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The Search for Your True Self

Important tips on how to know our real desires.

Milana Tkachenko/Shutterstock
Source: Milana Tkachenko/Shutterstock

“How hurtful it can be to deny one’s true self and live a life of lies just to appease others.” — June Ahern

Jennifer came to my office without really knowing what her goals were for therapy. She wasn’t exactly sure what the problem was — or if there was even a problem at all — but she thought it would be a good idea to check in with a therapist and process a few things. As we got to talking, I discovered that Jennifer had been floating through life without really feeling anything. She had developed the skill of cutting off from her emotions, and for the most part, she assumed this was a good thing.

Growing up with five younger siblings, Jennifer came to believe that there wasn’t much room for her emotions. If she got upset about anything, she was immediately shut down by her parents, who expected her to be well-behaved all the time, bring home perfect grades, and help take care of her siblings. Even though she had gotten used to disconnecting from her emotions, Jennifer did consider herself to be a compassionate person and explained that she was always accommodating her family and friends’ needs. However, she admitted to me that there wasn’t much feeling behind her actions; it was all pretty automatic. As Jennifer and I got to know each other, she became increasingly concerned about her lack of emotions, especially when her last boyfriend broke up with her, telling her that it was hard to get to know her, that she lacked enthusiasm for life, and that he didn’t believe she really cared about him.

At a young age, Jennifer learned to numb her emotions. Children can only experience their true feelings when there’s someone there who accepts them, understands them, and supports them fully. Jennifer didn’t have anyone like that in her life. In fact, she felt she would lose her family’s love if she was “defiant” and showed her feelings; so she learned to swat emotions away like annoying insects. She continued to live her life numbly and passionlessly, and as a result, she never learned how to let her emotions in and regulate them properly.

How do we know our true selves?

The truth of who we are is so essential that its absence takes a heavy toll, typically causing us to lose our sense of self, personal goals, and close relationships. In order to become wholeheartedly ourselves, we must try, through an often lengthy process, to discover our own personal truth — a truth that may create discomfort before giving us a new sense of freedom. Jennifer would have continued on her journey in the same way she had been doing, unless she started to learn that acknowledging old feelings isn’t deadly, but instead very liberating. Bringing her own self and needs into the picture wasn’t a bad thing, but something that could bring her to life.

Accommodating the needs of others often leads us to only reveal what’s expected of us; this, in turn, renders us unable to differentiate our true selves. Failing to live as a differentiated person leads to a sense of emptiness. When we can’t sense our own needs, we wind up feeling alienated, even from ourselves. Jennifer came to the understanding that in order to get love and acceptance from her family, she had to repress who she was, but this came at a big cost to her emotional development. When it’s only about others, there isn’t any room for self. Jennifer was regulating herself for others, and she realized it was no longer working for her life and her relationships.

Even if Jennifer did start to feel various urges, whims, or fleeting emotions, it wouldn’t mean that those emotions were revealing who she most fundamentally is. If you want to know who you truly are, don’t ignore your feelings; instead, accept them and connect with your deepest values. When we ignore ourselves and our true intentions, we betray ourselves and give up on what we value most.

If you want to live a fulfilling life, you must first know who you truly are; this is something that takes searching to discover. It never happens when you’re stuck in fear or doubt, and it certainly doesn’t happen when you’re numb and disconnected from yourself.

Are you having trouble connecting with your true self? I compiled the questions below to give you a chance to start uncovering your passions, values, desires, and motivations. Gaining a sense of who you are is the greatest knowledge you’ll ever acquire.

  1. What do I love unconditionally?
  2. What is my number-one accomplishment in life?
  3. What do I enjoy doing when no one is watching?
  4. If there was no such thing as fear and failure, what would my life look like?
  5. If I had $100 million, what would I do?
  6. Who is my role model?
  7. If I had $30,000 to donate to a cause, who would I donate to?
  8. If I went to sleep tonight, and a miracle occurred so that all of my problems were gone and I was happy when I woke up, what would be the first thing I’d see? What would my life look like?

These are just some questions to help you get started on the process of knowing your true self and discovering what your goals and values are. When you’re disconnected from yourself like Jennifer was, it’s hard to know what you want — and it’s even harder to make decisions that are right for you. When you feel overwhelmed by emotions or believe your feelings don’t matter to the ones you love, it’s almost automatic to try to numb and disconnect from how you truly feel. Instead, it better serves you to recognize those emotions, understanding that, like a storm, they will pass, and afterward you’ll be able to make decisions and choices for yourself based on your values, principles, and beliefs.

More from Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D.
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