Your Free Writing to Awaken Gift


Writing to Awaken
Introduction by Mark Matousek

I started to write compulsively when I was in the second grade: journals filled with secret thoughts and shameful truths that I could tell no one. Many writers begin this way, turning inward as children to look for answers they can’t find around them. These notebooks were my confessional, the place where I could reveal my true feelings and try to make sense of myself and the world.
I always felt better after I wrote. No matter how anxious, confused, or unsettled, my mind was clarified by writing. It was like flipping on a light in a darkened room; with words to describe what was blocking my way, suddenly I could see my way forward. Language helped navigate my inner world—I no longer felt helpless or trapped. Afterward, I could reread what I’d written and locate clues about who I was, what I was thinking, and why this person inside me was so drastically different from what others saw.
This difference came as a revelation. The voice pouring out of me onto the page, separating truth from lies, was my fearless and natural self. This self was hidden behind a mask, a fictional story that I called “me.” This mask wasn’t me by a long shot, however. Writing freely, without disguise, the gap between the mask and truth—between story and self—became glaringly obvious. Odd as this disconnect was at first, I realized that it was the gateway to freedom. Through it, a message emerged loud and clear: I am not my story. This life-changing truth has defined my work as a memoirist, teacher, and spiritual seeker over the course of thirty years.
What does it mean to say “I am not my story?” Students ask me this all the time. “Are you saying that what happened to me didn’t happen?” Of course not. “Are you calling me a liar, like I’m making these things up?” Not at all. What I’m acknowledging—along with a vast majority of psychologists, physicists, and spiritual teachers—is that what we believe to be real is not reality. The mind creates stories out of things that happen and composes a character they happen to. We then take these false stories for fact and live as if they are the actual truth.
We do this because we are Homo Narrans, the storytelling species, the only animal in all of existence that creates a conceptualized self. We invent ourselves at every moment—connecting the dots, developing plot lines, revising scenes, replaying old dramas—by composing a solid narrative with this fictional self at the center. We fully believe that our story is real, which is why when I tell students that every life is a work of fiction, they quite often feel existential confusion. Luckily, this confusion doesn’t last long.
Seeing that the story isn’t ourselves is a quantum leap in self-realization and the starting point of a whole new life. Engaging with that conscious life is what this book is about. Writing to Awaken is a journey of self-awareness deepened by the exploration of the stories you tell yourself and the masks you wear in the world. The transformational power of this writing practice continues to amaze me after all these years. The radical act of telling the truth awakens us automatically. When we write down our story, we become the witness, and this objective distance brings an aha! as the character we believed to be solid reveals itself as a narrative construct. As we move together through this journey, you’ll come to understand this better. For now, just remember a simple message that will make the way clearer as you progress.


“When you tell the truth, your story changes.
When your story changes, your life is transformed.”


Why is telling the truth so radical? Because we rarely do so completely in social life. As socialized animals, we’re taught to hide our feelings, to protect reputations, conventions, and interests. We’re liars of necessity, fear, and convenience. Imagine if everyone told the whole truth—regardless of the consequences. It would be a brutal nightmare! To avoid incrimination and cruelty, we opt instead for versions of the truth, euphemisms, half-lies, and tidied-up candor. Though we’re mostly honest, most of the time, civilized life calls for reticence and cooperation breeds compromise.
Then there is the matter of shame. We tolerate such heavy loads of it that revealing the truth can seem menacing, as if uncensored honesty might wreak havoc on our carefully manicured lives. Shame tends to keep us dishonest and silent, sitting on our secrets, trapped in the dark. That is why finally telling the truth—in writing, therapy, or a church confessional—has such a catalytic effect. We’re awakened by its unmistakable sound, like the pealing of a bell. Once we’ve rung that bell, it can’t be unrung. We’re called on to live with what we know since the fiction of self no longer traps us. We understand why we have felt inauthentic—in subtle as well as obvious ways. Wiping away the mask of lies, we reveal our true face in the mirror through writing, often for the first time.
The benefits of expressive writing are incalculable. They include psychological empowerment, emotional healing, social intelligence, increased well-being, creative growth, and a spiritual awareness that keeps us rooted in the life we’re living. Research has shown that as little as fifteen minutes of expressive writing a day can markedly improve physical and mental health. Unlike journaling, expressive writing requires that we do more than simply report the facts of our experience or free-associate on any random subject that comes to mind. The research of psychologist James W. Pennebaker reveals that in order for writing to be transformative, we must include our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and insights about our experience if we hope to reap the benefits. Pennebaker’s studies have shown that when subjects approach writing in this way, the practice can boost the immune system, reduce the need for psychotherapy, lower stress, and even accelerate physical healing.
