About Psychological Health: See Yourself Differently
This is the fourth of a six-part series on psychological health. Psychological health is all about how you can feel less stuck and live a more vital life. In previous articles I talked about the importance of being present, being willing, and noticing and relating differently to your thoughts. In this article I want to focus on how we view ourselves and the impact it has on our psychological health.
Consider the ways you can describe yourself:
I’m a foodie.
I like the Giants.
I’m an anxious person.
I am a dad.
I suck at relationships.
I love dogs.
Our entire history of life experiences, both what happens around us and how we experience it inside, shapes our identity. Let’s say that you’re a dad and a Giants fan, you love dogs and consider yourself something of a foodie. You also think of yourself as an anxious person and not so great at relationships. All of these concepts contribute to how you view yourself, your identity.
Seeing yourself as a collection of concepts.
The reason this matters is that when we use concepts to define our identity, it can define how we live our lives. If you define yourself as a Giants fan, you’re likely to attend games, read up on players, and meet up with other fans. If you see yourself as a foodie, you’ll likely to be adventurous in your eating habits, try out lots of restaurants and spend time in the kitchen. Our concepts of ourselves help us to seek out the things that matter in our lives, give us the confidence to take risks and explore, and try out new experiences.
Sometimes, however, holding on to these concepts isn’t helpful. If you consider yourself an anxious person and a failure at relationships it can limit you. How could you possibly take a chance on a new relationship when you’re a failure at them? Since you’re a pretty anxious person, you don’t like to travel much - no Giants away games for you. If you think about it, there are likely lots of ways that holding a concept like this can limit you. These concepts can define (in a limiting way) who you are and what you do with your life - life can feel smaller and less vital.
Seeing yourself in the context of what’s happening in the moment.
So how can you see yourself differently? Consider if you think of yourself as an anxious person. That concept “I am an anxious person” begins to color your perception of reality and influence your decisions. Anxious people do and don’t do certain things, they act certain ways.
But, have there been times when you haven’t been anxious? Or have there been times where you’ve been anxious but done something important and meaningful anyway? Is it possible to see yourself as someone who is solid and whole in the present moment and that sometimes you experience anxiety and sometimes you don’t?
What happens when you start thinking of yourself as someone who has anxiety but isn’t defined by it? Taking this view can help open up possibilities in your life. You can begin to see that in different contexts you might experience anxiety or you might not but that it doesn’t have to define you or what you do. You can start making choices based on what matters to you, rather than choices that are based on an identity.
Shifting from concept to context
The point is to begin to see that your concepts of yourself can be useful or harmful, can come and go, and can change over time depending on the context of where you are at in life. Shifting to a stance of yourself as an observer of your experience can be a freeing experience and help you get less stuck in negative and limiting concepts.
How to shift
One of my favorite metaphors for thinking about this is to consider the sky. Lots of stuff happens in the sky: clouds come and go, rain comes down, birds and planes fly by. And yet, even if a hurricane or a blizzard happens, you know that the sky is not harmed and does not change. Eventually all of these things pass and the sky remains the same sky it always is.
When thinking about this metaphor, consider that you are the sky. The clouds, rain, storms, birds, and planes are your thoughts, urges, memories, and feelings . Things like the feelings of anxiety, the memories of failure in relationships, etc. Lots of things will happen to you but they don’t have to define you. You are whole and complete and will experience things like anxiety and failures in your relationships. You can still try out new stuff and live the life you want.
When we view ourselves in the context of what is happening, rather than define ourselves with a concept, we can begin to live in ways that are bigger than our labels. Consider where your labels and concepts for yourself have limited you. Can you see yourself as bigger than these?