The process of distinguishing between the authentic self and the role, or mask and costume, is going to be one of sorting. You know, like sorting the laundry: white goes with white, lights with lights, darks with darks, etc. We must learn to clarify the voices of the authentic self, and simultaneously clarify the committee of voices that is the role, the mask and costume. The role we've played has been a bit like the fairy tale about Midas.
There are different versions of this story, but as I remember it from childhood, it goes something like this: For saving Silenus, Bachus granted King Midas a wish, and Midas wished that everything he touch would turn to gold. And so it did. Literally, everything he touched turned to gold-including his own daughter, whom he dearly loved, including food and water and, well, everything. He, of course, regretted his wish and had to go back to Bachus to beg to be released from the wish, turned curse.
And that is exactly what happens when our childhood wish turns to a curse that we repeat again and again on ourselves, as we live out the demands of our masks and costumes. Everything we touch seems to turn into the same dynamic. But there is another fairytale, as told by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés in her beautiful and bestselling book, Women Who Run With the Wolves (1992), entitled Vasalisa*. In this story, Vasalisa loses her mother, but in their departing dialogue the mother gives her daughter a little doll, who looked just like Vasalisa, to carry in her pocket. And her mother instructed her that she should feed the doll when she was hungry and ask the doll what to do when she felt troubled or lost. And, you know how it goes, after the death of her mother, her father grieved a long time, but then eventually met a woman who became Vasalisa's wicked stepmother. And then, just as inevitably, the stepmother and Vasalisa's two wicked stepsisters attempted to get rid of her by sending her for fire to Baba Yaga, the witch of the forest-whom they assumed would kill and eat her. Long story short, Vasalisa not only survived by consulting her doll, but when presented various sorting challenges, gave these over to her doll who accomplished them for her. In the first of these challenges, Vasalisa was to sort out mildewed corn from good corn and in the second she was presented a pile of dirt from which to sort and differentiate tiny poppy seeds from tiny grains of sand in a single night.
There are, of course, several other things that happen in the story--I'd encourage your reading of Estés' wonderful book to learn more of this and other beautifully woven fairytales and their psychological explanations. But the sorting and the giving over of the sorting to the little look-a-like doll are very important elements of the story. In my view, it is this sorting process, which happens on an intuitive and resonant level (the little doll), that brings us to deeper awareness of who we are.
So when something inside you gives in over and over to the fear that if you don't do X, Y, or Z, you'll feel guilty--which voice is that? When something inside tells you that you've failed and should be very ashamed when you couldn't get a project done because you've overwhelmed yourself with too many tasks to get done--which voice is that? When you take a hike in the woods and find yourself breathing deeper and letting go of the knots in your muscles--to which voice are you responding? Giving name to these voices is going to be very important to defining the authentic Self.
What I've found to be true is that when a particular voice gives us peace, or real joy--it is the voice of the authentic Self. And I'm not talking about the kind of peace that amounts to relief that you didn't get caught for speeding, or the kind of peace that means that your kids are not arguing for a change. I'm talking about a deep peace that feels as if it comes from your core. Some people call this core, your center, and they speak of "getting centered." What they mean by this is that we get in touch with that deep inner place of peace.
And joy. Who uses that term in psychological circles? No, typically if that term is used at all it is in more religious circles. The fact is that we are uncomfortable with the word. We have not been taught to expect joy from life. But when we tap into that deep inner place, by listening and responding to the voices of the authentic Self, we very often feel this resonant responding joy. I've had many clients tell me about it. And I've experienced it quite often myself. Finding a career that gives you joy in most of its everydays is listening to and following the sorted out voice of the authentic Self. Doing little tasks and hobbies that give you joy is listening to the sorted out voice of the authentic Self.
I challenge my clients to go through their days asking themselves what they desire-truly desire-to do next. And as they do that they are not only going to begin to hear the voice of their joy calling them, but they are also likely to hear the previously undifferentiated voices of the role or mask and costume. So, they might think, "I'd like to take a break now," during their workday, but that old familiar "should" comes up to haunt them. Sorting allows them to recognize that the should comes from the Superwoman/man, Rescuer or Scapegoat role and let that go for a bit as they experiment with that other voice calling them to that centered home within them.
Our fear is that if we encounter joy, we will suddenly become lazy ne're-do-wells, because it is duty-the long list of shoulds-that keeps us on the straight and narrow. But what turns out to be more true is that the desire for more and more peace and joy from the center, draws us to do a better job at the things we love, and to change jobs or hobbies when we've been doing lots of things we should but hate to do.
These are just some examples, but the idea is to begin to see the source of one's own internal voices and begin to put those voices in the pile to which they belong.
*Estés, Cliariss Pinkola, PhD. (1992). Vasalisa. Women who run with the wolves. New York, Ballentine Books. pp. 75-80.