“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are” – Carl Jung
“This above all: to thine own self be true” ― William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Last weekend the kids and I went to the coast to squeeze the last drops of carefree fun out of our summer before school started up again for all three of us. While my son was off tossing a Frisbee with a friend and terrorizing the seagulls, my daughter and I were relaxing on the warm beach. I was reading; she was doodling in the sand, thoughtfully and quietly. After a while, she glanced over at me and said, “I love that you are so cool, Mom. It’s, like, you like who you are. Like you’re comfortable with yourself, you know? And you carry yourself that way, and that way everyone knows it too.”
To say that her words caught me off guard would be an understatement – for several reasons. If anyone had told me anything like that even a couple of years ago, I would probably smile politely but think them crazy. Me? Feel comfortable with myself? Never have I ever. I’ve had misgivings about my choices of everything from lip gloss shade to career throughout my life. Me? Like who I was? I wasn’t even sure I knew who I was, let alone liked her. My looks, my weight, the way I didn’t enjoy certain things I ought to have enjoyed – I just wasn’t cutting it in my own eyes ever since I could remember.
Where does that take root, this feeling of discontent with who we are and how our life is? And a larger question, how can we be disappointed with who and with how we are if we are not even quite sure who we are meant to be? Some say that the road to discovering your true self is, indeed, the reason we come into this world. Some use words like purpose, meaning, and authenticity – but what do these terms really mean?
Experts in the field of psychology agree that there are many ways to view the “self” – and that the majority of us also agree that there is such a thing as a “true self” – a self that is inherently, good, authentic, and honest and that reflects “who we truly are”. Our “self-concept”, however, or the persona the world sees, can be very different from that. If the disconnect between our true self and our self-concept is extreme and difficult to reconcile, we begin to feel the sense of living a meaningless life, a life that is not our own, a sense of not belonging, feelings of depression and low self-esteem – just to name a few signs.
We could also be vulnerable to what others (especially others we trust and rely on, such as our parents, for instance) may be telling us about ourselves. We may be told, in both positive and negative ways, that we ought to have a certain look, practice a certain religion, be interested in certain sports or activities, and pursue a certain career – and even if we do not feel the same way or do not agree, deep within ourselves, we feel forced to comply. This inner conflict can manifest itself in external ways such as overeating, substance abuse, fleeting and multiple short-term relationships, overworking, overspending and many other behaviors that are all too familiar.
In turn, these behaviors could lead to an even more distorted self-concept, and we may view parts of ourselves as “better” and “worse” than others, instead of realizing that every part of us forms what is going to emerge as our true, authentic self. Psychologist Carl Rogers, as early as 1961, proposed that our true self is always there, just beneath the surface, and it is only when we allow ourselves to experience and admit to all facets of ourselves that we discover the real us. “Discovery” is a term often used in therapy as we believe that we are working on revealing what was always within us.
This leads us back to authenticity. It is widely believed that through the struggles and the strife that life is made of, we seek to discover our authentic self and align the way we live with it. The elusive concept of happiness, then, is really this quest for living in the way that our authentic self would have us live. Research confirms that those who were able to make this connection, report more insights on the meaning of their lives. If, however, we continue to reject the difficult situations we encounter or construct selves to mirror someone else’s (or to AVOID being like someone else), we will also continue to experience the feelings of emotional disconnectedness and discontent.
Authentic does not mean perfect, nor does it mean saintly – it simply means we are working on connecting with the source and the origination point of who we are as a human being, right now, right in this experience. It means we are honest with our feelings and genuine with how we express them. It means we take care of ourselves and allow ourselves opportunities to grow and heal and recover if need be, without being consumed by guilt or feelings of unworthiness.
As I stared back at my daughter under the bright summer sun, I recalled how her and her brother’s births had taken my anxiety and self-doubt to their highest peak yet. How will I ever measure up as a parent, I thought. It occurred to me just then that all she’s ever seen and experienced during our 16-year relationship was my constant struggle with self-approval. I did not want her to think that this was the way life was supposed to be!
I wanted to tell her how I had started making the connection between self-discovery and authentic life. How unsure I was that this was an ok emotion for me to have. How bizarre and fulfilling it was to just be happy with the way I am and about the way things are, right now. How unsettling yet exhilarating to recognize fully that things were not perfect and there is so much to do still in all areas of life – but still to continue just being happy. How astonishing, the fact that it was her who noticed this shift in me first and described it so aptly.
She was waiting for my reply, the sound of the waves counting out the seconds. I smiled at her and brushed the sand from her hand. “I love being this way too”, I said. “I want to talk to you about how long it took me to get there.”