(Originally Sent as a part of the Letters to the Emotionally Intense, in February, 2018)
First of all, thank you so, so much for your support for the book Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity. I am happy to announce that within a month of its launch, the book has hit No. 1 on Amazon in its category!
Your feedback, support and reviews are extremely meaningful; it fills me with joy and hope to know that we are not alone, and collectively we can make ripples. At this stage, the Amazon reviews are especially powerful, as they help to get the message “there is nothing wrong with you” into the hands of more people who need it. If nothing else, every single word of support from you is deeply nourishing to me. They are helping me put one foot in front of the other to do this work :D. So here is my big, heartfelt THANK YOU for being a part of the tribe!
In today’s letter, I would like us to continue exploring the perennial tension between authenticity and belongingness. This is a difficult subject for many emotionally intense people. Your passionate nature, integrity and independent thinking often set you apart from the mainstream, and you feel loneliness more penetratively, more frequently, and more pervasively. Many of us have developed an adaptive social self, or a way of being that is carefully edited, partially silenced and rigidly held. Extended from a childhood pattern, our investment in a facade can take many forms. We may be stuck in an unsatisfactory job, or a dysfunctional relationship, or we hold back from being emotionally honest and expressive with others. Sometimes, we overstay in a community even when we clearly don’t fit in, driven by the parts of us who stubbornly believe if we try hard enough, we will find love and acceptance. Though on the outside we appear secure, inwardly we may feel fragile, numb and insecure, for in continually posing for others we would have lost touch with who we are.
I will start with a personal sharing about my struggle to walk away from the conventional myths of what we must do and the cultural confines of what it means to be successful. Then, we draw on the psychological theory of True Self vs False Self to see how it explains our ways of being in the world. After that, I would like to propose a new way of thinking about success, abundance, and happiness in life, ending with the small changes that we can start taking today to work towards inner freedom. I hope this piece would be useful to you in some way and nudge you toward a more congruent, fulfilling life path as an original, creative spirit.
‘We see that the character who misfits or is outcast has their own kind of weird beauty or meaning, even if it is not always the same as the hero’s happy ending. Edward Scissorhands, for instance, do not get to lead any sleigh ride. But they do earn the right to a place in the world that is utterly original.’
SO, I QUIT
I would like to share with you something I did this month that was big and scary for me:
I left the Doctoral program that I was on.
After four long years of time, energy, money, and hope invested in this endeavour, and with only 2.5 years towards completion, I have chosen to drop out at this point. This indeed is one of the most daunting decisions of my life- as it cuts to the core of who I feel I am in the world.
As someone who had felt like a misfit all her life, I have devoted a lot, a lot, A LOT of energy in making myself ‘fit in’. And getting some ‘recognisable qualifications’, or being employed in a ‘big, reputable organisation’, seem- at least to the eight-year-old Imi who always wanted to play with the popular girls- to be the way.
And then, of course, there is the influence of having been born and bred in Hong Kong. The idea of academic achievements was glamorised throughout my early years, setting me up for a lifelong path of chasing something that does not represent the real me, to impress people who were irrelevant to me.
This was not the first time I have contorted myself for the sake of conforming to the conventional definition of success— the ‘trophy boyfriend’, the job at the National Health Service (NHS), the glamour of being a Company Director— no matter how many signals my body and feelings were sending me, I simply would not quit. Yet after I have buried my soul’s needs to fit in, I ended up with feeling more lonely than ever. It turns out we really cannot feel belonged when we are not ourselves.
But Life plunges us into our Truths despite our resistance. With the NHS, it was my sound sensitivity that pushed me over the edge. It seems absurd, but my misophonia was just the ‘last straw’ for the painful rupture inside of me.
For the last two years, the incongruence of pursuing the formal academic path has been screaming louder and louder. Every minute that I invested in writing the essays was a sacrifice for the precious time I can use to do my authentic and creative work, and use my energy and passion to make ripples in the world. Knowing that I only have one short life, I went to bed every night feeling guilty, resentful, restless and sick to my core.
