I admit that I read more self-help than the average person, yet It seems like in the past couple of years, the notion of the “true self” is being referred to more frequently. This might be because we are longing for a connection to something stable amidst what sometimes feels like world chaos?
Deepak Chopra says, “The true self isn't a familiar term to most people, although it is close to what religion calls your soul, the purest part of yourself.”
The concept of the true self was introduced in 1960 by Donald Winnicott, who used “true self” to describe a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience, and a feeling of being alive, having a real self. The false self, by contrast, Winnicott saw as a defensive façade.
Since I have made the pursuit of the true self my life’s work, I wanted to write about what it means to me. After working with clients over the past 30 years that span 4 decades in ages, a broad range of geographic location and nationality and a relative 70:30 percent gender ratio, with women representing the majority, my experience is that most of us don’t really know who we are.
We don’t know that makes us unique and special and how truly magnificent and powerful we are. Most of us are operating through life from a societal or false self that was formed through cultural and familial adaptation.
In a session today with a client, he spoke of wanting to be himself as a leader, to not be forced or unnatural. One of his senior executives had advised him to “do you.” How exactly do we “do” us?
These are some broad principles that I have found to be universal in living according to the true self:
It begins with accepting yourself; knowing your strengths, values, and limitations and then living and leading from that place.
It means being in integrity with yourself and not molding yourself to gain approval or avoid conflict. You’re either in integrity with yourself or you’re not. This requires making moment by moment choices from what feels true and authentic to you and you alone.
You don’t worry about pleasing other people or live according to someone else’s standards or rules.
Thomas Merton, one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century refers to the true self, “not as the ego self that wants to inflate us, not the intellectual self that wants to hover above the mess of life in clear but ungrounded ideas, not the ethical self that wants to live by some abstract moral code. It is the self planted in us by the God who made us in God's own image–the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be.”
Your true self is the essence of who you are, your pure identity that existed before birth, before any environmental influences or social conditioning. This self defines your unique quirks, longings, predilections, reactions and forms your uniqueness and individuality. Your true self is not changed or affected by how you were parented, who you were raised by or where you grew up. This is the part of you that must guide you towards your destiny and your joy.
Contrarily, your other self, or the societal self, has developed because of social conditioning and the process of adapting to the expectations of family, teachers, and peers. This is the part of us that needs to be accepted for our very survival. As babies, our survival depends on the adults that care for us and to ensure that care, we modify ourselves for maximum acceptance. Human babies are born knowing that their very survival depends on the good will of the grown-ups around them. Because of this, we are literally designed to please others.
The formation of our societal selves also builds the skills we need to effectively function within cultural norms – we learn how to speak correctly, be polite, share our toys, keep personal hygiene, dress appropriately, raise our hands in class, wait for our turn – the appropriate behaviors that will earn social approval. Our societal selves are critical to our ability to reach goals like completing a degree or landing a job. The societal self is the part of you that craved being told she was being “good.” The issue is that this people pleasing extends into adulthood and when the societal self dominates and the true self no longer has a voice, it gets lost and forgotten.
As Martha Beck says in Finding Your Own North Star, “Your essential self was the part of you that smiled for the first time as a baby. Your social self is the part of you that noticed how much your mother loved that smile. Your essential self wants passionately to become a doctor; the social self struggles through organic chemistry and applies to medical school. Your essential self yearns for time in nature; your social self buys the right hiking shoes. “
Typically, the societal self is the one in the driver’s seat, and the true self doesn’t even make it into the car. The societal self has dominated for so long, making choices according to what is most socially acceptable, that the true self can’t even be heard. That is until a cataclysmic life event happens which causes the societal self to collapse and then we are forced into questioning the choices we are making in our lives. Why wait for a cataclysmic life event?
The suppression of the true self is why almost every woman I have worked with has ultimately sought help. Often for years, they have been feeling dissatisfaction with life which has not shifted despite the perseverance at being a better person, taking yoga classes, eating a healthier diet, volunteering, and taking on more responsibility at work. Striving to be even more acceptable only makes things worse as it fuels the internal conflict between the true self’s need to pursue core longings and the societal self’s requirement not to upset anyone. The dissatisfaction eventually turns to restlessness, anxiety, numbness, self-doubt, even despair.
If our life choices and behaviors are motivated by the desire to keep another person happy, we will lose the connection with our true self. Without that connection, it’s not possible to be deeply happy. Our culture teaches us how to create the external structures for success–education, career, income, home, car, image–yet we have confused these as the means to happiness. When we don’t find happiness, we try to make changes to our external world. True happiness arises from a connection with our true selves and the honoring of what our hearts yearn for, what brings us joy and fills us with awe.
Betraying yourself is selling your soul. So how do we calm down our societal self so that we can hear what the true self is screaming for?
We must get out of the thoughts about our past that are causing us suffering and experience life in this moment, using our bodies as the navigational tool to instruct our direction. When the needle on the body compass points to joy, go there. When the needle points to suffering, it’s time to reevaluate your motivation.
Moment by moment we can keep returning to who we would have been without the pretense of who we think we should be.
The whisperings of the true self are heard through the body. If you’ve been denying your own needs and desires to please other people or seek their approval, hearing what your true self is asking for may take some practice. It begins with choosing to make yourself a priority, accepting yourself exactly as you are, and every day giving yourself the gift of being silent so that you can quiet your mind and listen to your true self. It’s time to listen.
We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real...and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.
― Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
I believe in you.
I would love to hear from you.In what ways are you being true to yourself today? Please share your comments below .