Unmasking the True Self

Explore the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

“Who am I?” is the question that uniquely defines us as individuals and as humans. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are determine our personal identity. However, the narrative we use to define ourselves may be partly based on false beliefs about who we are. This false self-image limits our performance and distracts us from being fully present. In this course we will work to examine our current narrative, identify our true self, address areas where the narrative does not accurately describe our true self, and adopt a new narrative that accurately describes our true self.

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We must know who we are before we can be all we can be. It is important to “Know thyself.” Socrates lamented “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” This course can help you examine your life.

Shame lurks in the gap between what is and what ought to be. This course is designed to help you identify that gap and begin to close it.

The objectives of this course are to:

  • Understand the story we tell ourselves about ourselves,
  • Accurately identify those characteristics that most distinguish us as an individual,
  • Discover where the story we tell ourselves describes a false-self rather than our true self,
  • Dispute the inaccuracies in our story by objectively evaluating and correcting any falsehoods,
  • Revise that story to become a more accurate narrative of our true self,
  • Adopt the revised, more accurate story as our narrative, and
  • Improve our presence and begin to fulfill our new, more accurate story.

Caution: This course is intended for competent adults who enjoy good mental health. This course could cause you to uncover painful memories that you find difficult to face. If you are concerned about your ability to cope constructively with an in-depth examination of your own self, or challenges to your self-narrative, please do not continue. Find competent professional help if you are feeling depressed or overwhelmed.

There are no specific prerequisites to this course. Some students may benefit from completing the course knowing how you know before beginning this course.

This course is part of the Applied Wisdom curriculum.

Suzie’s Story edit

We will use Suzie’s story as an example throughout the course.

Suzie is an attractive young woman who is very concerned with her appearance. She believes she is overweight, frumpy, and plain. She is constantly darting from one diet to the next. She spends long hours working out at the gym and is constantly seeking new trainers and workouts. She is considering a variety of cosmetic surgeries. She subscribes to several glamor magazines, reads them intently, and is constantly on the lookout for the latest fashions. Shopping is her hobby, if not her life. She spends time and money she can hardly afford buying the latest clothes. She owns more clothes than she can find time to wear. She has a similar passion for cosmetics and jewelry. She often gets new body piercings and is considering a new tattoo. The bigger her earrings are the better she likes them.

Limiting Beliefs edit

Limiting beliefs about ourselves can originate from many sources. This essay, Where Do Leaders’ Limiting Beliefs Come From?, describes some of those sources.

Suzie's unfounded beliefs about her appearance limit her growth, self-esteem, and fulfillment.

The work of this course can help you uncover and overcome unfounded limiting beliefs about yourself.

I am edit

Theseus's paradox raises the question of whether an object which has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. What is the essence of identity?

Similarly, it is important to recognize that your self is distinct from your possessions, thoughts, feelings, current beliefs, and other tangible manifestations that follow you around. The assignment helps to emphasize the distinction.

Assignment: edit

Recite, study, and reflect on the following meditation:

I am; I simply am.
I think, but I am not my thoughts. I am.
I believe, but I am not my beliefs. I am.
I feel, but I am not my feelings. I am.
Pain and joy are transient, I am enduring.
I do, but I am not my actions. I am.
I experience, but I am not my experience. I am.
I want, but I am not my desires. I am.
I have but I am not my possessions. I am.
My body is not me. I am.
I live, but I am not my life. I am.
I was and I will be, but now I am.
I am not that. I am my self.
I alone am. I simply am.
I am; I simply am.

You may enjoy seeing this meditation presented as a graphic design in the form of a spiral.

In addition, you may wish to supplement this meditation with the Disidentification & Centering Exercise linked from the Tool Downloads page of the Three Levels of Leadership website.

As you practice these meditations, you may be wondering: If I am not any of those things, what am I? What enduring construct continues as the self? One theory [1][2] is that our self is the narrative we tell ourselves. We are our story. But what is that story and is it correct?

