Who am I? Finding my authentic self

Have you ever asked yourself, “Who am I?” This may seem like an odd question to ask yourself yet unless you clearly know the answers, you’ll be unable to be comfortable with yourself and incapable of sharing your authentic self with others. Consider how important this question is.

We can respond with descriptive words such as, “I’m female…I’m a wife and mother…I’m a nurse and psychotherapist…” We often list roles we play, interests we have, our profession, or what is commonly called “self-stats” such as our hometown, appearance, education and so on. However, when it comes to truly knowing ourselves, most of us discover that how we portray ourselves tends to be based on who others think we are (or should be) or depending upon what we do jobwise. Becoming fully acquainted and comfortable with who we are is a key to living life in an liberated and joyful manner. Feeling comfortable in one’s own skin, so to speak, is important for going through life as a contented human being.  Isn’t that what we hope for?

Our sense of self – our “identity” – who I am -  is very important; however, when it comes from what others think about us, how we look, or how we behave, we worry about being judged or measured by others (and fearful of falling short of their requirements). In order to feel okay about ourselves and function as best as we can, we may put on an act, a facade, a mask. We all do it all the time – we present our ‘best-self’ to the world. This can be a useful skill. It enables us to adjust our words, tone and actions to better connect to the person with whom we are communicating. However, when we do so habitually and unconsciously, we can lose who we are and that can hurt us. The true problem arises when how we feel about ourselves inside is in conflict with the face we show to the outside world. It’s as if the real “me” is hiding underneath. We often feel like an imposter or a fraud because how we feel inside is different from the mask we show on the outside. This internal battle is called incongruency - how I feel inside and what I express outwardly are at odds. This sets up a “civil war” inside and we feel wounded.

This reality was a lesson I learned the hard way. My very loving parents raised me to be obedient, agreeable and pleasant to be around rather than encouraging me to discover who I truly was. This isn’t about     parent-bashing; it’s about realizing my parents were human and had shortcoming in their skillset.  My parents seemed to be in line with Billy Crystal’s character, Fernando, who stated, “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” Feeling good about myself was based on how others perceived me. Inside I was dying. Keeping up this act was impossible, and it finally took its toll. In my late 20’s, I felt empty, worn out, used up and no longer wanted to live. I was so miserable yet didn’t realize it until one day I felt like I was having a “nervous breakdown.” I had become so angry, depressed and unhappy that I was nonfunctional. Being unaware of why I felt so bad was baffling. Fortunately, I found a competent therapist who aided me in figuring out what was going on and taught me skills to become acquainted with who I was for the first time. What I discovered was that my view of  “me” had been shaped by others. I depended on others to reveal how worthwhile, attractive, successful, loved, important, respected, etc. I was (also described as external validation). I had no idea who I was except for who others expected me to be. This shaped the perspective from which I viewed myself and the world. Changing this viewpoint was necessary and becoming aware of “who I am” was life altering in the most positive way. The process had its challenges yet there was never a moment that I had any regrets. The journey was worth the effort. Even when I discovered aspects of myself that were less than sparkling qualities, at least I was aware and then could do something to modify them, if I chose. Learning to be the genuine me became very freeing and has enabled me to live my life joyfully and securely.

Among the skills I learned from my therapist was how to recognize when I was being either sincere or inauthentic. What I now understood was that our body will always react to what we are saying and doing from our survival brain (the Amygdala) long before our thinking brain (the Hippocampus) recognizes what’s going on. Practicing how to scan the body for signals is a key to initially becoming knowledgeable about oneself. This is accomplished by using conscious breathing to notice how the body feels. When we are speaking and doing things which are consistent with our values and beliefs, there will be a sense of calm and comfort (our gut will feel relaxed and our muscles will be smooth). Conversely, when we do or say something that is motivated by maneuvering others to make us feel better, we likely will feel a tightness in our gut, a racing heart, sweaty palms, etc., which notifies us we are experiencing internal conflict. This occurs unconsciously which is why we must initially use the information from our bodies to reveal what is truly happening inside. Can you appreciate how useful this simple tool can be to inform you about what is truly happening? There was a Harvard study which revealed that giving yourself two seconds prior to responding (less than one breath) will create a 93% better outcome. Essentially, by giving yourself two seconds, you’ve moved from reacting (the survival brain) to responding (the thoughtful brain).

Now that there is more calmness and less agitation internally, you can use your evolved, more creative brain to check in with yourself. Asking questions such as, ”What do I feel, think, believe, desire, value, dream of, need, etc.?” enables more personal information to be accessed in order to respond genuinely. Clarifying these points creates an opportunity to bond with another person from a solid position rather than from an uncertain one.

What is also important to remember is that when a question is asked, always respond. This enables you to continue to practice a greater understanding yourself. Avoid phrases such as “I don’t know” or “I don’t care.” This can lessen your ability to respect yourself.  When uncertain as to how to respond, consider using phrases such as, “I’d like to think about what you’re asking…let me get back to you” or “How about if I contact you about my decision by Friday…” There is always a way to be courteous to others while being true to yourself.

Does this sound like finding your true self will turn you into an insensitive and selfish person? Well, actually the opposite is true. Being kind, helpful, charitable and caring (to name a few characteristics) is now done out of true desire rather than out of deficiency. Your behavior may be identical (such as giving a friend a ride when their car has broken down), however, the key that separates the healthy, selfless act from an unhealthy dependency is your motive. This is where knowing yourself and being honest makes the difference. Ask yourself, “What is my motive for doing this?…Do I need praise and approval or am I doing this because what I’m offering is truly consistent with my values?” Answering these questions is essential. When you act from your authentic self, you are living congruently within your values and beliefs. Experiencing a sense of peace and comfort within yourself is the gift you gain. There then becomes a sense of wholeness, balance and connection to others (which I consider to be sacred).

Continuing to practice these simple (but not easy) skills, will enable you to interact with others in the most respectful manner for everyone involved. And it definitely does take practice. There is a tendency to revert back to our ‘default mode, ’a place that has become comfortably familiar, when there is no consistently new input. Practicing is comparable to saving the newly learned skills in an updated file on your computer so it is there when you open it again.

It’s important to acknowledge a caveat at this point. As you become more acquainted and contented with yourself, those who have known how you used to behave can become frightened seeing the changes in you. Remember, this, too, is happening unconsciously, under the surface. Their fear may come from their inability to now get you to comply with what they want (whereas in the past you would have always submitted to their wishes). You might hear comments such as, “You were so much nicer before you went into therapy” or “You’re such a b*tch now…what happened to you?” Remind yourself what is actually going on; they are no longer able to get you to do what they used to be able to persuade you to do. It’s compassionate to acknowledge their discomfort with your changes. A phrase that I found helpful was to say, “Please don’t take my changes personally…it’s about becoming a better me and it’s not about you…” Remember, you may need to repeat this over and over again until they truly hear you.

These are a few tools to work with to create the best version of yourself as possible. Isn’t that what we all want? Do you believe you deserve to feel at ease with yourself and others? Then practice these new skills and notice how your life can transform. If you think that it would be beneficial having a guide to help you navigate these enhancements and modifications, feel free to contact me.

Barbara Pickholz-Weiner