In the social-media age, we curate images of our lives on a screen—making it especially easy to translate images of perfection as the image of oneself. But the pressure to pretend we are perfect is exactly the thing holding us back from experiencing the happiness we seek—and limiting our ability to be our whole, authentic selves.
In this week’s episode of How to Build a Happy Life, we’ll define what we mean by “authenticity” and explore the psychological underpinnings of our ego-driven identities. A conversation with the clinical psychologist and mindfulness expert Dr. Shefali helps us work through one of the most challenging questions of all: Who am I?
Try this week’s live interactive exercise, “The Chipping-Away Exercise,” and apply these lessons to your own life. Tag us on social media with #thechippingawayexercise, and listen to other full-length episodes of How to Build a Happy Life at theatlantic.com/podcasts/how-to-build-a-happy-life. (Your entries are private, unless you share on social media.)
This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Arthur C. Brooks. Editing by A.C. Valdez. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Sound design by Michael Raphael.
Be part of How to Build a Happy Life. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave us a voicemail at 925.967.2091.
Music by Trevor Kowalski (“Lion’s Drift,” “This Valley of Ours,” “Una Noche De Luces”), Stationary Sign (“Loose in the Park”), and Spectacles Wallet and Watch (“Last Pieces”).
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Arthur C. Brooks: People often ask this question: How do I find myself? And for a long time, I didn’t really understand the nature of that question, because, I mean, find yourself? Look in the mirror! But then I realized that people tend to be deeply alienated from who they consider themselves actually to be.
And the reason is because of something that is defined in the psychological literature as self-objectification. Self-objectification is just another form of objectifying a person; it’s just that the objectifier and the objectify-ee are the same person.
If you ask “How do I find myself?,” you’re basically saying “I don’t know who I am,” and the reason you don’t know who you are probably is because you have reduced yourself to one characteristic, to one trait, to one quality that you want to be more than anything else. You objectified yourself.
You might ask yourself: What does self-objectification typically look like? Well, it looks like you thinking of yourself only in one dimension. Maybe you’re an especially attractive person physically, and people reward you for that. They give you attention and that attention feels good. That’s pure self-objectification, and that’s really a lesser version of you. You’re getting the reward, which is the attention of others, but you’re desecrating the nature of your true self.
Dr. Shefali: Watching hundreds of clients go through the process of transforming pain into power, and then seeing my own transformation from pain to power, really was the underpinning of this book.
In my own personal life, I was in a marriage for over two decades and found that as I began to become more and more authentic, the container of the relationship needed to morph. And in some relationships it can, and in some relationships it simply cannot. In my relationship, the container could not morph to allow the emergence of my new self. And then I was in a deep conflict, and I believe many people go through this conflict where the authentic self arises but the past doesn’t support the present.
And so I had to make very tough, torturous choices as a woman, especially as a mother. Do I stay or do I leave? And I went through a tremendous shedding of old belief systems, especially as an Indian woman—I was raised in India—but also as just a woman in this current culture where we are given or we invite or we ingest a lot of guilt and shame around being the quote-unquote “home-wrecker.”
So I went through a very torturous inner process of shedding what that means and how culture has overlaid so much shame around us for speaking our voice, for holding our own, for taking space, because those were the things I was doing that my old container couldn’t allow anymore. So I not only went through this myself, but this is what I usher most of my clients through, is how do you discover your authentic voice.
Brooks: So when you’re talking to somebody, giving them advice about finding their authentic self, what does that mean? What is the inauthentic self, and then what is the authentic self?
Dr. Shefali: As I see it as a therapist, when we are children, we are closest to who it is we are meant to be—as close to being unconditioned as possible. And as we are in the womb itself and as we emerge into the world, we are immediately bombarded with the conditionings of our immediate parents and then our immediate culture. Conditioning literally starts from day one.
Already you are born into a family; already you are born into a tradition. With that comes its politics. With that comes its religion. With that comes its ideas of good and bad, heaven and hell, God or no God, achievement, success, happiness, beauty. Everything is an imprint that we now need to plug in to. In that process of being kind of forced to absorb the conditioning, we have no choice. We lose our connection to who we could be or were meant to be. It’s just natural.
And we realize quickly that in order to receive validation, love, and worth, we better get whipping into this system. And in order to do that, there’s a psychological process that occurs, which I describe as the development of the ego, the false self. The chicken needs the shell of the egg to develop, but it cannot survive if the egg stays intact.
