The greatest and most important adventure of our lives is discovering who we really are. Yet, so many of us walk around either not really knowing or listening to an awful inner critic that gives us all the wrong ideas about ourselves. We mistakenly think of self-understanding as self-indulgence, and we carry on without asking the most important question we’ll ever ask: Who am I really? As Mary Oliver put it, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Finding yourself may sound like an inherently self-centered goal, but it is actually an unselfish process that is at the root of everything we do in life. In order to be the most valuable person to the world around us, the best partner, parent etc, we have to first know who we are, what we value and, in effect, what we have to offer. This personal journey is one every individual will benefit from taking. It is a process that involves breaking down – shedding layers that do not serve us in our lives and don’t reflect who we really are. Yet, it also involves a tremendous act of building up – recognizing who we want to be and passionately going about fulfilling our unique destiny – whatever that may be. It’s a matter of recognizing our personal power, yet being open and vulnerable to our experiences. It isn’t something to fear or avoid, berating ourselves along the way, but rather something to seek out with the curiosity and compassion we would have toward a fascinating new friend. With these principles in mind, the following guide highlights seven of the most universally useful steps to this very individual adventure.
1. Make sense of your past
In order to uncover who we are and why we act the way we do, we have to know our own story. Being brave and willing to explore our past is an important stepping stone on the road to understanding ourselves and becoming who we want to be. Research has shown that it isn’t just the things that happened to us that define who we become, but how much we’ve made sense of what’s happened to us. Unresolved traumas from our history inform the ways we act today. Studies have even shown that life story coherence has a “statistically significant relationship to psychological well-being.” The more we form what Dr. Daniel Siegel talks about as a “coherent narrative” of our lives, the better able we are to make mindful, conscious decisions in our present that represent our true selves.
The attitudes and atmosphere we grew up in have a heavy hand on how we act as adults. As Dr. Robert Firestone, author of The Self Under Siege, wrote, “As children, people not only identify with the defenses of their parents but also tend to incorporate into themselves the critical or hostile attitudes that were directed toward them. These destructive personal attacks become part of the child’s developing personality, forming an alien system, the anti-self, distinguishable from the self-system, which interferes with and opposes the ongoing manifestation of the true personality of the individual.”
Painful early life experiences often determine how we define and defend ourselves. In short, they bend us out of shape, influencing our behavior in ways in which we are hardly aware. For example, having a harsh parent may have caused us to feel more guarded. We may grow up always feeling on the defense or resistant to trying new challenges for fear of being ridiculed. It’s easy to see how carrying this uncertainty with us into adulthood could shake our sense of identity and limit us in different areas. To break this pattern of behavior, it’s valuable to acknowledge what’s driving it. We should always be willing to look at the source of our most self-limiting or self-destructive tendencies.
When we try to cover up or hide from our past experiences, we can feel lost and like we don’t really know ourselves. We may take actions automatically without asking why. In his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Dr. Siegel wrote of an interaction with his son, in which he’d lost his temper. After reflecting on the incident a bit later, Dr. Siegel realized that his emotional outburst had more to do with feelings he’d had as a child toward his brother than with his perception of his son today. He wrote of the experience, “I realize once again how many layers of meaning our brain contain, and how quickly old, perhaps forgotten, memories can emerge to shape our behavior. These associations can make us act on automatic pilot.”
By reflecting on the past, using a technique called mindsight, “a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds,” Dr. Siegel was able to make sense of his experience, then talk to his son about what happened and repair the situation. “With mindsight I was able to make use of the reflections that arose from that conflict to arrive at more clarifying insights into my own childhood experiences. This is how the most challenging moments of our lives can become opportunities to deepen our self-understanding and our connections with others.”
By engaging in this type of thinking and being willing to face the memories that arise, we gain invaluable insights into our behavior. We can then start to consciously separate from the more harmful influences from our history and actively alter our behavior to reflect how we really think and feel and how we choose to be in the world.
Differentiation refers to the process of striving to develop a sense of ourselves as independent individuals. In order to find ourselves and fulfill our unique destinies, we must differentiate from destructive interpersonal, familial and societal influences that don’t serve us. “To lead a free life, a person must separate him/herself from negative imprinting and remain open and vulnerable,” wrote Dr. Firestone. In his work with hundreds of individuals struggling with this exact process, he’s developed four essential steps of differentiation.
Step 1: Break with harmful internalized thought processes, i.e., critical, hostile attitudes toward self and others.
Step 2: Separate from negative personality traits assimilated from one’s parents.
Step 3: Relinquish patterns of defense formed as an adaptation to painful events in one’s childhood.
Step 4: Develop one’s own values, ideals, and beliefs rather than automatically accepting those one has grown up with.
