- Living as your true self is an important part of creating a good life.
- Self-protection mechanisms that eventually interfere with our lives can create blocks to living authentically.
- Becoming aware of and taking responsibility for our blocks can help us live in greater wholeness.
This post is part two in a series.
Our ability to live as our “true self” affects every aspect of our well-being. Authenticity affords us greater happiness, self-esteem, life satisfaction, motivation, decision satisfaction, and improved social interactions, as well as less psychological dysfunction such as anxiety (see studies such as Rivera et al, 2019).
In this "Path to Your True Self" series, I write about my struggle with authenticity because I feel it is one of many unseen menaces to our individual and collective mental health and well-being, especially during what feels like a time of crisis to so many. In my view, the antidote to a personal crisis is to tap into the truth of who we are and our deepest sense of purpose and service.
It took me four decades to begin to name what felt wrong with my life. On the surface, I had it all. Underneath, I was a hot mess. Something always felt off, wrong, out of synch. Each time I fixed or tore off what felt, at the time, to be what was causing my distress, I’d just discover something else amiss beneath it.
This process of shedding took more than a decade and has enabled the gradual emergence of a truer version of my self. This truer version is so much more peaceful, healthier, and impactful than the one that was carrying the crushing burden of my conjured self.
As I became aware of each layer, I reflected on where that covering came from. Just to be clear, at some point I consented to the layer (a Hobson’s choice), even if I was a young child. I also consented, and at times even defended my need to carry it into my middle years. Even though I was not necessarily at fault for the addition of each layer of protection, I am the only one who has the ability to release what blocks me from being truly me.
Adding layers of shielding to one’s tender heart can be a protective and adaptive mechanism that might enable us to feel safe and to belong at the time. For example, we adopt beliefs or coping mechanisms such as being perfect, entitled, or not good enough to help us adapt to what might feel like a dangerous and unpredictable world. Such beliefs, or schema, eventually cause problems in our lives when we fail to recognize how they create distorted thinking (see Emotional Alchemy as a great way to learn about your schema). We also may accept cultural beliefs from our important others and community as to what is considered acceptable and virtuous behavior or personal qualities, which may not necessarily align with our true self.
As a first-generation Chinese American who spent her formative years in Texas in the 1970s and '80s, I was socialized to fit into a self-concept that is fairly far from my true self as described in part one of this series. My Chinese heritage required that I be a good student, I do not draw attention to myself, and that I be obedient and conform to the beliefs of the elders in my family, which as the youngest, was everyone. I felt invisible and irrelevant in the community within which I was raised as well, so my comfort zone became the tightrope between striving to excel and avoiding notice.
Only when my life imploded did I realize that I was wrapped so tightly in the layers of “have to,” “should,” and “can never” that I literally became immobilized in chronic pain and fatigue syndromes.
Please, let’s be absolutely clear about this: I do not blame anyone, even myself, for acquiring layers and needing decades to shed them. Neither culture nor my family said, “We’re going to oppress Susanna and stifle her authenticity.” No. Everyone is just trying to get by in life. I also did not strive to stifle anyone else’s true self as I was trying to get by in my life. I apologize to all that I disregarded or shut down when they were just trying to be themselves. I know my children and romantic partners were probably the biggest recipients of that legacy; I write this blog in hopes of our collective healing.
Furthermore, I know that this reflects a natural developmental process. According to Kegan’s adult development theory, most of us experience a cognitive phase where we adopt the norms and beliefs of those we perceive to be the authority (self-socialized). This might be important others, institutions, or organizations. Eventually, we may shed those norms and move into a more self-authored perspective, but it is not a given. Challenges can motivate us to learn, grow, and evolve into wider, more adaptive perspectives that are more in alignment with our true selves (Kegan, 1994).
In other words, my sense of danger and vulnerability in my early years, ensuing decades of disconnect from my true self, has been the fodder for transformation towards wholeness. It’s almost as if we are caterpillars (those many legs are so so busy), and there’s no way to become a butterfly without first creating, then unfolding the tight layers around us from within the chrysalis. Denying, blaming, feeling shame, or resisting the process only makes it more painful, slower, and more fraught with peril and risks of deformity.
Sharing my story and process is meaningful only to the degree that it elicits an openness and curiosity in others. When did your layering begin? What caused it? What have been the unintended consequences for you and the people in your life? But most importantly, what are you going to do about it now?
I hope you will consider your own story and use it to inform your path forward to a greater sense of freedom and confidence in your place in the world. Spread your wings for the world; in this time of crisis, it needs the true you more than ever.
See part one in this series: Path to Your True Self: Uncover What’s Missing in Your Life
Bennett-Goleman, T. (2001). Emotional alchemy: Transforming confusion into clarity. New York: Harmony Books.
Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life: Harvard University Press.
Rivera, G.N., et al, Understanding the Relationship Between Perceived Authenticity and Well-Being, Review of General Psychology 2019 23:1, 113-126