What is it that brings so many of us to the burning worry that we are lost in life, or blocked from our real selves, and that more than anything we need to start recovering a lost ‘me’?
The angst of feeling lost in a world that can only be described as cluttered – with people, noise, production, signals, theories, and many other flurries – often culminates in this really profound and upsetting concern: “How do I find my true self?”. We're here today to not only answer this question, but break down in steps the ways we improve access to the authentic ‘me'.
How We Begin
Let’s take a moment, right now, and soften the clutter – in our minds, bodies, ears and eyes.
Let's search for and collectively forge some clarity on this important matter of finding ourselves.
I want you, throughout this article, to consider how each point relates to your life, and, in developing these connections, realized ways you can put things in action and start finding yourself.
Everyone has their own story of the winding, stuttering, surprising path that led them to where they are today.
Mine is no different, and I am no guru. But in my spiritual practises – which have ranged from tantra to surfing, writing to theology, meditation to gardening – I feel I’ve gathered some insights that could help to frame this truly universal concern.
This article assembles a collection of useful tools and important thoughts that can help you fortify yourself, and make yourself capable of moving onward, toward finding who you are.
What Does it Mean to Find Yourself?
Who is yourself, or ‘your self’? Like many words in the English language, there’s an interesting mystery as to why ‘self’ here is singular. History has given rise to many occasions that have defined the self not as a singular, fixed point, or essential thing, but as something mutable, illusory even.
Others know themselves as a series of relationships and behaviours, values and ethics that revolve around a core person.
But we do, in any case, feel a ‘self', and too often, nowadays, people feel bereaved of their authentic ‘me'.
If the self is a process, or a series of processes, then there is certainly room to influence its path. By making yourself aware of this question, (whatever your past may be), you are at this moment putting power toward the honest development of your soul, just by the act of noticing this within.
Congratulations! You're heading the right way!
Limitations to Finding Yourself
I suggest that we avoid chasing an ultimate, finalized image of who we should be, but instead see finding ourselves as finding an honest, serviceable, and content ‘me' who feels at peace with his/her self.
We can all tell, from experience, that the self has limitations.
Our preferences and values, even, are limitations.
We do have walls, and they may have some plasticity to them, but they still present as parameters outside of which it is difficult for us to be. Growing must act respectfully towards these limits. By that I mean, like stretching in yoga, we must stretch to the place where there is some tension, but not to the point of pain. Same goes for the limits we face when we explore and feel toward the self.
For example, I know that, while it is not impossible, it is certainly less natural, and less habitual for me to stay up late through the night – more often, I wake up early.
How Our Habits Affect Who We Are
This gives a clue as to one aspect that makes us who we are: our habits. They are what we inhabit.
We may not ever be able to create the stable, idealized ‘self’ we want, but we can build habits of a healthy better self, and become the person those habits steer us toward. It will be important in that practice to find the line between imagining an over-idealized, romantic person who we cannot be, and yet setting goals and standards that we can in fact live up to and answer to.
Press yourself, but do not oppress yourself with constant unreachable standards of ‘should'.
Somewhere we go wrong is when we think that what makes you yourself is what individuates you.
Aka: what makes me myself is uniqueness.
This more adolescent perspective on self-improvement can make you arrogant and alienated. We are, more or less, what we prefer and what we tend to do. Those tendencies and preferences should not make a point of contriving themselves to differentiation. Accept what is peculiar to you, and not what you think is novel to other people.
Unearthing our true, inner preferences, and forging those aspiring tendencies, is what I want to write about here in this article.
Finding Yourself as Continued Action
To begin, we have to remember that finding yourself is a matter of continued action – ‘contact' for short. We cannot discover ourselves within the world if we spend our time (expend our time) avoiding it and protecting ourselves from contact.
Like anything that requires development, progress, we have to accept that participation is a requirement. Stepping forward, imposing yourself even, into life, can be absolutely essential.
Contact with the world is full of sensations – some intensely joyful, and others really trying. We’ve devoted much of our modern lives to avoiding those sensations, and we've done a good job of it. But in mitigating the dangers of exposure to the world, we’ve made ourselves numb, and this numbness puts us in a place where we wonder where we are.
We wonder where who we really are is.
What Cuts Us Off from the World?
So much of what we do cuts us off from the world. We cut the very thread that allows us to attach to and connect with the surrounding matter. Finding the person you truly are can only happen by making a point of engaging with, even imposing yourself on, the world. That starts with noticing where these threads to life have been cut or dulled, and where you can reinvigorate them.
Sometimes, consideration of the past or future hinders us like nothing else. We believe that the risks are too great. But great relationships require the jeopardy of participation.