The journey in Writing to Awaken is divided into four parts that each lead to the next. Along the way, I will offer reflections and Writing to Awaken 4 many examples from students who have participated in my classes. While their names have been changed, their stories are real. Part One starts with a question: who am I? This is the departure point for traditions of self-inquiry that precede even Socrates with his ancient maxim to “know thyself.” You’ll investigate your personal creation myth, explore the contents of your psychological shadow, uncover the nature of family attachments, and be introduced to the witnessing awareness that allows you to observe yourself clearly and gain insight from what you see.
Part Two explores your stories themselves, revealing the cast of saboteurs that block you internally, as well as how shame operates in your life, how you relate to purpose and meaning, and how love shapes the person you are.
Part Three considers your public persona, questioning things like performance, intention, power, control, and how you may be hindered by ambivalence or lack of focus.
In Part Four, you’ll learn how to reap the gifts of transformation, reveal the sacredness and spirit in an awakened life, and harness the power of the original genius that is uncovered in this truth-telling process.
In total, there are forty-eight lessons contained in these sections. It’s best to complete these lessons in sequence, taking all the time you need for each one. At the end of each lesson, you’ll find a series of in-depth writing prompts for you to choose from. It’s advisable, but not necessary, that you respond to all prompts, choosing any sequence that works for you. Trust your instincts and write about the questions that have the deepest resonance. You can always revisit these lessons in the future to explore questions that you skip.
Trust your own rhythm and the pace that suits you best. Deadlines can be helpful as long as they’re realistic, but do your best not to turn this into a writing marathon. Take your time with the questions, allow yourself to dive deep, but resist including everything that pops into your head. I recommend a maximum length of one thousand words per response, which translates to four, double-spaced, typewritten pages. This word limit will help you distill the writing and train your mind not to wander too much.
Whenever possible, avoid throat-clearing and lengthy prefacing of your responses. Instead, go to the heart of what you want to say. You’ll notice how evasive your mind can become when asked direct questions, particularly around sensitive subjects. Like all forms of awakening practice, writing requires mindfulness. Just as we bring our attention back to the breath during meditation, you learn to observe the wandering mind without excessive control, and gently return your focus to the question at hand.
Some writing days will be better than others, as happens with any ongoing practice. Expect to meet your own saboteurs along the way. Truth telling frequently calls up resistance; in fact, you will typically know you’re approaching a breakthrough when you feel discomfort. That’s when it is most important to stick with the practice. The more you write, the more comfortable you’ll become with the discomfort of revealing dangerous knowledge and saying unsayable things. If you find yourself feeling nothing when you write, or notice that you’re getting bored with a topic, see those as signs that you’re not taking risks. Pause and ask yourself: “What am I avoiding?” “What scares me here?” “What is niggling at me to get onto the page?” Allow yourself to follow these detours without losing sight of the question at hand. They can lead to discoveries you did not intend to make. As the philosopher Martin Buber reminds us, “Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.” This holds true for the writing adventure as well. By using the lessons offered in this book as points of departure, and the prompts as invitations to destinations unknown, you’ll stay open to what is below the surface of your conscious mind.
Remember that writing is only half of the process. After you’ve responded to a question, set it aside for a day. Then reread it. While you may have gained insight through your initial response to the prompt, it’s when you notice the gaps in what you’ve written— between what is true and your story about it—that transformation happens. Allow yourself the time to write about what you noticed during the review and to fill in any blanks. This close attention to your responses will deepen your insight. You’ll become less afraid of the witness’s perspective and what it reveals. You’ll see that the fears themselves are stories, which dissipate when you face them head on.
Although our medium is writing, you don’t need any writing skill for this practice to work. Literary talent is irrelevant here, and so are grammar, syntax, and elegant prose. The strengths you need are courage, transparency, commitment to the truth, and a sincere desire to transcend your story. I’ve guided thousands of students around the world through these lessons and am continually astonished by the cathartic power of Writing to Awaken and its lasting effects on people’s lives. I invite you to embark on this journey, dive into your own deep waters, and find out who you really are.




