by Craig Chalquist
Throughout most of recorded history the idea of becoming who you are has drawn blank stares. People ask: become who you are? Don't you do that automatically anyway?
No, you don't. You aren't you in the same way that a tree is a tree or a tiger a tiger. We aren't merely blocks of wood or patterns of habit or bundles of instincts. As visionary human beings have always known, becoming yourself not only requires an effort, but perhaps the most sustained effort there can be.
And that is because of a fact unique to sentient beings: self-consciousness can be fragmented. Identity remains a figural island floating in a background sea of unconsciousness. The choice is to live on a larger island or a smaller one, to visit and sail upon the sea of potentiality or wall it off sharply.
We experience ourselves as fully alive, fully human, only when the island of self-consciousness is an unfragmented whole. Walling off huge portions of ourselves —thoughts, feelings, fantasies, memories, powers, potencies, even dreams and aspirations— makes us sick. It is even possible in extreme cases of self-alienation for one's waking self to be almost entirely false. When that happens, we usually cling to the assumption that we know who we are, that nothing inside is a mystery; and meanwhile the real self, its interior voices ignored, slowly dies.
The purpose of getting to know oneself, a process that goes by names like inner work, self-actualization, self-realization, self-study, and individuation, is to open up the waking consciousness to its unconscious foundations by reclaiming disowned aspects of oneself. We undo our repressions, make contact with our bodies, rediscover our feelings, study our wants and needs, exercise our dormant talents, dream our dreams. We work through long-standing emotional conflicts. We unblock the creativity we all possess. We "listen with a third ear" to the quiet movements of the emotional/intuitive depths in us, knowing that feedback from our entire organism is more trustable than the limited, one-sided reactions of the waking self.
So where does one start?
The Four Attitudes.
Carl Rogers has identified three therapist attitudes that facilitate personality change: congruence (genuineness), empathy, and unconditional positive regard. (He also speculated about a fourth: the subtle spiritual power that emanates, often unconsciously, from every sincere healer.) Oddly, he did not, to my knowledge, discuss the necessary client attitudes. I believe there are four: innocence (e.g., the Beginner's Mind of Zen), commitment, courage, and self-responsibility (fully owning the work).
These attitudes also apply to self-awakening. If all are present, then one will move forward; if any are lacking, then one will remain where one is. The reason is obvious: becoming oneself is the most difficult task there is and so requires complete seriousness, willingness to suffer, inward integrity, total involvement; in short what Karen Horney called wholeheartedness.
Here are some other tools for your self-work toolbox:
Never, never assume you know yourself or are completely familiar with a particular facet of yourself.
This grandiose assumption kills inquiry: why look at what you already "know"? It may also be the single greatest deterrent to finding out about yourself.
Be brutally honest with yourself.
You can assume right up front that you have some illusions to lose —illusions about yourself, about loved ones, about beliefs and values, norms and standards— and that you will resist seeing them for what they are. Everyone resists finding out too much too soon. The resistance is a problem only when it's not temporary. If you find yourself hanging on to something, defending a vulnerability, or losing interest in self-work, then realize that you may be closing on a sensitive area of your life. Give yourself permission to proceed with caution. (You might also wish to acquire a list of Freudian defense mechanisms, the devices we use to hide things from ourselves.)
Trust your impulses.
You have good reasons for feeling, thinking, imagining, acting the way you do. If you are prompted from within to try something and it won't hurt you or anyone else, then why not try it? Such promptings are attempts to teach yourself something. Outwardly, certain actions should be curtailed if there's any question of causing harm —but inwardly, anything is allowed.
Avoid people who invalidate your efforts to know yourself.
All the great spiritual teachers agree that it's best to avoid people who subtly or overtly knock down who you're trying to become. The world is filled with unhappy, routine-ridden, envious emotional vampires who avenge their personal failures by demeaning your strivings. All are cynics, though some go about as surface idealists who quickly turn away when you wish to discuss your anger or loneliness or spiritual bewilderment. Avoid them all. Having secretly given up on themselves, they have nothing to offer the seeker.
Spend time with people who support your work on yourself.
This includes seeking out people to whom you can safely share your uncertainties and express your feelings. Look for them with the eye of a hungry tiger: those who strive seriously to explore themselves are far and few between, and it's almost impossible to do this kind of work without such support.
