Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. - Aristotle
Lillian, a patient of mine, didn’t know who she truly was. She lacked a sense of self. At any given moment of the day, she struggled to know what she felt, what she needed, what she wanted, and what she desired. Equally important, she struggled to know her limits and boundaries and what she did NOT want or like.
“I feel like a shell,” she said early in our work, “or sometimes like a willow tree. I feel blown around by the winds of life.” Lillian felt directionless.
Lillian didn’t have any confidence even though she had proven herself as a successful certified public accountant. To truly thrive in life, she needed to build a greater connection to her authentic self, a journey I have personally embarked on and found to be transformational for my mental health and satisfaction in relationships.
What is the authentic Self?
Philosophers and psychologists have grappled with this question since the dawn of humanity. But there are some psychological definitions that I have found useful. Here are a few:
The authentic self is the state free of defenses and inhibitory affects (that’s a jargony way of saying emotions). -Diana Fosha, PhD, Developer of AEDP
The authentic self is the core of a person, which contains leadership qualities such as compassion, perspective, curiosity, and confidence. – Richard Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Therapy.
The authentic self has the experience of being truly present and alive. Feeling real is more than existing; it is finding a way to exist as oneself... and to have a self into which to retreat for relaxation.– Donald Winnicott
And here's one for the academically science-minded: The core-self is mediated by sub-cortical midline structures (SCMS), embedded in visceral and instinctual representations of the body that are well integrated with basic attentional, emotional and motivational functions. –Jaak Panksepp and George Northoff, neuroscientists.
To feel authentic we need to know what’s happening in our mind and body. If we fear our inner experience, we will avoid ourselves and lose connection to who we are. Specifically, finding our authentic self involves building greater awareness and acceptance of our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, wants, needs, wishes, and desires. Our budding self-acceptance cannot be conditional, but instead a wholehearted self- acceptance. This requires making the effort to compassionately tolerate our flaws and celebrate our virtues.
In the process of forming a deeper connection to our authentic self, we will no doubt face aspects of ourselves that we don’t like or that no longer serve us. For example, we might uncover a belief that we must be perfect to be loved. We might become aware of defenses like shifting automatically into blaming and judging others (and ourselves).
The great news is that we can change parts of ourselves by working the Change Triangle, a tool for emotional health that guides awareness and movement from our defended states, inhibitory emotions, and core emotions to the openhearted state of the authentic self. In the openhearted state of the authentic self, we are less defensive, less anxious, more aware, more confident, more calm, and more clear about who we are and what we want. I love the Change Triangle tool because it simply depicts how emotions universally work. It has been my guide to creating change and transformation in myself and others for almost twenty years.
Core Emotions are the doorway to the authentic self
Each time we are affected by life and thus have an emotion, whether it be sadness, anger, joy (see other core emotions listed above on the Change Triangle), we have a choice for how to respond to that emotion. It’s like we come to a fork in the road. One path takes us up the Change Triangle to anxiety and defenses. The other path guides us to experiencing our core emotions, making use of the critical data emotions provide us. It’s this path that connects us with our authentic self.
Growing up in an emotion-phobic society that fails to provide basic emotions education, we tend to avoid, bury, and repress emotions. But emotions are a compass for living, and the doorway to our authentic self.
A deeper connection to our authentic Self comes through experiencing core emotions. We can't find this information about ourselves by staying stuck in our heads trying to figure it out. We must be in our body as well creating the optimal balance between body and mind; head and heart.
In my twenties and thirties, I lived in my intellectual defenses. When I got anxious, I got tense in my body. Automatically the shift in my bodily state triggered me to go into a “controlling mode” (a defense on the Change Triangle above). In this mode, I successfully avoided my anxiety by focusing on changing others to make me “more comfortable.” For example, if I asked a question to one of my kids and didn’t hear the answer I wanted, I would without awareness ask the same question again and again. I guess on some unconscious level I believed if I asked the questions enough, the answers would change.
“Is your homework done?”
“Are you going to wear that?”
“Will you clean your room?”
“Do you want to write that thank you note?”
It drove my family crazy. I thought that was normal and just me…until I learned about the Change Triangle and the concept of the authentic self.
Here’s what I learned: this habit was not me. It was my anxiety. I blocked my anxiety with this defense of asking the same question again and again until I either got the answer I wanted or I was yelled at to STOP.
As the Change Triangle illustrates, under my anxiety were the core emotions I was avoiding and that I would have to deal with if I truly accepted the answers my loved ones were giving me:
No, my homework isn’t done? (I’d feel angry and scared)
Yes, I am going to wear that! (I’d feel fear and shame)
No, I won’t clean my room! (I’d feel angry)
No, I am not ever going to write thank you notes! (I’d feel guilty and angry)
I had not yet learned that I could safely experience and work with my emotions. I had not yet seen the Change Triangle. I had not learned specific tools and techniques. Once I did learn to process my emotions, I could move through my fear, sadness and anger, to feel calm again, and I could be a better partner and mother.
How did I know I was in my authentic self? I felt it! I felt better: softer, stronger, more flexible, less rigid, less anxious, more ok. I had access to the C’s of the openhearted state of the authentic Self. (See the Cs on the Change Triangle above.)
Lillian and I sifted through and made lots of space for her thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. We tried to understand the conflicts with which she grappled, like whether to ask for a promotion or if it was ok to relax at home on the weekends. We validated her deepest needs, her likes, her dislikes and her wants as we simultaneously comforted parts of her that felt shame in admitting she even had needs and wants. We built communication between her authentic self and the unhealthy messages she received as a child, like she should never upset others (even to the detriment of herself!)
Finding our authentic self is a plain way of saying that we are rewiring the brain so we feel more alive, vital and like "This is me! The way I truly am. And, I am ok-enough as I am."
Lilian transformed. Using the Change Triangle, she got in touch with her blocked emotions. She developed a relationship with the aspects of herself that had suffered traumas and wounds and that forced her authentic self to hide in self-protection. She learned to name, validate, and calm her anxiety, shame, and guilt. She learned to notice, name, validate, and process her core emotions. As Lillian did this work, access to her authentic Self continued to grow. These gains were permanent. For the rest of her life she would work the Change Triangle to stay connected to her authentic self during times when the winds of life tried to blow her off course. But now she was on solid ground, more rooted in her authentic self.
As you move toward vitality and authenticity, your ability to tolerate challenges will grow. Pain, anxiety, and fear will still arise, but emotions won’t be as debilitating or scary as they were before. We are not powerless to change or at the mercy of our minds.