Inside: Befriending True Self is available to us all. No gatekeeper or shortcut can confer the deep wisdom received through years of healing and stripping away, saying yes to personal growth work, and lived experience that makes possible a meeting and befriending true self.
The journey to meeting and befriending True Self is layered and not strictly linear, though in the first half of life there is a natural progression as we age. We cycle through each layer and continue exploring and expanding as we move through different life seasons and encounter new experiences. The work of one layer equips us to better understand and unravel the next.
If you prefer to listen to the audio recording of this post, listen here (there is a pause from 9:18-9:28 while I take a drink of water, but don’t worry, the recording continues!):
Meeting and befriending true self through the seasons
My graphic (above) and the way I perceive and speak about these seasons and layers that we navigate in the process of meeting and befriending True Self is my own. This is what makes sense to me and I hope it will feel valuable to you as well. My thoughts will surely evolve as I continue learning and living.
I gratefully draw from years of reading and learning, gleaning from the wisdom of others, and personal experience around women’s life cycles, mythology (in particular the work of Jean Shinoda Bolen and Michael Meade), religion, psychology, and even trauma therapy, in addition to my work with women from different corners of the world. I definitely do not aim or claim to adequately or accurately represent anyone else’s belief system or any particular body of knowledge.
1. PERSONALITY AND IDENTITY: The Box We Live In
Season: Spring / Second Spring (post-menopause / our 50s)
Female archetype: Maiden
Question: Who am I? How do I fit into this world?
Personality and True Self are not the same thing. Personality is the identity we’ve created for ourself or who we want to be; it is the persona that tells others who we are. Personality is a reflection of the ways that we’ve learned to gain approval or love, to feel safe, or otherwise get our needs met. Personality reveals the box we live in but this doesn’t mean we have to stay here.
“Personality is a thing; self is a perspective. (…) The self is not a thing, but instead it is the reflexive perspective from which a thing encounters itself. Whereas personality is knowable from a third-person perspective, the self is the first-person relationship between “I” (the subject) and “Me” (the object).” (source)
Identity is about the roles we play – loving mom, teacher, artist, middle child, friend – the communities we belong to, the narratives that culture, religion, family of origin, and media spin about who we are. But taken at face value, this does not help us meet True Self. It’s like theatre: we wear costumes or masks, take on different roles, and we perform, hoping to find meaning, applause, safety, or belonging.
This is the realm of the (developing) ego and false self. This isn’t bad – it’s part of the development process. The ego (conscious mind) asks questions like “who am I?” and “how do I fit into this world?” and cares about our roles and the things we do and accomplish. Most of our behaviour is unconscious so we’re really operating here on very little awareness. We might decide as I did at a young age, that we do not, in fact, fit in this world, and try to opt out.
The false self “sensing its fundamental unreality, begins to clothe itself in myths and symbols of power. Since it intuits that it is but a shadow, that it is nothing, it begins to convince itself that it is what it does. Hence, the more it does, achieves and experiences, the more real it becomes.” (source)
So we try identities on for size and look outside of ourself for direction on who to be and how to be. We create a story about who we are (and who others are) based on productivity, achievement, and status symbols like wealth, acquisition of things, or physical appearance. We crave and create binaries and boxes; they make us feel better. We have to find ways to feel good about ourselves and power structures and hierarchies help us do this. We are good or bad, right or wrong, one of ours or other.
As a natural part of the journey, this can be a helpful information gathering stage. We can take inventory of our likes/dislikes or perceived strengths and weaknesses. We can take assessments that help us quantify where we land on the spectrum of introversion/extroversion, or sensitivity, or identify our current levels of stress. We might receive diagnoses (including labels) that inform our beliefs about where we belong, or lead us into deeper exploration. We might track our moods, energy ebb and flow throughout the day or month, cycles, and spending and then, if we move into another layer of awareness, choose our response.
If we set up permanent camp here or believe the story that this is our box and we must live in it, it is a place of emptiness, a void that can never be filled adequately, though we try, with consumerism, addiction or numbing agents of various kinds, a hedonic treadmill. We will never ever be good enough.
Second Spring – Traditional Chinese Medicine considers menopause as a “second spring” (source) – is different IF we’ve truly done the work of previous seasons. As we step into second spring, things feel wobbly and new again but we have surer footing because we’ve encountered True Self. So we step into a NEW STORY and we may be recalibrating and reinventing our lives, but this time, we are well-equipped with tools for the journey such as wisdom, strength/resilience, and community.