As you will soon learn, your personal story is not the whole truth. We use narratives to explain ourselves and the world, but these interpretations are subjective and changeable. Each of us composes a creation myth based on the stories we’re told by our parents and family. This myth is combined with childhood experience to form the building blocks of personal identity. As you write and see that ideas about yourself are constructed from stories that are essentially used to connect various dots into a tidy picture, you realize that self-image is a work of fiction. Acknowledging this gap between story and truth is the first step to psychological and spiritual freedom. This is how awakening begins.



As a child, you believe what you’re told. If your parents tell you that you are “Sally,” you assume that you are Sally—an identity with a name. This identity forms an image in your mind and this image is what you think of as you. As this image moves through life, it imagines that it is living a story, and that this story and the image are one and the same. This is how you came to confuse what is truth and what is fiction.
There’s an allegory that captures this universal human tendency. A group of tigers leaves a cub behind in the forest by mistake. The cub is found by a herd of sheep. They take the tiger in as one of their own. They teach it to bleat like a sheep and walk like a sheep and eat grass like a good sheep should. Years later, an adult tiger sees this half-grown tiger prancing around like an overgrown lamb. The tiger takes the youth by the tail and pulls him to a pond where he can see his own reflection in the water. For the first time, the tiger sees what he really is. Then the older tiger teaches him to
roar. At first, all he can do is bleat, but slowly a more powerful sound begins in the back of his throat. Finally, after weeks of practice, the young tiger lets out the great roar of freedom.
Even though we’re not aware of it, this is how you and I spend our lives. We’re taught to see ourselves as sheep: small, domesticated, herd-bound creatures defined by the stories our parents tell us. These stories comprise a self-image with seemingly ironclad legitimacy. Once we start a process of self-inquiry, however, we realize that our life is based on a case of mistaken identity.
This happened to a student of mine. Cleo had been adopted at birth by an elderly couple, Polish Jews who barely survived World War II. They kept her adoption a secret. Kind but smothering, caring but paranoid, they communicated their deep anxieties to Cleo with toxic lessons about being a scapegoat and a social outcast. Cleo grew into a lonely, withdrawn woman, who struggled with her parents’ legacy even after their deaths. Then one day, her mother’s sister called and said she had something she needed to tell Cleo. Cleo drove to the suburbs and learned that her parents were not her birth parents—that Cleo wasn’t even Jewish. Instead, she was the daughter of a Swedish woman the family knew who couldn’t afford to raise another baby. In the midst of an identity crisis, Cleo took my online writing class with a single, obsessive query in mind: “who am I?” With her family story taken away, Cleo described feeling more alone than ever before. “Suddenly, the floor dropped out and I’m left hanging by nothing, barely a thread. That’s how it feels. I have no roots. I don’t belong anywhere. No one knows who I am. It’s the most arid, painful feeling. My story wasn’t that great, but at least it was mine. Now what do I have?”
I encouraged Cleo to explore her own question and gave her these prompts: “When you look in the mirror now, with the story taken away, what do you see? Is anything different? If so, what?” A week passed before Cleo finally responded.
I didn’t want to do this at first. When I finally got to a mirror, looked at myself, and asked your questions, I stared into my own eyes to make myself be really honest. And that’s when I saw it: nothing had changed. Not a single thing was different now that I knew they weren’t my parents. It was a story of my own, an idea of myself. Who I am is still here. The story has nothing to do with it.
Cleo’s epiphany changed her perspective. After grieving this loss of innocence and letting go of a family she thought was hers, Cleo realized that she was also free of a lifetime of loneliness and oppression—the weighty heritage they had given her. Though Cleo still loved the people who’d raised her, she was no longer trapped in their story. She knew she was not that story. What had appeared to be a void suddenly revealed itself as open space, in which Cleo could discover what she wanted and what came naturally to her. By the end of the course, she was planning a move to Florida to pursue her secret fantasy of getting a degree in hospitality.
“My parents would have been horrified of all those strangers,” Cleo wrote in her final submission. “But nothing could be stranger than what already happened. I feel like I’m ready for anything.”
Like Cleo, we’re all tigers behaving as sheep, avoiding the truth of our own reflection. We’re cut off from our roar of freedom. But the moment we get ourselves to the mirror, or the blank page, this starts to change if we’re willing to be honest about what we see. Before you begin to write, consider the core insights of this lesson.
1. The identity we were given by our parents forms an image that creates a story as we move through life. We believe that our image and story are one and the same, which is how we come to confuse truth with fiction.
