Daily Stretch #32: Reconnect with your true self

Our identity resembles our shadow. It changes shape, it evolves. But it’s still ours.

“Who are we but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and believe?” — Scott Turow

Did you ever look yourself in the mirror and see a stranger? It happened to me today.

My life has been fast and furious since I quit my comfortable EVP role at a top global firm six months ago.

Who am I now? Why have I chosen this new path?

I launched my book ‘Stretch for Change.’ and a behavior change firm. I’ve been writing every day— dozens of articles and half-way in my second book. Keynote speeches, workshops, consulting projects: I’ve been traveling a lot.

All these images reflected in the mirror along with snapshots of crucial moments from my past. I couldn’t see myself in the shadow of the man I used to be.

When we change what we do and why we do it, do we change who we are?

My reflection in the mirror looked different, but it was still ‘me.’ Our identity resembles our shadow. It changes its shape, it evolves. But it’s still ours.

“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” — Malcolm X

Change events encourage self-reflection. You can’t get back in the driver’s seat of your life, without understanding who you are.

Consciously or not, my work goes helping individuals and organizations drive change. I’ve enabled people to reconnect to their ‘true-selves.’ That’s why I love what I do. Hence, this article.

“Your identity is your most valuable possession. Protect it.” — Elastigirl, The Incredibles.

Get started. “Don’t wait for the right moment to show up. Create the right moment instead.“ —as I wrote six months ago. Refresh, and reconnect with, your most valuable possession: who you are.

The Multiple Layers of Self Identity

“We contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman

If you ask someone “who are you?” they’d probably reply with their name and occupation. In most places, especially in the US, our profession plays a critical role in our identity. If you ask the same question again, you’ll get more descriptive information.

It takes further probing, to get past relationship status, music preferences or hobbies, and start peeling deeper.

Your identity has multiple layers. Some more superficial than others. Who you are is more than just your job or your gender.

Psychologists define ‘personal identity’ as the idiosyncratic things that make a person unique: our qualities, beliefs, personality, looks, and expressions. Sociologists, no surprise here, believe our identity is a byproduct of our social affiliations. Henri Tajfel, the creator of the social identity theory, proposed that “who we are” depends mostly on our group membership(s).

Social influence is like your shadow; it’s always there even if you don’t notice it. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world. Our social class, family, sports team, etc. are a vital source of pride and self-esteem.

The truth is that both approaches complement each other. We are both our personal traits and social influences. But, most importantly, our identity is more than what we are and where we belong to. We are our choices.

What about you?

“One of the greatest tragedies in life is to lose your own sense of self and accept the version of you that is expected by everyone else.” — K.L. Toth

As a first step to (re)connect with your identity, use the following diagram to reflect on your multiple layers.

You are not job or race, you are much more than that.

WHAT YOU ARE: Your name, nationality, gender, social class, age, race, physical characteristics, abilities/disabilities. All these play a significant role in how you see and experience the world.

WHERE YOU BELONG: The family you inherited and the one you created, your group of friends, professional associations, organizations, sports clubs, etc. All these affiliations influence your identity, especially affecting your opportunities and possibilities. You are also part of stories. Your family stories impact how you see yourself. Not just stories about where you come from, but also the stories your family created about events in your childhood that you might not remember.

WHAT YOU DO: Your hobbies, job, profession, the sports you practice, etc. What you do is not static either. It can change over time or be multifaceted too. One person may hold multiple identities such as teacher, mother, or artist.

WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN: Religion, political affiliation, the causes you support, etc. Your values and beliefs drive what you say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to. But can also blind you. More on that later.

“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” — Carl Jung

You are all these layers. Not just one or two. Some aspects of your identity you were born into, others you choose to maintain or replace as you grew you.

Your choices define your true identity.

Your Identity Should Guide Your Journey, Not Get You Stuck

“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….” ―George Bernard Shaw

Your shadow is not you. It’s just a reflection of who you are. Stop chasing your shadow.

Look at the list that you built before. You’ll probably find a lot of inconsistencies or contradictions among all the words you used to describe ‘who you are.’ That’s normal. Don’t panic.

