Limiting Identities


Rod: In his practice coaching mindfulness, our wellness columnist Scott McPherson sees the gamut of clients, who are trying to tackle a number of different problems, from someone trying to lessen their dependence on alcohol, to a high performance athlete trying to reach the next level. Today he’s going to tell us about the most common mistake he says that people from all walks of life are making. Hi Scott.

Scott: Hi Rod.

Rod: So Scott, what’s this common issue that you’re referring to?

Scott: A heavy drinker, a stressed new parent, someone with an anger issue, and an elite athlete can all seem like they have very different challenges.  But from a mindfulness perspective they are all just innocently misinterpreting their reality. And to put an even finer point on it; they’re underestimating themselves .

Rod: What exactly do you mean by misinterpreting their reality?

Scott: People really think they have a grasp on their reality, and therein lies the problem. But on average, it only takes me a few hours to completely undermine someone’s beliefs about their reality.

Rod: That sounds like it could be a scary proposition. Are there folks out there that really want their reality undermined?

Scott: Oh for sure. If someone is so unhappy with themselves that they drink to hide from the world, then finding out that they might not really be as bad as they think they are, can be very liberating and inviting. If someone thinks the world sucks so they’re always angry, then finding a reality where it doesn’t suck can remove a lot of their anger. Or, if someone lives with a reality that undermines their confidence, then we don’t have to create confidence, we just have to stop undermining it. The confidence is natural.

Rod: So how does this all relate to the idea of people underestimating themselves?

Scott: If we ask any 5 year old if they can sing, dance or write poetry, they all pretty much believe they can. But over time people talk us out of those beliefs. They weigh us down with their negative thinking and they teach it to us. So it’s like everyone is born buoyant. When we’re floating at the surface, we have the potential to go any direction –to believe anything about the world or ourselves. But, in their efforts to help us, people try to teach us about the world, without realizing that they’re really just teaching us their beliefs about the world –or about us. But those are all just thought-based limits. Our thoughts don’t have to weigh us down like that. But if we don’t understand how they act to form our sense of reality, our own thinking can overwhelm us.

Rod: So in the world of mindfulness, most of our problems aren’t really problems, we’re all just confused or misdirected?

Scott: It’s not like people teach us how to use our minds. Everyone just figures it out as they go. And every adult has had multiple experiences where we found out something we believed wasn’t true. So if we accept that our brains have believed false things – then we have to accept the idea it’s at least possible that our ideas about ourselves might actually be wrong too.

Rod: So is it really possible for someone can actually be better –or healthier— than they think they are?

Scott: For sure. They can even get angry by finding out they are healthier than they thought. Janice Johnson, a care home worker from Britain found out 18 months into her treatment that she didn’t have cancer and her reaction was that she was furious. Most of us can understand why –she went through a painful treatment and scare for no reason. But she obviously wasn’t unhappy to learn she lived. Yet the healthy physical reality of her situation was overridden by her intense anger over having been given the identity of a cancer patient when she really wasn’t one. In a really weird way, that’s what our parents do when they define us to ourselves. They guess at our prognosis and set a course of self-criticism in an ironic attempt to help us find happiness. Meanwhile if someone with a false negative test for something physical, like cancer, they can be psychologically healthier than someone who was just taught to think ill of themselves.

Rod: But surely, over time, the truly sick person get worse wouldn’t they? And the healthy person would realize nothing was wrong?

Scott: For sure. But even if it’s bad news, we find it easier to change if we think the world forced it on us. But cancer or not, in our psychological reality, the moment that we come to accept any new idea about ourselves is the moment in which we change our identity. And we can do that voluntarily any time we like. Low self esteem isn’t some physical tumour growing in our body. It’s just an idea we have about ourselves. If we know how, that is a completely changeable thought. Most of us just inherited those thoughts anyway. They are other people’s impressions of us. But only we really know ourselves, so those impressions are actually what blocks our view of who we really are. This is why people think they can leave some place they live and then reinvent themselves in some new location, when in reality the Self they are being in the new place was who they potentially were all along. So a lot of what I do is help people kick the weight of all of that thinking off so they can resurface. Once they’re at the surface, they have far more perspective and they feel less weighed down. From there they really don’t need any advice from me. They’re them. They know where they want to go.  Mindfulness doesn’t give us mental health. We had that as kids. Mindfulness just lets us strip away all the false ideas about ourselves so that we can go back to being who we truly are.It’s like accelerating the lessons we learn through healthy aging. We stop listening so much to advice from outside our perspective and we start trusting ourselves more.

Rod: Is this why some people feel more confident at 50 than they do at, say, 30?

Scott: That’s been my experience, yes. From my perspective it’s funny how people tell themselves they are growing into someone more capable. To me, they were always that capable, it’s just that now they’ve stopped undermining themselves. When a mindfulness student can see what I see, they suddenly realize there was never anything wrong with them. They realize they were just innocently trying to be someone they were told to be, instead of being who they really are. That’s why the hippies called it ‘finding yourself.’ As hokey as that can sound, it’s really accurate.

Rod: So is there anything we can do about all this?

Scott: If someone believes they are addicted, or an angry person, or they have low self esteem, or they can’t concentrate, then they will do what someone who is addicted to substances will do, what an angry person does, and what people with low self esteem or poor concentration will do. But if they find out those are only ideas about themselves, and that in a different sense of reality they are much more than that, then suddenly we all have choices. Once people can see their options to be someone other than the identity they’ve learned to dislike, they don’t need my help. They pick what truly works for them. So life is a lot like going to a restaurant. When we’re too young to read a menu we have no idea what we’re ordering to eat and so we innocently eat the thoughts our parents feed us. But as kids we forget that our parents are growing up too, so they get some stuff wrong and they accidentally teach us some unfortunate or limiting ideas about ourselves. No parent means to cause trouble, they’re actually trying to help. But they’re doing it from the perspective of having misunderstood reality too. So really they’re telling us what worked for them, not necessarily what will work for us. And some of that will be useful. But until we become ourselves, we won’t know which ideas align with us and which ones don’t. So if people out there are busy hating themselves, or they’re weighted down with regrets or fears about their future, then they have to remember that all of those emotions are delivered to us by our thinking. But if we know how, changing our thinking about the world is surprisingly easy. And if we can change the world, then as part of that world, we will change too.

Rod: Interesting stuff Scott, thanks.

Scott: My pleasure. Have a great day.

Rod: Scott McPherson is our Wellness Columnist. He teaches mindfulness in Edmonton. Find him at, and Twitter and Facebook.


Hi everyone.

Sorry we had to defer last week’s column. For those new my blog who are wondering what I’m talking about, note that I regularly join Radio Active‘s host Adrienne Pan, on CBC Radio One here in Edmonton. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), or elsewhere through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at Today we’ll be on at 5:20pm. Adrienne’s away today, so the interview will likely be with Rod or a guest host.

Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the top of this post within a few days of airing.

Today’s topic: 

A lot of people imagine that they themselves are failures, or that they’re depressed, or broken or even that they’re just someone who cannot focus. But in many cases the person is actually fine, and the real issue is that they are, without realizing it, attempting to live out of alignment with who they really are. In order to change that, we don’t change ourselves as much as we change our conception of what ‘reality’ is. Since our self-image is an aspect of our reality, if we change reality, we change ourselves too.

If you get to hear it and haven’t before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the show. They have a great team.

Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.

peace. s