Use This Time to Let Go of Your Pseudo-Self

A therapist explains how to ditch other people’s values, and find your own

Mom works from home on the computer and phone while her daughter copies her and plays around her.
Mom works from home on the computer and phone while her daughter copies her and plays around her.
Photo: Belinda Howell/Moment/Getty Images

Lately, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: The longer we’re all stuck at home, the more honest we’re becoming. Even my therapy clients who were previously slow to open up in our sessions now come fully ready to talk about how they’re doing.

It’s a pattern that’s playing out more broadly, too: Right now, we’re all revealing much more than our natural hair color. Stir-crazy in quarantine, with the chaos of our homes revealed on Zoom for all our co-workers and friends to see, we’re newly willing to admit that our lives aren’t as put-together as we used to pretend.

A funny thing happens when you stop acting like you have it together: When you accept that your moody toddler is going to interrupt some work calls, or that the only way to survive is to be honest about your mental health, you begin to shake off some of the values you’ve subconsciously absorbed. You start to consider what honoring your own values — what I call living from the inside-out — might look like.

Here’s what happens when we live from the inside-out:

We stop relying on praise and attention

We’re wired to crave praise. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting others’ approval, but we have an unfortunate tendency to tie that approval to our sense of self-worth. We allow our moods to rise or fall based on outside attention.

When you borrow confidence from others’ approval, this strengthens the pseudo-self: the persona you project onto the world. Your pseudo-self helps you appear more confident, capable, or calm than you actually are. It’s not an accurate measure of your actual ability to function in stressful times.

For many, this prolonged absence of attention — a lack of fuel for the pseudo-self — has been deeply uncomfortable. In quarantine, we’re either alone all the time, or stuck with the people who know us best, who aren’t fooled by our pseudo-selves. They know what we look like when we’re freaking out but putting on a brave face. So we are forced to think about how we construct a stronger sense of self, one that doesn’t rely as much on our ability to fake it.

There are two key components to building a stronger sense of self. The first is to practice managing anxious feelings without relying too much on praise or reassurance. The second is to practice evaluating yourself with a little more objectivity. Together, these abilities replace some of your dependence on others to help you calm down and understand how you’re doing.

Building yourself up can look like:

  • Examining and challenging your negative thoughts.
  • Thinking honestly and critically about your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Being objective about what you can and can’t accomplish right now.
  • Troubleshooting a problem before you ask someone else to fix it.

The more you can learn to rely on your own thinking, and the greater your capacity to calm your own nerves, the better you can function on the days when no one else is around to give you confidence.

We figure out what’s really important

Another thing I’ve noticed from talking to my clients: For many people, the pandemic is dismantling the common wisdom of what a good, successful life looks like. People are beginning to entertain the idea that being constantly busy isn’t the best way to live, or a marker of achievement. They’re reaching for a kinder, more flexible definition of good work and a good life, one that more closely matches what they really value.

And they’re allowing themselves to be more vulnerable not just in therapy, but in their one-on-one relationships with family and friends. They’re starting to fully inhabit their more authentic selves as they reevaluate what they want and who they want to be.

If you want to take this time to figure out what’s important to you, here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • What would be important to me even if no one noticed or praised me for it?
  • What do I not miss that I once thought was important?
  • What activities give me energy and engage my brain?
  • What relationships have become essential to me in this time?

At some point, we’ll reenter the world and begin our new normal. If you’re not careful, it will be all too easy to lose your grip on the truths that this time has revealed. You might forget that you enjoy a walk in the woods more than going down a Twitter black hole. You might return to thinking a group call with your family is more of a burden than a joy. Without realizing it, you might start to armor up again, back into that same pseudo-self.

So while we’re in this strange, stripped-down time, it’s worth asking yourself, “What do I miss out on when I’m pretending to have it together?” You can carry the answer with you long after this is over.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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