Time we spend on our electronic devices, scrolling through social media, or checking news, weather, sports, generally keeps us disconnected from ourselves, with the false idea that we are connecting with the world.
These habits take away so much time you could be spending invested in finding yourself, or at least making room, creating opportunity, for your true self to bloom.
The more time spent away from contact, the drier and more distant we allow our soul to become, and the more we risk becoming lost in life.
Setbacks: How We Become Lost in Life
How are we blocked from ourselves?
Feeling lost is a sign that too many things in your life are in the way of you finding yourself. The sensation of feeling lost is truly discouraging, unsettling.
What we really want is to have a feel of who we truly are, and be able to navigate our life's journey based on that understanding.
Sometimes, what blocks us from ourselves is excess. It is difficult to discern, in the modern world, between what we want and need, but all the more important that we develop a personal comprehension of those words.
Too often, we add to our lives without subtracting, and come up feeling not richer, not closer to our true path, but actually more burdened, weighed down with more things to maintain and attend to.
Consider the objects and infrastructures in your life, and whether they burden you or liberate you, in spite of their claim of making your life happier and more efficient.
Consider how your relationship to these objects could change. How the application of discipline or patience could improve their presence in your life.
Do the work. Feel the great satisfaction in fulfilling your discipline.
How do we conform, how are kept lost in life?
Often we're obsessed with everyone else, and carry this suspicion that they know better than us who we are and what we should be doing with ourselves, our life. We are incessantly defined, shaped, and valued by the external, and rarely shaped by the internal.
In this habit, we weaken our ability to assess ourselves based on intuition.
We give permission to others to craft the self. We put ourselves in other people's hands.
This is not wrong because everyone else doesn't possess what you do; it's wrong because only by finding the essence or value of a principle within ourselves can it become ours, and the wisdom become a genuine article of ourselves.
Complaint as a common language
Our lens often makes discovering the pure self a more difficult task. I've noticed that our common language for relating to each other: friends, family, room mates, is through complaining about life.
Simply put, positive thought takes more energy than negative thought. But, positive thought also provides energy, whereas bleak thought drains us.
By defaulting to complaint, to pointing out hypocrisies, agitations in our lives, (usually in the people around us), we actually harm our self esteem, by confirming the idea that our lives are insufficient.
How can we help feeling lost when whatever we face is met with a focus on its negative aspects?
It is always easier to dismantle or break something than to build something, or build something up.
Complaint truly perpetuates the idea that we've lost out on a better situation already.
The Assumption of Complaint
Implicit in complaint, always, is the faint idea that we know how things work, that we know the way things are, and that how they are, at their core, is unfair and confusing.
But how can we ever expect to explore who we are, and find out who we are, if we always faintly behave as though we've answered those questions?
Make yourself a child again whenever you can. Don't assume you have the answer to questions. “Train your tongue to say ‘I don't know'”
We might consider noticing the next time we default to complaint, and ponder what else we could focus on instead.
We have to want to find the positive, and believe it's there.
Do so, and it will arrive as though conjured.
“I have so much negative self-talk, how do I make it stop?”
Self acceptance is very different from complaisance.
Complaisance is when a person tolerates less from themselves and excuses themselves from aspiring to a higher standard.
Self acceptance is really a matter of how you treat, how you look at, your soul, in all its different moods and inner dispositions. When we feel alone in whatever deep, negative feeling, we can always benefit from remembering the positive things in our life, whatever they are.
Know them, and make them familiar and frequent friends.
There's a really great power in that practice.
This can begin with larger values: our health, our breath, our parents, friends, our career, our place of inhabitation, and work its way to find the smaller values: a pretty candle, eating the apple down to the core, small passions, an article of clothing we discover hiding in our wardrobe.
It's hard to feel lost in life when you're captured and charmed by its small beauties!
Negative self talk will lessen depending on how it reacts when it touches you. If it sticks immediately, and finds that you are receptive to it, it will return again in waves. Make yourself slippery to negative self talk!
I'm not asking you to pretend that we can never feel any negative feelings, but I think it's worth focusing on how we react to those moments, and how able we are to let them pass.
Make a point of saying a few less judgemental things to yourself each day, and you may start to believe a lighter, kinder truth related to yourself.
The theme in all of the above is this: you come to know your true self incidentally, through the amalgamation of good and honest action and habits. It is not done by one grand gesture. Feed it through the many channels available to you.
“My anxiety is overwhelming, how do I keep moving through?”
