“The only journey is the journey within.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
One of the most fulfilling and meaningful life journeys you will have to take is finding yourself.
What does it even mean?
It’s one of those phrases that are so overused, yet somehow defies meaning.
Yet it’s a crucial part of the cycle of life. We grow up, shaped by our parents, our education, our society, only to be pushed into the world, with the expectation of becoming completely independent and succeeding as an individual.
How does finding yourself come into this?
The truth is, most of us walk through life not really knowing who we are. We are so influenced by our cultures and social norms that it distracts us from the inner voice we should be listening to.
What really makes you happy? What is it that you love? And what gives you meaning?
These are the sorts of questions you need to ask yourself, instead of chasing what society predetermined for you.
Table of Contents
- Why do we feel lost?
- Why is it important to “find yourself?”
- 1. Be honest with yourself
- 2. Learn the art of self-knowledge
- 3. Don’t dwell on your past, but reflect on it.
- 4. Learn to differentiate
- 5. Find your purpose.
- Alternative ways to help you find yourself
- Closing thoughts
Why do we feel lost?
Think about it this way; it’s simply growing pains. Hard as it is, we all go through it.
There’s a myriad of immediate reasons why you may feel lost:
- you crave a significant change in your life
- you are tired (mentally, emotionally, spiritually)
- you’ve lost connection to something important
- you try to live based on other people’s expectations
- everything you do is ruled by fear, self-inflicted or not
But perhaps it’s more than that. Perhaps we’re heeding a basic human instinct to look for something that will give us meaning. Some clarity of purpose.
Maybe it defies reason or logic. Whatever it is, it’s undeniably a driving force that pushes us to do great, meaningful things. For that alone, finding yourself is an important project.
““Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” ~ Steve Jobs
Why is it important to “find yourself?”
Of course, it’s easy to say that it’s important to go and find yourself. But why?
Are you often plagued with questions such as, “why does this keep happening to me?” and “why is my life like this?” These are only some of the difficult questions we have to deal with on a daily basis. Yet they are crucial in pushing us to have a better understanding of ourselves.
If these questions go unanswered, we tend to get stuck on a loop, never able to get out of it. This is why it’s crucial to find yourself, to know yourself – because taking complete control of our life means finding these answers.
You might not necessarily get all the answers. In fact, you shouldn’t try. Life is not a perfect puzzle you need to solve. But when you’ve found yourself, you let go of all that nagging doubt about your purpose. Until you know yourself, your strengths, weaknesses, desires, you’ll never come close to having meaning.
It sounds more and more an exhaustive task, but that’s the beauty of it. Here are 5 steps that can guide you in finding yourself.
1. Be honest with yourself
Have you ever heard of the term self-deception? It’s the habit of lying to ourselves on a daily basis as a means of keeping ourselves comfortable. It can be as small as telling ourselves we’re going to the gym when we really have no intention to, to bigger lies about the reasons why we choose our relationships.
Why do we keep doing this?
In a TEDx talk called Honest Liars: The Psychology of Self-Deception, clinical psychologist Cortney Warren imparted some hard-hitting truths about the daily lives we tell ourselves.
“Humans are masters of self-deception. We fool ourselves into believing things that are false and we believe to refuse to believe things that are true.
“At the core, we lie to ourselves because we don’t have the psychological strength to admit the truth and deal with the consequences that will follow.”
Why is this dangerous?
Because it is exhausting – whether you’re conscious about it or not. It takes energy you could be using to find yourself, to build a meaningful life.
Dr. Warren adds:
“Although normative and commonplace, self-deception comes with profound costs because we live our truth whether we are honest about it or not. Self-deception is exemplified in our thinking patterns, beliefs, behaviors, emotional reactions, and relationships. Anytime our lives are driven by something outside of our awareness, is it dangerous to us and everyone around us.”
If you want to find who you really are, you first need to be honest with yourself. Stop lying about what you want, how you feel, and the face you project to the world.
It’s time to practice inner authenticity.