It’s ok to trust yourself. You can give yourself permission to lean into your wisdom instead of second guessing yourself and hoping others will determine things for you. You are highly capable of knowing what you need. Trust that.Minaa B., LMSW
2. EXPANSION AND individuation: a movement toward wholeness
Female Archetype: Mother (nurturer, creative)
Question: Who do others say I am? Where do my beliefs come from?
All and any information we’ve gathered, any experience, can be used for our good when we look below the surface and begin to get curious about the WHY of things. Here we start to explore the roots of our behaviour, the complexities of our story, the myriad factors that have helped shape us, or helped shape the version of self we currently know. While we used to see ourselves primarily in relationship to others – how we are useful and can serve – in later summer we begin to question and separate or individuate from the belief systems we’ve been handed and received blindly.
This is a realm of head-knowledge/intellect and building emotional intelligence more than embodied knowledge and practice, but it cracks us open to new possibilities. We might do grief work or CBT here, work with a spiritual advisor, join Al-Anon, or get involved in anti-racism or advocacy work. But it’s possible to do all of this and never meet True Self. We might write books and teach and know all the right answers, but if we haven’t done (or started) our own healing and integration work, we lead from intellect and/or ego, not embodied wisdom.
In this stage, we might realize, for example, that our anger is actually a cover for fear. Our perfectionism is how we’ve learned to feel safe in the world. That intergenerational trauma and institutionalized oppression and inequity play a role in many people’s lives and a lot of our old adages and beliefs dismiss this reality. Not everyone gets the same jumping-off place.
Where we assumed we had life figured out we start to recognize that we have a whole lot of healing or growing up to do. We name the truth that we’ve been operating on a list of ‘shoulds’ and trying to keep up to the Jones’s, and we don’t even know why.
Little by little we wake up to our biases and conditioning. We question the status quo, the beliefs we’ve been handed, the different roles we play. We learn that we are not our personality and begin to push against the edges of our life.
We are not our mistakes, we are not what we wear, or what we do, or who others say we are. We are not only one thing. We dig a little deeper until we can name our hopes, dreams, fears, core values, core beliefs or root stories (ex I’m too much, I’m not enough) and how this informs our behaviour.
At some point in midlife we come face to face with the reality that there’s more than what we’ve been living. And that we’re not truly or fully walking in freedom. Yet.
Without healthy avenues to process loss, people fragment their experiences, neglect their real stories, numb out, and try to cope on their own, which often results in anger, depression, and anxiety.Kathy Escobar, Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World
3. INTEGRATION and attunement: befriending all of our parts
Female Archetype: Wild Woman
Question: Who am I really? What do I truly believe? What do I need to face or tell the truth about?
The transition from summer into autumn is a significant fork in the road. We are invited to “let go of what is ready to die” (or face the reality of what has come to an end with or without our consent) so that we can come home to True Self. We must release what was in order to step into what’s next.
This is a time of delving into what lays below the surface (the unconscious mind). We learn, bit by bit, to attune to our mind-emotion-body wisdom and we may experience a deepening spiritual life. We begin turning inward for direction more than outward or following the crowd.
This is a confronting and humbling season. Often (hopefully) we are able to access support, to ask for and receive help, because we will need it. Not everyone says yes to this work. And not everyone has the safety or the resources required (for instance, money for therapy) to do this work.
Edited to add (not included in recorded version): We need a strong ego to be able to open ourselves up to the unconscious without being overwhelmed by it. The unconscious includes intuition, nonverbal and experiential knowing, but it also includes ‘animal instinct’ and base nature. “The unconscious is wild and untamed, often leading us down self-destructive paths that leave us baffled by our own decisions.” To access True Self and live healthy and hopeful we need to be able to hold the tension between the two, to be in the discomfort of paradox without losing ourselves in the darkness. (Source: Spellbound, Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman)
We learn to use our voice here and we may not always do so gracefully. We learn to set boundaries and may tilt a little far as we learn to sense our own needs and wants and give ourselves permission to claim them. This is a place of truth-telling including naming our trauma and the things we’ve suppressed or ignored in order to feel safe or belong. We strip away more and more and more, and when we think we’re done, we strip away still more. We learn to quiet the outside noise so that we can recognize the sound of our inner voice. And we deepen self-trust.
At this layer of the journey, we encounter our ego at play, and our shadow – the less comfortable or flattering parts of Self. “Anxiety is the name for the distance between the ego and the deep self” writes mythologist and storyteller, Michael Meade.
