There is a misunderstanding about having a strong sense of self. To have a strong sense of self does not mean that we insist on who we think we are and refuse to change. But it means we know who we really are beyond our education, our job title, our belongings, our social status, our roles, our circle of friends, our interests, our likes and dislikes, our habits, our culture, our perspectives on things, our beliefs, and our faith.
Misunderstanding about “self” and “who we are” can cause conflicts within oneself and with others, and limit a person’s happiness. For example, an MBA graduate from a top business school thinks s/he should follow the so called “MBA career path” instead of following his/her passions that might not require an MBA; a Thai thinks s/he should believe in certain values and behave certain ways even though s/he actually spent most of her/his adulthood in the US; an executive gets attached to his/her job title and gets depressed with reorganization or lay-offs; a millionaire thinks s/he needs to maintain her/his image with luxury brand-named cars and handbags; a mother still plays a parenting role toward her grown-up sons and daughters; a grown-up son thinks that he needs validation from his parents that he’s leading a good life and making the right life decisions; a biking enthusiast thinks that biking is a part of who s/he is, and doesn’t realize that his/her preferences and physical abilities can change over time. The list goes on.
It takes a lot of courage to separate one’s true sense of self from one’s ego, regardless of one’s education, nationality, social status, job title, societal role, habits, and preference.
To be true to ourselves, we need to be able to differentiate between our core selves – who we really are – and our changeable characteristics so that we can choose to be true to our core selves, and not to our changeable characteristics. Only when we can be true to our core selves, can we have the courage to take the unconventional path that leads to true happiness.
The strong sense of self that is based on changeable characteristics feels heavy, as we need to put a lot of effort to try to hold on to things that are naturally changeable. The strong sense of self that is based on our core selves is light because our core selves are always present and we don’t need to force ourselves either internally or externally to make them true.
Many people base their sense of self on changeable characteristics, and are often mistakenly convinced that they have strong a sense of self. In fact, they just have strong images and opinions about themselves. Unless they find their core selves, they cannot have true strong senses of self that can withstand the ups and downs of life.
The other day, I had lunch with a new friend. After discussing what we do and some of our passions, he asked me “Who are you, Urapa?”
If he had asked me this question a few years ago, my answer would have been along the line of “I’m Thai, an MBA grad from Kellogg, and a product manager at a Fortune 500 company.” However, at this point in my life, I realize that description is not who I am, and I knew it was not what he was asking me.
He clarified. “What is it about you that hasn’t changed over the course of your life?” I paused and gave him the answer that came first to my mind. “I always strive for happiness, to feel at peace.” That is a part of who I am, my core self. That was all I could think of at the time, but I was sure there was more. After I came back home that day, I continued to seek answers to his question…for myself.
Pursuit of happiness, positivity, and empathy are the first three words that came to my mind. These are characteristics of me that, in my opinion, have always been true. Whether when I was a little kid, a teenager, or an adult, whether I was happy or sad, whether I was brave or scared, whether I was ill or healthy, whether I experienced pleasure or pain, whether my life was at the top of the mountain or at the bottom of the cliff, these three things about me have never changed.
All other things about me have changed so much, whether it’s other aspects of my personality, my interests, my habits, my likes and dislikes, my beliefs, my job titles, my belongings, my perspectives on things, my culture – the list continues. When I hear people say what I view as a cliché, “People can’t change,” I sometimes wonder how it is possible for someone to not change.
When I was younger, “who I am” was based on those changeable characteristics. When those characteristics changed, I felt like I was losing myself. I sometimes resisted changes, telling myself that was who I was, and I would not change, trying my best to hold on to what I believed to be me. Maybe that is a reason that a lot of people don’t want to change or stubbornly insist they can’t change; deep inside, they are afraid that they will lose themselves.
Significant events in life, for example, a divorce, a lay-off, a lost of assets, an illness that impacts their physical strengths and abilities to live a normal life can make people feel like losing themselves because these events by nature change our changeable characteristics.
We need to remind ourselves that our changeable characteristics and our core selves are not the same. While our changeable characteristics can change, our core selves remain the same. Losing changeable characteristics does not mean that we lose a part of who we are. The feeling of losing ourselves is just our ego struggling to hold onto things that can change.
It is extremely important that we know our core selves — that we know who we really are — because the only true stability in our lives is our core selves. At the same time, we need to allow the changeable characteristics of us to change without frustration, as changes bring personal growth and learning, and they are inevitable.
This is a letter to my very dear girl friend, whose real name is disguised. I think it is a good reminder for anyone including myself.
My dear Amanda,
The other day you said to me that you think you are not good enough, not pretty enough, and not courageous enough to be a happy person and friend. The first thing that came to my mind was that I think you misunderstood a very important truth.