2. Learn the art of self-knowledge
In his book Emotional Intelligence, author and science journalist Daniel Goleman describes self-knowledge or awareness as “ongoing attention to one’s internal states.” According to psychologists, self-knowledge is the ability to see and understand one’s emotions, thoughts, and motivation patterns.
Simply put, it’s the ability to look at your inner self – your emotions and thoughts – and noticing how they influence your thinking and behavior.
Honesty is the first step. The next step is introspection.
What does this have to do with finding yourself?
Our behavior is a reflection of our thoughts and emotions. We mirror what we think and feel. Understanding our emotions and the reasons behind them, according to Goleman, “allows us to examine closely, in detail and in depth, the processes by which we think, feel, and behave.”
Self-knowledge gives us a sense of self-worth. It allows us to stay rooted in our values and goals. Without it, we feel lost, undervalued, unworthy. Furthermore, having no self-knowledge makes us look out into the world for happiness. It distracts us from truly looking into ourselves, and denies us the chance to know who we are.
3. Don’t dwell on your past, but reflect on it.
Our past is important as our training ground. Don’t dwell on your past mistakes or trauma. Instead, try to make sense of them.
Because when it comes down to it, who we are now is shaped by our memories. Our past explains who we are in the present.
Research clearly shows that when we fail to process our past, we become stuck with all the pain that comes with it. Whether we take on blame, disassociate, or attempt to bury our memories, we are not making sense of what happened to us, thus, bringing our past into the present.
And when we are inhibited by the weight of our past, it becomes impossible to find out who we really are. Painful life experiences determine how we view ourselves, and how we define ourselves. Avoidance only sets us back.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, UCLA School of Medicine clinical professor of psychiatry, says that making sense of our past simply means “trying to understand cause-effect relationship: what is happening and why it happened.”
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Your past is an important part of figuring out who you are.
4. Learn to differentiate
Differentiation. It is the process of separating yourself from external influences and past identities to become who you truly are.
In his book The Self-Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation, Dr. Robert Firestone writes that it is crucial “for people to live their own own lives and fulfill their destinies, they must differentiate from destructive environmental influences.”
Throughout our lives, we have been heavily influenced by external forces (our parents, teachers, etc) and various interpersonal experiences that either support our journey to finding ourselves or destroys it.
Part of finding yourself is differentiating from these negative influences. Rather than following a prescribed identity, you’ll be able to find who you really are. Only then can you develop and sustain your own unique identity.
How do you start differentiating?
Ask yourselves these questions:
- Whose life am I really living?
- Do I have my own set of beliefs, values, and motivational patterns?
If you come to the realization that you’re living your life based on other people’s expectations, Dr. Firestone has four essential steps for you.
- Separate from the destructive attitudes that were directed towards you.
- Differentiate from the negative traits of your parents and their defenses.
- Separate from the defenses you use to cope with elements of your childhood.
- Develop your own adult values system and approach to life.
Break these defenses. There were reasons why we’ve developed them. They were essential, after all, essential for our emotional survival. But now that you are an adult. These external forces are no longer functional and necessary. They are only keeping you stuck to the past. Now, it’s time to be your own unique self.
5. Find your purpose.
“If you cannot find meaning in your life, it is your responsibility to create it.”
Perhaps there is no other book that explains this sentiment as beautifully as Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. The Holocaust survivor experienced the most unspeakable horrors under Nazi rule – being separated from his wife, almost starving to death, and working as a labor slave.
And yet, through it all, he came to the most astounding realization. Armed with his psychiatric and neurological knowledge, he used his experiences to make a discovery. That humans can survive almost anything, as long as they hold tightly to a sense of meaning and purpose.
How will you find it?
Paradoxically enough, Frankl believes you shouldn’t actively search for meaning. In his book, he says:
“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
He means that you shouldn’t think of finding purpose as a goal, but a side effect of achieving other goals. He insists that “you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”
There is no one clear journey to finding your purpose. But what you can do is connect yourself to activities or things that make you feel great, something that gives you worth. For some, it could involve educational attainment. For others, it simply means having healthy, loving relationships. To you, it may even be both.