Traditionally, our society viewed our identity as something linear. But that rigid approach will force to focus on the most superficial layers. To understand the world, we must learn to see the different shades of grey. Your identity is not black and white.

Don’t feel that you are betraying yourself if your behaviors are no longer consistent with your beliefs. Figure out what’s causing that tension. Are you not being true to your values? Have you lost clarity on what stand for? Or is it merely that you’ve evolved and need to readjust your identity assessment?

Our identity is a chicken-egg dilemma: which comes first, beliefs or behaviors? I used to think that trust was lost once it was broken. Luckily, I’ve learned trust is fluid and can be rebuilt.

In this day and age, we are victims of an ‘ideological divide.’ Sexual, religious and political orientation are used to draw a line between “them” and “us.” They have become so prominent that many people confuse them with their whole identity.

When we let one of the layers take over our entire identity, we lose contact with our true-self.

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We sometimes grow in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”– Anais Nin

Your identity should guide you, not imprison you. That’s what beliefs do: they make us see the world through a right/wrong approach lens.

Beliefs are assumptions we hold to be true. They arise from learned experiences, resulting from the cultural and environmental situations we have faced. In a rapidly changing world, using information from the past to make decisions about the future may not be the wisest way to succeed.

Religion is a perfect example. The purpose of the practice of religion is to achieve the goals of salvation for oneself and others. If we are all on a journey to reach salvation, why attack others because they take a different road to get to the same destination?

Defending our beliefs blind us: we stop seeing our true-self.

You cannot shut someone off just because they don’t belong to your same political/sexual/religious party. Even a fool can teach you wisdom. Learn from those who think differently.

The Shadow You Used to Be

“The curious paradox is that when we accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” — Carl Rogers

Your identity resembles your shadow. It changes shape, it evolves. But it’s still yours.

You are not just your beliefs but all your layers. But, most importantly, be open for those layers to change through time. For Buddhists nothing is constant, everything changes through time.

I was born and raised Catholic. But, at some point, those beliefs limited my potential as human being. I felt that some of the principles contradict the nature of the religion should be about (e.g. Catholics go to Heaven, but others can’t get a ticket).

The same with the notion of ‘guilt’ that is present in most religions. This idea damages our self-worth. We are emotionally punished for something that — supposedly — happened over 2,000 ago. Buddhist psychologist Chögyam Trungpa, author of “the sanity we are born with,” believes that ALL human beings are born with inherent goodness, health, and clear perception.

Starting with a clean slate helps build our self-esteem. Self-appreciation can kill or break a person. Research shows that there’s a definite link between low self-esteem and crime.

When I abandoned Catholicism, I started exploring other religions. I spent a nice amount of time labeling myself “agnostic.” I become less acceptant of those who followed a religion. But something was missing. My behavior felt like simply opposition rather than a choice.

After years of reading and meditating, Buddhism became my choice. I don’t label myself as a Buddhist (as in religion or self-identification), but I’ve adopted many of its principles, lessons, and thoughts that have shaped my life’s perspective. It also helped me become more acceptant of others.

I consider Buddhism a more inviting and comprehensive spiritual practice. But also it gives a lot of room to the individual to make decisions rather than dictating what’s right or wrong. It helps pursue and build your inner goodness.

Buddhism is to spirituality what self-organization is to management.

The Baha’i teachings promote the agreement of science and religion, the equality of the sexes and the elimination of all prejudice and racism.

15 miles from where I live, there’s a Baha’i temple. I went to visit it once. Baha’is believe all religions come from the same source, have the same foundation and shine the same light on humanity. They believe in the oneness of all the great religions. This temple promotes openness: no matter your faith you are welcome to pray there.

Probably Bahaism has many flaws. I’m not well educated on what’s behind this “collaborative religious” movement. Either way, it’s approach is very interesting. It‘s a reminder to avoid using our religious, political, sexual or sports affiliations to undermine those who don’t belong to the same club.

Accepting that others are different is the price we pay to be unique.

When you are confident about your identity, you don’t need to use your beliefs to exclude those who are different. You are in control. Not others.

“I’m the one at the sail; I’m the master of my sea.” — Imagine Dragons

Our identity is fluid, not rigid. What about yours?

