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Is what we do who we are?

Sometimes a breakdown of contact between our inner, real self and our behaviour can have catastrophic consequences. But even at an everyday level, it pays to understand how these two parts of our existence interact, as a way to finding meaning and happiness.


It’s a question that goes to the heart of our identity in many ways; to the meaning ascribed to us by society often, and even by ourselves. Is what we do who we are?I started thinking about this again as I was spending time with a book* written by two great therapists, one now retired (Dave Mearns) and one still practicing and teaching (Mick Cooper). These two have written a lot about the process of being with a client, creating a shared space in which two people can really ‘meet’, emotionally and psychologically, and the healing powers of real human connection between them. A section that really struck me, however, related to working with people whose lives have been damaged (perhaps even completely dismantled) by trauma. As one might expect they write about those who have been victims of trauma, with compassion and sensitivity. But they also address another type of contact with it: those who have caused it. And they give examples of having worked with individuals whose actions have crossed into a space of such dreadful awfulness that it feels impossible for them to ever leave it behind in any way. Such actions include committing sexual assault, rape or murder. They write of the cases of soldiers committing battlefield atrocities.


As these individuals face the consequences of their actions – be they a long jail term, or having ‘got away with it’, there are some of course whose behaviour never leads to any self-reflection or remorse. But there are others, perhaps many, who end up in deep emotional anguish. “How could I have done this?” they say. “This isn’t who I am”.


Of course, thank goodness, the vast majority of us will never face an inner, psychic fracture on such a scale. It’s lucky for society that this is so. Most of us – if we feel mentally ok – can maintain a relatively reliable and functioning connection between who we are (our values, beliefs, ethics, and a whole sense of ourselves inside) and what we do at most levels in our lives. At the most extreme level, that might mean that most (though not all) of us can control ourselves when we lose our temper and not lapse into violence, for example. Even when we are enraged, the inner control centre built around ‘the kind of person I am’, stays online.


But you don’t have to dig that deep to reveal how the question of the relationship between who we are and what we do, rears its head in life in more everyday ways, and how holding in mind the connection between the two and working to allow our actions to be guided by our knowledge of our real selves can be critically important.


I suspect that no-one reading these words has ever experienced the catastrophic opening up of a space between inner self and outward actions on the scale of some of the examples I have mentioned above (though I could of course be wrong). But perhaps, on a more prosaic level, you have done things that you regret – not simply because they were things that infringed some social code or caused negative consequences for you, but because afterwards you were left saying to yourself “How could I have done that?” or “Who am I?”.  This gap between who we feel ourselves to be, and what we nevertheless did, can be a place full of pain and confusion.


None of us is fully immune. The only person to whom it causes a real problem may be us, and when it happens we get glimpses of that unbridged gap. Perhaps we set ourselves objectives in life – to lose weight, to quit alcohol, to find a job that gives us meaning, to contribute to the world in some way that matters to us. Perhaps we tell ourselves that we should stop shouting at the kids all the time, because we are not the kind of person who shouts at their kids all the time? And then we don’t do it. We eat the wrong things. We keep drinking, maybe to excess. We plod along in that job, held back in some way from expressing our real identity. We hurt when we see the world around us, but do little or nothing. The shouting at home goes on. And we punish ourselves. That’s a common feature of the experience – from the most mundane, to the most extreme iteration. The voice of inner condemnation kicks off. How can we hold on to that picture of who we really are inside, if that’s what we're doing? That punitive, self-judging voice is like an arsonist who has found that vital picture of you inside on which you've based everything and is emptying a can of petrol over it, trying to set it on fire.


If that picture burns away, what are you left with? Nothing? A void? Is that what’s behind the fear? There are a range of psychological models to describe this kind of process, in its various forms, but one way that really speaks to me is the notion of helping someone to get back in touch – perhaps even meet for the first time – their inner, real self. That person (if that’s the right word) isn’t always neatly packaged, nicely organised or easy to find, but they are always in their somewhere, waiting to be heard. They might have been hurt, they might be hiding away. Sometimes we only know they are even there when we act in a certain way and then feel a kind of unease and bafflement about why we did it. Again.


It would be great if this inner self was always visible to us and was at the helm of our decisions and actions all the time, but when things have gone wrong, sometimes badly wrong, something has clearly got in the way of that happening. The ‘wiring’ between the authentic self and our behaviour has been damaged or cut. Maybe it never got sufficiently established in the first place? Some ways of looking at this go back to childhood and how you may have had no guidance at all in the process of discovering who you really are. I have spent time with people who have done things they can’t explain, or which seem to conflict with their inner aims and values, across a range of situations. Our work together can involve drawing a clear definition of the two parts of this model. Saying, ‘You are not your behaviour. Your behaviour is behaviour. It’s a response to something. If it’s congruent with who you feel yourself to be then the ‘wiring inside’ seems to be functioning. But if not maybe something happened to you? Something that’s vandalised the inner wiring to detach your authentic self from what you do and how you are acting? Or maybe the entire system didn’t get installed effectively in the first place?' 'I wonder what’s going on? I wonder how we can deal with it?’ we might both wonder. And then, perhaps, we get to work on that.



Jo Shaw is a psychotherapist based in London, UK. She sees clients both in person and online and can be reached at





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