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(Un) Becoming Yourself

An essay about the process of personal metamorphosis.

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Take a journey back in time, right now.

Pick any variable amount of time or any point in your life, whether it be a decade or even just six months ago. Do you have goosebumps? Does it feel like you were a completely different person, or a version of yourself that you grew out of?

This is a sentiment I have often thought about, and it is one that arrives during the mature stages of growth: when you evolve and grow out of who you used to be and can no longer recognize the old parts of you. You begin to seemingly “un-know” yourself, to a certain extent. The contrast becomes recognizable once there is enough space and time between the old and new you.

Writer and Psychotherapist, Lori Gottlieb, defines the process of getting to un-know yourself parallel to growing out of clothes that no longer fit you.

Sometimes, this un-becoming, or un-knowing process, begins with breaking patterns and stepping out of your comfort zone. After all, how many times do we repeat behaviors simply because they feel comfortable?

Shameful to admit, I am sometimes the person who orders the same dish from particular restaurants. Why wager on something I might not even like when the former option gives me certainty and satisfaction?

Translating that micro example to deeper things, after careful observation, I have come to the conclusion that people repeat patterns because it adds predictability to their lives and makes them feel safe.

However, if we keep reliving the same patterns, the same story, our lives become like a record—always on repeat. Why limit the story to the same meal? Or the same experience?

A few years ago, a friend of mine was caught up in a pattern, or a rut, in the world of dating. She would always tell me that she gets nowhere because all the men she goes out with never want to commit to her. We all agree there is a high cost in putting ourselves out there, right? It’s not hard to understand where she’s coming from — dating is hard, and rejection hurts.

Sadly, she would relive this rejection experience every few months, be extremely upset, and never break free from that story, of feeling like she’s not good enough.

She felt safe in the citadel of the distorted narrative she crafted about her experience. If you tell yourself the same story, with time and repetition, you eventually end up believing the slanted version of reality you craft. Because of its familiarity, it starts to feel like home.  

The brain is an expert at self-flagellating. “I’m not lovable,” or “I’m not good enough,” Is what my friend would say to me, over and over again.

It is not that my friend was not lovable — it was simply an accumulation of choices she was making that aggregated her suffering. She was seeking security with people who were seeking more freedom at the time. There wasn’t anything wrong with her. The two aims are simply incompatible. That’s it.

And when a friend cries to you about such things, you want to be compassionate and take their side and tell them what they want to hear, but this may actually increase their suffering in the long run. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, termed this concept as ‘idiot compassion.’

His well-known student, Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron, explained that:

“idiot compassion refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering.”

But if we truly want to help others, we must share the truth and forgo the intense levels of idiot compassion, and promote wise compassion, which is “inherently skillful,” and “sees the whole situation, to bring release from suffering.”

This is a small way we can un-become ourselves — by removing the societal expectation to always provide idiot compassion, we have to step back, reassess and perhaps introduce more wise compassion to our relational world to truly help someone.

Just as I had to un-become my natural instinct to provide idiot compassion, my friend had to un-become herself by seeking therapy and realizing that her suffering wasn’t entirely the fault of the men she kept falling for, but part of it was caused by her choosing — her attraction to unavailable men.

As a result of therapy, there was significant movement from her old self. She shifted from visiting the same story to weaving a new narrative, a narrative in which she was no longer a victim.  And the story ends well for her — she’s now happily engaged!

In another example, when I was around 5 years old, I had a horrible skin infection, on and off for two years. Thankfully, the infection disappeared, but I ended up with some scars scars on my body, reminding me of the pain I went through. I used to be quite ashamed of these scars. But one day I decided that I could either continue feeling ashamed, or wear these scars like armor, an emblem of strength.

Even as an adult I still have a chronic skin problem that causes flare ups often. It itches, burns, and sometimes bleeds. At times, it is very visible and can completely consume my days. Overall, the flare-ups can show up unannounced and cause a great deal of discomfort.

Instead of feeling victimized and shaming myself, I try to embrace it. Instead of reliving the same story and asking myself “why is this happening to me,” I try to tell myself “this isn’t permanent, the flare up will go, just as it came, and my skin will look normal again in a week or less.”

In a way, I am even thankful — if my stress levels get too high, the flare ups happen more frequently. The happier I am, the fewer flare ups I get. As a result, managing stress, and striving for serenity have become a part of my daily codebook because my health literally depends on it.

Through this process, I have had to un-become the harsh judge that is unkind to myself. Like the dog that immediately wants to run out the back door as soon as it opens just a hair, I have to catch the negative thoughts before they consume my mind.

We lose a vast amount of emotional real estate when we entertain negative self-talk, especially when things are completely out of our control. We have to think of our mind as an apartment complex and kick out the tenants that don’t pay rent and take up our time, happiness, and energy.

In addition to the waves of health annoyances I sometimes deal with, many people in my relational world, family and friends, live through chronic medical conditions — conditions that often make them weak, immobile, depressed. But they are also some of the strongest, beautiful, and most inspiring people I know.

Their strength wasn’t born overnight. In order to be the person that they are today, they had to unbecome the old parts of themselves, prior to their diagnosis, or accident. Watching them chase after life with a renewed zeal makes me wonder the vast expanse of growth that we are capable of — we have all the power to un-do ourselves and become the person we need to be.

One may ask, how do we begin that process, of becoming who we need to be?

To start, we must extend an olive branch to ourselves—a signal of peace and compassion—and slowly unravel the parts of ourselves that inhibit our ability of transformation.

Then, we can work towards deserting the vestigial qualities and insufficiencies we currently possess.

This is analogous to Jordan Peterson,’s bestselling novel, 12 Rules for Life, where he states that the process of abandoning your insufficiencies is similar to burning off dead wood. He uses the process of forest fires to explain this concept. 

He notes that forests collect a lot of dry branches, thus the amount of flammable material keeps increasing with time. This isn’t an issue if its wet. But if it’s dry, and the flammable material keeps increasing, it becomes a recipe for a massive fire that will “burn so hot that everything will be destroyed, even the soil in which the forest grows.”

As a result of this dynamic, lots of trees have now evolved to withstand a forest fire to a certain degree and intensity, and some trees will not even release their seeds if there has been a fire. Therefore, he notes, “a little bit of fire at the right time, can stop everything from burning to the ground.”

Just like the trees that release the seeds through small fires in a forest, this is the nature of sacrifice that allows us to un-become. The small fires within our own lives are uncomfortable and painful in the moment, but in the long run it can help us evolve, and maybe immunize us from bigger fires.

In order to become the new versions of ourselves and let go of the old parts that keep us replaying the same story of victimhood, weakness, and despair, we have to burn off those parts like dead wood, and slowly find ways to initiate movement. We have to pull out our foot from the deep mud, and transform, just like the metamorphosis of a butterfly.

Lastly, altering our story requires ending the chapter we are stuck on and starting fresh with a crisp, blank page.

Every day we have an opportunity to edit and rewrite our story as we see fit, so we may slowly un-become the parts of ourselves in order to become the person we need and want to be.

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