When I discover who I am, I’ll be free. ― Ralph Ellison,
Who am I? Am I my body? If so, which and how many parts can be taken away and still be me? Am I my thoughts and emotions? Was my grandmother still my grandmother even after the dementia reduced her mental activity to confusion and anger? Is there a separate and enduring me?
Even when we have a belief system that includes the existence of a soul or an afterlife, these questions can still haunt us. What does it mean when we are advised we should go out and “find ourselves“? This bit of counsel implies that there is a solid me out there somewhere, but it has been misplaced or is waiting to be discovered and that we are lost or incomplete until we find it.
It’s obvious to those who have grown children that very little of the toddler remains in the adult. Over time we all change profoundly, such that eventually we are almost unrecognizable from our elementary school photos. Thank goodness that our personalities and beliefs evolve as we age – can you imagine what the world would be like if they didn’t? Science tells us that many of the very cells of our bodies are constantly being refreshed and replaced. And of course, we all eventually die and the bodies and brains we identify as our worldly “selves” decompose back into the elements that formed us.
Like vanishing dew,
a passing apparition
or the sudden flash
of lightning — already gone —
thus should one regard one’s self.
When we cling to the idea of a permanent and unchanging self – when we identify with our thoughts and emotions or feel possessive of other beings and things – we are bound to suffer because we are insisting upon the impossible. We are all more like waves in the ocean than stone carvings, constantly moving and changing – inseparable from the whole. Waves cannot be grasped and their actions are impersonal.
Have you ever noticed that distress and dissatisfaction often go hand in hand with taking experiences personally? When we attribute something to the self – when we think of it as about, happening to, or belonging to us – difficult experiences become that much more painful. The loss of my loved one aches more profoundly than the loss of someone else’s loved one. A barb or insult from my friend or family member cuts more deeply than one that comes from a stranger. Damage to my property somehow upsets me much more viscerally than a disaster devastating some faraway place.
Its also very lonely, this over-identification with a unique self. It convinces us that we are completely separate, one-of-a-kind, fully responsible for whatever happens to us, and all alone in our experience. It can make us feel self-conscious, scrutinized, and even alienated. We believe that each of us alone must bear this burden of the self.
Some interesting research has leant support to the observation that self-identification can be correlated with distress. Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist and pioneer in the field of therapeutic writing, asked a group of people recovering from serious illness or other trauma to engage in a series of writing exercises. The word tallies showed that those whose health was improving tended to decrease their use of first-person pronouns through the course of the study. Pennebaker stated, “…we developed a computer program to analyse the language people used when they wrote about traumas… The more people changed from using first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) to using other pronouns (we, you, she, they) from one piece of writing to the next, the better their health became. Their word use reflected their psychological state.”
Another study demonstrated that depressive symptomatology is manifested in greater first-person singular pronoun use (i.e., I-talk). The researchers concluded that self-referential language using first-person singular pronouns may be a linguistic marker of general distress proneness and a wide range of negative emotionality including depressive symptoms, anxiety, distress, worry, tension, and anger.
Stress can make you be caught in the metaphorical ‘I’ of the storm. – Matthias Mehl
So what is to be done about this tyranny of I, me, mine? Through mindfulness, we can learn to cultivate a quality of being that is relatively free of self-identification. During meditation, we can practice observing thoughts like scenes in a move rather than looking out from them as if through a lens in a camera. Gradually this skill begins to manifest in daily life. As we ponder the nature of the self, we may begin to discover we are really just a collection of impermanent, interdependent factors – an ever-changing grouping of matter, sensations, perceptions, and actions endowed with consciousness. Removing the filter of self-referencing allows us to see things more clearly, feel more connected, and respond to difficulty with greater compassion and wisdom.
Pennebaker, J. W. (2013). The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Bloomsbury Press.
Tackman, A. et. Al. (2018). Depression, Negative Emotionality, and Self-Referential Language: A Multi-Lab, Multi-Measure, and Multi-Language-Task Research Synthesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.