“Shadow is an archetype and can be both individual and collective, and contains what is mainly unconscious. Despite their differences, the ego and the shadow are strongly interconnected.” (source)
Psychologist Carl Jung taught that repression of unwanted parts creates the personal shadow. He taught that if we disown a part it turns against us. Though Internal Family Systems helps us understand that the parts that seem to be trying to harm us (like the Inner Critic) may actually be trying to protect us, albeit in maladaptive ways. And the very qualities we reject in ourselves we will see in others (projection). So that’s fun;)
A beautiful part of this season is the shift from self-judgment and shame into self-compassion. With help and lots of work, we begin to soften toward ourselves. We see, for example, that we were always doing the best we knew how, with the tools and resources and level of safety available to us at the time. Our autonomic nervous system has two core directives: keep us safe and alive. And if we’ve made it this far, then it’s done the job.
But now, we are in a safer and more resourced place. And this means that we no longer need all of our old coping mechanisms. We can turn toward the truth of all of our strength and struggle without shame and judgment and further the work that may have started in late summer, as we go deeper into the work of healing, integration, and embodiment.
Healing is a movement toward wholeness. “Healing comes through integration” or an “internal dialogue of acceptance and compassion” says licensed mental health counsellor, Jeremy McAllister. (source)
Integration requires space and it often requires professional support or safe, brave, and compassionate community. In this space we connect the dots, we move all of the things we’ve learned from head-knowledge into a deeper, embodied wisdom, to make them our own.
Dr. Arielle Schwartz says “Embodiment is cultivated through reflective awareness of sensations in the present moment. Embodiment is an integration of three sensory feedback systems—exteroception, proprioception, and interoception.” (source) So we learn to listen to all of our wisdom centers: mind, emotion, and body. And we may (re)learn safety in our body/nervous system so that we can stay present with and grieve and heal old wounds.
Grief can be a catalyst for tremendous growth though it’s equally possible to get stuck in our grief. The death of a child, the death of a child by suicide, throws you head-long into deep winter. Here you will need to fight for life and wholeness like never before. Not much of who you were before will remain afterward. You will be remade if you survive it. But what might also happen, and what I have experienced, is that through the most crushing and horrific darkness and pain you will come to the end of yourself and meet your True Self. You will meet the seed in you that knows you are strong enough to do this thing and that wants to live and thrive and embrace the horrible and beautiful fullness of life. You’re not done yet.Krista O’Reilly-Davi-Digui
4. ESSENCE / SOUL / TRUE SELF
Female Archetype: The Crone or Wise Woman
Question: Here I am. What matters to me now? How is my inner knowing directing me?
Whether you turn to spirituality or religion (and which religion), psychology, story / mythology, or personal conviction, you’ll get a different definition or explanation of True Self. Yet in spite of the differences, there is some common ground.
Here’s a smattering of different beliefs about the concept of True Self:
Family Therapist and academic Richard C. Schwartz, PhD teaches in his book No Bad Parts that “The Self is your wise, compassionate essence of goodness that is the source of healing and harmony.” His work of Internal Family Systems helps people access Self so they can heal their wounded parts. Richard Schwartz says we flit in and out of true self which is both helpful and hopeful.
“An interesting facet of the true self is that it seems to be a belief that is similar across cultures. That is, aspects of the true self have been explored in studies using many different populations around the world, and the beliefs tend to be quite similar. Two core beliefs are that the true self tends to be moral and good.” (source)
But science tells us “The true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm. These two features—radical subjectivity and unverifiability—prevent the true self from being a scientific concept.” (source)
Franciscan priest, mystic, theologian, and author, Father Richard Rohr says “The true self is what religion often calls the soul. It’s your eternal essence.” (source)
More conservative Christians believe that True Self / true identity / authenticity is only found in a surrendered relationship to God. We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and the True Self is who you are because of divine indwelling, the Holy Spirit within you (Romans 8:9). God delights when truth reigns in our inmost being (Psalm 51:6) and God is truth (John 14:6). “We cannot really be true to ourselves until our selves derive their identity, purpose, and destiny from the Father through Jesus.” (source)
Deepak Chopra, MD, pioneer of integrative medicine and spirituality, teaches that True Self “is the source of creativity, intelligence and personal growth.” It “understands what you really want and what you really need to be joyful. It creates a much stronger, more expansive foundation for your life than any the ego-self can provide, since that is rooted in fear and insecurity.” And True Self “is the purest part of yourself.” (source)
In A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, author, educator, and activist, Parker J Palmer, writes about a dark time of depression in his life: “My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.” I believe that this is the part of him that he’d consider True Self.