Quieting the Mind edit

Before beginning the Personal Inventory described in the next section it may be helpful to quiet your mind. Each of the following optional assignments are designed to help you quiet your mind.

Assignment edit

Optional Exercise 1: To begin this Mindfulness Mediation Exercise, download these Mindfulness Meditation Exercise instructions and perform the exercise regularly.

Optional Exercise 2: Complete the Wikiversity course on A Quiet Mind.

Personal Inventory edit

A personal inventory is a collection of beliefs about your self. This course uses an inventory to help you assess the gap between what you believe is true about yourself and what you believe ought to be true. Identifying and working to close this gap can help you reach your full potential.

Assignment edit

Complete this personal inventory. Please reflect on each question and answer honestly. Only you will ever see the results. What are you afraid of? Put your fears aside when completing the inventory.

Subjective Awareness edit

The Wikiversity course Subjective Awareness can help you become more aware of your subjective experiences. This can help to complete your investigation into your true self.

Collecting the Narrative edit

The personal inventory helps make your self-narrative more accessible to your conscious and rational self. Collecting the narrative from the inventory and writing it down moves it out of the shadows and makes it available for further study in a new light.

Assignment: edit

Collect the narrative by following this example. Let’s assume you answered the first question: “I am satisfied with my physical appearance” with a rating of Is=2, Ought=4, and an importance of 5.

The corresponding narrative might be something like this: I am dissatisfied with my physical appearance, and I deserve to be satisfied with it. This is very important to me. I am overweight, and my clothes are out of fashion. I need to improve my hair style and get better jewelry.

This sounds like something Suzie would say.

Go through the inventory. Look for characteristics where the gap from Is to Ought is 2 or more and the Importance is 4 or more. Write out the corresponding narrative statements.

Rescan the inventory and include any other characteristics that are important to you, regardless of how you scored them.

Read the resulting narrative from start to finish. Is that what you have been telling yourself?

Assessing and Challenging the Narrative edit

Does the narrative accurately describe how I am and what I have been telling myself? If the narrative is wrong, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy or a stereotype threat that limits your potential.

Assignment: edit

Using your narrative in place of this example:

I am dissatisfied with my physical appearance, and I deserve to be satisfied with it. This is very important to me. I am overweight, and my clothes are out of fashion. I need to improve my hair style and get better jewelry.

Begin to reflect on these questions:

  1. Is this statement true? Does it correspond to reality? Why do I believe this statement? Vigorously cross-examine the narrative. Introduce doubts. Challenge each statement and assumption. Make the relentless trial attorney Perry Mason seem like a gullible amateur as you challenge every aspect of every claim.
  2. What are the assumptions this statement is based on?
    1. Is this an accurate portryal of my hero's journey?
    2. Am I portrying myself as a victim, a hero, or objectively as someone doing my best and exercisng agency?
  3. What evidence supports this statement? Examine each element and sub-element in the statement.
  4. What evidence argues against the statement?
  5. How can I check the accuracy of these assessments? Is the evidence reliable? Is it representative? Is it relevant? Is the evidence for and against the statement balanced?
  6. What standard am I comparing myself to? Is this a useful and realistic standard?
  7. What can I learn about this through critical thinking?
  8. What can I learn about this through introspection?
  9. Why is this important? What is at stake?
  10. What if I thought of this as less important? What would be the worst that could happen?
  11. Do I have the courage to accept this characteristic as it now is? Can I be satisfied?

Assessing evidence and deciding what is and is not true is difficult. Reading this essay on the Theory of Knowledge or completing the Wikiversity course Knowing How You Know may help you evaluate your own thinking, and give you a better basis for arriving at your beliefs.

Also it may be helpful to ask yourself the “undermining questions” in stage 3 of this Self-Enquiry exercise. Reflect on the questions and answers.