In the end, my body pushed me out of the program.
When I finally quit, I remembered a quote from Paulo Coelho that I came across at 17: ‘When I had nothing to lose, I had everything. When I stopped being who I am, I found myself.’
Life throws us the same lesson again and again until we get the message. I hope that this time, I have got it. However disconcerting the process has been, this could be the last push for me to honour my place in the world, proudly and freely. Rather than trying to prove myself via a qualification, I fall back on nothing else but my original, unaltered self.
So from now on, I can no longer hide behind an academic doctorate. I will always ‘just’ be Imi Lo.
Break down your walls. It is breathtaking inside.
– Cara Alwill Leyba
“TRUE SELF, FALSE SELF”
The idea of a ‘True Self’ vs a ‘False Self’ was introduced into psychoanalysis by D.W. Winnicott (1960). He used “True Self” to describe a sense of self based on authentic experience, and a feeling of being alive. Unlike our True Self, the False Self is a defensive facade, one which in extreme cases could leave someone feeling dead and empty on the inside.
His theory came from the observation that a neglected baby will blame herself for her parents’ lack of interest, and thereby create an artificial version of herself in the hope of winning their love and attention. While Winnoctt said we develop a ‘False Self’ to please our ‘mother’, here ‘mother’ does not only mean our real mother but any societal or interpersonal demands, as well as the internal pressure that we give ourselves to fit into these external standards.
Building on Winnicott’s idea, psychoanalyst Susie Orbach believes the False Self is a cultural problem. After we have internalised societal ideals, we over-develop certain aspects of ourselves at the expense of our full potential. As a result of an abiding distrust of what emerges spontaneously from our inner being, we experience a mind-body split, suffer from chronic self- doubt, unable to trust our instincts, or stand up to claim a space in the world.
Perhaps the term “False Self” is misleading; it seems to suggest that we intentionally put up a front— and that is not what it was. It may be more useful to rephrase it as ‘an Adapted Self’— a social persona we use when facing the outside world.
To a degree, a healthy Adapted Self allows us to function appropriately as social beings. The ability to comply with convention to some extent is a developmental achievement. The adult who has a healthy Adapted Self does not overexpose his true feelings and thoughts but remains in touch with his true desires and needs. However, while it is healthy to have different ‘persona’ for different settings, there is a limit to how much we can stifle our truths.
One consequence of over-investing in our False Self is that under oppression, our True Self can get frustrated. According to psychotherapist Alexander Lowen, when our outside self is succumbing to conformity, our inner being will become deviant. The difficulty is that this often happens unconsciously under our repression and denial. If we do not address the issue, this underlying rebellion will eventually erupt by ways of ‘acting out’. This is when we do things that are self- sabotaging or destructive, bypassing our rational mind and against our will. Some examples are addictive patterns, risky behaviours, or unexpected bursts of rage.
The Bible says: “No one can serve two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.” Your soul is always aligned with your real, authentic, intense and sensitive True Self, and any minute you invest in building, sustaining, and presenting your facade, you will experience an internal split. Our physical and emotional bodies will tell us when we are in our False Self for too long.
“My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.”
SMALL, GENTLE STEPS
Stripping away our False Self can take many forms.
It may mean stopping climbing a vocational ladder that does not intrinsically motivate you.
It may mean stop trying to pretend to be someone you are not to attract someone who may find your ‘done-up’self attractive.
It may mean stopping silencing yourself to gain others’ approval.
It may mean stopping complying with regulations that you do not agree with.
But you do not have to make dramatic changes. It does not mean we all ought to quit our day job in pursuit of the intangible passion— our needs for material security ought to be honoured too. It does not mean you need to leave the relationship that you have doubts in— relationships are often nuanced and complex.