You should realize that you are already enough and more than enough of a wonderful person and friend without your beautiful face, clothes and make-up. Furthermore, you are wonderful without giving gifts to all your friends, and without being brave all the time too. If I strip everything that is external off of you, what I can see and feel is a person with a beautiful soul, a person who is loving, caring, genuine, true, unpretentious, and cheerful, and a person that I invited to my home and opened myself to. You could not have been more beautiful, smarter, braver, or have given me more gifts to be enough to be my friend because you are already more than enough at the core of who you are inside. And if anyone demands that you need to be more beautiful, smarter, braver or possess more of anything to be their friend or girlfriend, you should run!
You are not the only one who feels like you are not enough. A lot of people feel this way at some points in their life, particularly when things are not going as planned, when they run into challenges in life such as getting laid off or going through a divorce, when they don’t have certain things that seem to be the so called “norm” of the society such as a nice car, a big house, a good job, kids, a family, a husband, a wife, a boyfriend or a girlfriend. What people often forget is that those things are external. The only element inside us that demands those external things in order to feel enough is our ego. Ego needs a lot of attention and a lot of external things to make it feel enough. If you can separate your core self from your ego, you may realize that your core self is enough on its own. It does not need anything to make it looks good. It’s already good. Whether you have or don’t have money, beauty, cars, house, jobs, kids, husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, your core self is still there and unchanged. Those external things don’t define you and don’t define your core self. Having money, beauty, cars, house, jobs, kids, husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend do not add to your core self or your soul. And vice versa, not having them does not diminish your core self, your soul or who you are.
If you can separate your “enough” self from the “never-enough” ego inside you and recognize when your ego is trying to talk to you to make you feel not enough, you will be able to get rid or at least reduce the size and the influence of the ego. Without ego, there is nothing there to get crushed with external things that do not matter to your core self and soul. Then you will experience the stage that I called “low or no ego, but high self esteem”. You can dress in ugly clothes with no make-ups, drive an old car, work on the most unglamorous job, and go through life without a boyfriend or a husband, while feeling content, at peace, and happy. A lot of people like to think that they will be happy when certain things happen, such as finishing a degree, getting married, moving to a different place, getting a promotion, having kids, earning more money and so on. In fact, the moment of happiness and peace is not when you have or achieve certain things or milestones. The moment of happiness and peace is now. And you can achieve that by separating your core self from your ego and not fighting with the present. When you feel content, happy and at peace, you will be able to focus your energy to do many things that you might not have imagined you could. And I am here to support you.
Disclaimer: The concept of ego and core self is based on the book “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose” by Eckhart Tolle
When I was younger, I struggled trying to put myself into one of the adjective buckets, hoping to belong to some categories: the extrovert or the introvert, the conservative or the liberal, the adventurous or the simple, the shy or the outgoing. There’s no adjective for someone that is both extrovert and introvert, someone that is both conservative and liberal, someone that is both adventurous and simple, and someone that is both shy and outgoing…someone as strange as me.
Not until I was in my early 30s working for a Fortune 500 company that I realized that I wasn’t the only one that could not decide which personality buckets I should be in. At one point, I had two bosses; one said I needed to be more aggressive; the other one said I was too aggressive. Imagine when they discussed my career development; it must have been quite confusing to them. Then I started to hear people that were close to me said “You need too much adventure and life stimulation” and “That’s great that you enjoy simple things” and “You are very picky and particular” and “You are very easy going” and “You are reserved” and “ You are outgoing” and “You need a lot of personal space” and “You like to go out and be with people” and “You always stay home” and “You are a party girl”. The list continued. Does this sound like a confusing personality? To others, maybe. To me, no not anymore.
Somewhere somehow, our society has trained people to label themselves and other people, from the adjectives like introvert and extrovert to the letters like ESTJ or ISTJ of the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. At Kellogg, I recalled that my classmates randomly asked one another “I’m ENTJ. What are you?” When I thought about it, it seemed a little too much that people need labels so badly that we need a scientific method for it. My third boss realized that my first two bosses labeled me with the opposite personality descriptions and figured that there was a much better way for him to understand his employee. So he asked me for my Myers-Briggs results. Yeah, he really needed to find a label for me somehow!
While I am comfortable with who I am these days, other people may not feel the same way. In general, having a label psychologically makes people feel comfortable, feel like they know who they are, feel like they know who another person is, feel like they belong to a certain group, and feel like another person is one of their kinds. And not being able to put someone into a bucket can cause frustration and misunderstanding to those that are used to labels and buckets.
The popular and inveterate habit of labeling and bucketing leads to people to forget that each individual is too complex to be described by only a few adjectives or sets of letters. While bucketing people may, on the surface, seem to be an easy way to describe people, it might not result in accurate understanding of people. Inaccuracy inevitably creates misunderstanding and frustration. So what should we do? Luckily, there is a simple, alternative approach that doesn’t distort the reality of human complexity. That is to just experience each individual without labeling and bucketing them. Just experience the true person behind all the labeling. It’s that simple.
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