HOW well do you know yourself? A recent UK study suggests that most of us are not nearly as nice as we think we are. Research by psychologists at Goldsmith’s College, University of London into how "nice" we believe ourselves to be, revealed that 98 per cent of participants rated themselves in the "nicest" 50 per cent of the population. On testing, more than half of this 98 per cent actually failed to achieve even average rates of "niceness".
Those surveyed believed that holding doors open for others and giving directions to strangers made them a "nice" person. However, the niceness proved to be paper-thin because routine triggers such as being caught up in traffic, the noise of a tantrumy child or loud mobile phone conversations, quickly made Mr or Mrs Nice Guy turn into someone a lot less agreeable.
If asked, most of us would probably say that we know ourselves pretty well. As a psychotherapist, I have spent my professional life helping people to get to know themselves better. This may sound straightforward but it can be extremely difficult for a person to understand the how and why of what they think and feel. Given that most of our processing happens not in our conscious minds, but in non-conscious processes (of which we are unaware), it’s not surprising that most of us struggle to know what is going on inside us and why we end up behaving the way we do. Often, it’s not until after a difficult experience or traumatic event that we find ourselves forced into an emergency stop and wonder: who the hell am I? How did I end up here?
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As babies and young children, we are not the sole architects of our personal identities. Usually, our parents, teachers and culture are major stakeholders in laying down the foundations for the "self" we end up believing ourselves to be. Like concrete, the identity template sets thick and fast, regardless of how much of our "true" or authentic self is in the mix. Instead, we inherit identities such as the "clever one", the "stupid one", the "good/bad one", the "beautiful one".
Unfortunately, negative identities tend to override positive imprints. Constrained by these mindless and stubborn labels, we try to navigate through life, work, relationships while all the time feeling estranged from ourselves, under-achieved and waiting for our "real" life to begin.
It is hard to be the author of your own story if you haven't got a real handle on the main character – yourself. Many of us live lives that are scripted by others – first our parents, then, in adulthood, by anyone whose love or approval we believe we need – partners, bosses, children, friends. We internalise this early-life script, learning it word for word, believing it to be the crucible of selfhood. In this sense, we live by myths concocted by others.
Being able to think about how we think and how we feel, is essential to uncovering and befriending our authentic self. It’s fundamental to our emotional and mental health. If we simply "act out" our feelings but are unable to think or talk about them, life and relationships inevitably become out of control, riddled with conflict and lacking in meaning. If, instead of saying to your partner, “I feel quite upset because you walked out of the room while I was telling you about my bad day at work”, you simply smash a load of dishes against the wall or scream at the kids, things just get worse, both for ourselves and those around us. In moments of crisis, we tend to regress to our early scripts (we’re unlovable/boring/angry/worthless) and then invoke the very response in others that we fear most of all: rejection.
Getting to know yourself is scary. It’s not easy to tear up the only draft for life you have (even if you didn't write it). But it is possible to take it page by page, analyse the text and dare to challenge it. With a blank page in front of you, it’s likely that your first reaction will be writer’s block. Most of us are resistant to change because we equate it with the loss of the familiar, the ground beneath our feet. There is no more unstable ground for the self than that constructed by others. Much safer is to conduct our own archaeological dig, gently but thoroughly sifting through the myths we live by and re-building an identity and sense of self that is real and will stand the test of time.