It’s my favorite question to ask therapy clients. It usually gets evoked when they start telling me things like, “That’s not me,” or “I could never be like that.” Says who?
As little kids we start to develop a conceptualization of who we are. This self conceptualization is basically a character. Our minds understand the world in story form. We have to link events and experiences together in time, with cause and effect relationships, to create a coherent narrative that explains why things are the way they are. And that goes for our own understanding of who we are.
For example, let’s say a little boy has undiagnosed ADHD and he keeps getting in trouble for talking out of turn and not paying attention in class. During test times, he zones out and can’t stay focused so he runs out of time and turns in his work half completed. After a while he notices that other kids are finishing before him and getting A’s, while he keeps getting frowning faces on is papers.
This little boy starts to make sense of why this is happening, and the most logical conclusion he comes up with is, “My brain is dumb.” This is a painful thought. So he starts to avoid things related to what kids with smart brains do. He steers clear of challenges that might expose his dumb brain, and make him feel less than or embarrassed.
Fast forward through many painful school years and his belief about his cognitive abilities have had plenty of opportunities to bake right in. This is now a part of his identity. There are other qualities that make up his self conceptualization, too, like maybe he’s really fun at parties, or maybe he’s charming with the ladies. It’s not all bad.
These beliefs about who we are start to narrow our behavioral repertoire. Our sense of self is now a character playing a role. We just keep acting the part without question. We are all actors. We are all pretending.
I heard this story once. There was this 10 year old boy who came to his mother and said, “Hey mom. Pretend that you were surrounded by a hundred hungry tigers and they’re all closing in on you from every direction. What would you do?”
The mother, engaging genuinely in her son’s often absurd queries, thinks hard. After a moment she admits, “Wow! One hundred tigers? That’s a lot! More tigers than I would ever imagine to be gathered in one place at the same time. Gee, I suppose I have no idea what I might do in that situation.”
The boy smiles triumphantly. “Stop pretending.”
Of course! Stop pretending. That “you” that you think you are, it’s not really you. It’s a story that your mind has compiled and arranged so that you can function as a solid, coherent thing. Your mind needs you to be something reliable. But that reliability comes at a cost.
It makes you predictable. It puts you in a box. It steals your freedom. Who you think you are is only one story from one perspective. And if you’re bought into that role, it’s very difficult to break character. The only way to break out of character is to realize that you are pretending.
Fiction writers do what’s called a “character analysis.” This is a process of evaluating the specific traits of a literary character. It’s an important literary tool for writing good fiction. If this is done well, that character could easily be transported into another story of an entirely different genre and still behave true to its character.
Some items to consider when doing a character analysis might include:
It may be helpful to do this exercise with your own sense of self as a character in a literary work or a film. Who would you cast to play yourself in a movie? Can you see them acting out the last time you made a fool of yourself? Or how about the last time you received a compliment? What about how you might respond in the future to hearing some really bad news?
If you can see your character being acted out by a professional, the next step is to realize that you have already been acting this whole time. Now what if you were a free agent? What if you could choose your own roles? If the role you’ve been playing is a coward, could you act like you were brave?
Either way, you’re pretending. There really isn’t a “real” you. There isn’t really a self at all, except what you think it is, which is really only a sense of self. So as long as we’re all just pretending here, why not pretend to be someone worth writing about? Expand your acting range to include roles that you would feel proud to play.
Oro Valley Psychotherapy
10311 N Renard Pl
Oro Valley, AZ 85737