I think we all have them—little thoughts about ourselves that we employ with regularity that give us a mental image of ourselves in the sense of our worth and place in the world. These thoughts can be incredibly minor and insignificant, and they can also be all encompassing huge ideas we hold about who we are.

These are the thoughts that glorify our accomplishments and abilities, and that we use to give us position and value in our own view of ourselves. You could call this our self-personification, the story we tell ourselves and project to the world that says, “This is me.”

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Recently Maria and I had lunch with an elderly gentleman and his wife. It was just a simple get-to-know-one-another lunch as a portion of our interests is to know elders and learn from their experience. Except in this case we listened to this elderly gentleman describe all his life’s accomplishments in great detail for more than an hour. While I saw many parallels between our lives and attempted to express some of them, the gentleman seemed more interested in talking about his own accomplishments. It was as though he was saying, “Look at me and what I’ve done.” It was not about, “Look at who I am, what I believe in, and how I feel toward life.”

Self-personification is about storytelling, either to ourselves or to others. The stories tell us how we want to feel about ourselves and how we want others to view us.

In the indigenous realm, elders are not just old people, but rather those who have lived their lives in a particular way so that by the time they reach their elder years they are living in service of others and have great wisdom, compassion, and love to give to the world. Mother Teresa would be a perfect example of an elder in the indigenous sense. Being a true elder in this way is also about moving completely beyond self-personification to a place of being in the world, not thinking our way through life.

Mother Teresa once wrote, “Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience…If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.”

“The pitfall of self-personification is that when we define ourselves by our abilities and accomplishments we are actually diminishing ourselves.”

Moving beyond self-personification—the mental image we hold of ourselves and the stories we tell—takes practice and begins with being willing to identify the stories we tell and then to release them. The indigenous elders tell us that we are all equal regardless of our accomplishments or abilities. So if we are the CEO, the President, a successful doctor, lawyer or author, we are no better than anyone else. There is also a flip side to this, which says that for those who are laborers, busboys, auto mechanics or ditch diggers that they are also no less than others. Either story we tell is a self-personification, which is merely a story and doesn’t speak to the essence of who we are.

Woody Guthrie was a sign painter. Harrison Ford worked as a carpenter before becoming one of the highest grossing actors of all time. Mother Teresa was a simple Nun who believed in helping the poor and the sick. Oprah started out as the daughter of a single mother living in a poor neighborhood. Neither their humble beginnings, nor their ascension to success defines them. Was it the amount of records Woody Guthrie sold that made him who he was, or the ideas he inspired? Or was it something more, something deeper and more meaningful?

The pitfall of self-personification is that when we define ourselves by our abilities and accomplishments we are actually diminishing ourselves, as we are far more magnificent than those things we either did or didn’t do, or whether we can run the mile in under five minutes or play an instrument or speak a foreign language or run a successful company, and so on.

Tip of the Week

Search for and identify one mental story you tell yourself about who you are and your worth. It can be a very minor story, just find one story. Then ask yourself if this story truly speaks to the essence of who you are, and notice the feeling that this question brings, and be with this feeling for a minute or two. Then ask the question, “If I am not defined by this ability or accomplishment, who am I?” And, then notice the feeling and be with it for some time. Hint: it is in the feeling that we discover our true self.