“Know thyself.” It is such a simple, two-word sentence, but with infinite range and potential meaning. Have you ever said something like, “A part of me wants to do this or that” or “A part of me feels like…”? We all have multiple, perhaps infinite parts of ourselves, and I don’t mean in a multiple personality or dissociative identity disorder way. How does the idea of that sit with you; does it feel scary, overwhelming, exhilarating, exciting? I’d like to invite you to consider this concept as something that reminds you that you can be the person you want to be, and that the self is not a fixed entity as in “people don’t change.” If people didn’t change, I and the multitude of other mental health counselors wouldn’t have a job!
Think back to an earlier, younger version of yourself: maybe it’s you as a middle school or high school kid, or as a newlywed or new parent. Maybe it’s not that long ago, but it was before a life altering event took place, like an illness or accident, a loss or, I don’t know, a global pandemic! Can you notice ways in which you are different and have changed, grown, retreated? I often challenge my clients to envision a split screen of themselves somewhere back in time, as compared to themselves in current time. The phrase “in another lifetime” applies so often because that’s what it feels like—it was someone else’s life.
Often, people are forever changed through tragedy and crisis. Perhaps you are familiar with Malala, (Malala Yousefzai) the young Pakistani woman who survived an assassination attempt because she spoke out for the right of girls to have access to education. She was shot by extermists and facially disfigured, but rather than this event having its intended consequence—which was to shut her up—she rose up and spoke to an even more broad platform, encouraging resilience and determination through her story of survival and detemination. She could easily have been frightened, ashamed and silenced but she rallied and is still speaking out with amazing dedication and positive impact around the world.
Of course, there are many examples of those who were not as resilient, and who crumbled under pressure, becoming small and sad or, even worse, becoming violent and turning the anger outward by harming others. Pick any example in recent years of mass shootings and hate crimes. When I hear a news story about someone who performed some heinous act of violence, I invariably think, “He/she needed a hug.” The perpetrators of such crimes always have trauma in their past, whether it was childhood neglect or abuse, bullying, illness, what-have-you.
So what’s the difference between the person who experiences violence and other personal attacks and rises up, becoming a better, more enlightened version of themselves and the person who retreats within themselves, becoming angry and vengeful? I believe that the biggest difference is whether they have support in their lives that enables them to turn from fear toward love, and to grow through their trauma. Support comes from many sources. Not everyone is blessed with loving family and a multitude of friends who will come to their aid. And, sadly, not everyone has access to mental health support through counseling, but everyone has some resources if they can find the self-compassion to reach out. Faith and spirituality are a big part of one’s support system, and meditating or praying to a higher power is free of charge. Most churches, in fact, offer counseling to members for little or no cost. AA meetings are one of the greatest examples of significant support that is available to anyone for free, and which has decades of successful outcomes to confirm the power of reaching out.
Aside from extreme examples involving traumatic turning points that change us, we naturally go through changes and evolve throughout our lives. We are impacted early in life by those who provide care, and we accept the values, beliefs and behaviors of our parents, teachers or others in authority before we are able to consider broader concepts and form our own opinions and beliefs. It can be very empowering when we realize that we can let go of limiting beliefs and dysfunctional messages from childhood, and envision ourselves and our place in the world from a whole different perspective. The ability to acknowledge when we are wrong is a big factor that affects our emotional growth. Letting go of the black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, and allowing for other viewpoints and experiences results in our being able to expand and cultivate compassion for others, and for ourselves.
We are quite literally different people in different settings, too. Take a moment to think about the roles you have in your life: friend, partner, employee, professional, team member or parent. In these different roles, we are perceived by others in a way that we can’t fully know. Any parent hopefully understands the power differential between themselves and their child. Similarly, teachers and other superiors have authority to seem wise and right. As we go through life, one of the biggest moments that can shift our trajectory is when we realize that our parents are just people, who did the best that they could with the possibly flawed “operating system” they were using. It is in that moment that we understand that we are free to deliberately choose and design our beliefs, morals and values, and go in the direction that supports love and expansion in our lives.
If you don’t like the person who you are sometimes, know that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to stay there. Re-invent yourself, like Madonna. For those of you to whom this is not a dated reference, that woman has had more incarnations than the Dalai Lama! Who do you want to be, and what one thing can you do differently today to move toward that higher version of you? If you need help identifying that step, one of the skilled therapists at Life Skills Resource Group are here to be your guides. Click on the bio page for any of our therapists, and schedule a free phone consultation.