June Reflections – Beyond Self-Identities


Many of the roles you play in life are rich and meaningful. The obvious ones such as parent, child, spouse, professional, or artist easily come to mind. Maybe you see your primary role as helper, athlete, achiever, clown or rebel. Perhaps you’re not aware of the subtler roles you play. Many of these detract rather than enhance your life, especially the negative ones you took on as a child—scapegoat, victim, one who is unworthy, stupid, or unloved.

All Self-identifies Are Troublesome

Whether obvious or subtle, believing a particular role is your true self gets you in trouble. When this happens, a role becomes a self-identity. Self-identities keep you in a box, narrow your sense of who you really are, and prevent you from being free. If you believe a certain role defines who you are, you act according to how you should behave rather than respond according to the truth of the moment. Trying to live up to role expectations, especially when they become self-identities, causes exhaustion and disappointment. At times, it feels oppressive. When you fall short of these expectations, your inner critic often chimes in, telling you how disappointing you are.

At other times, when life’s circumstances change and your role changes or ends, you can easily feel adrift, not knowing how to proceed. This is particularly devastating when this role has become is a self-identity. You think this is who you really are. For example, a mother might feel empty when her youngest child goes off to college, a helper might not know who he is if he isn’t helping, a professional feels her life is meaningless if illness or age forces her to retire, an athlete might become depressed if an injury forces inactivity, or an achiever feels bereft if age prevents him from being on top of his game. Even a clown doesn’t know how to behave if circumstances necessitate a serious response.

One of my problematic self-identities is the responsible one. I feel compelled to answer my emails within a day or get to my appointments on time. I fight against any idea that I’m unreliable or disappointing. Being this responsible stokes my ego, making me look good. If I fall short, my inner critic surfaces and pounces on me with its negative remarks. What’s the matter with you? You’re such a failure. How can you feel good about yourself? This keeps me stuck performing the same dutiful behaviors. The Spirit moves as it will, as the saying goes, but I am not following the Spirit. Instead, I’m stuck serving my self-identity.

Negative Self-Identities Cause Unwanted Life Experiences

Subtler, often unconscious, negative self-identities can be even more problematic. They are so insidious that they create unwanted experiences in your life which keep repeating. You think these events are random or the way life is, but may not realize you’ve had a part in creating them. For example, if you believe you’re unlovable, you might act in ways to gain attention, demand another’s time or become a people-pleaser. These actions produce the opposite effect. They turn others away. As a result, you conclude you’re unlovable without realizing how much your behavior reinforces this role you play and keeps you trapped in this negative self-identity.

Fulfilling these negative role expectations can also occur on an energetic level. I had a student who told me that no one paid attention to him. At the next class I observed how my eyes would skip over him and move on to the next student. Looking closer, I realized he had energetically pulled himself back, creating an empty space which told my brain nothing was there. He assumed he had no part in people ignoring him when in fact his energetic withdrawal created the conditions for others to fulfill his expectations. From then on, I consciously made an effort to pay attention to him in an effort to dispel his erroneous self-identity.

You might think identifying yourself as a spiritual person is who you really are. But it’s still a self-identity because your true self lies beyond any descriptive quality, including spiritual. At one time, I fell into this trap. This caused me to behave according to what I thought a spiritual person should or should not do. I reasoned spiritual people would never read mystery novels or watch TV. This self-identity got demolished during one retreat. Afterwards I felt empty inside, depressed and lost. Nothing made sense. Where did that spiritual person go? This bewildering and upsetting experience helped me find my true self. I realized that I am “just me”—whatever or whoever that is. I know it is beyond who I think I am. I best describe it as empty space that has some kind of consciousness. I’m free to read an intriguing novel or be silly without feeling like I’m falling off the spiritual wagon. Yes, I still meditate, seek the truth and guide others, but those actions no longer define me. I still need to be careful that “just me” does not become a static belief of who I am and therefore another self-identity for my ego to usurp.

Ways to Become Free of Self-Identities

How do you become free of these self-identities? How do you understand that your true self lies beyond them, beyond any word or concept?

  1. Work at discovering whether your roles—from the obvious to the more subtle ones—have moved into the self-identity category, into who you think you are. Awareness of your self-identities help prevent you from getting stuck in them.
  2. Assess your behaviors. Do they reinforce or contribute to external events which negatively affect you? If so, work at consciously changing them. Sometimes repeating an appropriate mantra such as “I’m loveable,” creates a different pathway in the brain for someone who has carried the self-identity of someone unworthy of love. At other times, you need to heal the original wound that created this identity perhaps with guidance and treatment.
  3. Become a witness to your behaviors, even the more subtle ones. This means viewing your behaviors from a distance, as if separate from yourself. For example, see yourself eating breakfast as if looking down from above. The “witness,” as defined in spiritual circles, is a deeper level of consciousness that creates a distance between your everyday thoughts and actions and consequently moves you closer to your true self. The witness helps you to realize you are more than who you think you are, that you are beyond any self-identity.
  4. Repeat the question, “Who or what am I?” and listen for the answer. Keep asking until you move beyond all thoughts and feelings to a place of calm inner certitude.
  5. Hang out in those higher states of consciousness by listening to beautiful music, reading an inspiring book, viewing spiritual masters speaking on YouTube or simply meditating and opening to higher guidance. This expands your sense of self, leaving your self-identities behind.

Once you release your self-identities and discover your true radiant self, you’ll live a more contented life. You’ll be able to face life’s challenges with greater ease and grace. Rather than laboring under self-identity expectations, your actions now become authentic and fluid because they’re expressions of your true self.

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