We develop our self-image — our view of who we are — in our family and culture, where we come to see ourselves as we were seen by others.
Our self-image can be a problem in our lives because, in essence, it’s a conditioned habit that is hard to break free from. It consists of the views we download about our physical and psychological characteristics, our intelligence and abilities, and our value and worthiness as a human being.
Consider that, although your self-image is largely formed and conditioned by others’ views of you, you still come to think of it as you, as your “I” or “me.” Your conditioned image of who you are becomes what I call “your wrong psychological address.” This wrong address is where you reside much of the time, but it’s not your true home. It’s not where you in fact belong. But you don’t realize this error, because you continually mistake your wrong self-image based address as your proper dwelling place.
The truth is that our self-image is terribly powerful, because whether or not it’s accurate, we think, feel and act in accord with it. This fact has caused at least as much suffering and as much wasted life as war. A self-image is like a mask we put on but we can’t get off. To make matters worse, we typically forget that we put it on. The fact is that our self-image can cause us a lot of pain and trouble and it can leave us adrift in a sea of emotional confusion and limited assumptions about who we are and about what can happen in our lives.
As long as we live from our conditioned self-image, we’re stuck in small, cramped quarters — in an identity too small for who we actually are. You can think of your conditioned self-image as a “surface identity.” If you are to create and enjoy a life that can be well-lived, loved and understood, you must move beyond this surface identity into your deeper core identity.
To do this, you need self-knowledge because you can’t become free from what you haven’t seen. You need to become aware of your self-image’s habitual patterns and programs by discovering, studying and understanding them. Only then can you free yourself from the conditioned limits of living small at the wrong address. We can’t find real happiness if we don’t break free from our conditioning.
Our self-image carries with it fear, doubt and hesitation because they are its nature. Life at the surface is shaky and uncertain. You are not afraid and hesitant and unsure of yourself because you are lacking in some way. It’s not you that’s the real problem, though you may feel convinced that you are. The problem is the “location” you’re living in and from.
Thinking that insecurity and uncertainty are your fault is a costly misunderstanding, one that reflects a lack of awareness of the nature and power of your “location”— of your psychological address. When you are in Seattle in the winter, you get wet. Getting wet comes with the territory when you live in Seattle because it’s a location where it rains often in the winter. When you are located at your wrong address, when you live from your conditioned self-image, then fear, doubt, and hesitation are as common as rain is in Seattle in January. They, too, come with the territory.
Here’s a glimpse of our dilemma. Our conditioned self-image, our “I” or “me,” is all we know. Because it appears to be who we are, we wrongly conclude that it must be. But the earth appears flat and it’s not, and the sun appears to rise, but it doesn’t — so we need to really be open the possibility that we are more than we appear to be to ourselves.
Once we are awakened by a taste of something deeper and more real within ourselves, we can become inspired to “relocate” from our wrong address to our true address. This relocation project is the path of deep psychological inner work, sometimes referred to as the Great Voyage or the Exodus, among other things.
Through this awakening to who we truly are, we realize that no efforts we make to merely refurnish our wrong address will ever make it feel like home again. We have to move. No prizes, no awards, no fat 401Ks, no high-paying work we don’t want to do will ever satisfy our hunger for relief, satisfaction and fulfillment. Serenity, unflappable self-assurance and well-being come from realizing that all we really ever need to face life’s challenges, including death, is to be connected to who we most deeply are.
Dr. Jim Manganiello is a clinical psychologist and diplomate-level medical psychotherapist based in Groveland and West Boxford. He is also an author and teacher focusing on stress, personal growth, meditation and “inner fitness.” His book “Unshakable Certainty” is available on Amazon. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.drjimmanganiello.com.