I was recently having a discussion with my fiancé about identity and authenticity. He was suggesting that he is exactly the same person regardless of who he is around. My fiancé is definitely a straight-down-the-line sort of guy. He says it as it is, and he definitely doesn’t sugar coat it. You never have to read between the lines with him. We were discussing this in the context of social skills, business and professionalism, and how it is a beneficial skill to be able to read a social context and adapt your personality accordingly. I was using the example of how I am able to build rapport with a variety of different client populations, and how it is so beneficial to have this sort of versatility – particularly as a psychologist. I was suggesting how it might also be a valuable skill to have in business. My fiancé, on the other hand, was arguing that people who are able to present a modified version of themselves to different social contexts are probably “fake”. He educated me on “changelings” – these shape shifting life forms from star-trek, and I proceeded to educate him on the divergent trilogy. It was quite a riveting discussion. In the end, I settled on the idea that I probably have a chameleon-type of personality. I continued to mull over this idea during the course of the week and how it fits in with my worldview.
Is it fake to present a different side of yourself depending on whom you are with? Am I being inauthentic if I present a different side of myself to my friends, family, clients or colleagues? Aren’t all of these “versions” just “me”? I always just thought of it as being like wearing a different hat. You always hear of people talking about having their “work hat” on when they’re at work. I never really questioned it. I always assumed that there was a constant in there somewhere. No matter whom I was with, I always “myself” – but just an adapted version of myself.
Then I started thinking, what if the concept of “myself” doesn’t even exist? You cannot, after all, step into the same river twice, as the famous Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said. What if “myself” is a flexible, adaptive, changing being? Plato also famously said, “everything changes, nothing stands still”. We are constantly changing, evolving beings, so why should this come as a surprise to me? The very nature of my work involves unlocking change in people. Indeed, I have witnessed that even the most entrenched and ingrained patterns of thinking and behaving in people can change, albeit very slowly.
So, I reflected some more on this, and I concluded that there are in fact some constants – but perhaps rather than these being fixed in nature, I hypothesise that they’re probably more likely attached to my values and core beliefs, or schemas. The psychologist Jeffrey Young developed schema theory to describe this organising framework of the mind. Schemas represent patterns of internal experience. So, basically, they are stories that our mind tells us about ourselves (self-image) and about the world. It’s important that we critically evaluate our own stories, as they are not always true. Cognitive dissonance occurs when new evidence is presented that does not necessarily fit in with your existing story. Basically, your mind is usually quite comfortable with the story it is already telling you and can’t be bothered writing a new one. However, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. This is why people often experience anxiety in response to change. We become attached to these stories that our mind tells us, and we refuse to re-write them. Being flexible to adapt to change is a valuable asset, for the mere fact that change is the only constant in life. To be able to challenge existing stories and create new ones is surely an advantage?
The interesting thing about my line of work is that I deliver it through the vehicle of the self; so I cannot ever take myself out of it. I am a vital part of the process, and I embrace a psychodynamic approach. I therefore do draw on my own feelings, as well as the dynamic, in informing my practice. Up until today, I told myself that square plugs couldn’t fit into round holes. It’s a “poor fit”, I would say. And, if you don’t even know what shape you are, how can you find the right hole? However, perhaps some people do have the ability to change their shape? Perhaps the fundamental properties of the plug remain the same, but the shape changes? What a gift. It kind of makes sense when you think of it like that. The properties are what form its function, not the shape. Change is the constant.
I held onto this story for a while, until I was inevitably presented with a new version of the story by my fiancé, which totally changed my own take on the story. He said, “Be the man you want to be, not the man people want you to be”.
This made me return to the earlier reflection on authenticity and whether it is indeed a poor reflection of character to be a shape shifter. I guess in the context of my plug story – what happens when I don’t like the shape I have to mould myself to be? Do I change anyway? No, I don’t, because it’s ultimately still a choice. It’s always a choice, and morally speaking, I wouldn’t want to just shape shift into whatever people want me to be. Your shape still has to fit in with your overall story of who you want to be. If you hold strong beliefs about human rights, for example, and you’re attempting to adapt this to fit into Tony Abbott’s views on asylum seekers, no matter how hard you try you’re likely to run your boat aground (pardon the inappropriate pun).
In my work, I need to be very aware of my own beliefs and judgments, and to also be aware of how they may impact on the therapeutic relationship. I must respect clients’ beliefs, and not impose my own views and opinions on them. I therefore bring a sense of openness and unconditional positive regard to whatever the client brings to the room, and I suspend all judgement. This has often led to me letting go of previously held assumptions and beliefs. When you hear and hold so many different stories, your own stories often change as a natural consequence. This is actually one of the rewards of the work. You start to open yourself up to new ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. You start to form new stories, which are rich, meaningful and well rounded. You learn new things from your clients; you grow; you open yourself up to new experiences; you gain vicarious resilience. You learn to be the plug that holds and contains so many stories, but does so with grace and integrity. It’s an honour and privilege to be able to hold someone else’s story, but also to recognise that their story doesn’t necessarily have to fit in with yours. That is the person I want to be, and fortunately for me, it is also the person my clients need me to be.
In 2001, psychologists Michael Lambert and Dean Barley conducted research on factors that influence client outcomes. The results of their research indicated that factors such as empathy, warmth, and the therapeutic relationship was shown to correlate more highly with client outcomes than specialised treatment interventions. In fact, decades of research also indicate that the delivery of therapy is an interpersonal process in which a main curative component is the nature of the therapeutic relationship. Learning to improve one’s ability to relate to clients and tailoring that relationship to individual clients is therefore crucial to this line of work. Does it always work? No, of course not. Sometimes it is a “poor fit”. Sometimes my ship does run aground, but that is okay.
Mahatma Ghandi famously said, “be the change you wish to see in the world”. For the most part, this is the person I want to be: a changeling, shape shifting, chameleon plug – someone who is able to hold, accept and validate a story, but also facilitate its change. Meanwhile, my fiancé is still hell-bent on being the man he wants to be, thankfully that man also happens to be the man I love.