Read good books.
Seek out the books that seem to have something to say to you. Use your own feelings to guide you to them. Generally, they will be books that develop "deep" themes —identity, personal growth, inner healing, spirituality, meaning vs. meaninglessness. There are plenty of people who've walked the way of individuation ahead of you; read what they've written about the journey.
Expect to hurt.
People who start to listen to themselves usually encounter those painful emotions that lie just under the surface of consciousness: anger, shame, guilt, loneliness, depression, sadness, confusion... This is normal, so don't let it scare you. Bear firmly in mind that feelings are temporary states that take care of themselves when you find appropriate ways to express them. And that you are always more than your feelings. At most they indicate to you where you need to grow.
Keep a journal.
If only to write down what you learn about yourself so you won't forget it. Some people collect whatever "speaks" to them: paintings, photographs, plants, rocks, soil, songs, magazine clippings, childhood possessions, crayons, seashells... Just about anything can be a part of your record of the journey.
Decipher your dreams.
Dreams are not random brainwaves or the remnants of last night's meal. They are snapshots of your state of mind —but snapshots from the point of view of the unconscious, which talks to you in images rather than words or linear logic. If you make it a habit to sleep with paper and pen next to your bed, your ability to remember your dreams will grow steadily. When you have one, write it down (or talk into a recorder if that works better) so the next day you can do what Freud called free-associating to each symbol. The associations indicate what aspects of yourself the symbols stand for —e.g., in my dreams rain stands for a release of emotional tension, plants for growth, cars for conscious ways to move forward. As Jung discovered, later dreams will correct you if you misinterpret the symbols in a current dream.
Construct a "mental health" family tree.
Amazing psychological patterns surface when you draw a family tree and then write in who was depressed, who was addicted to something, who was abandoned by a parent, who was chronically ill, who was a rager, and other such details. (Refer also to my paper "Twelve Characteristics of a Family System".)
Look at events through the eye of initiation.
"Eye of initiation" is Michael Meade's term for seeing things in terms of initiation into selfhood. Old wounds, a divorce, a layoff, the death of a loved one, illness, a painful argument: properly understood, these can provide raw material for inward growth. See them as lessons to be learned about who you are.
Take care of your body.
In part your self-esteem is based on your "body ego", the bodily image with roots that go back to infancy. Exercising, resting enough, and eating right help maintain self-esteem and support your work on your psychological self. A fit body is also less likely to hang onto buried emotions.
Replace victim-thinking with survivor-thinking.
It's important to be aware of what something or someone has done to you and how you feel about it, but it's also important to own that you have options, that you can always choose what stand to take. Victim-thinking creates a "responsibility leak" that drains your life of energy and your activities of sincerity. As I often tell clients, having someone to blame is the best way to stay stuck. Focus on what you will do with the past and present givens in your life —including protecting yourself assertively from oppressive or abusive situations at home, at work, or anywhere else they occur. Becoming yourself is incompatible with letting someone mistreat you.
Live on your ground floor first.
Using an image of Freud's, Sam Keen points out that quite a few people seek to skip the "first floor" preliminaries of inner work and live instead on the second or third floor —the spiritual floor. That is so. If you listen carefully to some of the folks who talk most about archetypal this and New Age that, you can hear a certain pomposity, a tone of "look how deep I am" that signifies some very important emotional homework left undone. Remind yourself that a spiritual activity of the highest significance consists in integrating your flaws and weaknesses into your human, all-too-human everyday consciousness.
Make use of amplification.
"Amplification" is C. G. Jung's term for applying associations, ideas, readings, and other material to themes that emerge in your dreams and fantasies. If you dream, say, about dragons, then try fantasizing about them, looking them up in the library, drawing pictures of them, examining paintings of them, learning a bit about their cultural history, and getting a hold of any other material that might clarify what that symbol means to you.
Look for magical thinking.
"Magical thinking" is a therapy term for the very early fantasizing we do as infants and toddlers. At that age, wishes and reality are indistinguishable. Remnants of magical thinking usually surface in relationships, when we alternate between idealizing and despising a partner. Expecting them to be perfect, to always be nurturing, to "know" what we want from them, or to depend entirely on us for emotional self-fulfillment are examples of magical thinking. It helps to learn to tell such thinking from realistic thinking.