2. When we start the process of self-inquiry, we come to see that this story is a case of mistaken identity.
3. Until we look past our stories, we’re cut off from our authentic voice.
4. If we’re willing to be honest about what we see in the mirror, we can change our story and break free from limiting beliefs.
These deepening practices will help you begin a process of self-recognition. Take your time as you move through these writing prompts and be as truthful as possible. Try not to hold anything back as you explore the implications of having a mistaken identity.
1. Describe yourself as a child from your parents’ points of view. How did they see you? Who did they want you to be? What story did they tell you about who you were? In what ways did that narrative help to form your identity? In what ways does this story contradict who you really are? How is your life a case of mistaken identity?
2. Describe an experience of surprising yourself with uncharacteristic behavior. What did this teach you about your story?
3. What aspects of your mistaken identity are most challenging for you to let go? Why are you attached to particular falsehoods? Be specific.
4. Now that you recognize the limitations of your given identity, you can begin to free yourself of those limitations. This leads you to the next step in self-discovery: opening the door to your secrets.



At first, it may be difficult to admit that your story is constructed from false information. Every life is a patchwork of secrets, half-truths, cover-ups, shams, and disguises. The most authentic among us have hidden compartments, shadowy corners, and contradictions we keep under wraps for fear of destroying our public image. As you disclose these secrets to yourself, you come to peel back layers of falsehood and reveal yourself as you truly are: a complex individual with myriad dimensions and conflicting needs. As you do this, you can integrate these clandestine parts into a more harmonious whole.
This medicine can be a hard pill to swallow because we like to see ourselves as being transparent and don’t want to admit that we have secrets. Students often reject the suggestion that they are hiding anything. “I’m an open book,” they protest. “What you see is what you get!” Ironically, these very objectors are very often the most secretive, deceptive people in class. Their exaggerated need to be trusted and seen as having no secrets is frequently a dead giveaway that the opposite is true.
I ran into this paradox when Antoinette joined my private writing group. Effusive and outspoken, Antoinette was a psychotherapist with a razor-sharp mind and a rollicking laugh. At forty-five, she’d been through analysis herself and had a thriving private practice working with trauma survivors. Upon hearing that the topic of the week was telling secrets, Antoinette claimed to have nothing to write about. “I’ve told them all,” she announced to the class, “I have nothing left to hide.” I asked her if that was really true. Her cheerful expression turned querulous as Antoinette replied, “I should know.” I suggested that she dig a bit deeper. If she came up empty-handed, and actually had no secrets to tell, then she could use this time to write about how it feels to be free of secrets and the ways this impacts her life. The following week, Antoinette came to the group looking upset. She accused me of trespassing her boundaries and reminded me that, unlike her, I am not a licensed health care professional. Her message seemed to be: How dare you question my integrity? I reassured Antoinette, who eventually calmed down and agreed to revisit the question of secrecy. When she showed up for our next meeting, Antoinette was still upset—but not at me. “I have something to read to the group,” she told us. Here’s part of what Antoinette read.
My husband and I have an open marriage. We chose this arrangement years ago after he admitted to having an affair. We kept this quiet and didn’t tell family or friends, mostly to be discreet for the kids, rather than out of shame or secrecy. Polyamory has worked for us very well; no lies, no guilt, no sneaking around behind each other’s backs. I’ve been telling myself that it was all good—I love Dave, but I’m not in love with him. He’s the father of my children and I’d do anything to give them the security they need. But lately, this has been changing for me, not only because
I don’t want to sleep with Dave anymore, but also because I’m falling in love with the man I’m dating. That’s a lie—I’m already madly in love and he feels the same way about me. It’s driving me crazy, I’m very unhappy, and I’ve been lying to Dave for months about why I’m so distant and where I’ve been going on weekends. I’m starting to hate myself for this, even though Dave started it. Now, I’m up against the wall in a room I never wanted to be in.
Antoinette was visibly upset as she read this to the group. The pretense of having no secrets had dropped. Suddenly she was simply a woman in love: vulnerable, confused, and tender. I encouraged Antoinette to write about this love, her connection to this man, the dishonesty within her marriage. Could she live with this duplicity? Antoinette explored these questions in the following weeks and decided to be honest with her husband. It turned out that he had fallen in love with the woman he was dating, but didn’t know how to tell Antoinette. She was able to write about her relief and how they planned to integrate this information into their marriage. The last time I saw Antoinette, she seemed more comfortable inside her own skin. We laughed together over her previous protestations. “I was lying to myself,” she said.
