How our aspirations for glamour and success mask a modern identity crisis
By Cynthia Hickman
Sixteen Chanel handbags each priced at $4910 sold within the first thirty minutes. This startling fact was reported in The Australian newspaper about the opening of a luxury precinct in a Melbourne shopping centre. So many people with so much money to spend on…handbags? I’m a woman myself so I know the value of a good pair of shoes or a great outfit so no judgement here, just pause for thought.
“Whatever floats your boat”. That’s a possible response to the handbag buying. But does carrying a Chanel handbag really float someone’s boat? Or, at risk of straining the metaphor, is it more of an attempt to rescue a boat that is already sinking?
Contrast the Chanel handbag buying with what some in the medical profession describe as “an epidemic” in the rates of anxiety and depression at present. In just two generations there has been a tenfold increase in depression.* Then factor in the appearance of very wealthy clients who turn up for therapy at my practise. They have everything people think they want…family, wealth, success, big houses and lots of travel. But even though they can’t explain it such people feel that something is still missing in life. There is something empty inside.
What do wealthy clients, depression rates and Chanel handbags all point to? One possibility is that they signal massive cracks in the contemporary identity to which so many aspire.
Identity versus Essence
Most people don’t realize it but our identity is not something innate. We actually construct it. We build it up over the years. What is innate is an essence we have inside us. This essence is connected to our soul. As we grow up we build an identity around this essence. The ideal would be to have an identity that allows the expression of our unique essence but in modern culture we are creating identities that are getting further away from this essence. We then mistakenly believe that this identity is who we really are.
We mould our identity based on the messages we hear. So today our identities are influenced by things such as consumerism, luxury branding and tabloid culture. This culture is so ‘loud’ we cannot ‘hear’ our own voice within it. We are meant to be our own note that harmonises with the other notes around us but instead we all ring with the same tone. And it’s deafening as we nevertheless try to get ours heard above all the others.
Identity as our Brand
I don’t have a degree in marketing and most people don’t. But nevertheless we sure are good at marketing ourselves. Like any advertising executive we decide on our ‘brand’, we construct an image that encapsulates this and then we present it to the world.
We present ourselves via the clothes and accessories we choose. We decide what part of our lives we will reveal to others, editing out all the bits that don’t fit the brand. We choose interests, attitudes and events that reflect this brand.
The trouble is our supposedly unique brand has to fit in with what is socially accepted. We shouldn’t underestimate the massive pressure our culture puts on us to appear a certain way. Among other things we have to appear busy and to have it ‘going on’. We have to be socially active and popular. We have to be ‘cool’ which means appearing relaxed, confident, optimistic and high status. And we have to appear happy and well adjusted.
Cultivating ourselves as brands instead of soulful beings creates a homogeneity and emptiness within people. And what happens to everything that doesn’t fit with this brand…the insecurities, doubts and anxieties, the quirks and eccentricities, the dreams and wonderings?
“I’ve tried to be so many things for so many people. I’ve just got no idea who I am anymore.” Carla*, a successful executive in the clothing industry was starting to suffer from anxiety. She would go out with friends and present herself in a particular way…she was fun loving, she had it ‘going on’. But she would walk away from such encounters and realize, “that was just a lie”, not in the sense of saying dishonest things but in the distortion of the truth. It was all amphed up for the ‘audience’.
A more truthful statement from Carla would have been “I feel tired most of the time, my relationship is going through a rocky patch and I am really unsure about where my career is heading”. But no one who saw her would have known this. They would probably walk away thinking, “Wow, she’s really doing well. Lucky thing. She’s so creative and energetic”.
Another client, Sonia owned up to her manipulation of her facebook page:
“I only put the most flattering pictures on there. It looks like I’ve got lots of friends and that my life is SO interesting. And I’m sure everyone else is the same. But it isn’t the truth. I have plenty of friends but out of all of them there’s probably only two I can really talk to about things. I feel a bit lonely really.”
Similarly, Marion a well-presented woman in her early thirties said,
“I keep comparing myself with my friends. Is their outfit better than mine? Is their boyfriend better looking, funnier or sweeter than mine? Are they more successful in their job than me? I’ve talked myself into massive insecurity. And then one day a close girlfriend told me about how her husband suffered from depression and she was finding it really hard to deal with. I would never have known. They looked so good from the outside. Just like I do.”
Marion was beginning to realize that it is all smoke and mirrors. Everyone pretends for everyone else and no one reveals the truth about what is really going on in their lives. It’s a crazy cycle where people believe each other’s act so they keep their own act going meanwhile feeling empty or insecure inside.
Why do we build a false identity?
