Me Vs… Me? The Ongoing Battle of the Two Selves
(3 min read)
We all have many different faces that we wear depending on the people we’re around and the situation that 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, or with our in-laws. But, when it comes to our mental health, it can be helpful to think in terms of having two sides to who we are that both 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 is sometimes known as the “true self.” This is the side of who we are that we could probably relate to quite easily when we were small children, before we were conditioned by other people, our circumstances, and the 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 or destructive thoughts and behavioural patterns, and it has a pretty good awareness of our emotional world, as well as the emotional world of others. Additionally, the true self tends to be quite instinctual – relating closely to what the heart (or gut) has to say about the situations we find ourselves in, the people we find ourselves surrounded by, and the things that we find ourselves doing. This side of the self also tends to be closely connected to, and driven by, what is most important in life, that is, what is personally valued on a deep level.
On the other side, we have a pretty different picture. Naturally, as we go through life, we find ourselves adopting the unhelpful thinking styles and belief systems of our caregivers, friends, teachers, and society at large. We’re faced with difficult life circumstances that bring up uncomfortable emotions that, oftentimes, we don’t know how to, or never get the chance to process properly. We take on more and more and don’t give ourselves time to slow down, burdening ourselves with seemingly endless to-do lists. Ultimately, we build layer upon layer of unhelpful coping mechanisms, falling deeper and deeper into a trap that we don’t know how to get out of, and that, ultimately, we believe defines who we are. All the while, we paint ourselves with a pleasant exterior in an attempt to show everyone that we’re “fine.” The more layers we build, however, the further away we get from our true self, which lies buried underneath all of the layers, just wanting and waiting to break free. This highly conditioned but grossly unhelpful side of who we are might be referred to as our “alter ego.”
As much as we have been conditioned to adopt the patterns of our alter ego, we are, ultimately, always faced with the opportunity to choose how we are going to live at any given moment – that is, we have control over which version of ourselves that we are going to let dominate. Because we’ve had so many years of conditioning, this may be hard to believe. It may seem as if we don’t have any choice at all – as if the words slip off our tongues, or that our actions simply unfold before we’ve had a chance to notice, let alone prevent them from happening. But, the reality is we do have a choice.
As difficult as it seems, what we have control over is making the simple decision to take a step back – a step outside of ourselves – as if watching our emotions, physical sensations, thoughts, and actions from the perspective of an observer. When we do this, what happens is we create a space that allows us to notice and consider the consequences of carrying on as our conditioned self – as our alter ego – what this would mean for, not only ourselves, but for our future and also for our loved ones. Taking a step back also provides us with an opportunity to ask what, on the other hand, our true self might do in such a situation. It takes only a moment – maybe the length of a few breaths – but by giving ourselves this space, we give ourselves the power to respond with wisdom and insight rather than with automaticity. Each time that we do this, we come into greater contact with our true self.
The more we learn to come into contact with our true self, the more it becomes strengthened, and then very gradually, we may notice that we are dominated less frequently by the unhelpful, conditioned, and highly reactive side of who we are. Instead, as we come into contact with our true self, we actually begin to condition ourselves back into being this authentic side of who we are. Eventually, we may even notice that upon being faced with difficult life events, a critical boss, an illness, a job loss, a crumbling relationship, or otherwise a wave of very intense negative emotions, we begin to cultivate the power to transform our relationship to whatever it is that we’re facing, so that its impact serves to make us stronger, rather than breaking us down.
Once we have the power to do this, we know that we are truly free.