That’s the important point. It’s not necessary to share your secrets with others, like Antoinette did. What matters is that you admit them to yourself, so that you aren’t putting blinders on your own awareness and duping yourself into believing a false self-image. It’s extraordinary how adept we are at self-deception and keeping the truth in conveniently hidden compartments. We’re masters of the partial reveal. We add the spin so that everyone else’s view of us remains favorable.
As you write down your secrets, you see how these insidious narratives, the ones you keep hidden, are running your life and prompting your choices. It’s important to be candid with yourself because your secrets are clues to what needs healing and can point out the direction in which you want to grow. Crisis can be useful for this as well, as it cracks our stories open. In the midst of crisis, we’re less defended and our secrets
come closer to the surface. We can’t be quite as opaque. As challenging as this can be, it’s an invitation to tell the truth. That’s why people who survive a major crisis are often the most enlightened among us: energized, open, and engaged. They have excavated
their own secrets, cover-ups, and self-deceptions, and are no longer strangers to themselves. There are treasures hidden in the shadows and finding them is part of this journey. You can claim what you have kept in the dark, including your own hidden gifts. The writing you do in this lesson will help you open the door to your secret world.
1. We may find it difficult to admit that our story is made up of secrets, half-truths, cover-ups, shams, and disguises that we keep under wraps for fear of destroying our public image.
2. When we peel back the layers of falsehood, we reveal who we truly are and we are able to integrate our clandestine parts into a more harmonious whole.
3. Our secrets are clues about what needs healing and can point out the direction in which we want to grow.  Crisis can be useful because it cracks our story open. We become less defended and our secrets come closer to the surface.
When you allow yourself to open the door to your secrets, you discover a hidden world full of valuable information. You see that one secret leads to the next, so that the more truthful you allow yourself to be, the more clandestine material is revealed. These prompts will help you uncover these secrets.
1. Tell a secret secret that you’ve never shared with anyone. This secret can be significant or trivial. What matters is that it has been clandestine.
2. What is your greatest source of shame? When did this shame story begin and how does it affect your life?
3. Describe how secrecy helps you feel safe. How does it protect your reputation? How does it maintain the appearance of integrity?
4. What would your closest friends and family be most surprised to learn about you if you told the whole truth? Be specific.
By acknowledging your secret lives, you bring attention to seminal questions inside yourself that deepen self-inquiry and throw light on your persona. The issues you raise have roots in your earliest beliefs about identity and the family into which you were born.



Each of us is born into a story, a family saga that predates our subjective narrative and foreshadows the person we will become. Although we are individuals, we are also part of a greater whole, a family tree with roots reaching back to the first human beings who walked the earth. As characters in this long-running play, we inherit all that has come before us. Our blood is rich with information. Our bodies hold secrets, clues, and stories accessible through intuition and by reaching imaginatively into the past. Writing is an act of the imagination. This is important to understand because when we dream back in time to describe things that happened long ago, imagination enables us to recreate from memory. We can make stories out of fragments of what we remember. In our mind, these stories take the place of what happened — meaning that how we remember things is more important than what really happened.
This is particularly true when we look at childhood, that long-ago time when we were at our most impressionable, as well as our most ignorant. As psychologist James Hillman reminds us, “Our lives are determined less by our childhood than by the traumatic way we have learned to remember our childhoods.” That’s why understanding your creation myth is so helpful. It reveals what you believe about your own genesis, the story you’ve imagined to explain how you came into the world.
With Cleo’s story, we saw how important a creation myth is to a sense of self. After she learned of her adoption, Cleo’s identity seemed to go to pieces and she was left wondering how she could create a present with so little information about her past and where she’d come from. While Cleo came to recognize this loss as an opportunity to free herself from one painful narrative, she couldn’t help imagining a different, potentially problematic story as the child of an unmarried, non-Jewish woman and a mystery father she’d never know. Like nature, the mind hates a vacuum, so when facts are unavailable the imagination reflexively fills in the blanks. What determines the sturdiness of your narrative structure is how you fill in these memory gaps.
I learned this when I wrote a book about finding my own absent father. Growing up without a dad, I felt that half of my own story was missing, as if part of me had disappeared the night I last saw him when I was four years old—part of me that was forever lost. My hunger to find him forty years later grew out of my desire to finish the story, to build a foundation for my life that felt less wobbly and incomplete. The detective never found my father but that didn’t matter much, in the end, because the search itself prompted me to write, and writing revealed what needed attention. In my case, I needed to pay attention to love, the absence of love between my parents, and how I imagined this absence affected my own ability to love. One of the things I wrote down was my own creation myth.
