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 reactive 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 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. 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 “conditioned self.”
As much as we’ve been conditioned to adopt these unhelpful patterns, we are, ultimately, always faced with choice – that is, we can choose which version of ourselves we want to live from. Because we’ve had so many years of conditioning, this may seem difficult – as words slip off our tongues and our reactions unfold before we’ve had a chance to notice. But, the reality is we do.
As difficult as it seems, we have control over 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 acting from our conditioned self. We can think about what our actions might mean for ourselves, as well as 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 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.
Gradually, we may notice that we’re dominated less frequently by our highly reactive conditioned self, and instead, we learn to live from our authentic side more often than not. Eventually, when faced with difficult life events, we may notice ourselves relating differently to them. And, as a result, our challenging experiences can serve to make us stronger.
The more we make contact with our true self, the more we are freed.