"I am not my ______________ ."

by Lea Seigen Shiinraku

I recently read a Huffington Post article about photographer Steve Rosenfield’s What I Be Project. Since 2010, Rosenfield has invited subjects to write words on their face and/or body that relate to their deepest insecurities. He then photographs them, looking directly at the camera, and titles their portraits with their insecurity included in the phrase, “I am not my __________________________ .” Rosenfield describes his Project as “a social experiment turned into, what is now, a global movement about honesty and empowerment.” And, I would add, self-compassion.

On the What I Be Project website, the tagline is: “building security through insecurities.” This perspective is at the heart of self-compassion ~ the sense that we can find security by bringing awareness to our insecurities, recognizing them as part of what makes us human, and meeting them with kindness.

When I lead workshops about self-compassion or speak with clients about it, I’m often reminded that kindness has an infinite number of forms. In one moment, kindness might be stepping forward and taking a risk to be vulnerable and seen. At another time, kindness might be sitting silently with your feelings and bringing curiosity to them so that you have a clearer understanding of what they are. In Rosenfield’s Project, I see profound kindness in the way that each subject is meeting themselves by acknowledging their insecurity publicly and at the same time dis-identifying with it. In this way, they are coming into a more empowering relationship with something that has been a painful aspect of their lives.

At the same time, none of these people seem to be disowning their deepest insecurity. Each subject acknowledges the truth of their experience yet also unequivocally states that it doesn’t define them. It’s as if each person has asked themselves the perennial question, “Who am I?” And instead of defining themselves by their insecurity, or by anything else, they leave the question open. They tell us what they are not. In this way, they claim their birthright ~ the knowledge that no trait or aspect can define the mystery of who we are. They seem to be saying, “Yes, this has been my experience. And No, it doesn’t define who I am. Nothing can.”

As I looked at image after image, all titled with the words, “I am not my____________”, I felt deeply moved by the depth of vulnerability I saw. Over one thousand people have participated in this Project – each one naming their deepest insecurity; the thing that they usually would be very vigilant about hiding, the thing that they might never speak about openly with anyone. Rather than showing the mask that they may usually wear, these people have put their insecurity front and center, offering it to whoever looks, and embodying the power of vulnerability.

I found the Project to be deeply moving, and I decided to write about it here so that others might find nourishment, inspiration, and a sense of human solidarity in it. Self-criticism feeds on isolation and secrecy. Self-compassion disarms it by bringing awareness to experience, meeting it with kindness, and recognizing that we are not alone in it.

I realized, too, that the What I Be Project offers all of us a fresh way to experiment with meeting the inner critic. I invite you to check it out. And I offer you this tool: the next time you notice a familiar voice inside judging you for _______________, see what happens if you internally respond, “I am not my ________________ .”