By exploring my imagined beginnings, I was able to uncover some surprising beliefs about the people who were my parents and my own genetic inheritance. In this story, it’s the mother who’s absent and the father who’s left wondering where she has gone. He wants her more than she wants him. She disappears to a place where he is not allowed to go—an emotional place where he can’t find her. It was impossible for me not to notice how closely this mirrored my own experience as the only son of this distant mother. I imagined that when I entered my mother’s body, she had already drifted someplace else. When I reflected on what I’d written, I saw how this legacy of conflict and emotional mismatch reflected itself in my life story. I’d swallowed this myth of my own creation from cues that were largely preverbal. This had led to a tragic-romantic life narrative in which I was looking for the right one but never finding that relationship. I believed that I had a conflicted heart but in fact it was the story in my mind that was the problem.
When you allow yourself to write imaginatively about this moment of creation, drawing on what you’ve been told about your parents’ relationship, you’re able to access elements of your unspoken narrative that prompt insight and emotional healing. Let yourself dream back to that primal moment and uncover the myth that’s waiting there. You may be surprised by what you find as you write about your imagined beginnings. To help get you started, here is what kicked off my writing, from my book The Boy He Left Behind.
Try to imagine your own conception. Conjure the primal scene in your mind, your parents’ bodies thrashing together. What are they thinking? How attentive are they to each other? Does she already know that you’ve entered her life, or has she drifted somewhere else? Have you ever wondered what she was thinking at the moment you first took root inside her, and whether your mother’s hazy thoughts might have been your first musings too? Whether her mood, and your father’s as well, their histories, hopes, and true intentions, the wealth or lack of love between them, the dreams they shared or would never share, might have affected the seed being planted, and the shape of who you became? How can we know when memory begins?
1. Each of us is born into a story, a family saga that pre-dates subjective narrative and foreshadows the people we will become.
2. We are part of a family tree with roots reaching back to the first human beings who walked the earth, inheriting all that has come before us.
3. Writing is an act of the imagination, which enables us to recreate stories from fragments of memories. How we remember things is often more important than what actually happened.
4. When we write the story of our creation, we’re able to access elements of our unspoken narrative that prompt insight and emotional healing.
You’re now ready to explore a creation myth on your own. Allow your imagination free rein as you give voice to this personal story and how it has shaped your beliefs and self-image.
1. Imagine the moment of your own conception. Describe the atmosphere in detail, including your parents’ emotional, spiritual, and physical lives, as well as their relationship.
2. What is the connection between your self-image and this imagined union? How has your parent’s legacy impacted your story? Do you see yourself as a product of love? Accident? Obligation? Confusion? Be specific.
3. Do you identify more with your mother or your father? When did this alignment begin? What are its implications? How has it affected your bond with the other
If it was possible for children to choose their parents, why might you have chosen yours? What aspects of your soul’s journey were satisfied by these particular people?
The antecedents to your life narrative—and the self-image you have created—are connected to your creation myth in mysterious and significant ways. Once you recognize how this self-image formed, you become the storyteller, not the story. You realize that you are the dreamer, not the dream. This leads to the next important step in awakening to who you are.



Self-image is the portrait we carry in our head, representing the person we imagine ourselves to be. This self-image bears a scant resemblance to how others see us or to our actual appearance. It’s a distorted, subjective view made up of stories, beliefs, emotions, desires, biases, and insecurities that have little factual basis. As an inside job, self-image is entirely personal and subjective. While it may evolve over time, self-image tends to glue into place like a photograph fixed on a moving object, concealing the truth of who we are.
How does self-image become so entrenched? Through the imposition of narrative labels. Putting names to things solidifies them in our minds. For example, if you’re a cautious, timid, fearful person, you might lump those all-too-human qualities into a label such as “coward.” That label will take on the appearance of fact and become a defining aspect of your self-image. When labels are legitimized by groups or social stereotypes, they become broader and more intractable, like “Evangelical Christian,” “welfare recipient,” “disabled vet,” “suburban wife,” or “convicted felon.” As psychological shorthand, these labels contribute to a generic picture of who we believe we are and place limits on our potential.