The True Self is not a static entity to work towards. It is a natural state, a way of being that is ever-present. Like the sight of the sun, just because it is temporarily shielded by the clouds, does not mean it is not there. So, your task is not to ‘find’ your true self, but merely to let go of some of your fear-based attachments. As Rumi says, you do not need to seek love, but rather, to remove what is it that is blocking the love.
What do you do when there is no one watching? With whom do you feel most at ease? In what occasions do your natural humour, playfulness, and spontaneity come out? Your ‘True Self’ is your natural, spontaneous self. In this state of child-like wonder and curiosity, there is no shame. The more time you can spend with these feelings, the more healthy, grounded and fulfilled you would be.
was easier to wear
So she stripped.
Straight down to nothing.
And set herself free.
– Stripped, Cara Alwill Leyba
Our False self started as a means to survive in this world, but somehow it has overstayed its time and has become a core part of our being. Sometimes we are not even aware of how much cultural ‘should’ we have taken in, and how much we have invested in our False Self. A fish can’t see the water because it’s in it. We can’t see the values we have internalised because we are so engulfed in them.
Leaving the familiar ground of our Adapted Self is never an easy task, but a wake-up call will inevitably come. It may come as unbearable existential guilt, inner emptiness, depression, or sickness. Sometimes, Life very helpfully sends us a crisis that forces us to face our truths. Then, we realise that it is not enough to exist as a function of someone else’s— spouse, parents, friends, society- projections and wishes, as life is too short for any day of internal deadness.
As natural cycles of life go, we must deconstruct our current form to recreate something new. In a way, we must die (Ego Death) to be reborn. Alongside actual things such as relationships, titles and career trajectory, we also need to release certain strong beliefs, a future vision, and ideas about who we thought we were.
During the period of transition, we may cycle back and forth between the ‘stages of grieving’ suggested by Kubler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
• Denial: I am sure I am not that different. I can do what everyone does.
• Anger: Why me? Why does it seem easy to others and not me? Why can’t the world be a bit more understanding?
• Bargaining: Just let me give it another go, maybe I can still count on external recognition to satisfy my needs.
• Depression: This is hopeless. I am a misfit. I will never feel happy and fulfilled. Why do I bother? “
• Acceptance: I am who I am. Even though it is sometimes not easy to be more intense and sensitive than others, I trust that my authenticity will allow the right people, positions, and situations to come towards me.
It is PARAMOUNT to have patience and self- compassion in this process. Our life path, like everything in nature, works in cycles and seasons. You now realise what has got you here may not get you to the next stage of your self-actualisation. Think of all the time you have spent in your Adapted Self has been a valuable exploration process, a kind of life research that sets the foundation for your growth. You could not have known until you know; You could not have leapt until you are ready. You have been doing exactly ‘the right thing’ all along. For diving in and giving it all until it no longer works, you are a triumph. There is a natural order to life — you only know the answers just when you need to know it, not a minute sooner or later.
“I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
― Anaïs Nin
A NEW PATH: WHY YOUR TRUE SELF IS YOUR BEST INVESTMENT
Trusting your True Self offers a new way of attaining richness in life. If you can cross that wobbly bridge to the other side, you will find boundless richness— from career success, financial abundance, and happiness in your relationships, to sustainable self- esteem.
By courageously stepping into authenticity, you go from trying to fit into the convention to honouring what you believe in.
Then, you go from being a follower of set rules to being the leader of your own values.
Then, you go from pandering to external judgement to allowing your intensities to be seen, heard, and loved.
Finally, rather than forcing your way to achieve conventional success, you simply let your natural exuberance (and imperfections) attract your unique brand of abundance.
This new paradigm toward success and happiness is not the linear, predictable path that we know. The old model says we need to work hard to climb a ladder; the new model says the only work you need is to peel off the facade and allow people and things to come to you. At first glance, the new path is full of uncertainty. The old way, with a visible finishing line, seems clear, concrete, and predictable. While if you take the road less travelled by and let what naturally springs out of you ‘attracts’ the abundance, you don’t know what shape or form that may take (yet).
