The Personality Illusion

On multiple occasions in the Old Testament the words ‘I am’ were used by God as an implication of His existence. At the most basic level, we could use those words in exactly the same way; ‘I exist’. Nowadays, however, we use the words ‘I am’ in a different way. Most often we use those two words at the beginning of sentences designed to describe who we truly are, or designed to describe our personality; ‘I am kind, I am helpful, I am helpless, I am anxious, I am confident, I am a good public speaker, I am honest, I am humble, I am creative, I am boring, I am geeky, I am positive, I am smart, I am stupid, I am not good enough.i_am

But how much stock should we put in these statements, how much stock should we put in the idea that we have a fixed personality inside us? If you believe you are an honest person I bet you can think of 100 times when you have lied. If you believe that you are a kind person I bet you can think of times when you have been unkind. If you believe you are a hardworking person I bet you can think of many times when you have been lazy. What does this mean for personality traits that are meant to be stable across time and context? My point here is that we look at these ‘I am’ statements as if they are true, as if they are real parts within us that accurately define who we are. From this position we have no choice in our actions, we act the way we do because that is how we are programmed.

These ‘I am’  statements are probably important to us because we like to put ourselves and others in little boxes so that the world becomes a more coherent place. But I argue that these statements are just stories that we build up over time. Some are helpful and some are not. Some of these stories will reflect our life experiences and some of them will not. Importantly I argue that instead of looking at these stories in terms of how literally true we feel them to be, we should begin to look at them in terms of how helpful they are in moving us towards what is important. In other words we should aim to find ourselves in a position where we can choose to take these stories seriously, or we can choose to take them with a pinch of salt. Steven C Hayes (One of the ACT originators) once said ‘Kill your-selves everyday’. By saying this he did not mean physically commit suicide; he meant hold those stories that you have about yourself lightly because they can serve to imprison you.

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Let me delve further into this. When I hear people describe who they are, I see people believing a story about themselves. This is not always a problem as some stories help us to function well. If we have an ‘I am kind’ story then it is likely that we will be kind should the opportunity arise for us to show kindness. We will be living by our story. The problem with these ‘I am’ stories is that often they do not help us to function. How about the following; ‘I am not a confident person’, ‘I am selfish’, ‘I have a depressive personality’, ‘I have low self esteem’, ‘I am not good at interviews’ , ‘I don’t have the exercise gene’. Do these stories help us to live meaningful lives or do they get in the way? Do we begin to live by these stories also? Do we start to use them as excuses for our behavior? Do they imprison us?

I once had a student tell me that they could not come to class because they had a ‘depressive’ personality. I had someone tell me that they could not swim in a pool because they had ‘low self esteem’. I knew someone turn down an interview because they were not ‘good at interviews’. I saw a parent neglect a child because they were not ‘responsible’ enough to be a parent. Can you see how these stories can start to affect the decisions we make?

Every behavior occurs in a specific context. Just because you have felt down at times in your life does not mean you have a depressive personality that is stable across time. Just because you have acted irresponsibly does not make you irresponsible forever. Just because you have had wild times does not make you a wild person. Our behavior is governed not by fixed internal characteristics, but by the context within which we function (and have functioned). From this position we get to choose our behavior in every situation, based on what is important to us, rather than on the basis of the stories that we have about ourselves. Next time you are in a bar and you see a pretty person across the room you have two choices. Firstly you can believe the story that you are not a ‘social’ person or that being social just is not part of your personality. This means you will probably not approach the person and not have a chance at developing a relationship with them. Or you can see the ‘I am’ story for what it is and approach the person in spite of it. Now I am not promising it will work out; it did not work out for me in the picture to the right, as you can see from the pain on my painted face, however if you don’t play a hand…

Imagine the liberation if you managed to stop your stories from dictating how you live. Although the God of the Old Testament used the words ‘I am’ to describe his existence, maybe He was on to something. Maybe, instead of following the ‘I am’ statement with a plethora of unhelpful verbal diarrhea, we could simply use the words ‘I am’ to describe our existence. Maybe ‘I exist’ is enough.

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