Neuroscience supports the Buddhist notion that our self is continuously changing. Evan Thompson, a philosophy of mind professor at the University of British Columbia, as cited by Quartz shared her findings: “From a neuroscience perspective, the brain and body are constantly in flux. There’s nothing that corresponds to the sense that there’s an unchanging self.”

Who you are, changes over time. Reflect on that.

“We are what we believe we are.” — C. S. Lewis

Meet Your True Self

“Tear off your mask; your face is glorious.” — Rumi

We normally use “true-self” to indicate “authenticity.” But it’s more than that.

Donald Winnicott introduced the term ‘true self’ in psychoanalysis to describe a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience, and a feeling of being alive, having a real ‘self’.

The false-self, by contrast, is a defensive façade to get others’ acceptance that, in the end, steals our joy and vitality.

The notion of self in Buddhism is more complex: “to fully perceive ‘the nature of the self’ is one way to define enlightenment” (a state of wisdom combined with infinite compassion).

Buddhist teachings talk about a ‘no-self.’ This complex concept doesn’t fit well with our assumption of an eternal soul. Thanissaro Bhikkhu provides a more practical explanation. The questions about self or no-self are irrelevant. Lack of attachment is what matters.

Letting go of attachment to our identity/ego/self leads to happiness. As Bhikkhu explains: “Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a ‘self’?”

“I am none of that. I am not this body, so I was never born and will never die. I am nothing, and I am everything. Your identities make all your problems”. — Buddhist teacher cited in Jack Kornfield book.

Neuroscience supports the Buddhists’ view that the ‘self’ does in fact exist.

“In neuroscience, you’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain. My view is that the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.” — Evan Thompson

Being true to yourself feels lonely. But trying to please others will make you feel lonelier. And empty too.

“The time you feel lonely is the time you most need to be by yourself.” — Douglas Coupland

Identity is a path of self-discovery. Keep walking.

An Exercise to Embrace Your Fluid Self

“A great deal of chaos in the world occurs because people don’t appreciate themselves.” — Chögyam Trungpa

Accepting who you are is the most crucial step. That includes accepting who you were and who you want to be. Self-acceptance frees you from attachment to your beliefs. Get rid of your self-defining labels. Learn to be tolerant of yourself so you can be tolerant of others.

“You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.” — Wayne Dyer

Being yourself is not easy. Getting rid of other’s expectations is a hard exercise. But the reward is enormous.

Try this exercise:

  1. List all your labels using the identity diagram previously described.
  2. Find tensions and contradictions. Ask why? What’s driving those?
  3. Using the template below, select the most relevant moment in your life (e.g. childhood, adolescence, etc.). Write down your values, beliefs, key choices, social affiliations, what made you feel proud about yourself, what made you feel disappointed. Write one sentence to answer ‘who are you?’ Complete this for each ‘moment.’
  4. Now review your journey. See what changed through time. Ask yourself why. Try to make sense of your evolution. Embrace those changes and, most importantly, realize your identity fluidity.
  5. What do you want to do differently? What values, beliefs, behaviors do you want to stop, ignite or accelerate?
  6. List three things you’ll start doing to become more tolerant with those who think differently to you.

“The deeper I go into myself, the more I realize that I am my own enemy.” — Floriano Martins

Your identity is a never-ending journey:

  • Embrace your own fluidity.
  • Stop seeing people (starting with you) through a right/wrong lens. A problem can be solved in many different ways.
  • What worked yesterday might not be the best solution for today.
  • What you believe imprisons you. Letting go frees your mind.

For Buddhism, spirituality means relating to the working basis of one’s existence: one’s state of mind.

You are your choices. What you let go of is an essential choice towards happiness.

The shadow of who you used to be is just an illusion.

“The moment you understand yourself as the true-self, you find such peace and bliss that the impressions of the petty enjoyments you experienced before become as ordinary specks of light in front of the brilliant sun.” — Swami Satchidananda

Before You Leave

Do you want to reconnect with your identity and true-self? Do you want to let go of other people’s expectations and unleash your true potential? Join our upcoming workshop Stretch your mind, Stretch your world.

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The Shadow of The Man I Used to Be was originally published in Better Humans on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.