You’re Not You (and Why This is Freeing)

An important concept to learn, understand, and remember is that you are not you. Knowing this can help you disconnect your self-worth from your thoughts, emotions, and tendencies. Your personality is largely made up of dynamics you don’t control, such as early childhood experiences, family culture, and genetics.

For example, I grew up in a very strict religious family with a diagnosed narcissist for a father. Individualism and critical thinking were not encouraged or tolerated. Religious, mental, and emotional abuse were the hallmarks of my childhood and teenage years. I grew up dreadfully insecure and fearful. As a teenager I developed OCD (never officially diagnosed, as my parents did not seek professional help for me), which included obsessive praying multiple times a day for God to forgive me, obsessive counting, and obsessive hand-washing.

Even at 36, I don’t know to what extent my personality has been shaped by the traumatic experiences of my youth. I very often have identity crises that most people past their teens or early twenties no longer experience. I constantly question what I want and if it’s not actually my trauma talking. I still feel that I don’t know who I am, what I should be doing, what kind of a life I want, or what I believe. It’s even hard to know how I’m feeling sometimes.

In his December 14, 2015 Bustle article entitled 7 Signs You Grew Up With a Toxic Parent and Didn’t Know It, JR Thorpe pulls from Dr. Susan Forward’s book Toxic Parents and says, “Many children of toxic parents find it exceptionally difficult to identify who they are once they grow up. Forward identities three areas in which their self-knowledge falls short: ‘who you are, what you feel, and what you want’…your sense of confusion and distance runs very deep indeed.”

Science tells us that your personality is pretty much set by six years old. It is largely an amalgam of your parents’/early caregivers’ beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Science also tells us that certain mental disorders have strong genetic links and that trauma can be passed down in the genes of families from generation to generation (epigenetics). But does this mean you can’t change? That you are bound by the mistakes of your parents and the generations before them for your emotions, feelings, reactions, and attachment styles? Thankfully, not. Recent science also emphasizes the neuroplasticity shown by the brain and its capability to create new neural pathways. By consciously making better, more self-caring choices, we can create new pathways in the brain and new defaults for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Eventually, it becomes easier and more natural for us to act and think in ways that benefit us and allow us to take back control of our lives.

I take some comfort in the thought that I am not simply a summation of my personality, interests, and mental issues. My worth does not lie there and cannot be calculated by arbitrary factors such as these. I don’t have to allow these facets of myself to control my decisions, moods, or mindsets. I don’t have to follow my instincts and can instead choose to think and act in ways that are best for me, which will in turn make me feel my best.

The Evolution of our Perspectives Over Time

Something amazing about human beings is our ability to mature, develop, and change our stances, beliefs, and viewpoints. This aspect is due to our adaptability, reasoning capabilities, and empathy. Our brains also have a high level of neuroplasticity, changing the way we think, reason, and behave.

Many of my opinions and positions have changed over the years. Some of them have changed 180 degrees while others have simply become softened, and I have grown to see where there is room for other perspectives. I think a lot of this comes with age. Many people aren’t able to see beyond black-and-white until their 30’s. I was definitely one of those people and had a very “us vs. them” mentality throughout my 20’s.

I’m sure my opinions will continue to change as I develop as a person, gain new knowledge and understanding, and have new life experiences. Looking at an issue from afar can leave a much different impression than looking at it from up close. You can never be sure how you will view or act in a certain situation until it happens to you.

Another common trait of human beings is our ability to hold two seemingly contradictory opinions at the same time. This is typically referred to as cognitive dissonance. I have surprised myself by feeling one way about a matter and an entirely different way about a similar matter, where the same principles should have applied. It’s important that in times like these we always use the best evidence, logic, and data we have available to us and do our best to admit any biases or emotions we have that might be causing prejudice. F. Scott Fitzgerald believed, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still be able to function.”

Yet another common human trait is to view anybody with opposing opinions as ill-willed. However, most of the time, someone with differing opinions has their thoughts and attitudes shaped by the same forces we did — upbringing and experience. And they are as sure as we that they are correct. Most of us are not even aware of why we think or behave the way we do. Social conditioning happens without the consent of the individual it shapes.

Have you found you think differently now than you used to? Are you more or less rigid in your views? More or less accepting of other people’s perspectives?