Anxiety's stress arises in a deep way and causes questions related to who we are and how we may be lost on ourselves. On a daily level, it raises waves of panic and a general clamour inside of us. The procedure of moving through this is really straight forward, but critical.
Firstly, its stress is a pace, a haste, and also a pitch.
You can picture this on a y-x axis.
Our reaction, much like our disposition when faced with a riled up dog, will determine the effect we have on our dis-ease. Usually, it takes us, and we become agents of that heavy pace and high pitch. But even if we’ve already gone there, and we’re wracked with intense fear and worry, all we need to get out is the memory of this method.
By knowing that anxiety's stress is a pace and pitch, we know that we can return to ourselves by decelerating, and softening.
That is why the ‘breath’ is always an anecdote to stress – by setting a softer, lower tone, we guide our bodies back into a restful state. Your body and mind and soul do not want to be in that storm, but they've gotten there and need you to lead them back out to calmer waters.
In the first moments of this procedure, you may feel whiplash against these attempts to slow down. Meet even those strains with patience; let their message be sent, but let it roll off your shoulders.
Sometimes, it is even possible to sympathize with the pitch and pace of anxiety, as though it were an entity.
Some therapists refer to the anxious voice as a sort of noisy child crying for attention.
For those who have driven a car manually, you’ll know that double shifting, while possible, is not ideal. When downshifting out of stress, allow yourself to slow down and soften step by step, rather than suddenly, all at once, which will cause your own engine to relapse. Too often, we try to do something all at once. Managing anxiety, like finding yourself, is a process.
Finding and Constructing Ourselves
How Do We Forge Our True Self in Life
Anything to do with development is twofold. It requires support on both sides of the equation. One side is the lessening of things that block or detract from our effort to find ourselves, and the other side is the active building up of qualities and habits that help the self come through and write itself.
Because we’ve dealt with some of the ways that we are prevented from finding ourselves – call them the negatives – it’s time to address the ways that we can, positively, form and find ourselves.
Sometimes building, searching, growing are not available to us, and those are the times when we have to focus on nurturing and caring for the self.
Finding yourself always requires this barometer, where we discern the kind of mood and place we're in. Can it allow for active growth and investigation, or is it too strained, and asks us, in its moment, to focus on easing the burdens on ourselves.
Both modes matter, and both modes contribute to both finding and preserving the true self.
Forms as the Places of Self Discovery
“You are only as free as the forms you realize yourself within.”
In so many contexts in our lives, our path and personality is shaped by our environment.
Maybe you work at a job that demands a short attention span, a hyper-alertness to the fast pace of things moving around you. Then that is who you will become, by habitually training your body to that way of being in the world.
We cannot switch our personalities as we shift between different milieux. Our journey is bound to the conditions it unfolds within. And our muscles are shaped by the actions they're asked to perform on a regular basis.
How could someone who was born and raised in a forest unlearn the ability to hear distinct bird calls from far off, or detect the traces of an animal by the patterns of a disturbance in the bush?
We are all given a set of tools that we can use and apply to our lives, but the environment that we spend our time in is what shapes us. Those tools may be sharpened, or evolved, or they may atrophy, depending on the space we give them in our lives.
We want in life to try and find a form, or forms, that give(s) us the most access to the tools in ourselves that are most worth our cultivation.
Other times, we have to work within the forms that we are forced into, or born into. But every space has the potential for a personal aspect – a way that we can leverage that space and make it somewhere we can grow or learn who we are.
Maybe you work a job that is dry and uninspiring. If this is the case, you may have to set your attention and capacity for stimulation to a lower key, possibly finding a meditative space within that dry and uninspiring job.
At other times, the job is constrictive in what it asks you to be as a person. Maybe you find that it accentuates qualities in you that you don't like.
If your job post puts you in this place, you need, once again, to recreate your relationship to it. That doesn't mean contriving yourself or pretending to be someone you aren't, but instead, searching for ways to let your better self seep into that space.
Flowing, to the best of your ability, is a way of letting your true self flower.
Are you humorous? Maybe your employment presents opportunities for joking. Are you interested in anthropology, sociology — maybe the customers you interact with become your subjects, and you quietly note and discover while fulfilling the mundanities of your work.
Finding yourself within the obstacles of your work space can be hard when you do not have a career that specifically speaks to or offers support to your true qualities. Gigs can be tiring and unrewarding.
But that being said, the effort it takes to forge space for yourself within a more constricted environment is always worth the effort, because it returns energy to you by enabling you to develop yourself in a space that usually saps or hinders you.
Conscious Choices that Lead to Finding Yourself
Finding ways to define yourself other than your productivity, your measurements, is really important in the western world where success is most often gaged by the degree to which you've made your talents exploitable and profitable in a monetary sense.
