Who Am I ?

Most people would agree that I have a distinct personality but I’m not really sure that I am my own unique person. After hanging out with people for any amount of time, I seem to absorb some of their mannerisms and facial expressions when I’m communicating. If I let myself think about it, I remember feeling as though I was that other person for a moment. Of course, I could not possibly know how it would feel to be another person. I only imagine how it might feel to be them in that moment when I am making a point -- all delivered with the same cadence of their borrowed personality.

The notion that a number of other personalities may jump in and out at will, is more than a little weird, but maybe not, which I’ll talk about later. Looking back through my life though, I realize that I’ve always done this. Mannerisms of other people seeped into my persona, layering and flattening over me, like a Photoshop application. When I’ve adopted additional nuances, I’ve done it rather subconsciously. For a mere few seconds, my minds eye pictures the other opaque personality, laminating to my own, while I do my shtick.

It’s only a “sometimes” thing. I duplicate how Cindy places accents on certain words when I’m telling a story and I see myself as her while I’m in that groove. I use Barbara’s hand gestures while saying nah nah nah nah. I like Kathy’s facial expressions when she’s making a point and I really love my grandson’s body language when he’s trying to be hip. So every now and then I replicate those expressions or gestures and visualize those people when I’m doing it.

So really... who am I? Am I a fraud because I (even unknowingly) copy other peoples verbal characteristics? I know I’m a sum total of all my experiences, but am I also a composite of other assumed personalities? It’s not as though I do this on purpose so I wonder if the world views those presentations as me? Well I think they might! After all -- why would they have any reason to know that some of the things I say or do are embedded nuggets of someone else?

At first, I was a little timid about admitting that I was somehow less than authentic. Nevertheless, I mentioned these thoughts to a co-worker and she remarked that it was a fascinating idea and thought I should explore deeper. When my brother read my short account, he not only liked the story, but said he was reading something that was talking about that very phenomenon. This was a known phenomenon? Wow...you mean I’m not an impersonator?

Mark Matousek, the author of Ethical Wisdom writes:

“The second great boon has come with the discovery of mirror neurons. In 1995, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, Giacomo Rizzolatti, identified the mechanism whereby empathy (and a host of other behaviors) is communicated physiologically. The sole purpose of mirror neurons is to reflect what we see in the world around us and imitate it, instantly—literally “bringing the outside inside”—in order to harmonize with our environments. These “empathy neurons” (or “Dalai Lama neurons” as one brain scientist calls them) match up our inner reality with the world around us, helping to dissolve the barrier between self and other (the goal of most wisdom traditions, coincidentally). In order to know other people, nature provided us with a mechanism for becoming other people—at least a little bit. This does not happen deliberately; mirror neurons are a subconscious, body-to-body communication network that makes social life possible. They help to undergird moral behavior first learned in our infancy, smiling when our mother smiles, absorbing empathic tendencies from the way our parents care for us. Have you ever wondered why seeing a yawn makes you yawn too, or witnessing someone weeping automatically brings a tear to your eye? Mirror neurons are the answer. They are our primary physical means of stepping outside our own skin.”

I’m wondering now, when people mirror me, if the parts they mirror are the parts I’ve assumed from someone else. My friend Lynda envisioned a string of mirrors like a fun house suggesting that this could possibly go on into infinity and that perhaps we have no authenticity at all. After further depressing pondering however, I’ve come to my own conclusion. Several someones somewhere and at some time, had to be original and therefore, why not any of us? Maybe pieces of us do live on forever, but I’m also betting that we all create genuine stuff to call our own.

The synchronicity of this tickles me. I guess I’ll have to read the book.