Teach Me Who You Are

by : Timothy Dey, M.D.

We all have a privately held belief system that defines who we think we are. This belief system is composed of ideas that we have accumulated over time that we think describe us accurately.

These ideas came from sources that varied widely in quality. Most of the ideas we have chosen to label ourselves with have come from origins that would be clearly absurd to us if we encountered them for the first time today. Many others have origins that can longer be recalled because they are too old, or trivial, or have been suppressed. Yet these collections of labels are still maintained as part of our self image despite their murky history.

We mistakenly believe that only we can know what our true assessment of ourselves is, because only we have access to our private thoughts. The reality is that our speech and all our actions teach everybody around us about our internal model of ourselves and our world. There is no way to be alive without constantly teaching others about our belief systems.

What we believe is true about ourselves completely determines how we interpret the things we see, the sounds we hear, and the meaning of the events that take place around us. Our beliefs act as filters that serve to reinforce our internal models – we selectively focus on evidence that supports our point of view and ignore evidence that does not. This selectivity of perception takes place on a level that only occasionally enters into our conscious awareness.

A classic example: a child is labeled by parents, teachers or peers as “stupid", and hears it often enough that it is incorporated into that child’s description of self. This child then begins to process experiences in a way that selects for continuing evidence of the label of “I am stupid" (or ugly, fat, or any other pejorative). A different child of equivalent intelligence is labeled “smart", comes to believe it internally, and filters experiences in a way that reinforces that label and rejects its opposite. They go on to have widely different experiences in life based on accepting these labels about who they are.

A difficult but essential exercise in transcending the limitations we believe restrict us is to carefully examine the labels we carry inside us about who we are. We will discover that we need to let go of the vast majority of the ideas we use to describe ourselves! An indicator to know that we are doing the exercise correctly is a physical and mental sense of lightness and profound relief at the thought of believing we can truly be free of the old labels that we carry so wearily from birth to grave.

Another reason to carefully monitor what we think about ourselves is this: what we think is true about ourselves is what we will expect to be true of other people as well. If our internal model of ourselves includes the image of cheating others when possible in order to gain a financial advantage, we will expect others to try to cheat us when they have the opportunity to do so. If we think of ourselves as basically trusting and honest, we will generally expect that behavior from others we meet. Our internal expectations will selectively color our perceptions of the world around us in order to match our models of who we really are inside. In short – we believe that others will treat us the way we believe we have treated them.

We’ve now come back to the beginning. If you want to know what people really think of themselves internally, look at what they seem to expect from the world around them. People teach us who they think they are in everything that they do. When we see attack and defense in a person’s behavior, we can be sure that they inwardly picture themselves as vulnerable - no matter what external bravado is displayed. When we see another serene in the midst of chaos, we can know that their view of themselves transcends a sense of vulnerability in that situation.

Be sure of this - those things in life that we tolerate because we believe we have no power to change them perpetuate a false image of ourselves as limited in our abilities. By inviting in new thoughts about what we are, we literally increase our power to create solutions, and our entire world changes along with us.

What things in life do you tolerate because you do not have an image of yourself as powerful enough to create a positive solution?

Who would you have to be instead to make what would bring you joy instead of pain?

Why can’t you be that other, more powerful person instead of who you think you are now?

What story and labels go with the reasons you give for not being that other, more empowered you?

What has to happen for you to unconditionally love yourself and make it O.K. for you to be happy?

What are you waiting for?