“I wear a mask. And that mask, it’s not to hide who I am, but to create what I am.”
We are natural storytellers, and we are born with an innate affinity for the magnetic pull of a story. We look up to great storytellers and might even practice storytelling as a desirable skill. And yet rarely we write our own stories and are beset by the tyranny of circumstance to define our identity. As a child, we could be anything and anyone we wanted. Why would we stop believing we are anything less than superheroes?
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
A common recurring theme in western literature is the battle between the two contrasting forces of good and evil. In a brilliant twist of the theme, the legendary story of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde popularized the idea that this battle rages on even within ourselves.
In the story, the main character encounters a well-esteemed doctor in Victorian London named Dr. Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll is wise and noble, and Dr. Jekyll researches the divide between good and evil. He theorizes the two forces can be separated – even within ourselves. The main character also meets Mr. Hyde, an evil villain-type character that does horrible, unspeakable things. Later on in the story, he discovers that Dr. Jekyll’s experiments have gone horribly wrong and both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are in fact the same person – yet divided between personalities of good and evil through a potion, and the wise doctor has lost the antidote, forever split between different personalities.
Stories often have great power and wisdom – even when fictional. This is the case also for this story, which contains the idea in that we can all have multiple persona’s within our complete personality.
Think about how you are in different situations and you will find that many aspects of your personality are completely different. Are you the same person at work as in the bedroom? Are you the same person when you are deep in thought as when you are exercising? What about when you are with different friends, lovers, family?
Maybe, the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not so foreign to our reality.
Batman and Robin
These multiple identities are actually a good thing – and should be used as a superpower instead of a weakness. In fact, it becomes a serious problem when our own identity is too tightly coupled with any given piece of our personality.
Imagine yourself for a moment as a great professional tennis player. You have dedicated your entire life to daily practice of your art – training multiple hours a day, visualizing, eating a strict diet and making sure you are at optimal performance for your matches. Over time, you have climbed the ladder of success to the very top of athletic performance, which now culminates at the ultimate match-up between your rival.
What would happen to your state of mind if you lose the ultimate match or permanently injure yourself before you can even try? Likely, you will feel absolutely miserable and lost. In fact, the end of an Olympic career is often met by athletes by severe mental stress and an identity crisis. Why?
It’s because you would have falsely made being a top athlete as your entire identity. Identities – however – are completely fluid and undefinable concepts. You are more than just a top athlete, a friend, a lover, a father, a child or a great employee. You are all of these things. You are both the main character and the sidekick. You are both Batman and Robin.
By realizing this, then, if you fail – such as losing that key match – only that part of your identity is failing. You as an entire separate entity does not. This is a powerful concept to internalize!
But since we now see we are no longer just Jekyll or Hyde, but both, we can harness the power of multiple personalities and go even one step further. We can carefully construct our alter ego identities to match exactly what we want to be.
Each environment and situation requires us to exhibit specific characteristics of ourselves where other traits are discourages, useless or even destructive to our success.
As an example, part of my personality is being a street culture dancer – and when I am in a battle – there is no room for insecurity or fear. Where in many situations I can be an insecure person – not when I am dancing. At that point, this part of my personality is required to be completely shut down. No insecurity, fear or self doubt allowed. When I step into the circle, that part of me is killed by my ‘dancer’ alter ego, much like the Hulk shuts down Bruce Banner.
Using an alter ego in this way is not about being someone else – it’s about expanding upon the strengths within you that are already there and allowing them full space to shine while at the same time disabling the nonproductive parts of you in that moment. Remember, we – you – are all of our alter ego’s combined.
Now then, we can carefully construct the various superheroes latent within us. For any given situation, skill, or relationship that are different from others, figure out what parts of your personality are conductive to your success and which are not.
For a work focused personality – the alter ego might have extreme motivation, no desire, a singular purpose and intense focus on the task at hand. This alter ego might be a technological genius, wealthy beyond measure and confident and charismatic – like Ironman.
For a physical pursuit such as working out in the gym – your alter ego might be a tribal warrior with the primal fury of your ancestors instilled within you. There is no mercy or surrender allowed from this point on, only anger, rage and strength. To fail would mean execution by your tribe.
Use your imagination! We humans are suckers for the narrative fallacy and the power of a story. Create a character like you would for a role-playing game or a movie scene. Create an alter ego with a story, a life path – a destiny!
How does your alter ego look like, what is his/her background story? Did he/she encounter trauma? Is the destiny tied to a creative expression or a specific noble purpose? Does it have a weakness – a Kryptonite? Go wild on this, it’s fun! Try to make the alter ego a separate entity from yourself.
Childish, perhaps. And yet this simplifies life in many ways. When the alter ego fails, it does not feel like it is you who is failing. It also makes it easier to discard this part of your personality if it no longer serves your dreams or path to your dreams – without it leading to an identity crisis like our Olympic athlete.
Now – we need to be able to call forth our hero. In stories, heroes always have a call sign; Batman has the bat sign, the hulk is called forth when Bruce becomes angry and the mischievous The Mask enters the stage when the titular ornament is equipped. Similarly, as human beings, we need specific triggers to associate the environment with our newly created alter ego.
The best way to do this is through good old Pavlovian conditioning. You can program your behavior and the summoning of your alter ego by creating associations between environmental factors and the behavior that you want. This may sound weird, but many – if not all – top athletes have such a ritual before any major competition. There is a reason they often have a favorite set of lucky underpants to wear during matches!
As an example, imagine you want to expand the part of your personality that is highly productive at work projects. You could have a specific work outfit that you always wear, the same physical desk and chair that you sit in at a specific time – and always listen to similar music while in this state. Then, when you stop working – you literally change out of this persona by changing your outfit, moving to a different physical location in the house and changing the music. Over time, you will condition yourself to enter the productive-work-persona whenever you encounter these set of circumstances. Not unlike the dog of Pavlov that starts salivating whenever a bell is rang.
There are so many different ingredients you can use to program yourself, here are some concepts to use as associative triggers:
- The costume; Wear a different outfit
- The appearance; The way you wear your hair or makeup your face
- The hideout; The physical location you sit in
- The sidekick; The people you have around you
- The Theme Song; The music you play
- The Catchphrase; A personal mantra
And the list goes on. You can use smells, touch, taste, movement, posture, shouting, the time of day or any ritual as complicated as you want.
We are all natural born superheroes. There is infinite power and potential within all of us. It’s waiting to be unleashed, and the only chains holding us back are the false narratives we form about ourselves.
I will conclude this article with one of my favorite movie scenes. Here, David Carradine, who brilliantly plays ‘Bill’ in the movie ‘Kill Bill’ – explains how Superman ridicules the entire human race and the stories we tell ourselves with his alter ego.
Change your narrative. Don’t be a Clark Kent. Be a Superman.