We all have different faces that we wear depending on the people we’re around and the situation we’re in. For example, the person we are at work is different than the person we are at home, with friends, around our romantic partner, and so on. But, when it comes to our mental health, it can be helpful to think in terms of having two sides that have the potential of dominating at any given moment.
Let me start by drawing a picture of our first side: our unconditioned and relatively well-adjusted self, which I call the “true self.” This is the side of who we are that we could relate to more when we were children, before we were conditioned by other people, circumstances, and culture that we grew up in. This version of the self is largely in touch with the present moment rather than being wrapped up in unhelpful thoughts and behavioural patterns, and it has good awareness of our emotional world, as well as the emotions of others.
Additionally, the true self tends to be intuitive; that is, it has an innate sense of “knowing” how to best respond to various life situations. And, it is closely connected to, and driven by, what’s most important in life; that is, what we value.
On the other side, we have a pretty different picture. Naturally, as we go through life, we adopt the thinking styles and belief systems of our caregivers, friends, teachers, and society at large. We’re faced with difficult life circumstances bringing up uncomfortable emotions that, oftentimes, we don’t know how to process. We take on more and don’t give ourselves time to slow down. Ultimately, we build layer upon layer of unhelpful coping mechanisms, falling deeper into a trap that we don’t know how to get out of. We believe these patterns define who we are, but paint ourselves with a pleasant exterior to show that we’re “fine.” The more layers we build, however, the further away we get from our true self. This highly conditioned but grossly unhelpful side of who we are might be referred to as our “alter ego.”
As much as we’ve been conditioned to adopt the patterns of our alter ego, we are, ultimately, always faced with the opportunity to choose how to live at any given moment – that is, we have control over which version of ourselves we let dominate. Because we’ve had so many years of conditioning, it may seem like we don’t have choice – as if words slip off our tongues, or our actions simply unfold before we’ve had a chance to notice. But, the reality is we do.
As difficult as it seems, what we have control over is the simple decision to take a step back – a step outside of ourselves – as if watching our emotions, physical sensations, thoughts, and actions like an observer. When we do this, we create space, allowing us to notice and consider the consequences of carrying on as our alter ego. Specifically, we can think about what our actions would mean for not only ouselves, but our future and our loved ones. Taking a step back also provides us with an opportunity to ask what our true self might do instead. It takes only a moment – maybe the length of a few breaths – but giving ourselves this space gives us the power to respond with wisdom and insight. Each time that we do this, we come into greater contact with our true self.
And, the more we come into contact with our true self, the more it becomes strengthened. Gradually, we may notice that we’re dominated less frequently by our highly reactive self, and instead, we become conditioned to live from our authentic side more often than not. Eventually, when faced with difficult life events, we may notice our ability to relate differently to whatever we’re facing. As a result, its impact can serve to make us stronger, rather than breaking us down.
Once we have the strength to do this, we know that we are free.