Look for splitting.
"Splitting" is a term from object relations psychology —a series of schools that evolved from Freud's psychoanalysis— and refers to the early tendency to divide self, internalized parent-images, and the accompanying feelings (Fairbairne) into good self/bad self, good mom/bad mom, good dad/bad dad, pleasant/painful feelings. We generally focus on the good stuff and repress the "bad"; the result is a tendency to alternate between idealizing and hating, being really up and crashing, feeling confident and feeling helpless. Getting in touch with both sides of an internal image, feeling, or other aspect of ourselves heals these splits and permits us to see ourselves and other people more realistically.
Make use of the mirror of relationship.
Krishnamurti was fond of saying that who we really are emerges in "the mirror of relationship." Watch how you behave with your partner. Monitor your fantasies, feelings, interior self-talk. Check out how your body feels at different times. Relationships are wonderful opportunities to find out more about who you are.
Befriend your shadow and the rest of your "cast of characters."
As Jung discovered, what we fail to integrate into our waking selves tends to collect into autonomous "complexes," meaning that unowned aspects of ourselves manifest in dreams and fantasies as mini-personalities. A prominent one is the shadow, a deposit of those aspects of ourselves we consider negative, unpleasant, or inferior. In dreams the shadow is the same gender as the dreamer and often shows up at first as an attacker, a criminal, a lunatic, or some other strange or alien figure. Owning what we don't like about ourselves —our insecurities, our fears, our anger, our less acceptable drives— turns the shadow into a more benevolent figure. His (or her) job, after all, is to bring back to us those aspects of ourselves we try to throw away.
Size up your ego.
Probably all of us receive ego wounds; even the best of families inflicts them. We usually compensate for them by reinflation, by feeding a mostly unconscious self-importance. Even low self-esteem can reflect this: "He who despises himself still respects himself as someone who despises" (Nietzsche). Mentally catalog your customary methods of reinflation (e.g., fishing for affection or compliments, being a class clown, workaholism, controlling a mate, pontificating, lecturing, sex, passive aggression, etc.). Explore the pain that goes with failing to restore your ego to its normal size after something has deflated it.
Allow personal constructs to become tentative.
"Personal constructs" are conclusions, convictions, beliefs, attitudes...anything conceptual we use to make sense of our world. When rigid they become dogmatic filters over the eyes of awareness, thereby blocking our openness to new experiences, viewpoints, meanings. Allowing constructs to be "what I think or value or believe just now" isn't wishy-washy; rather, it's a mature recognition that constructs are always working hypotheses constructed by an imperfect being who is always open to new learnings.
Ground yourself in the everyday.
Some of us go to the extreme of getting so absorbed in inner work that we let everything else —work, school, bills, health, relationships— go to hell. Don't. It not only works against you outwardly, it eventually dams up your inner process too. Divisions in your life should decrease, not increase, as you get to know yourself better. Inwardly and outwardly, pace yourself and stay fully present.
Get comfortable with being different.
Erich Fromm once put it well: the fact that millions of people believe a lie does not make the lie a truth. And Abraham Maslow used to discuss "the pathology of normalcy." The fact that you explore yourself more than others, that you dress differently, that you don't find idle chatter entertaining, that you aren't faddish, that you despise television, or that you don't respect "public opinion" (an oxymoron if ever there was one) may mean that you live, not below the standard of normalcy, but above it. And believe me, it's a pretty low standard these days. Being thought of as strange by chronic conformists who are afraid to stand out from the crowd or question authority figures or form their own opinions can be a mark of distinction. It can also mean you belong to the perennial community of those who are bravely trying to be their real selves.
I seldom meet a person newly committed to self-exploration without sighing to myself, "Ah, how wonderful to be just at the beginning of the adventure again!" Getting to know myself better has hurt more than I could ever have foreseen; it has also brought me immeasurable joy, meanings to live by, answers to what I thought were unanswerable questions, healing for old wounds I believed would bleed forever. It has decanted a strange serenity such that very little wrenches at me anymore. And it has made my life indescribably rich in magic. If you haven't walked this path until now, you can't imagine the miracles you will meet with. Prepare yourself for them.
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