The first question people ask when greeting each other is, “How are you?” to which we respond in a number of ways given the situation and our relationship with the person involved. We are so accustomed to this question, our reply rolls off our tongue without conscious thought. But, “Who are you?” asks about our true self which is more difficult to answer.
It is a deeply personal question that requires the time and patience of introspection and reflection. Your true self is independent and authentic. It is who you are when you are in solitude or in an environment where you feel safe and secure. Your true self is the melding of all of your natural abilities and goals, and all of your experiences and the lessons you learned from them.
How We Form Beliefs
How you view yourself, your relationships, and the world in which you live, from inside your home to the global neighborhood in which we all live, is influenced by 1)the messages you received from the caregivers and other important adults in your life; 2) the messages you received from peers; and 3) the messages you received from the world—societal and cultural definitions of how to think, look, feel, and behave. You learned to conduct yourself in ways that brought you the rewards of acceptance by others. With time, you developed your own perspective of life and how best to respond to the many messages which bombard you daily. Still, you may have retained many of the early messages and carried them into adulthood.
Our experiences continue to reshape us throughout our lives. These are the selves we show to the world. Some beliefs are innate. Some are learned. Some beliefs become so ingrained they operate automatically, outside our consciousness. Our many other selves may overshadow our true self based on our situation, intimacy level with the people in our lives, and wisdom gained from previous experiences. We display a different self at work than we do with our partner than we do with our children than we do with our therapist. People often say that we all “wear many hats,” depending on the situation.
The Origin of Our True Self
Who we are, our true self, is comprised of our personality, our likes and dislikes, our thoughts and beliefs, our feelings and emotions. It is independent of what the outside world says to us or about us. Our true self lets us live with senses of ease and confidence and compassion and kindness. It is the very essence of our existence on this planet. Natural talents and interests come from our true self.
Our true self is the core of all we think, believe, feel, our five senses—six for some people—and how we experience life. Our true self is the culmination, at any given moment, of all of our life experiences. Our authenticity shines through when we listen to our heart rather than the shoulds and shouldn’ts of those around us. We feel comfortable with ourselves. We intuitively know how to approach the problems in our lives. We are aware of our values and what is important to us. But, the true self is always evolving as it adapts to new information learned from each experience. We may discover, for instance, we have matured and outgrown a long-held belief. The revised or new belief then becomes part of our true self.
I have spent many years on my path of self-discovery. I gained the most insight from the combination of journaling and therapy. It is a perpetual seeking as I continue to learn more about myself. I have learned to say, “No.” And, I have learned to say “Yes.” There was a time when doing as instructed was my only option. The high school I attended was a trade school designed to prepare graduates to enter the workforce. My father insisted I enroll in the bookkeeping core area so I could go to college and become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). The teacher was monotonous and the materials were boring. And math was not one of my strong points. I barely made it through the program. On top of that, I had no money for college and there was no market for bookkeepers. I really wanted to attend college and major in psychology and English. I wanted to write. I wanted to be a therapist. Here I am, years later, doing what I love: writing and sharing my compassion with others. Had I entered the field of accounting, I would have been miserable and not very good in my career. Not because the field is uninteresting, but because it is not a good fit for me. I would have wasted money, time, and energy pursuing what my father wanted, but I did not. Fortunately, I now speak up and make decisions in my best interest.
Getting to Know Your True Self
You ask questions about what you want your life to be and how the influences of others shaped your thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. You may discover you long for a seaside vacation, but the mere thought of a beach brings on a panic attack. Through learning who you are, you uncover the painful memory of a family member who nearly drowned in the ocean during an outing when you were fourteen years old. You may discover your innate love of houseplants was nurtured by your mother when you were in fifth grade, so you feel confident and fulfilled as you showcase them in elegant containers and enter them in contests and exhibits.
The search for your true self leads you on a journey of ever-deepening questions. Keep your journal handy or set aside some time to write about your new adventure of self-discovery. Set your writing aside for a day or two, then revisit what you have written with fresh eyes. To find your true self, it is important to “listen” to the messages of your body, mind, heart, gut, and spirit. Some of the many rewards are clarity, inner peace, confidence, self-compassion, and wisdom. Some questions to start with are:
- What about life am I questioning?
- What are my coping and avoidance strategies? In what ways do I avoid authenticity?
- What are my biases and prejudices? Where did they come from?
- What makes me laugh, chuckle, giggle, or smile?
- What are my beliefs and opinions? From where did they originate?
- What do I know for sure? In what do I have faith and trust?
- What do I believe about dying and death?
Those questions lead to deeper and deeper exploration. You discover the bases of habits, preferences, behaviors, and feelings. Each answer piques your curiosity to learn more. Allow yourself time to integrate what you learned and begin to make life changes, if you desire. Learning about who you truly are fills experiences with the energy of excitement. There is a freedom in living authentically rather than as a jumble of what others have told you how you should be.
What to Do Next
Moving forward in your exploration, ask yourself what you want to do with what you find. You will need to continue to delve into the layers hiding your true self. For instance, the discovery of a situation may reveal a disagreement which left you feeling taken advantage of. With that piece of information, you are in a better position to approach future situations with assertiveness. You can explore past experiences that you left feeling strong and energized and apply the lesson in the future. That is the power of the true self.
Some questions to ask when you are in “Now what do I do? mode:
- How does this belief or behavior help or hinder my efforts to get what I need and want?
- How can I use this discovery to better my life?
- Do I need professional guidance and support from a therapist, religious leader, or spiritual director?
- How can I get more of this in my life?
- I am so grateful this situation was not worse. (List what could have gone wrong, but did not.)
- What do I want to do differently or eliminate?
- Celebrate triumphs and accomplishments you remembered or discovered. What within you fed those achievements? Confidence? Tenacity? Courage? Passion?
Enjoy Your New Life
Getting to know who are and what is best for you is an invigorating and fulfilling exercise. You will discover the magnificence that makes you who you are. You will face your experiences with renewed strength. You will smile or laugh just because you feel good.
This is the inaugural monthly Self Matters column by Billie Wade. Please leave your comments and recommendations in the Comments section.
Billie Wade, a lifelong journaler, believes people are precious, sacred, resilient, and stronger than they know. She created Journaling to Heal, LLC which helps people discover the power of writing in their process of recovery from emotional stress and trauma. Visit her at www.billiewade.com and find more of her writing on www.dmpcc.org/billie where she writes a monthly newsletter column for Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center.
NOW ON SALE!