Are You Searching for Your Authentic Self?
Threat, safety, and the sense of self.
Posted October 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Chronic threat has become the new normal.
- Chronic threat is a physiologic state that biases all our actions and reactions.
- Our sense of self is an outgrowth of our physiologic state.
It is invaluable to each species, each individual, and every cell on earth to be aware of threats. Awareness of threats enhances survival and the probability of reproducing. We are genetically and epigenetically programmed to recognize threats. If we experience a lot of threat in a lifetime, and we all do over time, then we are coded and biased towards sensing threat in the world. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is adaptive—until it is not.
Threat and Safety exist on a continuum—a sliding scale, so to speak, with an infinite number of points along the slide and each point having its own unique physiology. The spectrum runs from extreme threat to extreme safety, from faint to falter to freeze to flight to fight to breed to feed to digest to rest to sleep. Our internal and external environment determines our physiology at any moment in time, and our physiology determines whether we will immobilize or mobilize in threat or whether we will mobilize or immobilize in safety.
Our threat-response programming is helpful for dealing with acute threats—infections, tiger attacks, motor vehicle accidents. However, we are not designed to live in a state of chronic threat without reprieve. Resilience is not an intellectual asset, it is a physiological response to periods of safety, restoration, and regeneration. This process allows us to fight another day.
Our physiology determines whether we are inflamed or not. It determines whether we are catabolic or anabolic—degenerative or regenerative. It determines whether we are reactive and impulsive or contemplative and measured; whether we are infertile or reproductive, asocial or prosocial. It determines whether we approach in anger or in love and whether we collapse in submission and despair or rest in vulnerability and contentment.
Our physical self, emotional self, social self, and spiritual self all change with our physiology. How we look, how we feel, how we think, and how we behave all change depending on the degrees of threat or safety we are in. This is who we are.
From an evolutionary perspective, physiological changes are geared to improving our chances of survival. But they are not well adapted for our current culture and the modern world.
The question is—did evolution fail us or have we failed to recognize our evolution? Do our maps of humans and our physiology, combined with our constructs around physical, emotional, social and spiritual wellness and health, take us down pathways that do not solve our problems and frequently exacerbate our problems?
The answer is yes.
We need to maintain our physiology within certain bounds for our cells to survive, but there is no clear pull to bring us to a static setpoint, making the concept of homeostasis obsolete. We can get stuck in chronic threat physiology, and, when we do, there is no gravitational force within our bodies that pulls us back to being safe.
When we are stuck in chronic threat, so is our physiology. We are more inflamed, catabolic, degenerative, irritable, anxious, reactive, impulsive, asocial, and infertile. We have more illness and disease—physical, emotional, social and spiritual—and we suffer.
Just as there is no single setpoint or force within pulling us into a physiological equilibrium, there is no single self that we can call ourself. There are constructs of the self that we may aspire to, but there is no single self or homeostatic self.
In each of the physiologic states from extreme threat to extreme safety, we are still us—one of our infinite selves. Any one of us with a large enough threat load will experience physiologic changes that will change the sense of self. We all have anger and anxiety, we all can be reactive or impulsive, prejudiced and asocial. These are products of the state of threat.
People search for their authentic self. The authentic self is our physiology in each and every moment of time. The authentic self is the river that is never the same. It appears and disappears without frame, a continuous flow uncontained. If you think you have found your authentic self you may, in fact, be lost.
People want to have high self-esteem and have constructs to pursue it, but self-esteem, just as the self, is not a form, but an outgrowth of the physiology of being safe, seen, and secure in the world. We can’t teach self-esteem or convince someone to have high self-esteem, as it is not intellectual, but physiological. We feel good about ourselves when we are safe, seen, and secure in the world.
Our incorrect concepts of homeostasis and the self have significant implications for our culture and the world. The idealized ways we want to feel, think, and behave are dependent on being safe, seen, and secure in the world. In general, we want to be happy, joyful, smart, creative, compassionate, kind, connected, social, sexual, regenerative, and reproductive. All are programmed into us and come online when we feel safe, seen, and secure.
But we seem hell-bent on increasing threat in the world.
We have determined that to be meaningful in this world we have to always work, be competitive, stoic, never show weakness or vulnerability. Such a strategy keeps us in threat physiology.
We have determined that chronic conflict and competition are of value whether in the marketplace or our interpersonal space.
We no longer share information for mutual gain, but harvest information for advantage. Marketing is manipulative and predatory. Social media often preys on our weaknesses and insecurities, increasing our threat load. Politics is no longer the competition of ideas but a process of bullying, demeaning, and destroying the opposition—chronic conflict and chronic threat.
Foreign policy is heavily biased towards threat. Criminal justice is heavily biased towards punishment. Economic policy is biased towards conflict and competition for resources. All increase threat.
Most current strategies will never cure!
We all exist along the same continuum of physiology and the same continuum of multiple selves. Those with physical, emotional, social, or spiritual illness or disease are the canaries in the coal mine. With enough chronic threat in our lives, we too could suffer from physical illness, mental illness, addiction, isolation, and homelessness.
Increasing rates of cancer, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, addiction, ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, suicide, and homelessness all point to our susceptibility. Not only can we become them, we are becoming them.
Instead of recognizing our commonality, we have become polarized and binary in our thinking, sacrificing empathy, kindness, compassion, nuance, and the continuum that keeps us connected. The natural world is full enough of threat; we don’t need to fill our worlds with bad policies and false constructs that pull us all down.
Our threat load is heavy and it is crushing us. Increasing threat in the world is ultimately self-defeating; increasing safety is ultimately self-fulfilling. Let’s move towards safety in everything we do.
No person on the planet can truly be safe until all are safe.