Psychiatrist, Jungian analyst, and author, Jean Shinoda Bolen MD, writes In Goddesses in Older Women: Archetypes in Women Over 50, “what we know though a connection with the Self is divine wisdom.” She tells of the gnostic Christians who believed that gnosis or “insight” was “an intuitive process of knowing oneself at the deepest level, which, as they believed or mystically experienced, was to simultaneously know God.”
Bolen continues, “Self is the “archetype of meaning” in Jungian psychology that can be translated by religious people into their names for divinity or as the invisible oneness (Tao) that underlies and connects everything in the visible universe (…) it is wisdom that dwells in us and is everywhere.”
The Brave + Beautiful Community is for brave and curious women in the middle season of life. Befriend your true self and reclaim your inner wisdom, bravery and strength. You’ll also have the opportunity to build beautiful friendships with like-minded women doing this inspiring work!
my take on befriending true self
I believe that meeting and befriending true self is possible for everyone who says yes to the work. A seed has been planted within each of us. We must choose to water the seed and nourish the soil.
No gatekeeper or shortcut can confer the deep wisdom received through years of healing and stripping away, saying yes to personal growth work, and lived experience, that makes possible meeting and befriending True Self.
Some of us are more intuitive or attuned to our inner world from the start. Some have tumultuous early years that require extra layers of healing to repair the disconnect of mind, emotion, body, soul. Many are learning how to walk in freedom not only with lack of modelling but also as they heal from inter-generational trauma.
And we live with the constant distraction and noise of a world (and for some of us, Western culture) hyper-focused on consumerism, productivity/outward achievement, and status symbols. Being human is a messy business.
Spirituality and faith can but do not necessarily support the practice of listening inward and trusting what we hear, nor does faith on a belief/cognitive level alone make someone wise, honest, or live in integrity. People can wear any label and still live in ego: power-hungry, greedy, and/or abusive. Again, if faith plants a seed, you still have to choose to respect the gift.
Middle age and beyond we’ve gathered life experience and likely walked through some winter seasons; I don’t think we really know freedom and wisdom or perhaps even post-childhood joy (though I’m willing to be wrong) unless we’ve walked through winter.
Sufi poet, Rumi, expressed this beautifully when he wrote “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
Due to more perspective and also more time and space to attend to our inner world (after kids are grown and the pull on our attention lessens, for example), aging can contribute to this work. But age alone does not confer wisdom.
In True Self we are in integrity and wholeness. Undivided. We don’t need to try to be someone – we simply are. We don’t wrestle with our worth – we simply rest in it. We know that we are strength and struggle – messy and imperfect (human!) and also beautiful and valuable. We have access to our gut and intuition, the maturity to hold paradox, the wisdom to know that there’s a whole lot we do not yet know or understand. We only see in part.
We witness, value by our actions, and celebrate our interconnectedness; together we form a beautiful and healthy whole. As writer, professor, and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde, taught, “Without community, there is no liberation.”
And because life is a grand adventure, we don’t arrive here once and for all. We begin again. We step into what’s next. And while we bring with us the wisdom we’ve acquired to date, we’ll surely meet new challenges and opportunities for growth or deeper and more nuanced understanding up ahead.
We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.May Sarton
befriending true self: the midlife crossroad
Midlife is an exciting and important crossroad. If we live in relative safety with food and shelter (otherwise our focus is on survival), we are invited to choose if we’ll settle for the status quo or say yes to a new, joyful and hopeful possibility.
We are invited to come home to our True Self as we strip away all the comparison, self-judgment, trying to jump through hoops to prove our worth, trying to measure up and keep up. We must practice truth-telling, untangle ourselves from harmful stories and conditioning, and bravely step into the unknown for a time. It can feel unmooring – because it’s new. The good news is that we find the strength we need as we say yes to the work. One step at a time.
We strip away more and more until finally, the truth of who we are is laid bare. What it has felt like for me is coming to the end of my old self so I can grow into my True Self.
Dying to what was, what I believed I needed for wholeness and happiness, my intellect, my efforts, my fear and rage, my wanting to be in control, and then befriending or coming into deeper relationship with a truer Self that lives underneath all of that noise, pain, and pretense.
And then, in this place of darkness that can feel like it will crush us, the light of spring begins to shimmer in the distance. And there are new companions waiting to accompany us into what’s next: joy and freedom. We feel wobbly and awkward but as we step into a new season, they’ll teach us a new way of being in our body and life.
And it’s ok if we falter or tip at times back into ego or an old unhealed part because we can always find our way home again. As my mom would say when she was still on earth, the porch light is always on.
Sometimes we just need to see a new joyful or hopeful possibility. Use the assessment to identify your current level of friendship with yourself then map a soul-honouring path forward.
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