There is a classic philosophical question that goes like this: “If a tree fell in the forest but there was no one there to hear would it make a sound?” Similarly we can also ask: “If we lived our life but there was no one there watching us would we feel like we existed?” For many people the answer would be “no”. We are so empty inside that unless there is something outside us that validates our identity we don’t feel real.
I sometimes ask people to spend some time alone with themselves with no outside stimulus such as music, reading or TV. The task literally terrifies people. Many wont even attempt it. It’s too confronting. They are afraid of what they will find, or more accurately what they won’t find because the chances are they will feel emptiness. And emptiness feels awful. This is the very thing they run from by staying so busy and distracted.
People would rather feel anything but emptiness. They will fill their lives with drama even if it means feeling anger, jealousy or sorrow. It’s better than emptiness. At least it’s got content. They will fill their lives with activity even if it means feeling exhausted and strung out. If emptiness arises, call someone, do something, go somewhere.
To continue the philosophical theme, the philosopher Descartes decreed: “I think therefore I am”. This statement encapsulates the twentieth century identity…we are who we think we are. Our thinking defines us. The twenty-first century identity is changing though. Now it is more accurate to say, “I am photographed therefore I am” or “people follow my twitters, blogs or e-mails therefore I am”.
People need others to respond to them to confirm their fragile identity. They are so desperate for approval and attention that they will do anything to get on reality television shows. It explains the ridiculous celebrity culture that young people yearn to break into. We know we are in trouble when Kim Kardashian is a role model!
I have had clients who say they want to be a star but when we explore this issue more we find that it is about the attention they want to receive, it is nothing to do with the love of their craft. Other clients own up: “I know its superficial but I only want to go out with someone good looking”, or “I have no idea what to wear, but if it’s a label then I feel confident that its OK”.
Phases in Identity Building
We first learn to build an identity in childhood. We have our essence inside but are not stable with this so we sell out to our parents to get their attention and approval. This is all done at an unconscious level but the result is that we learn that we have to do things to earn the love. So we become good or funny or clever or even naughty to get attention. Instead of just being, we have to work at becoming something or someone.
In adolescence identity forming shifts into high gear. We deliberately copy others and try on roles to see if they fit. These then sit on top of the childhood patterns that have been created. The lonely, frightened self inside gets buried even further.
The Late Twenties
The artificial identity gets cemented in the twenties. But then in the late twenties some people do begin to question the whole construction. They will ask such questions as, “Am I on the right track? Am I being true to myself or am I living a lie?” They may begin to feel the discomfort of having chosen a false identity. It is an opportunity to dismantle the false self and discover something more authentic inside.
Mid life is another chance to get real. Many people feel the discomfort of their life choices so they go through a big re-assessment. Some drop one identity in favour of another one just as superficial hence the classic older man with a sports car and young blonde in tow. But others will genuinely attempt to uncover their essence.
What is an essence?
Peel away the layers of false identity and you will firstly find the insecure self hungry for others’ recognition and approval. Underneath this will be the emptiness from never having built a true self. But if we peel away still further we find the essence underneath that has been waiting there all the time.
An essence is a felt sense experience. It is not made up of any thinking, any emotions or any of our roles we assume in life. It is hard to describe but it is like an inner state of ‘being-ness’. It is an inner experience, an energetic feeling state. It is not your outer personality it’s an inner self that feels. Our essence isn’t influenced by the outside world. It just is. Without a connection to it we are at the mercy of external whims and trends.
We don’t notice our essence because we have never had it pointed out to us. Most parents are empty so they don’t know how to encourage their children to recognise and feel this essence. And our culture is empty so there is no societal reinforcement for feeling ourself as our essence.
To get a sense of what an essence is try shutting your eyes and bring someone to mind. Not a memory of them, just their being. Chances are you will be calling to mind their essence. It is often what comes to us when we call to mind someone who has died. People often see this essence when they first fall in love with a person. It’s only later that all the other layers become apparent and then the trouble starts!
The cost of building a false identity
There is a high cost to living with false identities. It results in busy minds that can’t stop thinking. It results in a massively over-stimulated world as we collectively flee from the emptiness. We suffer the anxiety of nervous systems that are never at rest and a third of the population suffers the sleep problems that result.
To avoid our inner emptiness we fill our lives with busy-ness and stress. But the emptiness still leaves a large percentage of people depressed at the meaninglessness of life. Separated from our self we are also separated from our bodies so that despite the sophistication of modern medicine we have increasing rates of cancer, diabetes and obesity.
Globally the cultivation of false identities results in a human race disconnected from what it really needs. It settles for material comfort as a substitute. On a planetary level the cost is now obvious.