You need a different measurement to find your true self; our self esteem cannot rely only on this abstract, external function to process and value who we are.
When it comes to finding yourself, what you are able to produce and generate matters, but in a whole different way.
You might ask yourself, or explore, what can you generate that isn't valued solely by your career. What can you make outside of that metric?
How do your talents shine in small, undetected moments that are seen as ‘unproductive'?
The value of do-it-yourself has become somewhat novel and hobby-ist, but its value is immense. The things we do on our own, for ourselves, or for a purpose that doesn't necessarily make sense in a ‘productive' way, are crucial to carving out a distinct self.
What you make, outside of what you conform to, reflects who you really are.
Nonconformity, in this sense, is not about making a point of rejecting what everyone else does; it's about being attentive to how and why we do the things we do.
Why do I think that this particular etiquette is decent behaviour?
Why do I follow this rule? Why do I answer that question always this way? Why is my response to that situation always this? Why do I like this brand? Why do I enjoy this item? Why have I precluded myself from doing that activity? Why do I see myself as ‘this' kind of person?
Attentiveness to our habits of decorum gives us a window into the ways we may be robbing ourselves of an honest expression, instead defaulting to a borrowed or learned way of composing who we are.
In doing so, we muffle who we really are, and push that relationship to the background.
By becoming more conscious of our habits of decorum, and the roots of our interests and tastes, we open the opportunity for clarity on who we really are, as opposed to who we've shaped ourselves to be.
Even as we mature in years, an instant is all it takes to begin reforming the self, and allowing new, more honest behaviours to shine forth.
The Power of Deep Reflection
When I close my eyes to reflect, or meditate, I feel an opacity, or a great blockage, in between me and myself. Walt Whitman called this the ‘stop’ in our throats, and asked us to loose this stop, and free the flow of ourselves.
If not this wall of thick darkness, it’s a flurry of motion in the form of images, each pulling me in directions that move away from the moment. This phenomenon is symbolic of our daily selves: we feel such a great onus to address the past and future, things we’ve done and said, or should do and say, that we overwhelm ourselves and are rendered incapable of responding to the focus the present demands.
When I create space within my mind, who I really am floods in of its own accord. It wants to emerge, and feels as uncomfortable as you do being pent up, or locked behind our busyness and distractions.
Your true self wants to be find, and wants to come forth.
And let me just say that who we really are is always a gentler, smarter, braver, and stronger person than we often finding ourselves to be.
Following Our Own Spirit
In old times, the word “genius” was not a special term given to people with exceptional ‘intelligence'. Instead, it was a power accessible to anyone who wanted to realize it – something we are each born with. Your genius is your inner intuition, a guide whose passion leads you toward a higher self.
Always, genius is there to lead, not to console. It is always onward, because it is not something you realize, or reach, but something you follow. Spiritual growth is the comet tail, the effect, of this gleeful pursuit. Genius is the dancing lamp that constellates your actions through time.
In order to stay true to ourselves, we have to love, explore, and accept our genius. Look for its trace in everything you do – that inner feeling of how you should act and react. And revel in the moments when you are able to act beyond yourself, into a new, sort of as-yet-unattained self.
In all of these facets, taking responsibility is the chief principle. You cannot carry any mantras about self discovery around with you if you are not willing to enact them on a frequent basis.
If you are not willing to pick yourself back up after a mistake; if you are not willing to make the difficult decision; if you are not willing to hold yourself accountable, then you cannot hope to find yourself, because to ‘find' is, after all, a verb, which means it requires action from us.
The first step when taking responsibility is showing up in daily life. We create our world every day in the small acts of behaviour that move us forward. They focus us so that we are equipped with whatever we need to not only persevere but to stand alone in this world and thrive.
Showing up feels good, it is the decision to be awake and alert, and to try.
Some days feeling lost is the norm, and the sense of hopelessness or personal responsibility is fleeting, and then other days our journey seems more clear, our path seems to be laid out in front of us and there is a sense that we really know what we really want. We somehow gain clarity. Eat those moments up, and cast the others aside.
You will not always feel like you – you will dip and slide. Finding yourself is not a linear, constant pursuit that becomes final at a certain point.
Resilience against the sorrow we feel when we bump into our limitations is one of the most important things we do – it’s called forgiveness. A big part of finding yourself is remaining fond of yourself, and being kind to yourself.
Finding yourself is personal, a process of improving your responsibility to each moment in time, to being attentive to each moment that you can be.
Who you are will follow you, not the other way around.