We are all impostors, holding ourselves out to be someone we are not. Not on purpose, of course, yet we are doing it. The reason is that our identity, who we think we are, is mistaken.
I've been thinking about this situation for years, and here is my theory of how our mistaken identities are formed and how we can overcome them and adopt a more accurate and helpful self-concept:
Human beings are creatures of identity. We seem to need to define ourselves for ourselves, and this process begins from very early in our development.
Born helpless and dependent on our parents for food, love and safety, we perceive them as all-knowing gods and expect them to act perfectly. We begin to define ourselves from how our parents treat us. If our parents give us all the love and nurturance we expect, then we might have a positive self-concept. But most parents, even the best super-hero-types, fail somewhere, sometimes. Some more than others. And when they don’t treat us with love, we, the infant, imagine that it (the trouble) must be our fault, and that we are not ok.
Have you noticed that children who grow up in families with abuse tend to blame themselves for the abuse, and think they deserved it and that they are somehow bad? This doesn’t just happen with negatives, it happens with everything. We look at how people treat us and imagine that reflects what we are.
This process of forming a self-identity goes on as we grow up. We see how our teachers treat us, our friends, and others, and this adds to our identity
In addition, we also define ourselves by comparing our bodies and our actions with those of others, as if we were our bodies and actions.
In these and other ways we create a self-identity. It is quite natural that we do so. We have these senses and use them to tell us about ourselves, and we have a hunger to know what and who we are.
But the identity is mistaken:
What is reflected to us by others is often more about them than us.
Are we our bodies? When you leave your body, even your best friends won’t want to hang around it for long. (Attribution to Rick Carson).
It seems that we are what animates our bodies, rather than the bodies themselves.
Similarly, are we our behavior? In my mind, it seems we are one who behaves, rather than the behavior.
When someone treats me badly, I feel bad, as if I was bad. Not just bad in behavior, but bad in essence. Noticing this, I realized how the identity I formed from childhood, based on how others acted towards me, was mistaken and troublesome. Troublesome because it caused unnecessary unhappiness.
The good news is that it is possible for us to overcome this mistaken identity and embrace reality.
The method for doing so is meditation.
The practice of meditation provides an opportunity to experience oneself from the inside out, and has nothing to do with reflections from others, the body, or behavior.
If you’ve spent any time meditating, you know that much of the time passes uselessly following thoughts as they chase each other through the field of consciousness. Yet, at moments here and there, wonderful glimpses of something else shine through, bringing joy, love, and deep peace. In those moments, we get an experience of what animates the body and the mind, of what we truly are when all the thoughts quiet down.
Slowly, over time, these experiences accumulate and provide direct experience of ourselves, of our essential, real selves, and this can completely change our ideas of what and who we are.
As I’ve meditated over the years, my self-identity has been slowly changing, enabling me greater access to happiness, love, and peace of mind. Where the old mistaken identity blocks the experience of inner beauty, meditation opens the door to it.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Please call me by my true names”. I invite you to find your true names, your true identity, through meditation.
Appreciation to Gitanjali Wells (@moriahw) for her editorial suggestions with this post.