You Aren't Who You Think You Are

Who are all those strangers inside you skull?

Posted Sep 05, 2015

Who are you…really?

A straightforward definition of “you”  is the mélange of conscious thoughts, perceptions, feelings and memories that live in your skull. Along with  these percepts, “you” might also include personality and abilities: that collection of tendencies  and potentials that defines how you’ll feel, think , perform and behave under different circumstances.  Finally, lets round “you” out by adding your body to all of the mental stuff.

A mind and a body: what else could there be?

Yes, you’ve heard of the subconscious and unconscious, but, by definition, you’re not aware of those, so how do you know they’re real?

Well, the subconscious, unconscious—call it what you want—is not only real and directly observable, but it’s as important a part of you as your conscious mind.

It also makes you a different person—even a very different person-- than you think you are.

Let’s prove it.

Eric Haseltine
Source: Eric Haseltine

Talk back at me as if I were there in front of you. (I’ve supplied my headshot to help you really get into it).

Don’t just think of words to tell me, say them out loud as rapidly as you can.

Argue with me. Surely you don’t buy my overly simplistic definition of self. And what about the soul? What about your sense of humor and all those other things I left out? Keep it up for about 15 seconds.

Ok., you can stop

Were you aware of what every single word that came out of your mouth would be before you spoke?

No. They just came out; pretty much as you intended them, but come out on their own they did.

So, if “you” didn’t consciously form each and every word, who did?


Let’s move on……literally.

Stand up, walk across the room, return to your seat and sit down. 

You gave your body high level instructions, more or less the same as the instructions I just gave you, but you did not consciously contract each leg muscle in the precise sequence needed to propel yourself across the room and to sit, nor did you tell each  muscle in you arms to swing your upper limbs in balletic synchrony to your leg movements.

You just did those things without thinking about them.

But if you didn’t think about them except in a very general way, who, precisely, did?

Curiouser and curiouser.

Imagine that you had to remove the first red disc from the cluster of small blue discs surrounding it, and roll it into the mouth of the black wedge beside it on the right. Mark with a pencil how far into the wedge you think the disc would roll before getting stuck. Next, do the same for the red disc sitting in the cluster of large blue discs. The heights of the wedges where you made your marks represent your estimated diameters for the two discs.

Eric Haseltine
Source: Eric Haseltine

Reach for the top red disc as if you were about to pick it up (from inside the small blue ovals) between your thumb and index finger, but stop your hand about 2 inches directly above the figure. Carefully maintaining the separation of your thumb and index finger, measure this separation by positioning the fleshy parts of your thumb and finger along the two edges of the green wedge and marking the spot on the wedge that corresponds to the distance between your digits.

Repeat this procedure for the lower red disc.

If you’re like most people, the difference in estimated diameters of the red discs in your second try (with your fingers opened up) should have been considerably less than the difference in your purely mental try.


The optical illusion fooled the conscious “you” into thinking identical red discs were different, but apparently there was another “you”—the one who thoughtlessly determined exactly how far apart to spread your fingers-- that was not so easily fooled.

Two “you’s,” one conscious, one not, performing the same task,

Ah hah!!! The submerged “you” just poked its head above the surface where you could see it.

Hopefully, we’ve established that there are intelligent entities—whose inner workings are not accessible to you-- that form words, move muscles and perceive size. To add to the “you’s” that operate beyond the sphere of your awareness, there are brain circuits that control your heart rate, blood pressure and concentration of  compounds such as glucose and salt in your blood, just to name a few.

The reason evolution has masked these processes from you is that your brain can only do a first rate job of thinking, perceiving, and remembering if it concentrates maximum resources on the task at hand. Imagine that you had to  answer an essay question while simultaneously attending to breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestive processes, precise muscle movements etc etc. You’d be a wreck and your essay would suck.

Not good.

So there’s a very good reason you aren’t acquainted with all the you’s inside your skull.

But this reason--efficient brain operation --is not all that interesting or useful. How can you live a better life knowing this?

You can’t (unless you want to spend years mastering zen control of your autonomic nervous system, which most of you probably don’t).

But understanding why another set of undercover you’s do what they do can improve the quality of your life.

This second class of unconscious processes is  the really deep, dark, important Freudian stuff. Yes, Freudian.

Freud’s theories have fallen out of favor in some quarters, but there can be little doubt that he got some things right. Ego defense mechanisms  that deny, repress and rationalize bad behaviors, are one example.

Be honest. It’s extremely difficult to live comfortably with the idea that you actually screwed up.  Perhaps you hurt someone’s feeling, got your facts mixed up in an argument or made an embarrassingly wrong prediction. How long can you embrace your flaws without quickly moving on to other thoughts? How hard is it to genuinely admit that you’re flawed in the first place? If it were easy, Robert Burn’s immortal lines ---

O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us!

