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Being True to Yourself Is Harder Than You Think

How others help you become you.

I feel fortunate to have several therapists as friends and colleagues. I always find their conversations about their work fascinating and often find myself thinking about what they've said for days after. In this post, I'll share with you one of those conversations through this guest column by social therapists, Hugh Polk and Ann Green. Hugh is a psychiatrist by training and Ann is a registered psychiatric nurse practitioner. The column originally appears in their blog, Talkin' Therapy and is reprinted here with permission of the authors.

“Can I Be True to My Self and Grow?”

Hugh Polk, MD and Ann Green, Psych NP

Hugh: One of my clients, I’ll call her Carla, came into group the other night and told us that she was very upset over a situation at work, which had left her feeling angry with herself for being – as she put it – “not true to my authentic self.” This led, eventually, to a conversation about what we mean when we talk about ourselves in this way: what is an “authentic” self, and what is it to be true (or not) to it?

Ann: Sounds like a juicy conversation, philosophically speaking. And important, too. The self looms very large for most people, doesn’t it?

Hugh: Sometimes it can seem as if it’s not just the biggest thing, but the only thing, in the world. Let me give you a few details about what happened at Carla’s job. About a week ago she got an email from her boss informing her of major changes in how her team would be working as of the first week in December. Carla was furious at not having been included in the discussions leading up to these changes, and wanted to fire off an email to her boss letting him know exactly how she felt. But she decided not to do anything until she had spoken to her two closest friends, and on their advice she sent her boss an email in which she made no mention of her feelings but instead made a few suggestions about how the changes might best be implemented. Her boss responded to her ideas enthusiastically, and Carla had the satisfaction of feeling valued for her opinions and experience. But despite this happy ending, she said that instead of pretending to be okay with how the decisions had been made she should have had defended her self. Several people in the group said they knew exactly how she felt.

Ann: I can imagine…We’ve all been there. What did you say?

Hugh: I was mostly listening at first. Like most people, I’ve had the experience of feeling slighted or invisible – and I’ve been hopping mad about it. So I could understand how Carla would feel the way she felt. But I thought it was important for us not simply to identify with her, but to question the assumptions we make when we feel that way. So I asked the group “How do you know what your self is, and what it isn’t?” “Where is it located?” “Is it necessary to defend it?”

Ann: Those seem like interesting questions to me. What did the group say?

Hugh: Several people said that their authentic self has something to do with what they feel “deep down”; others said it’s connected to their identity – to the “essence” of who they are. One group member said that as the only woman of color in her otherwise all-white office, she feels a responsibility to herself and her community to speak up whenever the situation arises and defend her core values. Someone told us that she feels lonely all the time because no one knows who she “really” is.

Ann: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that, whatever their differences, everyone is speaking more or less the same language? But it’s not surprising. After all, we’ve all been taught to think in these terms about ourselves. Where would the Psychology industry be without the idea of the self as unique, precious, fundamental – a thing at the heart or center or root of each of us that we have to protect and defend?

Hugh: These ways of understanding who we are cause so much pain, and they do so much damage. One of our jobs as social therapists, as I see it, is to help people create the emotional and social tools they need to demolish them – not once and for all, but day in and day out.

Ann: It’s hard work…It isn’t possible to just get rid of these ideas with a snap of our therapeutic fingers! We have to acknowledge that the self is real in the sense that it’s a human-made product, meaning that – like all the other things we make – it has a history, a location in our culture, a part (a big part) in our day-to-day lives. Looking at the self in that way – as something human beings have created, rather than as some natural, fundamental, essence – helps us to step away from our feelings and see things about it that we otherwise couldn’t. Like who defines what the self is? Who benefits from the definitions? Who’s hurt by them?

Hugh: One way to think of a social therapy group is that it’s an environment in which people are supported to ask those kinds of questions – not in theory, but in practice. That practical activity of asking questions about things that seem to be obvious – in the way that young children do – helps adults to grow.

Ann: Which brings us back to Carla and the group.

Hugh: You could say that in sending the email that she did, rather than the one that she wanted to send at first, Carla – with the support of her friends – was choosing not to defend herself (in the sense of an old, familiar, and often destructive pattern of behavior). And that turned out to be a good thing. She allowed herself to become someone she wasn’t.

Ann: That’s not betrayal…it’s development!

Hugh: Everyone in a social therapy group grapples with that weird, exhilarating experience of being simultaneously who they are and who they’re becoming. And we’re doing it together…that’s the beauty of it.

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