Who I was twenty years ago is certainly not who I am today. Or so I used to like to think…
When I look back at myself at that time I see someone with a pretty different set of ideals, values, beliefs, and ways of being in the world. And quite frankly, I like today’s me much better. But what I’ve learned, through lots of self-reflection, is that trying to deny who I was back then was causing me to be inauthentic. And as a person who values authenticity, I’ve had to reexamine this practice:
How we internalize things dictates the formation of our beliefs and values; and consequently how we show up in the world at different times in our lives. Said another way (to borrow from Claire Graves’ Spiral Dynamics research), our experiences and the way we process them continually shape and reshape our psychological structures, value systems, and modes of adaptation.
So who we are today doesn’t differ from who we were yesterday: we’ve always been the same person wrapped in ever-growing layers of our own evolution. As philosopher Ken Wilber points out, human beings – like any other organism – develop in a holararchical fashion: meaning that each new level of the organism transcends and includes it junior. In other words, we’re not designed to disown parts of ourselves. Like atoms to molecules to cells to tissues, each previous part is not discarded, but reconfigured and integrated into the new more evolved whole. This works the same way on all levels that make us human; not just the physical.
If we try to disown any of these layers, or aspects of our selves, we find ourselves having to recreate the past in order to keep a cohesive story. Because as human beings we’re always trying to piece together the Gestalt of our lives: we need continuity in order for things to make sense.
And of course we do this all the time: when we tell the story of who we are and how we’ve arrived, we naturally embellish some parts, readjust others, and completely exclude the rest. Naturally a bit of this doesn’t hurt, but too much makes us inauthentic: when we tell these stories, even as we come to believe them ourselves, we’re not living as our true selves when we’re drawing from a false base.
Granted, it can be wise to forget about certain pieces of our past – but only if you truly see them as toxic experiences that attempt to derail you from being your happy and authentic self. For example, if someone has treated you badly in the past, one of the most helpful things you can strive to do is forgive, forget, and move on (however you can make that happen). This might be the best strategy if you find yourself ruminating about it to the point where your anger or fear does not allow you to find happiness or move forward with your life in a healthy, satisfying way.
On the other hand, if you can acknowledge the hurt and anger but identify that the experience has moved you in a stronger direction, you might not want to try to dismiss it. It might be healthier to see the experience as a piece of your past that’s helped shaped the person you are today. Maybe it’s allowed you to be stronger and wiser in some way. In this way, and if appropriate, you could remember and honor the you in the past who carried and managed this discomfort; so that the you of today can continue to carry out the work you do, live the life you live, and share the things you give back to the world.
This really has to do with honoring all parts of yourself at a “higher level”: a more adaptive, integrated, healthy, and purposeful acknowledgement of who you are. It’s about acknowledging your own evolution, and about integrating and building upon all aspects of your previous beliefs and experiences. It’s about learning to accept who you are; and making the conscious decision to build upon your positive aspects while adapting, adjusting, and integrating in a healthy way the other aspects that are no longer serving you well.
So I’ve learned that I really am the same person I was twenty years ago: just a better, updated version. I’ve also learned that I wouldn’t be the version I am today if I didn’t think what I thought, did what I did, and learned what I had learned along the way!