I have been doing a lot of thinking about personhood and personality (if those are two different things). That is to say, I have been thinking a lot about the kind of person I see myself to be, and the kind of person other people have seen I am. More often there not, there is a stark contrast. How can this be? Is what people see a façade, or is that the true me that I cannot see? I can never tell.
The last few weeks have been a very rough time for me. I feel exhausted, both emotionally and physically. I have internal mental resolve, but it is not being translated into action. At least, as much as I’d like it to. I feel weak, frustrated, and helpless. And yet, even in the midst of telling people these things, I have been told countless times in the last weeks that I am incredibly strong. I’m sure a few of those people said it as encouragement, and as a reminder to be strong, but I know that most of them actually saw that in me. So, who am I? Am I the person I feel myself to be: weak, vulnerable, and floundering, or the person people have been telling me they see: strong, brave, and resolved? Who is the true me?
I was talking to my roommate about this, after she told me that I was strong. “I don’t feel strong, though,” I had said. “Yeah, but strength is like humility. Those who are the most humble hardly ever see themselves that way,” she replied. I’ve thought about that statement a lot since then. What is it that keeps us from seeing ourselves from the ways others see us? Some I’m sure would say insecurity; many are not able to accept compliments and don’t feel a lot of self-worth. However, there have been times when people would say something to me, and I would think, “If you only knew what goes on inside my head, you would not be saying that” and maybe that’s part of it. We know all our selfish, unkind, and prideful thoughts, and others can only see our actions.
So, the question then becomes, are we our thoughts, or are we our actions? I think most would probably say that we are our actions, because we are not in control of our thoughts. But, recently I’ve come to the realization that I can be in control of my thoughts—but it is NOT easy. It takes incredible self-discipline—and a lot of prayer. There does not have to be a disparity between thoughts and actions; this question I posed does not have to exist. I think some would read this and say that I am being idealistic, but I don’t think that has to be the case. Sometimes I wonder if we call things idealistic because they would require too much work to become realistic.
When I was in therapy, my therapist took me through what she called “pain and peace cycles.” In non-psychology language, she had me go through a page that was filled with emotion and “feeling” words: failure, proud, hurt, depressed, frustrated, excited, etc. What we did was go through what I believe about myself when I don’t meet an expectation, either one imposed on me by myself or by someone else. Then, we went through the things people tell me I am, and how I view myself on my best day. The only way to get over all the negative feelings we have about ourselves is to verbally—literally say out loud to yourself—say the positive things we know about ourselves (or others have told us). I will give you one of my own statements I would say to myself for an example. “When I don’t meet an expectation, I feel inadequate, and I know I blame others and withdraw to defend. However, the truth about me is, I am appreciated and valued so I will be non-defensive and accepting towards myself.” Saying positive statements out loud literally changes the pathways in your brain. It takes a lot of practice (and saying cheesy, embarrassing statements like that) out loud to change a thought pattern. But science has proven that we are able to change our thought patterns. You take an old habit, like negative thoughts, and through a lot of practice, form a new habit. Thoughts are like any other habit in our lives: they are built through time; they never just magically appear.
As adults, we become very aware of the way we are around children. We try our best to be encouraging, telling them that they are loved, they are special, they can do anything they put their mind to, because we know that saying negative things (“You’re stupid, you can’t do anything right, you’ll never make it”) will enforce those thoughts in their brains. We know this to be true. And yet, do we take that same care with ourselves?
I have not been doing this. I have been telling myself for years that I am lazy, I am stubborn, I have to prove how smart I am, I am selfish, I am proud. The problem with all of this is that I have never tried to change those thoughts—and the actions they produce. If I tell myself I am lazy, it makes it ok for me to sit back and nap and watch television all day, and it takes the blame off of me for not getting anything done. Accepting these kinds of thoughts lets us off the hook of guilt and self-blame. I’m not saying that we should wallow in guilt whenever we don’t meet our expectations—far from it. That is exactly what I was speaking against above. No, rather we are to turn the negative thoughts we have into positive ones through self-verbal affirmation, and acceptance of the positive things others tell us.
This is not going to be easy. So far, I’ve failed at this every day. But, I’ve been receiving a lot of encouragement from friends, family, and NT Wright’s book After You Believe, which talks about transformation of character through daily small acts, conscious decisions that are really difficult, but with time seem as if they are second nature. That is what I want to work towards. That way, I won’t have to wonder if I am my thoughts or if I am my actions, because the two will be so much closer to being one.