This may be a new concept for many people, and it seems to challenge the very core of what it means to be human. In another way, it is as obvious as our breath and more accessible than anything we could ever think or believe about ourselves, the world, and God. It is who we are when we are first born, before we start picking up thoughts and concepts along the way.
I assert that one of the largest and most wide-spread sources of suffering in society today is the notion of our conceptual identity; who I think I am. Descartes equated thinking with being so many years ago, and many of us are now attempting to think our way into true reality with more passion and fervor than ever.
The world has never been more obsessed with ego-identity, both individually and collectively. In every arena of human life, we see the emergence and proliferation of polarizing ideas about who we are, and how we choose to identify ourselves. As a mental health professional, this is actually at the core of why people suffer from what seem to be a diverse number of diagnoses.
For example, I was diagnosed with depression as a young teenager. My sense of identity shifted that same day to being "a depressed person." This was not the fault of myself or my doctor, it was an unconscious process of gathering information and trying to make sense of difficult feelings.
Thinking of myself as a "depressed individual" seemed to help me reconcile the heavy, painful feelings I was going through. In the long run however, it had the reverse effect. I had thought of myself as depressed for so long that it had become an integral part of my self-talk and how I related to myself. It got to the point where I couldn't even conceive of myself beyond the idea of "depression."
I was recently talking to a friend who has been battling schizophrenia. More accurately, she has been up against the label of schizophrenia. This is the strange irony of mental health care sometimes. She told me her actual symptoms have been improving because of positive lifestyle changes and challenging certain thoughts she has had. The big problem again seems to be in wrestling with a self-identity that feels very limited and restrictive. Specifically, she quoted statistics about how schizophrenic people are less likely to succeed in certain areas of life.
Mental health care is a more obvious example of how this identity paradox can operate. It is believed that we need to think of ourselves in a certain way in order to overcome the symptoms associated with that definition. It is as though I have to admit "I am depressed" in order to feel better. In practice, we see that the opposite tends to be true in many cases.
For the general population, we see many examples of ways to self-identify in any given aspect of life. The point I want to make is that we don't actually need to cling to these ideas so tightly in order to function and be happy as individuals and as a community.
Some examples: If I happened to vote for a certain political candidate, I don't necessarily need to identify myself as a die-hard supporter of that person. If I follow any given religion (or not) I can use this to enrich my life and that of the community without needing to create an oppositional identity around my beliefs, or lack thereof.
This creates a mentally healthier environment in general, because people do not feel they always have to defend their particular self-identity from those who may identify differently. We begin to wear our thoughts and beliefs more like loose clothing rather than clinging to them like security blankets.
As a mental health and addiction worker, I am confronted with the pain of how people come to see themselves in a negative light and the relief that can come from letting go of this mental baggage. Not to throw Descartes under the bus, but I feel thinking has been largely overrated in our modern society, especially when it comes to who we truly are. Until next time: I am, therefore I am.