Watch a whiteboard video on differentiation:
3. Seek meaning
Viktor E. Frankl famously said, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Frankl himself survived the most horrific of circumstances, living in a Nazi concentration camp. In many ways, his very survival depended on maintaining this sense of meaning. In order to find ourselves, we must all seek out our own personal sense of purpose. This means separating our own point of view from other people’s expectations of us. It means asking ourselves what our values are, what truly matters to us, then following the principles we believe in. Studies show that the happiest people seek out meaning more than just pleasure and that people are generally happier when they have goals that extend beyond themselves. Finding yourself and your happiness is, therefore, a venture inextricably linked to finding meaning.
4. Think about what you want
There’s a tendency in life to focus on the negative. Many of us fall too easily into victimized thoughts and complaints about our circumstances and surroundings rather than orienting ourselves toward positive goals, strategies and solutions. Put simply, we think a lot about what we don’t want instead of concentrating on what we do.
Knowing what we want is fundamental to finding ourselves. Recognizing our wants and desires helps us realize who we are and what’s important to us. This may sound simple, but most of us are, to varying degrees, defended against our feelings of wanting. We may feel guarded because we don’t want to get hurt. Wanting makes us feel alive and, therefore, vulnerable in the world. To truly live means we can truly lose. The experience of joy and fulfillment can be met with feelings of anxiety, and on a deeper level, profound sadness.
Getting what we want can also make us feel uncomfortable, because it represents a break from our past. It can make us feel guilty or spark a sea of self-critical thoughts that tell us, “Who do you think you are anyway? You can’t be successful/ fall in love/ feel relaxed?” In order to honestly discover what we want in life, we must silence this inner critic and drop our defenses. As an exercise, when we are having a lot of negative thoughts, like “I don’t want this or that,” we can try to shift our thinking to what we really do desire. If we are fighting with our partner and thinking, “You never hear what I say. You don’t care about me,” we can instead think about or even communicate on a level that genuinely conveys our end goal. “I want to feel listened to, seen and loved.” Changing our outlook in this way makes us feel more in touch with who we are. It strips us down to our more basic desires without the unnecessary layers of defense that divert us from our core values and truest selves.
5. Recognize your personal power
When we know what we want, we are challenged to take power over our lives. No longer are we engaging in a spiral of negative thinking that tells us all the things that are wrong with the world around us or all the reasons we can’t have what we want. Instead, we are accepting ourselves as a powerful player in our own destiny. Harnessing our personal power is essential to both finding and becoming ourselves.
“Personal power is based on strength, confidence, and competence that individuals gradually acquire in the course of their development,” said Dr. Firestone. “It is self-assertion, and a natural, healthy striving for love, satisfaction and meaning in one’s interpersonal world.” Knowing our personal power means recognizing that we have a heavy effect on our lives. We create the world we live in. To create a better world means shifting our outlook, feeling empowered and rejecting a victimized point of view.
Dr. Robert Firestone has further illustrated “6 Aspects of Being an Adult:”
Experience your emotions, but make rational decisions when it comes to how you act.
Formulate goals and take the appropriate actions to achieve them.
Be proactive and self-assertive, rather than passive and dependent.
Seek equality in your relationships.
Be open to exploring new ideas and welcome constructive criticism.
Take full power over every part of your conscious existence.
6. Silence Your Inner Critic
To be an adult, we must also break the ways we self-parent, either by criticizing or soothing ourselves. Dr. Firestone advises that we stop listening to our “critical inner voice.” This destructive thought process can be made up of a judgmental attitude that tells us we aren’t good enough to succeed or don’t deserve what we want or a soothing-seeming attitude that tells us we don’t have to try or that we need to be taken care of or controlled. By recognizing and standing up to this internal enemy, we learn not to be parental or childish in our lives but to find our real selves and know our strength and ability. As mindfulness expert Dr. Donna Rockwell points out, to generate a “state of upliftedness that makes everything else possible—that creates the “go for it!” spirit we crave—is to subdue the doubting mind by disarming negative thoughts.”
Read more about the critical inner voice.
7. Practice Compassion and Generosity
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” In addition to improving our mental and physical health and lengthening our lifespan, generosity can enhance one’s sense of purpose, giving our lives more value and meaning to us. Studies even show that people get more joy from giving than from getting. If we want to find our way in life, it’s beneficial to practice generosity as a mental health principle and take on a compassionate and attitude toward ourselves and others. People are generally happier when they create goals that go beyond themselves. These individuals show care and concern for others and practice generosity. As you go about your life, try to maintain what Dr. Daniel Siegel refers to as a COAL attitude, in which you are curious, open, accepting, and loving toward yourself and your personal journey.
8. Know the value of friendship
We do not choose the family we are born into, but often, we assume that this family defines who we are. While as children, we have little say in where we spend our time, throughout our lives, we can choose who and what we want to emulate. As adults, we can create a family of choice. We can seek out people who make us happy, who support what lights us up and who inspire us to feel passionate about our lives. This family may, of course, include people we are related to, but it’s a family we’ve really chosen, a core group of people who we consider true allies and friends. Creating this family is a key component in finding ourselves because who we choose to surround ourselves with has a profound effect on how we relate in the world. Having a support system that believes in us helps us in realizing our goals and developing on a personal level.