When Suzie did this exercise, she began to challenge several assumptions. What basis was she using to judge her appearance? She calculated her Body Mass Index (BMI) and found she was in the normal range. At the gym she had her body fat percentage measured and was assured she was in the fit range. Why should she compare herself to the air-brushed photos of models appearing in glamor magazines? Are these accurate images of healthy people with real lives? Why not compare herself to real people she knows who are more nearly her peers. When she considers her friends and co-workers, she notices people much heavier and frumpier that she is. She gets complemented on her appearance more often than she hears any derogatory comments. How many body piercings would it take to satisfy her? What about those earrings? How big would they have to be before she would be satisfied? Why do they need to be the focus of attention? What did Marilyn Monroe wear on her ears? Aren’t there attractive women who wear modest earrings or nothing at all on their ears? What does it really matter if I am less glamorous than a professional model, as long as I can be proud of my looks? Do I have the courage to accept my appearance as it is?

Rewriting the Narrative edit

An inaccurate narrative can limit the life you are living. Rewrite your narrative to make it more accurate.

Assignment: edit

Based on your reflections from the previous section, begin to re-write the narrative.

Beginning with:

I am dissatisfied with my physical appearance, and I deserve to be satisfied with it. This is very important to me. I am overweight, and my clothes are out of fashion. I need to improve my hair style and get better jewelry.

Your introspection has determined:

I don’t look so bad after all. When I compare myself to friends my same age, I look pretty good. I’ll never look like a movie star, so I’ll stop trying and it really won’t matter at all. My clothes are clean, well-fitting, and reflect enduring fashions. When I take time to brush and comb my hair it looks fine. I’d rather have people look at me than a bunch of gaudy jewelry. I still have to eat right, get regular exercise, and groom regularly, but I don’t need any major changes and I can feel good about my appearance.

Being the New Narrative edit

It is now time to become the new you by living up to the potential of your new, more accurate narrative. Recognize that change is difficult.

Assignment: edit

Adopt your new narrative. Begin telling yourself the new and more accurate narrative. Repeat, reflect, and assimilate the new narrative.

Suzie began feeling better about her appearance. While she is still careful about what she eats, and continues to stay fit, these are no longer obsessions for her. She cancelled all but one of her glamor magazine subscriptions, yet still enjoys shopping occasionally. She removed her body piercing jewelry and is allowing the holes to heal. She donated her giant earring collection to the local theater group, and now enjoys wearing petite earrings. She fills her free time doing things that matter more to her.

Adopt new behaviors that are true to your new narrative.

Understand and accept what you can change and what you cannot change. Complete the Wikiversity course on What you can change and what you cannot.

Change is difficult, and changing beliefs, behaviors, and habits that have been a big part of your life for a long time is especially difficult. Be patient with yourself. Take all the time you need. Work on one change at a time. Reflect on how it is and how it can be. Consistently affirm your ability to attain the new outlook, behaviors, and habits. Repeating wise affirmations, such as “You are attractive and pleased with your appearance” may be helpful. Repeat the affirmation silently, frequently, and over a period of weeks, months, or even years until the change has occurred.

If completing the inventory or developing the new narrative uncovers painful memories, or if you are having difficulty coping, or you simply want help with this process, please seek professional help and counseling. Your safety and well-being is paramount. Get help if you need help.

Your true self edit

As the score for is approaches the score for ought for each item in the inventory, the true self emerges more clearly. Each time you complete the course you get closer to fully unmasking the true self. Retake this course as many times as you like to fully reveal the true self.

Further Reading edit

Students interested in learning more about unmasking the true self may be interested in the following materials:

References edit

  1. The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity, by Daniel Dennett
  2. Dennett, Daniel C. (1992). Consciousness Explained. Back Bay Books. pp. 528. ISBN 978-0316180665.  See page 426: "A self, according to my theory, is not any old mathematical point, but an abstraction defined by the myriads of attribution and interpretations (including self-attributions and self-interpretations) that have composed the biography of the living body whose Center of Narrative Gravity it is.