Richard learned this lesson the hard way. The oldest son of Japanese American immigrants, he was raised to view himself as a glorified slave to his father’s ambitions. Harsh, demanding, and critical, Richard’s father had grown up poor in rural Japan. He was violent toward Richard. He wanted his son to follow him into the discount jewelry business, but Richard dreamed of being a writer. This is how he introduced himself to our online class.
I’m Japanese first, my father’s son second, my mother’s son third, and my own person last. That’s how I see myself. You don’t know what it’s like to be the oldest son in a Japanese family. It’s is all about your role, duty, piety, ancient values. I painted myself with all of their colors, and somewhere inside, there is me: I can hear his heart beating but can’t see his face.
I asked Richard to describe that heartbeat as a voice talking to him. What was it saying? He responded, “I’m suffocating, gasping for air, screaming ‘Get my father off me.’” I had an image of Richard, locked in a fight to the death with his father, pinned underneath him and unable to throw him off. In Richard’s story, he was forever overpowered by his father’s presence and forced to subjugate his own desires. I asked him to question the details of this story, one by one, and test them against the truth. Though his feelings were undeniably real, the story was full of assumptions and labels that were not true. I invited Richard to consider this and the payoffs for believing the story. He wrote:
I started to look at the details of this image of myself. I’m not Japanese first, I’m human first. I’m not my father’s son second, I’m myself second. Just writing that made me feel good. Why would I think my uniqueness is less important than my nationality or my father’s big personality? This was an aha! Then I asked: what’s the payoff for seeing myself this way? First of all, it lets me get angry and blame him for what’s wrong in my life, for all the ways I don’t feel happy. I’m a firstborn Japanese son, so that explains everything, doesn’t it? I wimp out on my career. Blame my father! I chase the girl away by putting my family before her. Filial piety! This image is a good excuse to cover anything that doesn’t work.
By questioning his self-image, Richard’s portrait began to fall apart. He was hiding inside a self-image that allowed him to perpetuate his own fiction. But once he saw this, he could no longer let the tail (the story) wag the dog (him). We all use self-image to rationalize our own choices: “I’m not the kind of person who…” or “Someone with my background could never do that!” We reflexively cling to these images. As long as we maintain the status quo and there are no serious threats to our self-image, we’re able to maintain this fiction by pretending that we are contained by it. But when life rips away our cherished labels—as it eventually will—we’re given a view of endless possibilities: “Yes, I can be the kind of person who…” We realize that, far from being limited, we are protean, shape-shifting creatures in a process of perpetual change. Instead of being a single self, we can each be a chorus of multiple voices, notes within a single, evolving chord.
“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman asked in Leaves of Grass. “Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” So do you. Take a closer look at the chorus you have within you and how the voices in your chorus come together to form your self-image.
1. Self-image is the portrait we carry in our head, representing the person we imagine ourselves to be. It’s a distorted, subjective view made up of stories, beliefs, emotions, desires, biases, and insecurities that have little to no factual basis.
2. Through the imposition of labels, we create a generic picture of who we believe we are and place limits on our potential.
3. By questioning the details of our self-image, our portrait falls apart. We are no longer able to perpetuate our own fiction.
4. Instead of being a single self in a fixed image, we are a chorus of multiple voices, notes within a single, evolving chord.
It’s a great relief to realize that everyone’s personality is made up of contradictory voices. When it comes to character or self-image, there’s no such thing as complete consistency. These questions will help you understand your own contradictions and see how to make peace with your internal chorus.
1. Take five minutes to describe yourself, in twenty-five words or less, to someone you’ve never met. Do not edit this description. When you reread the description the next day, write about the labels you used to represent yourself. What do you notice? Which don’t quite fit? What vital descriptors have you left out?
2. Are you able to be flexible in times of change? Or do you automatically defend your self-image? How does this habit affect the way you make choices?
3. What aspects of your self-image appear to be non-negotiable? What characteristics, if lost, would cause you to stop feeling like yourself?
4. Name the features in your self-image that are consistently problematic or disempowering. What do you get out of holding on to them?
Simply acknowledging the limitations of your self-image, and the falsehoods it contains, allows you to step outside that image and look around at what is true. When you do this, you realize that these true qualities have been with you all this time, hidden by a kind of shadow. As you’ll see in the next chapter, “Touching the Shadow,” we choose which aspects of ourselves to legitimize and which to deny out of shame or fear. Retrieving the truth from your shadow is the next step toward maturity and wholeness.