How to get to essence
Returning to our essence is deceptively simple. It just involves us paying attention to the way we breathe and the way we move through the world. Our essence deep inside is always in a state of stillness and serenity. It follows therefore that this essence cannot be accessed when we are feeling agitation or distraction. Instead, we create a link or a bridge to this inner essence if we choose to deliberately breath and move with gentleness.
Our breath is central to our state of mind. If there is agitation in our breath there will be agitation in our mind and body and we will lose touch with our essence. If you pay attention to your breathing you will notice that it changes according to what is going on around you. We are surrounded by stimulation and this influences us to breath more quickly or more shallowly. This means that we are not in charge of the quality of our own being. Instead the external world rules our nervous system via the texture and pace of our breathing.
Gentleness is the key. It creates a particular attitude and texture within us. All we have to do is breath, gently in and gently out and then let this gentleness settle in to the body. We can then stop pushing ourselves and carry out our daily activities with gentleness and self care.
This may sound simple but it is really hard to maintain. Our nervous systems are so wired that after a few moments of gentleness our mind will try to move our focus and get us to activate the familiar level of agitation. To unhook from the barrage of stimulation around us we have to slow down our pace of life and focus on a more subtle level of our being.
No one can instantly begin to breath gently twenty-four hours a day. It needs to be introduced incrementally. So just choose one activity per day and do it while maintaining a gentle breath. Try making your bed with gentle attention. Breathe gently and move gently. Do this for a week and then feel how delicious it is to get into a bed that has been treated with such care and attention.
The key to accessing our true self is not what we do but the manner in which we do it. If we rush around and carry out our daily activities with roughness and disregard then we lose touch with this essence. It is only gentleness that will provide the link to this inner well of stillness and well-being.
Sophie, a thirty year-old account executive was working at introducing gentleness into her life. She had a wound from an operation that still hadn’t healed months after the procedure. This wound was a great metaphor for the healing process of returning to her essence.
“I have been doing all the ‘right’ things with dressing this wound. But now I get that it’s all about the quality of my attention. I have been matter of fact and impatient with it. Now I understand that I have to tend to it gently.”
Indeed Sophie’s wound finally healed once she treated herself in this gentle manner.
Once we stop and allow gentleness we will then have to feel what there is to feel. Depending on how long ago we deserted ourselves there will be a backlog of feelings. This may take time to process and move through but we can always settle back into gentleness afterwards. Over time stillness results in our mind and our body. We feel at rest and can hold ourselves in our own gentle embrace. From this place of essence we can then begin to make a genuine contribution to others. The world is waiting.
Quiz: Are you true to your essence or do you live from a false self?
Respond to each question with true or false:
- You see social gatherings as a chance to present yourself in the best possible light.
- Your body could be tired but you would still push on with what you ‘have’ to do.
- You don’t notice or care about how many friends you have on your facebook page.
- If someone wants to take your photo you insist on tidying yourself up first.
- If a friend doesn’t like your new outfit you are reluctant to wear it again.
- You can walk by a mirror without having to check your reflection in it.
- If everyone in your social group had a particular opinion but yours was different you would still have no trouble voicing yours.
- You intend to have botox or cosmetic surgery as soon as the wrinkles get too much.
- You don’t tell people about the more vulnerable aspects about your life.
- You get anxious or lonely if you have too much time to yourself.
1 True – 1 False – 0
2 True – 1 False – 0
3 True – 0 False – 1
4 True – 1 False – 0
5 True – 1 False – 0
6 True – 0 False – 1
7 True – 0 False – 1
8 True – 1 False – 0
9 True – 1 False – 0
10 True – 1 False – 0
How you rate in the false identity stakes:
Oh dear! Your identity may be lacking in authenticity. Maybe you pay too much attention to trends in fashion and the media. If you are happy with this choice for your life then that’s OK. But do just watch out for any health consequences that may come from constructing a false self.
It seems that other people’s opinions may have too much influence over your life. You present an image to people but hide your true self. Why not have the courage to bring this beautiful self forward?! If you don’t express yourself you may be at risk of anxiety or depression in the future.
The good news is that you probably have some sense of your true self. Hopefully you are enjoying the meaning and clear sense of direction this brings to life. Make sure you share this true self with others since it can inspire them to live with more joy and creativity.
Congratulations on being so evolved! Your identity is congruent and authentic. You don’t live too far from your inner essence. You have earned the satisfaction and wellbeing that results. Other people may feel balance and calm from being around you!
Did you answer truthfully? If so, you are a little buddha in the making!
*Stephen Ilardi (associate professor of clinical psychology) – ‘The Depression Cure’
*Client names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practise in Melbourne.