An all too common lament was poignantly expressed by someone I was asked to work with on an Oprah Winfrey show:
"It feels like I've lost myself. It's like I'm in a deep hole."
Millions of people spend much of their time trying to avoid criticism, resentment, anger, put-downs, or cold shoulders and isolation. They become so used to thinking and behaving the way someone else thinks they should that it's hard for them to know what they really believe and what is best for them to do. In vain attempts to create harmony, they self-edit and second-guess themselves over matters large and small, until, at length, they lose a sense of who they are.
If the above description fits you, it's time to get reacquainted with your inner voice.
The good news is that the self-discovery process can be pleasant, like catching up with an old friend you haven't seen since school days. Only this time you get to know your friend on a deeper level than ever before, as you discover your core self.
Some aspects of core self are acquired from cultural influences, others are learned from key experiences in life. Still others rise from core values. Those are the subject of past and future posts. This one will focus on a more fundamental component of core self.
Temperament is a genetic mix of traits. It is, in part, the product of an individual's metabolism -- the way the body creates energy. Subjectively, temperament can be thought of as a kind of "emotional tone" - what it feels like to be you.
Every human being (and every animal for that matter) is born with a definite temperament. Scientists combine many different areas of measurement into broad categories, which we often think of as "characteristics." These are usually presented on a continuum, e.g., shy-outgoing, fearful-fearless, sociable-aggressive. Key aspects of temperament are sensory threshold (easily over-stimulated or easily bored), average level of arousal (how excitable you get), and average energy level - how easily you can muster the physical and mental resources to do tasks.
The above are useful starting points for self-discovery, but, like all psychological classifications, they tell us little about individuals. For instance, if you have four children, you are likely to have four different temperaments. Your children will be highly individual, even though they share many traits and characteristics with their parents and with each other.
The different ways we adapt to our temperamental qualities account for much of the differences we see in personalities. Strictly speaking, we cannot change temperament. (An excitable child will become an excitable adult.) But we all adapt our temperaments in a variety of ways. (For instance, most people who were excitable children have learned to manage arousal levels by the time they're adults.) If the adaptations are healthy, we can enjoy the benefits of our temperaments, without the hindrance of their limitations.
For example, shy people are not likely to become the life of the party, but they can learn to enjoy the party and contribute to the enjoyment of others through focus and attention, provided they do not beat themselves up for being shy. If you have a low energy metabolism, you will probably not become a sprinter or marathon runner, but you can learn to enhance your energy level by walking briskly on a regular basis. If your persistence level is low, you can increase your confidence in a number of ways; but first you must give yourself permission to make mistakes. This will remove the emotional blocks to persistence, although the temperamental impulse to "give up" will remain. Most of our impulses, thankfully, do not become overt behavior, as we learn to regulate them as a matter of routine.
Although most temperamental adaptations occur inadvertently, by trial and error over time, we sometimes alter them through deliberate effort. If you're prone to pay a lot of attention to detail, you want to back off now and then to see the big picture. If your interest level is naturally low, you have to go beneath the surface of things to maintain interest. (Novelty stimulates interest; depth sustains it.) If you tend to be mostly negative or mostly positive, understand that you can't always trust your initial appraisal of people and situations.
You can make any number of beneficial adaptations to your temperament, as long as you respect and honor what your genes have given you as a starting point.