Becoming your true self is a process that lasts throughout a lifetime. Our personalities are not set in stone by the time we drive off to college or even the day we head to retirement. It is always possible for a person to change. Yet, in order to achieve lasting change, we have to know ourselves. How did we become who we are and how do we seek to be different?
A person's life, while entirely unique, is all too often a repetition or reenactment of the past. Very often, we live out past prescriptions from parents and society without really questioning "what do I want?" Negative adaptations to our early environment lead us to develop traits we often don't like in ourselves. In fact, the behaviors in us that we like the least are often negative characteristics from parents or other influential caretakers that we've taken on as our own. When we look closely at these traits, we can start to notice how they impact our careers, relationships and our goals in life.
My father Dr. Robert Firestone describes this process of "differentiation" as a four-step method for freeing yourself from past prescriptions and becoming who you really are.
How can we identify and overcome the old characteristics and attitudes within ourselves that hurt us in our lives today? How can we separate what is us and what is a repetition of someone else? Here are some fundamental ways to become the real you:
1) Fully expose the attitudes that hurt you in your life today. Start by writing down your parent's or another influential caretaker's attitude at its most extreme. Think of when your parent was in a moment of stress and acted out. What kinds of statements would they make? What points of view would they reveal? A woman I worked with tried this exercise and wound up surfacing some deep-seated attitudes her mother had toward men. In writing down her mother's point of view, she described men as worthless and only good for taking care of a woman. As she exposed her mother's distrust and hatred toward men, the woman began to feel critical of these attitudes and motivated to separate from these early "lessons" her mother had imposed on her.
2) Once you identify these old, often engrained, attitudes, you can really start to think about how they impact your own life or behavior. For the woman I described above, this meant noticing how she now felt toward men. How was she living out (or reliving) her mother's prescription for her life by maintaining these attitudes in herself? First, the woman thought about how she treated her husband. She often noticed herself feeling superior and critical toward him. Yet, at the same time she often acted like a child, wanting to be taken care of by him and thinking of him as weak when he failed to live up to her expectations. She also noticed herself having moments of extreme distrust, in which she became jealous or over-dramatic in her reactions to him. It was clear to her that much of her point of view sprung from her mother's cynical perception of men. She could tell this attitude was different from her real feelings for her husband, which were far more loving and equal than her mother seemingly felt in any of her relationships.
3) Remember not to be defensive. People often have a blind spot when it comes to their own past and how it affects them in their lives today. They may not notice ways they are acting out based on old experiences. It's valuable, when learning about yourself in this way, to be open to feedback. Friends and loved ones can be very helpful in letting you know when you don't seem quite yourself or when certain behaviors of yours put them off or push them away.
4) Once you recognize the undesirable ways your past is affecting your present behavior, you can make a conscience effort to act differently. You can teach yourself to stop reacting instinctively and to really think about the kind of person you want to be. The woman, for example, started by noticing when she felt triggered in relation to her husband. Instead of making a sarcastic or biting comment, as she normally would, she'd stop herself and ask, "Where does this attitude come from? Is this really me? Is this how I want to treat him?"
5) Taking note of times you're triggered is very helpful to the process of differentiation. It allows you to know yourself better, to identify patterns and to ask yourself what's going on in these moments. For the woman, she noticed that these critical thoughts toward her husband actually came up just after she started to feel particularly close to him. If she felt especially vulnerable or open to her husband, she'd have a reaction a couple days later, when all of a sudden, she'd have instinct to push him away. She realized in thinking about it that she was afraid. While her mother's attitudes were often unpleasant, they were familiar. Breaking from them posed an emotional threat to the woman in that it would cause her great anxiety, severing an imagined bond with her mother and refusing to live out someone else's vision for her life.
6) As you disrupt these behaviors, you can expect to feel anxious. Pushing past this anxiety and standing up to any self-critical attitudes or "critical inner voices" that arise is key in becoming your truest self. It's essential to start choosing the ways you want to be. Think about positive traits you like in yourself that really express the person you want to be. Try to resist the urge to just go halfway, and really throw yourself into your goals. For the woman, that meant trying to stick it out and stay close to her husband. It meant letting him express his love for her without her acting distrustful, tough or guarded.
7) Naturally, you won't always be perfect, and you won't always like the thoughts you have along the way. Remember, the patterns you're trying to change have deep, emotional ties to your past, and you came by them honestly. Have empathy for yourself and for others in the process. Notice how the patterns hurt you and those close to you, but don't allow yourself to get caught up in beating yourself up over your flaws. Instead, have compassion for any hurtful experiences that led to your struggles. Having feeling for yourself can help you to separate from your defenses. Furthermore, it can help you to have patience with yourself in your lifelong journey to become who you want to be and live the life only you have imagined for yourself.
On June 4, I will host a free Webinar "Becoming the Real You" to further explore this complex subject. I will discuss the steps of differentiation and describe key principles to keep in mind when embarking on this challenging, yet invigorating, path to self-discovery.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone on June 4 for the FREE Webinar "Becoming the Real You."
Learn about Dr. Lisa Firestone's latest book, The Self Under Siege: A New Model of Differentiation.
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