July 3, 2022
Self Discovery
The process of uncovering who we are is a process of claiming our right to our own internal freedom. The freedom to know what we need and want, and to then act in alignment with those needs and wants. The freedom to live without doubt or self-judgment. The freedom to live with the peace of mind that we can trust ourselves, above anyone or anything else - because we know ourselves.

I bought my first real journal when I was 15. The cover was bound with a beautiful pink and orange ikat fabric from South America, and it was the perfect portable A5 size. I spent every day filling it with my thoughts and experiences described in great detail, because something compelled me to attempt to capture everything. 

As an adult I’ve realized this documentation was not for the purpose of someday rereading these pages, but rather for the purpose of imprinting my life more deeply into memory. A process I had hoped would help me somehow piece together just who I was.  

There is an entry in that first journal that I specifically remember writing. Enraptured with teenage emotion, I proclaimed desperately that I just wanted to know “who I am” and to discover “myself”.

It’s a funny concept, right? We’re in our heads and bodies every moment of every day, and yet we can’t ever truly see or know ourselves. And to be fair, no one else looking at us from the outside world can either (biases, etc.). But you would think we’d be able to have a pretty clear understanding of who we are most of the time, right?

And I often wonder - what’s the point of trying to know who you are anyway? How is it possible to actually define ourselves if we’re constantly (and I mean constantly) changing?

Someone recently asked me - why is it important for us to know who we are? Why is it necessary for us to spend the time to honestly discover our authentic selves? I responded with something to the effect of - if we don’t know who we are, if we don’t ever take the time to turn around and look at ourselves, and be introspective, and question why we do things, choose things, choose people, then we’re not really living our own lives. We’re living but by way of how we’ve been told we should live or what is the right way to live. But if we don’t take the time to understand where we are in the whole social equation, then we don’t ever ask - well, who created those standards of should and right in the first place? And do I actually agree with them?

What’s the line - the unexamined life is not worth living?

I’m in agreement with Socrates.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that self reflective work like journaling, or talk therapy, is a lot of “naval-gazing”, but I prefer to be on the side of Arthur Brooks when said:

“Note that mindfulness is not the same thing as naval-gazing. To be here now does not mean obsessing over yourself and your problems and disregarding others. Scholars have shown that excessive self-concern can increase defensiveness and the perception of threat. Mindfulness should work instead toward a sense of yourself as part of the wider world, and an observation of your emotions without judgment. As you work to focus on the present, remind yourself of two things: You are just one of more than 7 billion human beings; and your emotions will come and go as a normal part of being alive.”

The more we understand our boundaries, our needs, our wants, our passions, our perspectives, our habits, our negative biases, our conditioning, and all the little ways in which we are wired, the less energy we spend trying to navigate our way through this world by making mistakes with jobs, partners, health choices, etc. We show up more happily because we frequently choose what WE consciously want and need, not what someone else has told us we want and need. We empower ourselves and build our inner sense of worth and self understanding and self trust.

And to jump on what Arthur said, the more we know who we are, and the more we show up with a strong sense of self, the less stress we carry with us. There’s less frustration and burnout to process. And consequently, there’s more space for us to not only confront our own personal challenges with more ease, but for us to also offer others when they’re struggling. 

The process of uncovering who we are is a process of claiming our right to our own internal freedom. The freedom to know what we need and want, and to then act in alignment with those needs and wants. The freedom to live without doubt or self-judgment. The freedom to live with the peace of mind that we can trust ourselves, above anyone or anything else - because we know ourselves.

It’s a cliche to say that your relationship with yourself is the most important relationship you’ll ever have - but it’s true. If you never take yourself out for a date or give yourself what your heart is aching for, you’ll build resentment like an old married couple that stopped loving each other and having sex decades ago. 

So how do we do it?

Let’s say you’re just starting your journey to uncovering who you are. It’s your first date! What do you do?

1. Start asking questions
What are your likes and dislikes? What are your hobbies and passion projects? If you were a produce item, which would you be and why? What do you value in life? What are your strengths? If you need help with this one, take a highly rated personality assessment like the Clifton Strengths report. And then continue asking yourself all the questions you can think of - this is the start of self-definition.

2. Define your boundaries
Where do you end and where do other people begin? You can do this by listing out all the qualities you are and all the qualities you are not. You can also do this somatically with this practice created by Karla McLaren:

  • Make sure you're in a safe and quiet space.  Close your eyes, and either extend both of your arms out in either direction, or imagine yourself doing so.
  • Now feel this extension moving in all directions from your body - from the top of your head and up, from your shoulders and back, etc. This is the space that your energetic field occupies, and you take up this space, naturally.
  • What do you sense as feel into all of this space? What exists within this space as you?
  • Practice feeling into this space throughout your days and with different people to observe changes and quality.

3. Pay attention

Actively observe yourself throughout your days. Pick moments where you can even say to yourself - “look at me making coffee.” or  “Wow, isn't it great I shared a smile with that stranger.” *Read more about how this develops metacognition at the end of this post.

4. Be honest

As you start to get more clear and confident with who you are, start looking at the stuff that maybe you don’t want to look at. What are you ashamed of or feel guilty about? What do you lie about to others or to yourself? This is a tough practice, and bridges on shadow work (which we’ll go into in more detail in a future post), so take it with ease and grace.

5. Do your best to see clearly when you “look in the mirror”

When you’re reflected back to yourself by others - by someone defining you for you in a way that might give you a rub - observe it, question it, take it in, and decide for yourself how much of it you believe is true. A lot of it might in fact be true, and maybe you don’t want to admit it. But also, maybe a lot of it is not true, but in either case you decide how much of it you take as reality - you don’t just take it at 100% fact or fiction.

These practices help us to create a self of self-definition, but I want to emphasize again that we are always evolving, changing, shapeshifting and growing. It’s beneficial to check in with ourselves consistently, and it’s important to not shove our very nuanced and complex human personalities into boxes. What we believe today may be different than what we believe tomorrow.

Allow yourself the space to roam and reinvent. Give yourself the permission to be a human being evolving with every breath, rather than a static, pre programmed robot.

And as you roam through this process of self-discovery, a process that is truly life long, take time to enjoy the journey. Find freedom in your evolution, your expansion, and let it feed the curiosity to constantly uncover new layers to yourself. Because it is through this consistent learning and discovery that we cultivate our most authentic selves, and we hold ourselves through every step of our life long journey.

*Metacognition is the experience of observing your thoughts. Joseph Goldstein metaphorically describes this process like this: 

Imagine yourself standing under a waterfall, and the water is constantly beating down on you. The water is  your thoughts in this scenario. Now, imagine yourself stepping back from under the waterfall to see the water falling down in front of you. You're now watching your thoughts as they pass without any attachment to them. This is metacognition. 

Apply this practice while observing an emotion (or range of emotions) that you’re feeling, and try to pull back from the feeling and thoughts to observe it objectively. Some questions you can then ask yourself are: Where did these thoughts come from? How did they start? What triggered them? Where is this dialogue coming from around this emotion? How do I want to react or not react to these thoughts, or what do I want to do with them?

This is also the practice of releasing the grip of your ego, and understanding that you are not your thoughts, and you have the choice of letting them have power over you or not.

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