The Illusion of Self
Written in several hours at Starbucks by the San Jose Airport, with the Chainsmokers blasting in my ears and a blonde roast coffee keeping me alert. This short essay was inspired from articles on psychology and neurology spurred me to put the “self” and the “I” in a clearer context.
Each of us lives with a sense of a self. We feel like we have an independent and existent “I.” We all yearn for clarity to the questions “Who am I?” Who is the “I” who says, “I love ice cream,” or “I am mad at you.” It is curious and revealing that we constantly refer to ourselves, our “I,” and yet we really don’t really know the manner in which this “I” exists. Where am I? Can you point to your consciousness? Am “I” my physical body: my nose, my face, my leg, my brain? However, doesn’t the self or “I” survive even if I lose an arm or leg?
Realizing the delusions of our self is akin to the little dog Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the machinations of the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Throughout the Land of Oz, the Wizard was dominant, all-powerful, and authoritative, and everyone deferred to him. This is like our ego, telling us what to do and convincing us that it alone is wise and knows all. Then, one day, we get fed up and tired of being sent on wild goose chases, and we discover that the big Wizard is only a rather small, insecure, and powerless old man shouting into a microphone. It is all ruse. The Wizard dominated for his own benefit; Dorothy never needed him to get her “home.” Our personal Wizard might be the internalized voice of our parents, or of society, or of our profession. The Wizard is not us, however, and we don’t actually need him in the driver’s seat. Invariably, getting “home” and overcoming our self-destructive tendencies require us only to be brave enough to pull back the curtain and reveal our own false sense of self.
My contention can be summed up in three points:
- The “I” is a constructed entity.
- There is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I.”
- We predispose ourselves to expect that we live out the “story” that we think defines us.
First, the “I” is a constructed entity, a collection of opinions, projections, and disturbing emotions, rather than something absolute. The “I” is like a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives that seems so real – as if we have been cast as a character in a play.
We all manufacture an elusive “I” filled with character traits, virtues, and a back-story so that we can gain acceptance with others, fulfill a role in life, manage potential threats, and protect our fragile ego’s. We cultivate a “self” from the amalgamation of our experiences, memories, and extensions. A man’s “I” is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his mind, but clothes and house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his accomplishments and status.
The “I” is our constructed story that forms and shapes our identity. We are the chief architects of our individual selves as we build up a sense of ‘self’, ‘identity’, and the pronominal ‘I’. During the different phases of our development we morph into the ‘smart one’ or ‘the athlete’ of the family; then the ‘shy girl’ one or ‘the funny guy’ in high school. We are constantly sizing up people and experiences around us in order to adapt to the expectations and requirements of the outside world. We adapt by creating defenses and extensions so that our world becomes more manageable. We adapt by using denial, “That’s not really me!” and projection, “Oh, he thinks he knows everything.” We use are extensions to help us with our role and status in society. Thus, our extensions become our looks, our cars, our houses, and what appears on our Facebook feed. In essence, our extensions become our identities.
Second, there is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I.” This is proven in our ever-evolving acting roles given the experiences we face and the situations we find ourselves in. I may say and feel, for example, that I am a father, husband, counselor, writer, son, impatient driver, mellow driver, good triathlete, funny guy, contemplative guy, coach, and so on. But I am none of these concretely, permanently, solidly, independently, or absolutely, even if I do believe I exist in all those ways at certain times and places. Sometimes I am a husband, but with my mom I assume the role of son. I play the role of good driver when my wife and son are in the car, but I’m Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights when I am in my car alone and I am late for an appointment. I’m professional and serious at work, but I’m goofy and crazy with my close friends. Am I a husband, good driver, and goofy constantly and absolutely? Not at all. I simply can’t nail down my identity or “Me” because I play a plethora of roles in order to adapt to my environment. Moreover, if tomorrow I lose everything and find myself bankrupt and alone, I will assume a new role and character. Simply put, the self and “I” is not physical, but it’s symbolic. The “I” is an ever-changing symbolic narrative we mold as it undergoes perpetual construction, refining, and re-definition.
Why am I so focused on deconstructing the illusion of “I”? The reason is because the illusion of the self is so powerful that we predispose ourselves to live out particular “stories” that we think define us. Often when we have an experience, we generalize it to a personal trait. So, when going through various experiences, we typically reinforce an imprint of who we think we are. In a sense we could say we predispose ourselves to expect that we will live out the “story” that we think defines us, even when that story leads us into perpetual failure or self-destructive habits.
When we fail to recognize the illusion of the “I”, we end up fusing our identity with our emotions. We all, most likely would agree that we are not our beliefs, our experiences, or our roles. We know intellectually that we are not solely any of these limited things, but there’s the rub. Despite this understanding, we often behave and react otherwise. We “forget” in the heat of the moment. We live in a kind of a hallucination brought on by our emotions, which are experienced so fully and directly it’s as if they take over our mind and we “fuse” our identity with them.
Just look how people talk about their emotions. They (and you) say, “I am hungry,” and “Boy, I’m tired,” or “I’m mad at my boss.” In the moment we become hunger, tired, and anger. All day long we are constantly identifying with our emotions, and we treat them as if they are the infallible barometer of our true self. The reality is this: when we fuse our emotions to our (constructed) identity we cause our own anxiety by projecting specific beliefs, perceptions, and values onto the situation.
Currently, I am stressed because I have a rocky relationship with a co-worker. I have anxiety over the way that this co-worker treats me and false assumptions they have of me. But this anxiety is my own fault and my own doing. I am clinging to my sense of “I” that says, “I need to have a good reputation,” and “I deserve to be liked by everybody.” This is part of my identity and has been for as long as I can remember. If I don’t get perceived by others that way, then am I the opposite: a person with a sketchy reputation who should not be trusted? It certainly feels that that’s the perception. Quite honestly, my identity feels threatened! My anxiety, then, is the direct result of this aversion/desire I have around a specific identity (i.e. reputable, well-liked), and my attachment to the outcome.
Do you see the emotional fusion? Anxiety is fused with the desire and attachment to an insatiable need to be liked and respected. Why? Because I have constructed an identity that says, “Wes is a reputable person who needs to be well-liked and respected.” That is the role, identity, and “I” that I have constructed. I would be much happier, had I not constructed that identity, that “I”.
Listen, just because I believe the “I” is an illusion doesn’t been that we have to resign ourselves to a feeling of floating nothingness. It’s impossible to live 24/7 denying the “I”. The reason for this is because we all have experiences; and experiences are the catalyst for the formation of the “I.” Thus, we are destined to always construct a story of our “I,” as well as concretize an identity and story we wish to live out. Given this inevitability, my suggestion is that we pick roles and identities that are adaptive and flexible. I’d much rather create a role for myself that is centered on “Wes the compassionate person” than “Wes, who needs to be perceived as a strong and reliable person.” We will always find a role to play, my point is that we can pick roles that don’t set us up for future failings.
In reality, the “I” doesn’t actually refer to anything. You can have an elaborate story about “I,” and you can refer to that story and worry about how that story is going, but there is no thing that all of that refers to. “I” is just a lot of memories patched together to make what we call a self-image, which is an accurate description of it – it’s an image. In the end, it turns out that “I” is just thoughts about “I.”
If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion. – Aldous Huxley