Who are you? How to stop conforming to expectations and to start presenting the self you would like to present


Quick summary: Most people both consciously and unconsciously and both intentionally and unintentionally present themselves with different characteristics, beliefs, opinions, dispositions, emotionality, and behaviors etc in different settings. Who is the real you? How are different settings encouraging you to present your self in a certain way? If you closely examine the expectations of your different settings you can gain a degree of insight into why you act, think, and emote differently in different situations. For some, with insight comes a degree of freedom… freedom to present your self the way you wish to, as opposed to offering the self which your setting encourages you to be. Sometimes your setting encourages you to be the self which you would like to be… sometimes you feel uncomfortable with the self that you present… by examining your many selves and the different expectations of your different setting you can gain more control of the self you present in different situations.

I am not exactly talking about authenticity, as authenticity seems to carry the theme that there is only one true authentic self (the idea of authenticity often suggests that there is a real self and a false self)… upon investigation, you might find that you believe yourself to have multiple authentic selves. 

Answer these questions with curiosity – everyone that I have met (almost) including myself (I met myself) has multiple selves which are presented at different times in different setting.


For each of the question below also ask yourself, “How am I encouraged or expected to behave, think, emote etc in this relative setting?”

  • Who are you when you are within a crowd of mixed gendered people? What if all the people are your own gender? Are you different? (And how are you expected to be?)


  • Who are you when you are with just your family? Who are you when you are with just work colleagues? Who are you when you are with your friends?


  • Who are you when you are with a trusted person? What about when you are with an untrustworthy person?


  • Who are you when your setting makes you nervous or scared? Who are you when your setting makes you feel confident or powerful?


  • Who are you when you feel judged or attacked? Who are who when you feel unconditionally accepted?


  • Who are you when your setting makes you feel privileged? Who are you when your setting makes you feel marginalized?


  • Who are you when you are cold, tired, hungry or otherwise physically uncomfortable? Who are you when you are physically comfortable?


  • Who are you when you are surrounded by people with different beliefs? Who are you when you are surrounded by people who share most of your beliefs?


  • Who is the real you? Is there a you who is most authentic? Is there a self that you wish you always could be? What do you suppose encourages you to have so many selves?


I am not trying to get you to judge yourself or to resist the notion that your self is a bit relative… most of us resist the idea of an impermanent self as it can be terrifying to contemplate the idea that a true objective self does not exist.

There are existential and spiritual benefits from lessening your attachment to your ego (an ego is a concept of self that you try and make permanent by rigidly adhering to behaviors and cognitions which substantiate the intransient existence of that ego… you do so with statements such as “I am _______” which you hold to be objectively true despite the relativity of each passing moment. The counter questions for such beliefs are, “are you always that way no matter the situation? Can you imagine a situation in which you would not be that way?”).

Today my intention is not to explore a disengagement from your ego, instead I am guiding an exploration of gaining an increased control of which ego (or which self) you present in any relative moment.

When we say, “I can’t be that way,” what do we truly mean?

What about when we say, “I want to change but I can’t.” who wants to change and who can’t? Do you have two selves which are arguing with each other?

(again pop-psychology can make us believe that normal experiences are “crazy” – no you do not have dissociative disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder) simply because you have more than one self… much like all diagnosis in the field of psychology or psychiatry, we all have what appears to be symptoms of most of the major disorders – example, you are not necessarily depressed because you have experiences hopelessness and you don’t necessarily have ADHD simply because you have trouble attending to stimuli that you have no interest in.)


Systems theory is one of the main philosophies behind couples and family therapy. The metaphor for systems theory is the mobile (the thing that is often hung above a baby carriage with figures all attached by strings). System theory suggests that by changing one part you will impact all the parts in the system (so if you touch one of the figures on a mobile all of them will move).

If you change, then the whole system needs to change… often then the system will covertly and overtly place expectations on you so that you present with a consistent self… this enables the system to resist change (change is scary… change is anxiety whether that change is perceived as positive or negative).

Ever wonder why it is so hard for you to be the “new you” when you go back home to see your family for the holidays? This is because family systems are some of the most ‘stable’ (resistant to change) systems out there… this means that a family system has a structure and a set of dynamics that have been operating for so long that the system itself demands that you behave in line with the expectations of that system. Rarely are people even close to 100% conscious of all the systems expectations or the ways in which they themselves react to those expectations. There is often little to no intentionality in the deliverance of systemic expectations from other family members.

We all have a specific role in our families… if you stop being that role… if you stop presenting the self which the family system expects you to present, you will be met by heavy resistance from the system…. this is because your change will necessitate a change in the entire system.

