we do not know that it is not who we actually are. We may, in fact, think that we are being true to ourselves, because this is just what we do. As a practicing psychotherapist, I have commonly heard people describe themselves as, "Well, I'm just one of those people who gives, gives, gives. You know that's just me." What they mean is that this is what they do. This is what they have always done. This is what they have done for so long and so hard, that this is all that they understand of a "me." What they don't know is that there is another "me" down under all of that, a "me" that is seeking to be heard, seeking to be known, and seeking to be lived. They sent that other "me" away into the unconscious years ago, when they were so young that they don't even remember it. They did this sending away because it seemed to be required of them by parents or caregivers who had already decided, whether consciously or unconsciously, who this child was supposed to be.
Depending on which study you read, anywhere between 50% and 90% of our communication is non-verbal. This is so much more true for the child who is pre-verbal. All of their communication with their caregivers is non-verbal. This means that they are picking up information communicated by the body, by the spirit, by the non-verbal cues given off by their primary caregiver. And since they are also, at this early time of their development, looking for mirrors into which to look and define themselves, they often get the external cues mixed up with a mirror.
They might look, for example, into the eyes of a parent who needs to have a child who is very good, makes the parent look very good, never embarrasses the parent, always pleases the parent and the parent's world, and pick up that message without the parent ever speaking it. They might assume that what they see in their parent's eyes, and pick up from the parent's non-verbal cues is actually a mirror, and they might think, "Oh, okay, that's who I am." This child might be picking up a good-guy identity. (This identity is explored in-depth in my book, Letting Go of Good: Dispel the Myth of Good ness to Find Your Authentic Self.)
Children also need very much to belong to the systems in which they were born. If the parent really needs for the child to be good in the way described above, then the child may try to belong to the parent by becoming what that parent needs. In fact, the child would find it very difficult—if not impossible—to say "no" to the parent's need, given the child's own need to belong. So the child starts, even at this very young age, becoming what the parent needs—they will develop a good guy identity.
Depending on the continuing reinforcement of this identity, this child may grow up believing that it is her role in the family to be the good kid. So, she is always trying to serve and please others, always trying to be very loving and kind, always trying to do the right thing. But, of course, since she also has an authentic self, hiding now deep in the unconscious but still full of energy, she may also need to act out of the authentic self from time to time. Or she may develop feelings that are intended to be messages from the authentic self.
For example, if she is always serving others, she may develop some resentments over time. Resentments that say, "I'm always doing loving things towards them, why can't they ever do anything nice for me!?" Or, "I'm so tired, so tired, I just don't want to do that for them right now." These feelings, however, will be shooed away in the name of the identity. In fact the identity will begin to feel very guilty about having such feelings—for these feelings are not loving and kind. But actually, those feelings are trying to save this individual's life. She is being informed of where she might put appropriate boundaries if she will but listen to the messages of the feelings.
But she must not, dare not, listen. She must continue to do good. In fact, over time, guilt becomes the predominate organizer of her life. Guilt says, "You must do this, you have to do this, you should do this, for it is the right thing to do." Guilt raises no questions about authentic desire, authentic compassion, or authentic passion. Those are all hidden in the unconscious. Rather, guilt says, "Get up and do it, now, because it is the right thing to do, and because I'm going to make you feel really terrible if you don't do it."
And so the good guy identity becomes enslaved to guilt. So enslaved, in fact, that she is unable to do anything but what guilt bids her to do. She is totally out of touch with her own desires. She knows nothing about paying attention to her own exhaustion, her own internal voices, her own authenticity. She must always be loving and kind. Even when others are abusive to her, she is unable to draw boundaries, say "no," or leave them if necessary. This is just the "me" that the good guy identity believes to be the truest self. That other voice, the authentic one, is relegated to the back rooms and closets of the living experience.
This person is doomed to continue this pattern until she starts listening to the voice of the authentic self. In order to do that, she might have to walk through some guilt. But the authentic self has many methods of soothing us when we are willing to do the work of becoming authentic.
It isn't easy to imagine that being "good" could be a problem. But we must come to understand that the values called "goodness," instilled from one family to the next, from one culture to the next, can be very different. What is good to one family or culture could be bad to another. Therefore, though we may try and try, goodness is not really a standard that can be adhered to, for its definition fluctuates. But authenticity can be known as truth, and lived as genuineness.
Those who identify with goodness are often stuck in patterns of behavior that are not true to who they actually are. They are split off from any awareness of who they are. If you ask them what they want, they do not know. If you try to help them get in touch with authentic belief or original thought, they do not know these either. What they know is that they will feel very guilty if they don't do what they are supposed to do. And what they are supposed to do is determined by external pressures.
This is obviously a miserable way to live, and all done simply because a person is trying to be good. In fact, they are trying to earn worthiness—a value that cannot be earned, only discovered. It is discovered deep within us when we access and begin to live out of the genuine self. And Letting Go of Good: Dispel the Myth of Goodness to Find Your Genuine Self is going to show you exactly how to go about accessing and beginning to live from your truest self.
Andrea Mathews has nearly thirty years of experience in the mental health and human services field providing and supervising others in the provision of therapy. She’s also a professional trainer and motivational ...