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    The Story of ‘Me’

    tomHow many of us know who we really are? After more than thirty-five years as a psychotherapist, I’ve come to believe that genuine self-awareness is relatively rare. It seems that, for most of us, our egos begin, in early childhood, to organize around experiences of what is lacking or missing, and to live from then on in a “story of me” based on these perceptions.

    A child who is unloved, for instance, may tragically spend a lifetime trying to solve the “problem of my unlovability.” Some people who escape crushing childhood poverty may spend the rest of their lives trying to escape the perception that they really do deserve the contempt with which they were treated when they were young. It appears that, surprisingly early in life, a kind of “hardening of the categories” sets in. During the years when our minds have the least capacity for mature and balanced assessments, our ideas about who we are and what we can expect from other people solidify into a sense of a solid identity that, once formed, is remarkably resistant to change. The consequence is that many of us spend the rest of our lives trying to resolve “problems” that are fundamentally fictitious.

    Many very successful people are dogged by “failure” identities, which strikingly demonstrate how often massive evidence to the contrary can fail to disconfirm our grim convictions. When reality and our identities conflict, many of us go through some remarkable mental gymnastics to preserve the identities. All too many successful people experience themselves as impostors, for instance. In the impostor syndrome, it is my failures and disappointments that are real: my achievements and successes, since they conflict with the “story of my failure,” are dismissed as flukes or con jobs.

    Not all of our mental maps are about what’s wrong with me; often deep distrust of others is built into the mental landscape. This is the case, for instance, in “the story of my victimization.” It can be very difficult to come to conscious clarity around the identity of “the one who will always be wronged by others,” because this story usually develops in response to actual experiences of (sometimes horrific) victimization or oppression, and challenging the story of victimhood is easy to confuse with denying the reality of those experiences.

    But when real experiences of victimization congeal into a solid identity, we can start to see those around us as perpetrators no matter what they do, and ourselves as the victims of injustice no matter how badly we treat others. People with this psychology can be very dangerous to others because they tend to perpetrate from the victim stance. And they’re able to do this without guilt, because they view themselves as innocents who are merely defending themselves no matter how egregious their actual behavior is. One of the most famous historical examples of this psychology was Adolf Hitler, who avenged himself on millions for the (very real) abuse he suffered as a child.

    Fortunately, we aren’t all puppets of our childhood conclusions because our human capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness can do much to correct distorted self-perceptions. In my experience, a highly effective treatment for “the story of me” is a combination of cognitive therapy and mindfulness meditation practice.

    In cognitive therapy, we learn to pay careful attention to our “top ten tunes”—to the recurrent background themes and ideas with which we give meaning to our experience. In mindfulness practice, we learn to be present to our direct experience as it arises, prior to our ideas and interpretations about what it means. In being conscious of what is actually here, we gain access to the freshness and ungraspable aliveness of our immediate experience, and begin to understand that any fixed ideas about ourselves are inevitably one-sided and misleading. That makes it more possible to appreciate the fundamentally unfathomable mystery of our own being.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. To learn more, please visit his website at