This is kind of what I describe the ego as. We develop a shell of the false self to get love and worth in this conditioning, in this system that really befuddles us. And I talk about how rock bottom that pain is when the false self simply cannot make it in the world anymore. It’s like, I give up. I have tried so hard, but dammit, I can’t find happiness on the outside and I’m exhausted and I give up. And that is the beginning portal for awakening. But it is the most painful point in time.
Brooks: Let’s take a case study so people can really make this concrete in their minds. So somebody walks into your office and is having a first consultation with you. And this is somebody who’s a full-on self-objectifier. What are you most likely to see?
Dr. Shefali: You will see a lot of “I” statements, a lot of anxiety, a lot of anger, control, a lot of bluster because things are not going well in their life. So with people like this, which is most people, they typically come when expectations haven’t met reality or the other way around. And they are deeply injured by this fact. It’s because they feel entitled to expectations and reality being one.
Typically, I see it with parents. The children bring you to your knees because you are like, By golly, I have wasted so much of my money and energy and given my body up for this creature. How dare this little one not bend to my will? That’s why my first books were all on parenting, because I was like, let me go for the obvious prey, which is the parent.
And I gently help them deconstruct who they think they are and show them how they have enslaved themselves to this relationship or to this identity. And if they want to live a different life, they’re going to have to loosen that hold this identity has on them. And they begin to see suffering, suffering, suffering. This has caused me pain, pain, pain. And when I show them in real time, Ah, see hell, see suffering. So is this identity working for you? Is this belief system good for you? Or can we look at another way of envisioning this?
So it’s a slow process of deconstruction, and people cling, even though they know it’s dysfunctional. They are deeply attached to the dysfunction because the dysfunction now becomes your addiction. Suffering becomes your reality. You’re like, No. Who will I be if I don’t suffer; who will I be without the anxiety? So now the very symptoms become the identity.
Brooks: I had this really crazy experience some years ago. I overheard a man on the plane behind me. It was at night and so I couldn’t see, but I heard a man confessing to his wife that he wished he were dead. And I could tell he was old by his voice, and the woman, I figured she was his wife, she’s saying, “Oh, don’t say it would be better if you were dead.” This went on like this for, like, 20 minutes and the lights came on.
We landed in Washington Dulles Airport and everybody stood up and I turned around and it was one of the most famous men in the world. And I was walking up the aisle with him behind me. This is blowing my mind. So I’m a social scientist, and so I had it all wrong. I’m like, Oh, this guy’s probably disappointed in his life. He never did anything right. And we’re going past the cockpit and the pilot looks through me like a pane of glass right at the guy behind me. And he says, “Sir, I want you to know that you’ve been my hero since I was a little boy.” And I turned around and he was beaming!
And I thought to myself, Okay, so which is the real hero? Is it now or is it 20 minutes ago? And it sent me on this vision quest to figure out how all of us can stay off that branch in the tree. Because he was, I mean, look, I know why he was miserable. He was still trying to be the symbol of himself. He was really old and it was not possible. And so a lot of guys that I work with, they’re like ultra, über successful, but they’re prisoners of that success because you can’t keep it going. And when nature says it’s done and you’re not ready, you’re screwed. You might as well escape by yourself and get to a better life on your own, right?
Dr. Shefali: Right. But very few have that awareness because it’s so alluring, you see. Especially for über-successful people. The ego gratification is too much of a trap. It’s too seductive. You have to really watch that ego and watch that adulation and your attachment to it.
Brooks: When you’re working with somebody, what’s the first thing tangibly you tell them to do?
Dr. Shefali: I become their mirror to show them what their own life is reflecting and that they are unhappy. And that’s the first thing I need them to buy into, because if they’re not going to own that they’re not happy, we cannot get anywhere. So until I get that, like I’m an addict, right? That’s why AA is amazing in so many ways. Unless you’re willing to say, “Hello, I’m Stanley. I’m an addict”—if you’re not willing to say that, we cannot go to the next step; you have to leave the meeting. So that’s where I go.
And of course I’m not, you know, rude like that. But I know that until I get the person to realize and accept and own, you know, their own inner incongruities, their own inner dissatisfaction—well, are you happy that your kid is blaming you and you’re blaming your kid? Is that making you feel good? Until they can say, “No,” I cannot go forward, and I tell them that. So I say, “We still have more work to do for you to arrive at your own ownership of your inauthenticity. We don’t want to own that we’re not okay.”
Brooks: You know, we are taught that if we’re good people, we will feel other people’s pain. So it seems to me that you’ve moved beyond empathy to real compassion. You know, empathy is feeling other people’s pain. And the worst parents that you and I’ve ever met are the most empathetic parents, just like, I’ll feel your pain and don’t do the hard things that make you not your kid’s buddy.
