How do we make sense of our internal lives? How can we think about the way it feels to be who we are? How can we understand our sense of self?
It helps to think of our sense of self as a house. This house has three parts to consider. The outside structure of the house is called the adaptive self. This is our personality as a whole, which we have built through the years. It includes our character, with all its healthy and not so healthy traits. We actually tend to cover our symptomatic side with the more attractive, presenting, social side. So our adaptive self is also our image, the story we tell about ourselves.
But there is more to us. Inside that house lives our existential self. That’s the part of us that’s always there dealing with life in the present moment, the agent, always there intending and deciding. This part of us is also our voice, always narrating our lives. So, if the adaptive self is the story we're telling about ourselves, the existential self is the storyteller.
But we go even deeper than that. At our core is the authentic self. The utterly unique person that we are. This is theobserver in us. The one always aware of what's going on. And it's the seat of our desires. The part of us hoping and longing and seeking. Sometimes this part of us goes into hiding. It gets confused or hurt or both and runs for its life. But it’s there somewhere.
Getting In Touch with Ourselves So how can we get in touch with or authentic self? How do we recognize it? How do we know when we're being true to ourselves and real with others?
We're probably not in touch with our authentic self when our life is driven by the image we want to present. Or in times when we're posing, trying to impress others out of insecurity. However, we may be acting out of our authentic self when we're intentionally careful how we come across. When we're developing our professional identity at work. Or when we put forth our best self on a job interview, or on a date. That's all legit.
But the best times to get in touch with our authentic self is actually when we step back from all our striving. In moments when the chatter inside quiets down. When the storyteller stops talking. When we can just be. We'll come back to this in a moment. A Strong Sense of Self Now, problems arise when these parts or layers of our self are not in agreement with each other. At best, our sense of self feels confused so that we lack confidence and easily fall apart under pressure. At worst, our addictions replace the connection between our authentic self and our adaptive self, because the addictive cycle runs on self-deception. In this way, our addictions short-circuit our relationship to ourselves, and hinder our ability to live our lives intentionally, and to thrive. In any case, it’s hard to be at home in our skin, to be truly present in our lives, when our sense of self feels muddled or we're in conflict with ourselves. Deep inside we know that something's off, and it doesn't have to be that way. So let's talk about what we can do to eliminate internal conflict and develop a strong sense of who we are.
We'll do this in two separate sections. Here we'll explore what we can do to bring integration within ourselves, without getting into the role that other people play in our sense of self. But keep in mind that our sense of self is inseparable from our sense of others. Who we're with is actually part of who we are. So, later on we'll come back to this topic and explore that other side of things.
In the meantime, here's what we can do to strengthen the internal side of our sense of self. There are at least three main ways we can approach this: through insight and self-understanding, with the help of others (friendships and counseling or therapy), and through meditation practices.
Insight The first step is basically what we just did: to try to understand the dynamics of the self, and then to discern how these dynamics are operating in ourselves. We'll talk more about this below, where you'll find some resources to dig deeper into this.
Therapy You may also want to consider counseling. Counseling is sometimes necessary to help us sort things out. You can share the insights you're learning here with your counselor or therapist and request guidance along the way.
As we come to better understand ourselves (insight), hopefully with the help of others (whethertherapistsor friends), life in our skin starts to get more real, more intentional, and more hopeful.
Meditation But there are some practical skills we need to learn along the way, and an excellent way to learn them is through meditation practices. Let's take a look at how that works.
The Healing of Consciousness Remember that the key is integration. All aspects of our self need to integrate, to harmonize, as parts of one integrated being. But before we can integrate things, we need to differentiate them. We first need to notice them, seeing what's going on in our selves for what it is.
As we get acquainted with what's going on in our skin (whether we can actually articulate what we notice or not), we naturally start integrating these parts of ourselves into who we are, and a coherent and strong sense of self starts to emerge.
The problem is that our minds are often too unstable for us to see things clearly. In the rush and busyness of our lives, it's hard to really notice what's going on in our skin. Often our minds are too scattered, anxious or confused and our thinking is muddled. And sometimes it hurts inside, and the thought of paying attention to what's going on in there can be rather scary.
But there's hope. There are practices, like mindfulness meditation, that can provide a safe space where we can check in with ourselves, helping us overcome our fears and anxieties.
These same practices also train our minds in the skills we need to develop a strong sense of self. Not only that, but meditation practices also help our minds stabilize so we can see things more clearly. And that clarity and mental stability don't end at the end of a meditation session. They stay with us for some time. So we maintain a regular practice (say, once daily), so that we can sustain that clarity and stability.
In time, these practices actually help our brains heal (physically), so that our minds become permanently more stable and sharp.
Mindfulness Meditation There are many kinds of meditation practices, most of them developed within religious traditions. For our purposes here, we'll take a look at and recommend mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness originated in various religious traditions, but it has become secularized and used widely for therapeutic purposes by clinicians and therapists all over the world. Mindfulness meditation is basically allowing the observer in us be in charge for a little while. No labeling things, or judging whatever comes to mind. No trying to change the way we feel. That's what the existential self does. But not now. During this practice, we're just noticing things. Just being.
And we quickly start to develop a certain distance from the stream of consciousness. We learn to see what's going on in our minds without being taken over by our thoughts and feelings. We start to feel more at home in our skin. And our authentic self starts to wake up, practicing what it's like to be in charge.
These skills are precisely what we need to get acquainted with ourselves, and to develop a coherent and strong sense of who we are.
Let's practice... Let's wrap up with a sample meditation practice. To allow you to see what it's like, and to give you a chance to try it.
It's very simple. And you already have everything you need: your breath, and your body. Actually, you may want to find a quiet space where no one would interrupt you for a few minutes. Experts recommend starting small, say 5 minutes, and working up to about 20 minutes a session or more. But it all depends on your situation and your needs and preferences.
Here's a guided meditation called the 3-Minute Breathing Space. It's very short, so it's convenient, but it has all the basic elements of a regular mindfulness meditation session.