The fact that we were not given an instruction manual to follow can seem disconcerting. However, this is only because the most primal, fear-based part of our brain has not yet kept up with the realities of how the world works.
Indeed, you do not have any idea what the ‘award’ would look like in the end. But you know it will not be a job title after many years of passionless work, or an empty but ‘conventionally approved’ marriage, or a house with three kids’ with someone who repels you, or a company with values that do not align with yours.
If you rely on your True Self, you are not looking for any gaps to fill, any external regulation to comply with, or any outsiders’ gaze to satisfy. You focus on nothing but Joseph Campbell’s famous advice of ‘following your bliss’. This is paradoxically the most certain path because you know you have enjoyed the process. You can leave the world tomorrow, and there can be no real regrets- because every day has been fun, and you are surrounded by people who see the real you.
In contrast, the forced path based on adapting yourself to external demand is highly risky. What if the promised land you have envisioned is not what it seems? Even if it is, is it worth the time you have spent hiding you and squandering your passion?
You have only one life, and every day you spend in something that is not true to your values takes away from the potential richness that your true, sensitive, intense and passionate self has to offer.
Even the beginning of this process can seem daunting; once you have started, it will soon become effortless. It will be an automatic upward spiral. You do not have to exert effort, because your health, joy, and excitement will be enough to carry you through to the other side.
not wanting me.
the beginning ofme
– Nayyirah Waheed
The following exercises may help you rediscover who you are at the core, and perhaps re-member with the parts of you that are yearning to be integrated.
1. CHILDHOOD PHOTOS
Find some quiet time to yourself, and dig out some childhood photos. Look at them carefully, and get to know this little girl/ boy as if you have just met him/ her. What was she wearing? What did she like and dislike? What did her expressions and gestures show? If she could speak, what would she be saying? What do you see in this child? Was she spontaneous, funny, curious, kind? Or perhaps she was ambitious, focused, feisty?
This is you. The qualities that you have seen in this child are your true essence. Even if you lose all your credentials, titles, appearance and your life experience up to this day, these qualities will always be with you.
She is wise. Seek your advice on your current questions and decisions. Would she be proud to know you?
2. PURE LOVE
Recall a time in your life when you have experienced a pure love that is based on nothing but your unedited, spontaneous self. Maybe it was with a childhood friend who saw you for who you were. Maybe it was a teacher, a loving elder, a grandparent who found your excitabilities delightful. Maybe it was a pet that just seemed to connect with you on a soul level. Maybe it was a spiritual experience with your source of divinity.
Has there been a time where you have enjoyed the “quiet presence” of another, where you could just BE without having to DO anything or to prove yourself? You did not have to perform, be perfect, be clean, or to please anyone. You were just freely you, in the calm, relaxing presence of another.
When you get in touch with your True Self, you may feel tender and vulnerable. Yet very soon you will tap into the power of being aligned and congruent. After all, what can be more powerful than leaning on something that you will never lose?
“Run towards anything or anyone who makes you feel like you are coming home to yourself.”
– Melissa Wells
3. ONE SMALL STEP FORWARD
The movement from our False Self to our True Self does not have to involve life-altering actions, it can be subtle and gradual, starting from shifts within our hearts and where our attention goes.
However much you would like to deny it, your body and your feelings know. Experiment with becoming more aware and discerning about what you consume and surround yourself with. This may include food, media, visual materials, readings, music, environment, friendships, workplace, and emotional tendencies. Tune in, and be radically honest about how these things make you feel- are they life-giving, or life-draining? Are they nourishing, or depleting? In what do they align with your values?
For just a day, practise thinking before you act, pausing before you buy, breathing before you ingest.
Breath by breath, step by step, you can slowly but surely nudge your actions and thoughts in the direction of integrity. It will become effortless at some point, as calm and a sense of clarity will come to you, and automatically propel you forward.
“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I will become will catch me.”
– Baal Shem Tov
Shredding our layers is not an easy task, but for the one precious life you have, it is worth it.
I will meet you on the other side!