Now lets look at the solution… ask yourself these question and follow this protocol for lessening the presentation of an undesired self.

  • What are the emotions, thoughts, and personal and external expectations which encourage this self to come forward?
  • What is the agenda, goal or purpose of this self?
  • What are the setting in which you notice this self to be most prevalent? And what people encourage this self to come about?
  • What behaviors do you engage in that often lead to this self taking over?
  • How did this self come to be, what is historically significant in relation to the creation of this self?
  • What would be the defining characteristics of the self you would like to present instead?
  • How can you help your setting and the people in that setting to accept this new self?
  • What changes will the system likely experience if you present this different self?

Solution – transparency… now that you know the answer to these questions it will be important for you to be direct with the system about the new self which you will now present.

  • Historically I have presented my self as __________ I behave, emote, and think________ and I see now that you might have all come to expect this from me.
  • I believe that I presented this way partly do to the following experiences (list the experiences.)
  • I desire change because when I present with that self I feel ___________ .
  • I am making a change; I now intend to be _____________. To encourage this change I would ask that you help me by __________.


Let me use myself as a specific example… in my own therapeutic journeys with an existential psychotherapist I found that I often turned into a self that I didn’t particularly want to be anymore… this self made me and those around me feel uncomfortable.

My example, the self that I wanted to dissolve: I desired to decrease my presentation of my rigid political self.

The self I presented: I would start political arguments and spend too much time researching and developing my political opinions. I would direct conversations with light tones into deep polarized debates.

Where did this self typically surface? I mostly presented this self on holidays with my family (but it came up in many places).

What were the emotions that could bring this self forward? Memories of the difficulties in my adolescents, there were things in the environment that would bring up insecure and unresolved feelings from my teenage years.

What led to the creation of this self? This self was primarily related to unresolved emotions that I held in high school concerning feeling being ‘out of place’ and different.

The purpose of this self was to be right (to reduce the existential anxiety surrounding the idea that right and wrong don’t exist), to justify the alternative views of my internal teenager (my internal teenager felt oppressed as my adolescent self had rigidly defined itself as ‘different’ so as to avoid the difficult emotions surrounding feeling ‘unaccepted’ and ‘unacceptable’ which originated at one of the high schools that I attended, and to a lesser degree with my disappointment in moving from CA to CT). My internal teenager also felt inadequate and inferior – I therefore developed a political self to take power by submitting people with my newfound intellect. Lastly this self was created to cope with feelings of guilt surrounding how privileged I was (upon realizing all my unearned advantages I used politics to attempt to create ‘justice’).

The systems expectations: The system expected this self to come about and therefore became guarded or defensive. Political conversations would preemptively originate to protect the system from ‘losing’ a debate. The system likely became anxious when political topics where brought into the setting… this anxiety likely fostered more debate (the true debate would have been concerning my need for debate… but this was below the surface).

Why I wanted to change. My political self made me feel isolated, defensive, misunderstood, rigid, and like a jerk; I felt as though I was interrupting a degree of joy in the family dynamic by fostering an atmosphere of needless debate. I noticed that I was creating conflict with some family members while encouraging others to withdraw. I also came to the realization that what I was doing was ironically a key ingredient to the problems that I was trying to ‘fix’ – rigidity is the foundations for most political problems – and that is what I was being… rigid. My political self was not very accepting and was close-minded… these are characteristic I did not want to hold.

What I needed from the system. I told people that I was going to read far less about politics and that I was trying to avoid political conversations. I told them that to meet my own goals I would probably have to just avoid interacting in fairly benign political conversations. I asked them to allow me to avoid such conversations. I explained how my political self was a self I would rather not be anymore… my political self was simply a defense mechanism which had kept me from resolving and evolving.

This change was relatively easy, as my system did not resist this change (they too most likely wanted that political self to present with less frequency)

It is more difficult to change when the system does not want you to changeoften times a person’s own view of self… their own identity is dependant on you behaving a certain way (ex. we all drink together, I must take care of you, I look at your problems to avoid my own, your failure makes me feel powerful, your power enables me to be unambitious, you decide I follow, I do everything as you can’t do it right, I control you submit etc)

One of the key ingredients for change is social support… there are times when space is needed from people who enable the self which you are trying to dissolve… this is often true with alcoholism… it is more difficult to remove your alcoholic self when your alcoholic self in regularly encouraged and enabled by other peoples’ alcoholic selves.

When looking for a desired change it doesn’t hurt to have realistic expectations… though our setting have a degree of control over us… we have a degree of control over the settings we place ourselves in…

If you want to eat less potatoes chips, don’t bring them into your home setting.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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