Updated: Oct 6, 2021
The other day, I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen since our school days together. I found myself wondering what they remembered of me: had I changed much, would I meet their expectations of how I was or how I’ve grown in the time. I wondered who they were now. Were they the same? Would they be very different from what I remember? Questions of identity often lie behind the basic fear and longing: can we be together?
“Be yourself. Express yourself. You just need to be you.”
These are popular mottos of identity and how to be in the world. Yet, the task of self-expression I’ve found to be fraught with confusion and the pressures of expectation. It can feel more of a burden than a freedom; a burden I often just put down. I can feel like an exasperated kid in the back of a car: ‘Are we there yet? Have we found it yet? Are we being me yet?’. With the predictable response: ‘Not yet!’.
“Aha! This is who I am!”
One significant moment of self-discovery came in an encounter with the Myers-Briggs personality theory. I remember realising how the description of me seemed to fit.And with that, there came a release of the shame I felt about who I was, an excitement of having words now for me, and a realisation of why I had struggled to find my place in the world - as well as why I was drawn to becoming a person-centred therapist. And, I remember the thought, ‘Aha, this is me! I’ve found you!’’.
Perhaps I should have been like this with my friend: happy in my own skin, confident as the therapist I had become (and in some sense, always was). I certainly wanted to be like that.
“Oh, that too.”
But this is not the whole story of my self-discovery. These ‘Aha!’ moments have been accompanied - in equal, if not greater measure - by moments of, ‘Oh, that’s me too’. Moments when I recognise things in me I’d prefer weren’t there.
I am often jealous, self-aggrandising , resentful, arrogant, spiteful, irresponsible, blaming of others, wounded, grieving, ashamed, plagued by timidity, fear, insecurity. To use a Jungian term, the real me has a ‘shadow’, forced underground by norms about what is and is not acceptable.
This makes the task of self-discovery not so joyful. It’s a difficult and perhaps never-ending task of encountering all the stuff we’d prefer wasn’t going on inside, all the ways we are that which we’d prefer not to be, and somehow integrating these shadowy parts into our concept of our self: ‘I am all of these things.’
And so, to be simply the confident therapist with my friend would’ve been, in a real sense, a deception. It would be simply another mask by which to be in the world, driven by the fear of other parts being unacceptable.
Can the real me please stand up!
The problem of being me doesn’t stop there. I don’t only find the real me to be shadowy; I also find myself to be fickle. I know in some contexts, you can find me outgoing, confident and excited; or in other contexts, playful, free, spontaneous; or at other times, shy, quiet, unassuming, self-protective; and in still other situations, quite argumentative, logical, arrogant, even uncaring. And I can feel like I’m being me in all of these contexts, not hiding, not trying to be someone else, just being me, as I am.
Is the real me so fickle? Am I so self-contradictory? Are most of these ways somehow ‘false mes’ parading around? If so, which one is actually me?
An alternative to the concept of a real me is that we are just living out the stories we’ve learned about ourselves and the world. These stories may be simple and one-dimensional, like if the only me is the confident-in-who-he-is therapist. Such ‘thin’ stories can lead us into trouble for they constrain the possible actions at our disposal. Moreover, these stories may be very different in different contexts, leading to quite different ways of being.
The task then is not so much self-discovery - in aligning the self-concept with the real self, even the shadowy parts - as story-thickening: opening ourselves up to the possible truth of a greater number of stories about ourselves and the world, that can apply in more and more contexts. This means we have more ways of seeing ourselves and the world, as well as being in the world. This echoes the longing behind the popular call, ‘Be yourself!’: the longing for freedom.
But this didn’t really match how I wanted to be with my friend. I did want to be free in my interactions with him - with a freedom I didn’t always feel when we were at school. But I also wanted, in a very real sense, to be me with him. This seems central to being in any meaningful encounter. I - the real I - wants to be present with you, the real you.
I am not an object
And so we come to a fundamental problem with all of this discussion. I am not an object to be discovered but rather the subject who is doing the discovering. And the way to come to know a subject is not through analysis, nor through observation, but by being with them.
What do we discover when we are with another person?
As I was with my friend, I discovered who he was now at that moment. Of course, what I found was familiar, echoes of who he’s always seemed to me, but also that there were many parts that were new, that he had become. And, then, I’m sure there were parts that were there just emerging in that moment because of that unique interaction of him with me. Equally, I found in myself memories of how I used to be, tendencies to be the same, and tendencies to be something new - both the ‘new’ person I’d become since we were last together but also someone completely new, born out of the new things that were arising in that moment with him. This is being a subject: partly old, partly new, always constantly emerging. The real me, you see, is always in flux, for it is ever becoming and ever interacting with the people and the world around me.
So this is who I am at this moment!
What does all this mean for how I am to be myself in the world?
Firstly, when we embrace this, the task of self-discovery can never be finished, nor can it be burdened with the pressures to be anything or to arrive at a destination. Self-discovery instead becomes an exciting, vibrant, surprising journey: ‘So this is who I am now in this moment.’ It becomes the much more unpredictable task of being with ourselves, as we find ourselves here and now, and accepting us just how we are: shadowy, fickle, old and ever new.
Furthermore, the call to be yourself is really a call to freedom. It isn’t worried about being the same as we’ve been before, or about showing how much we’ve grown; nor is it burdened by who we thought we were, who we were told we were, who we want to be. It’s a call to be with ourselves as we find ourselves in that moment, in that unique interaction, with our unique history, with all of our tendencies and potentialities, with all that is now emerging. And then we have a far greater range of possible responses to the situation we find ourselves in. A far greater range of how to be ourselves in the world.
Finally, this means I can be truly present in the world and with another. The freedom to be with ourselves, however we find ourselves now, is the key to the freedom to be with another, however we find them to be. Here we get to the nub of why being oneself is so important.
When I feel able to spontaneously, non-possessively be with myself, and be somehow (suitably) transparent in how I then present this to the world, I both let the other be themself, however they are in that moment, and I let myself be present with the other, however they are. I can both see more clearly the other person, for I do not have the preconceptions about who they should be, or who I want them to be, or who I thought they were. Nor do I have any pressure for them to be a certain way, how I need them to be. I can be with them non-possessively. And in turn, this lets the other be transparent with how they are, however they are in that moment.
Then our interactions are spontaneously freewheeling encounters where we get to truly meet another as we are in that moment. Thus, learning to be in the world need not be the confusing, burdensome tasking of learning to be me, but the surprising, unpredictable and thus liberated task of learning be with me, you and this ever new world.