“It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.” - Batman (Batman Begins)
As much as I love Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, this phrase is a little confusing and misleading. It tries to set up a conflict between the actions that we perform and the person that we are underneath. But if what I do defines me, and the definition of me is the person who is underneath, aren’t those the same thing? If they are the same, then there can be no conflict, and if they’re not, it’s still confusing.
It’s even more confusing because there is a conflict. We can feel it hiding somewhere in this statement, and that’s why it rings true. Let me try putting it to you another way that will clear things up.
“It is not who I think I am underneath but what I do that defines me.”
This is what Mr. Nolan was probably trying to illuminate. It’s not as snappy and memorable as the words in the film, but it does a better job of showing the truth. The conflict is between the way that you act and the image that you hold of yourself.
You might tell yourself that you are not an angry person. But if you are upset and shouting all the time, that’s clearly not the case.
This difference between who we are and who we think we are - or who we want to be - is what I call the Image Gap. Our Image Gap can vary over the course of our lives. Sometimes our image and our actual self are aligned, and the gap is very small. At other times we can delude ourselves into a vast gulf.
Recognizing our Image Gap is the first part of self-awareness.
Understanding the Gap
The second part of self-awareness involves understanding the reasons behind our Image Gap. There are many factors that influence our behavior. Sometimes they can cause us to act in opposition to our self-image.
Hanging out with a certain crowd or in a specific environment is a common cause. Stress from one area of our life can bleed over and cause us to act out of character in others.
One of my favorite words to come out of the last few decades is Hangry. It’s a portmanteau of Hungry and Angry and, as you would think, means being angry because you are hungry. It’s also backed by real science.
I like Hanger in particular because it’s something that most of us have experienced. It’s also something that we can easily identify. If you find that you’re grumpy right before meal time or you get frustrated when the people you’re with can’t pick a bleeping restaurant, then you might be hangry.
But to paraphrase GI Joe, knowing is only half the battle. Realizing that you were angry because you are hungry does not absolve you from responsibility. No matter the circumstances we are accountable for our words and our actions. But there is power in knowing why you acted as you did. Once you understand the influences on your actions, you can start to control those influences.
In the case of Hanger, the answer is simple, have a snack or change your meal times. In most cases though, the solution will not be so cut and dried. This is where addressing our Image Gap becomes difficult.
Dealing with the Gap
When we’ve had a moment of self-awareness, and our Image Gap is standing out in glaring contrast, the challenge becomes how do we reconcile it. There are three ways that we can respond.
The first option once we recognize a gap is to boost our levels of self-deception. People who choose this option often turn themselves into the victim. They try to pass the responsibility for the actions off onto some external force.
You might catch these people saying something like, “I’m not an angry person. There are just too many aggravating people around me. If people lived up to my expectations I wouldn’t have to get mad.”
We have another word for this state, and it is denial. This is the path of least resistance. These people are unable or refuse to acknowledge that a gap exists between who they think they are and who they actually are.
The second option is to change your definition of yourself to better fit who you are. This may seem wholesome on the surface. But it’s just a different form of rationalization.
This is the type of person who hides behind something like honesty. They say “I speak my mind” and they wear it like a badge of honor. In reality, they are a mean-spirited person who can’t be bothered to care about other peoples feelings.
This is self-delusion on a whole new level. These people have managed to take a positive trait and twist it into a cover for their unwillingness to change. In essence, they take the opposite side of the gap and try to bring it to themselves. This is like trying to close the Grand Canyon instead of crossing it.
Finally, the third option is to change who you are to fit your image of yourself. Only those who choose this route can grow as human beings. These people recognize the gap and do the hard work necessary to cross it.
George Bernard Shaw has a great quote that I’m going to repurpose to fit our discussion. “The reasonable man adapts his image of himself to who he really is. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt himself to the image of who he wants to be. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
If you want to grow as a human being, you are going to have to stretch yourself into the person that you want to be rather than shrink to the person that you are.
Closing the Gap
The rest of the content on this site is dedicated to closing the Image Gap for a number of character traits. But everything hinges on being self-aware. After all, if you don’t know where you are, how can you get to where you want to go.