You Are Not a Single Thing (and that's a good thing!)
One day there was a knock at my door, I opened it and on the porch were two young men in gray dress slacks and white button-down shirts, carrying clipboards. Crap, why did I open the door I thought, what on earth are they going to try to sell me? I wish I had the nerve to just tell them to go away. “Hi, how are you today?” one of them said. Ten minutes later I was the proud owner of a $60 magazine subscription I never wanted.
At that point in my life, I hadn’t yet seen the nature of my personal labels, those stories I told myself about who I was; so I only had one choice in that moment. I could only “be kind.” Standing here in the present, I can see there were an infinite number of choices… I could have negotiated with them, I could have asked why they chose this as their work, I could have simply asked them to leave, I could have given them each $10 and not signed up for anything… so many choices that were completely hidden to me. I was stuck with my version of "being kind.”
When I come to a staircase I’ve never seen before, I’m able to walk up it without any trouble. I don’t get confused and I don’t have to ask for instructions.
I’m guessing it’s the same for you.
That’s because people are awesome at learning, generalizing, and pattern matching. Life is much easier because we can do this! Imagine waking up every morning having to relearn everything. That would suck!
But when it comes to self-image, these human abilities are a lot less useful. We experience something, generalize, and then act as if it’s always true. We behave as if we’re a single image, like a photo, but in fact we’re an ongoing, ever changing, full feature film.
I went on my first diet when I was in 4th grade, at the age of 10. I dutifully counted all my calories, went to weekly meetings, and stood in line among the adults for my turn behind the magic weigh-in curtain. When it was my turn, I stepped on the scale, looking down at my hot-pink socks I wondered if I’d succeeded this week, or if the candy bar I’d snuck would reveal my failings. Bathed in the undulating glare of the fluorescent lights, I looked at the dial. Ugh, just 1/2 of a pound gone for all that effort. I decided then that I was plump, it's just who I was.
Four years later, at the age of 14, I took my dieting more seriously. I wanted to be a model and my choices were getting breast implants, which would let me work in the U.S., or dropping a lot of weight so I could go to Japan. I was 6 feet tall and my goal weight was 125 pounds. I never made it. I started eating just 500 calories a day and tortured myself with daily two hour sessions on the ski machine to make sure I burned off more than that. My period pretty much stopped, and all I ever dreamed of was food — Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” became my favorite song. I was thrilled the day I took my shirt off and could count all of my ribs in my bedroom mirror. But in my mind, I was still plump.
In my adult life my weight has fluctuated wildly over a 60 pound range, but it never mattered what the scale said, or what size I wore, I always thought of myself as plump. I was living in the feeling of my singular image, instead of recognizing the film that was playing.
Is there anything that I am all the time? Do I always feel outgoing? No. Do I always feel kind? Not actually. Do I always feel tall? Not when I’m in Denmark. Is there anything that I have felt always, 100% of the time, over my entire life?
I can’t think of a single thing.