I have three adult kids, and they were not my [fans] a lot. It sounds to me that this is at the root of what you’re talking about here: To stop being empathetic with yourself and start being compassionate, start giving yourself the tough love that you actually need. Is that fair?
Dr. Shefali: Yeah. It’s about acceptance that pain is inevitable, as that saying goes. So pain is the portal for transformation. So I don’t take away people’s pain. I invite it in and then we’re going to sit in it. So I’m doing the opposite of what culture says, which is Oh, pain is bad or She needs to be appeased or empathized with. I mean, empathy is a lovely thing, but it’s not the answer. The answer is, okay, feel it fully, recognize your participation and co-creation in it so that then you can liberate yourself from it. So unless we fully are in it and conscious of it, we’re going to keep running away from it.
Brooks: Sometimes people ask me why I study happiness, why I write about happiness for The Atlantic, and why I do this podcast. What makes me so interested in happiness? And the answer is, well, it is fascinating, and I love sharing these ideas and lifting people up. But the biggest reason is because I want to be happier, just like you. Just like everybody. It doesn’t come super natural to me all the time.
As you’ve heard in past episodes in the series, this is the part where we share a mini audio snippet from our listeners who courageously agreed to answer this question: When’s the last time you remember being truly happy?
Listener submission: My name is Joan; I live in New York City. I stay in my grateful mode, what I call my grateful mode, for good health, a loving family, still affording my monthly rent. But the last time being truly happy, I cannot remember. In fact, my usual sense of pride, of not knowing depression, and my sense of panic feeling I was depressed for the first time, I can remember, has me terrified. A series of recent events—my brother’s death shook me to the core, COVID, the depressing state of our politics, facing my 80s—accompanied with a dwindling lack of a sense of purpose, I fight this mindset every single day and concentrate on the fact that if I can’t find a way out of this, my three daughters and my three grandchildren would not only be devastated, but what model for living life would I leave them? The thought of failing to maintain a sense of purpose keeps me working on this as if working for my Ph.D. Truly happy—I look forward to the day. Thank you.
Brooks: Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the conversation that I had with Dr. Shefali. I want to give you one of my favorite exercises that can help you in your journey to stop objectifying yourself. This is called the chipping-away exercise.
Step one: Make a list of all the ways that you wish you were different. Think about it and be honest. You wish you were thinner or richer or funnier or more successful or cooler or more admired. Make a list of all the ways that you think you’d be better off if you were different.
Now here’s step two. Look at each item on the list and ask yourself two questions: Why do you want each one of these things? For example, you want to be thinner. Why? So you can be more attractive? So you can find a partner? So that other people might love you more? Why do you want to be more successful? More successful than what? Well, obviously, more successful than others. Why do you want to make other people feel envious? Is the jealousy of others something you’re looking for? Be honest. Why do you want each one of these things? Then ask yourself: Do you like these motives? Are you proud of these motives?
Okay, here’s step three. Imagine you had all these things on your list. How would they really be changing your life? Be completely honest. How much happier would you be if you were richer, if you were funnier, if you were cooler? How much happier would you actually be? This requires that you connect it to what you assume would bring you happiness. So, for example, if you wanted to be more handsome or prettier or just generally more attractive or whatever it was because you thought that somebody might love you more, is that true? And does that mean that you would be happier?
Okay, now here’s step four. You know perfectly that all the things on your list that you’d like to change about yourself would require resources, would require effort and time and money and energy, and it would probably mean changing your relationships and all kinds of stuff like that. So ask yourself this: What would you be willing to give up to get these things from your life? For example, would you be willing to give up relationships with loved ones in order to do the work that you need to do to make a lot more money? Is it worth it?
Here’s step five. Think about who you really are. Think of the person you are. Is time spent comparing yourself with others or acting like something you’re not, trying to think about adding these things on to yourself, is it worth it?
Here’s step six. Think about chipping away these added parts, these inauthentic parts of yourself. How would you want to be different than you? Well, that’s how you’re not you, isn’t it? Simply chip away the attachments to the desires of the things that would make you a little bit different than yourself because you’re uncomfortable with who you are.
Now think about that list. Think about the list of the money and the stuff and the image and all that you wanted to make other people jealous with, with those motives you didn’t quite like. And one by one by one, look at that list and declare your independence from each one of those things.
Here’s step seven. Do this every day for a week and keep track of how it makes you feel right after you do it and how it makes you act the next day. This is going to change you. This is going to make you more authentic, and I daresay it’s going to make you happier.