When I was in my twenties, I did my best to dress like a rock star. I thought of myself as a true original, and I wore clothes I imagined clearly announced my “specialness” to the world around me. I felt superior to people who wore a suit and tie to work. They were just wearing a standard corporate uniform, whereas I was expressing myself. In retrospect, it’s obvious I too was just wearing a uniform. MTV and Rolling Stone magazine dictated to me what a rock star was supposed to wear, and I towed the line, strapping myself into my wannabe rock star getup. Nothing wrong with wearing a uniform. We all do so to one degree or another. The problem is in thinking my uniform is somehow better or more authentic than your uniform.
An Inherited Identity
Your identity is strongly shaped by your family and friends, your culture, your workplace, popular media. To a large degree you “inherit” your identity from your environment, then you try to claim it as your own. You probably even go to great lengths to defend this identity, to justify it, to feel slightly “one up” about it. Just consider how you respond when someone fundamentally questions or threatens your sense of identity. How ironic that we spend our lives trying to protect this sense of self that was, in many respects, prescribed for us by our life circumstances.
The Mindful Observer
It’s not about being better than. It’s not even about being “special.” It’s about recognizing how artificial and contrived are many aspects of your self-identity, your personal story. You still step into various uniforms throughout the day, because what else are you going to do? But with increased awareness, you begin to recognize how your sense of self shifts from one circumstance to the next. You no longer cling so doggedly to this or that “set of clothes.” There is some part of you altogether outside these various roles. This is the part of you that remains steady, centered. This is the part of you that watches, observes without judgment. You begin to understand that your true identity is just this: a mindful observer. And you learn to recognize that this core self isn’t unique to you. In fact, your core self is essentially the same as every other person’s core self. With this realization comes genuine compassion for and connection with other human beings. By letting go of your need to be special, you open yourself to genuine self-acceptance and an authentic recognition of self-worth.