Experiment. Explore. And take it easy on yourself. Eventually, you’ll find meaning, if you are open to it.
Alternative ways to help you find yourself
You don’t need to follow a strict plan to find yourself. In fact, you shouldn’t. As much as possible, don’t pressure yourself. It will only ruin the experience for you.
Everyone has different ways of thinking about themselves. Some people think about their upbringing and traumas as something that made them who they are today. Others tend to get stuck on it, brooding and inhibiting themselves from a healthy future.
Unfortunately, a lot of us tend to do the latter. We focus on our fears and get carried away by our anxiety. We become mentally exhausted and fall into depression.
When you find yourself, you get a deep sense of security and confidence. And depression and anxiety become less of a tendency.
But with so many ways to find yourself, how and where do you start?
What you can do, is be open. Find what works best for you, and don’t be frustrated when things don’t go your way.
The best way to start is by talking to someone. And not just anyone. Try to have an honest conversation with someone insightful. Even better, talk to a trained psychologist. Especially if your lack of self-awareness is affecting your mental health. Simply talking about your feelings, and having someone ask questions, will give you clarity about yourself.
Moreover, there are various other traditions and cultures throughout history that can help you explore yourself. Here are some alternative ways to find yourself.
Buddhist traditions put emphasis on self-knowledge and raising deeper awareness of our mental states. The practice of meditation, particularly, is central in all Buddhist teachings.
Insight meditation or Vipassana, for example, is the realization of important truths. This kind of meditation gives clear awareness of exactly what is happening in your life as it happens, and why.
And before you disregard meditation, you should know that even in the world of psychology and neuroscience, mindfulness meditation has gained undeniable traction.
Meditation can reduce negative feelings, as research shows. It helps alleviate feelings depression and anxiety. Furthermore, meditation can increase positive emotions such as gratitude, confidence, and contentment.
In fact, therapies that integrate meditation have shown positive results in improving mental health.
You’ll be surprised at the amazing benefits keeping a journal has on your mental health. Like meditation, journalist helps you have a clearer understanding of your thoughts and emotions. Nothing will help you better in life, than knowing who you are and having a deep understanding of how and why you think the way you do.
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, journaling helps you;
- Helping you prioritize problems, fears, and concerns
- Providing an opportunity for positive self-talk and identifying negative thoughts and behaviors
- Tracking any symptoms day-to-day so that you can recognize triggers and learn ways to better control them
- Manage anxiety
- Reduce stress
- Reduce stress
You might have heard of shamanic rituals already, and automatically dismissed it. Perhaps to you, it sounds too hocus-pocus. However, you’ll be surprised to know that many people practice the art of shamanic healing, and attest to its wonderful benefits, too.
Shamanism is an ancient form of spiritual healing. Its practice and traditions have been used to heal illnesses, mental and emotional pain, and was even known to fix disharmony in tribes and communities of past civilizations.
How can this help you find yourself?
The purpose of shamanic healing practice is centered on “soul retrieval.” The principle is to gather as much of your life force to help you live your life to the greatest human degree you possibly can. Shamanism has less to do with being sacred or ancient – it’s simply a natural expression of life.
According to Conscious Lifestyle Magazine,
“Soul retrieval is one of the most effective and well-known shamanic healing practices to restore lost life force. The loss of life force is known as soul loss, and this can take place when we suffer a trauma, have an accident, separate from a partner, experience the death of a loved one, or go through a pervasive period of difficult circumstances.”
Finding yourself is an important journey. But what happens when you find that you don’t like who you are?
Perhaps that is part of the journey, too. It’s not about finding something you deem good or bad in you. It’s about accepting who you are and being willing to change the parts that you are not proud of.
Part of the journey of life is realizing that you have complete control of how you react to it. Are you going to be weighed down by it? Or will you use it to fuel you, motivate you, make you the best version of yourself?
The answer is up to you.
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