--would not be immortal.

Our unrealistically favorable view of ourselves, brought to us courtesy of ego defenses, is weird when you think about it. Who spends by far the most time with us, observing our actions, inferring our motivations, thinking about us?

We do.

So we should know ourselves far better than anyone else. But we don’t know ourselves, especially the imperfect parts. As low as our self esteem may be, as much as awareness of our imperfections hurts us, we still cannot fully “ ..see oursels as ithers see us”


And why should we care why?

First will delve into why, then we’ll get to why you should care why.

Defense mechanism are a description of what actually happens, not a deep explanation of why we automatically and unconsciously circle the wagons to defend our fragile egos whenever we do bad things.

A quick example. A neighbor once zoomed his car out of his driveway, broadsiding me and totaling my Volkswagen Beetle as I drove at the speed limit down the street. He leapt from his car, furious. “Watch where you’re going, ***hole. You hit me out of nowhere.”

You got it. In his view, I smacked  him (my passenger door rammed his front grill, I suppose)  just driving down the street in a normal, legal way. He was incapable then and incapable now of acknowledging his error failing to check traffic before jetting out of his driveway. Even after police cited him for causing the accident, then arrested  him for driving without a license or insurance,  he continued to protest that he was the victim!!

To understand the deep why of ego defense such as my neighbor’s, imagine that you were able to open the flood gates and let all those negative self images in. Freud believed you’d be anxious all of the time, worrying that you are inadequate, fretting that people would reject you. It would be exceedingly hard to perform day-to-day tasks such as making money, sustaining a relationship, or raising children who will carry on your genes.

This idea, advanced by Freud in the 1930’s, is old news.

Now there’s new news. Buunk et al, along with Nauman and others have found that self confidence is attractive to the opposite sex, and influences mate selection. By this view, evolution has bred defense mechanisms into us to boost our confidence so that we can reproduce.

Self confidence also makes us more accepted by peers. Goleman’s comparison  in Emotional Intelligence of two boys who arrive mid term at a new school, powerfully illustrates this. One of the boys who approached kids playing basketball and plead to be included was rejected.  But another boy, who started shooting baskets by himself, demonstrating a lack of neediness, was invited to join the game.

As  a social species, we depend upon each other for survival, and thus have deeply ingrained fears of rejection, even when the  rejection  is from a pickup basketball game. Defense mechanisms, by making us feel better about ourselves, increase our acceptance by others, helping us survive and reproduce.

This brings us to why it’s so important to understand that  we deny who we are in order to gain acceptance and confidence and to reduce anxiety.

Here’s where you might expect me to bring up the twelve step process, and argue that the first step is always  to admit—contrary to your defense mechanisms—that you have a problem.


I’m going the other way. I’m going to suggest that the goals of ego defenses are natural and  healthy.  If acceptance and confidence are important—and they are--why not  pursue  them in the most effective way?

Going to great lengths to defend ourselves—consciously or unconsciously—usually produces the opposite of what we desire. It’s often obvious to everyone –except us—that we are desperately trying to make ourselves look good by explaining why our arguments or actions are justified.  No amount of arguing by the guy who rammed my Volkswagen, convinced me or the police that he was anything other than a dirt bag. All the arguments and protestations just made him look like a bigger dirt bag.

If instead of putting up our fists, we roll with the  punches, we look much better to others and ourselves.

To illustrate, look how the Dali Lama responded to a barbed question during a 60 minutes interview. When asked on the show 60 Minutes whether he believed in reincarnation, he said., “yes.”

The trap was set.

Then  the interviewer  sprang the trap, “Are you re-incarnated, and can you remember who you were in a previous life?” 

The Dali Lama smiled sheepishly, then answered, “you know at my age , I can barely remember what I had for breakfast.”

Notice that the Dali Lama avoided all of the ego defenses that would have made him look like he needed defending. He didn’t try to explain, argue or justify. Instead, he showed a self –effacing humor that proved he was confident enough to acknowledge his flaws.

This strategy, by sharing vulnerabilities, simultaneously advertised that he was supremely confident while  showing that he could be trusted because he was willing to open up.

We trust people who risk revealing weakness, because we infer they will be tolerant of our weaknesses. And people we trust tend to also be people we accept. Acceptance leads to elevated self esteem, which in turn leads to greater acceptance, on and on in a virtuous circle.

Bottom line: go right on denying, repressing and rationalizing to your heart’s content. Just be judicious about the way you pursue the worthy goals of the defense mechanisms that hide who you really are.

You may never be the person you think you are, but you can be more of the person you want to be!

Love at First Sight: The Stories and Science Behind Instant Attraction

 Earl Nauman

More Posts