How to Become the Person You Most Want to Be

Stand for your values, not your ego.

Posted Mar 18, 2015

Your only chance of having the relationship you long for, finding the job you most desire, getting your children to behave the way you most want, and having the best government possible is to be the partner, worker, parent, and citizen you most want to be. You may recall Gandhi’s admonition—“You must be the change you wish to bring into the world.”

So that begs a question, which happens to be implicit in the dozen or so emails I receive every day from strangers wanting psychological advice. These rather long missives typically focus on complaints about family members and co-workers.

But hidden between the lines is the unspoken query, "Why do I put up with this?" And that begs the deeper question, "What kind of person am I?" And even more important, "What kind of person do I want to be?"

Seven Important Questions

  1. Do you want to be driven by your ego or motivated by your deepest values?
  2. Do you want other people to submit to what you want or willingly cooperate with you?
  3. Do you want to do be reactive to other people or to act in your long-term best interests, no matter what others do?
  4. Do you want to devalue other people or regard them as valuable?
  5. In your close relationships, which do you most want, power or value?
  6. If you chose the first part of any of the above, is the chain of resentment you drag through life helping you be the person, parent, intimate partner, worker, and citizen you most want to be?
  7. What is more important to you, the things you resent or your emotional wellbeing and that of the people you love?
  8. Trouble with any of the above questions stems from egos that are larger than values.

Crimes of the Ego

You can think of the ego as a compilation of the ways you prefer to think and feel about yourself, combined with how you prefer others to think and feel about you.

Those who want to think of themselves as especially important are likely to manipulate the impressions of others to seem important. Psychologists call this “impression management.”

People with large egos invest heavily in attempting to manage the impressions others have of them. But they also have a safety-net when their efforts fall short, as they usually do.

When they fail to get others to think they’re important, they simply regard them as unimportant and, sometimes, enemies or even demons. Accepting their inflated self-image is the only way to escape condemnation. The hard-wired threat-detector embedded in the central nervous system to keep us safe from harm has been commandeered in modern times to protect the ego.

Those who feel compelled to defend their egos inevitably violate their deeper values. The ego is primarily a defense against shame, especially shame over loss of status.

But shame is not a punishment to be defended against; it’s a motivation to be true to deeper values, which is the only way to relieve it. (Attempts to avoid shame by seeking status only create a false and fragile pride.) Using the ego as a defense against shame greatly weakens the motivation to be true to one’s deeper values.

Ask Not What Your Family, Job, or Country Can Do for You…

Excuse the paraphrase of John F. Kennedy, but he was really onto something. We now know that preoccupation with what you want from others pretty much guarantees that you’ll violate your deeper values.

You’re saying to yourself, “I cannot be the conscientious, fair, responsible, compassionate, and loving person I truly am until others do what I want or see the world the way I want them to see it.” On a wider stage, it may be, “I can’t be a good citizen until I have a good government.”

The only real chance of changing other people’s behavior is to change what they react to, namely your own behavior and emotional demeanor. Thanks to emotion reciprocity, other people are likely to respond in kind to your emotional demeanor, whether you’re compassionate and caring on the one hand or negative, defensive, and demanding on the other.

But getting favorable reactions from others is just the frosting. The cake must be baked inside. You’ll feel more authentic and true to yourself with focus on what you want to give, rather than what you want to take.

As Gandhi put it, the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

But don’t take Gandhi’s word for it. Think of your own experience of giving as opposed to taking. Which provided the greater gain in self-value? Which produced more enduring wellbeing?

In the Adult Brain, Value Flows Outward

Toddlers need to be valued more than they value others; their prefrontal cortex is insufficiently developed to regulate self-value and create values that override impulses and preferences.

The exact opposite is true for adults. Value needs to pour out of us, not into us. An authentic sense of self-value depends on the amount of value we create.

For example, it only feels good to be loved if we’re loving. Apart from a temporary ego boost, receiving more love than we give soon produces guilt for getting something we don’t deserve, or worse, a sense of inadequacy, due to the inability to return it.

More importantly, if we seem to need value poured into us, like toddlers do, we see ourselves as empty and powerless. Such low self-regard creates a life nearly bereft of meaning but rife with numbness or resentment; we'll become depressed or rebels without a cause.

Those who approach love from the toddler brain suffer from an illusion that they have a hole inside which someone else must fill. This makes them highly susceptible to manipulation, if not exploitation; they tend to find lovers with very small cups to fill their perceived “holes.”

That’s because people with big cups—a lot to give—look for other people with big cups, so they can get as much as they give. Those with small cups look for lovers with big holes, who might settle for what little they can give. Hence, big holes attract small cups.

Tragically, the illusion of having holes within fosters self-abuse and abuse of others. Self-abuse is sometimes direct, as in cutting—the deliberate slicing or gouging of one’s skin to feel alive.

Cutters report that the self-inflicted pain is the only way to pierce their utter numbness. More often, self-abusive behaviors are attempts to avoid pain or discomfort, as in drinking, drugging, and neglect of health and wellbeing. It can also take the form of abusing people you love, which may be the worst kind of self-inflicted harm.

Self-abusers of all types fail to realize that their numbness, pain, and discomfort comes, in large part, from the illusion that value must be poured into them.

Fortunately, buying into this hurtful illusion is merely habit, and habits can be changed. We can develop pressure-resistant habits that employ analysis, reality-testing, foresight, compassion for self and others, and the ability to improve, appreciate, connect, and protect. 

At the end of the day, you become the person you most want to be by behaving consistently in accordance with your deepest, most humane values.

Copyright, Steven Stosny, 2014. See course: Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress.