A while back, before I quit my Big Job, I thought I was the only one. The only nearly 40-year-old who had no freakin’ idea who she was.
Turns out, it’s not just me.
Turns out, there’s a heap of us.
It’s a thing.
I’ve spent the last year coaching bright, hard-working women. Amazing women who, between breast feeding and wiping bums, between school lunches and changing the bed linen, advise others on their investments or HR policy or sales strategy. Women who, had I met them in the workplace, I might have found intimidating, certainly indomitable. They are ferociously smart and oh so articulate. And yet, like me, they were lost. Like me, they couldn’t get a handle on who they were. They were everything and yet somehow nothing.
Like I said, it’s a thing.
The good thing, however, about this thing, is that there is a way out. I’m reporting from the other side that it can be done. It’s taken me a while, but I’m back baby! And Sweet Mary, Mother-of-the-J-Man, does it feel good. I literally skip down the street.
When you know who you are, life starts to unfold before you in this thrillingly, organic way. You see the world clearly, and relationships and decisions get easier. You let go of all the stuff and maybe even some people that have not been serving you. You get to own your life rather than be some knockabout tenant. You have boundaries and confidence.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? I know. I could only have imagined such a life a few short years back. And yet, here I am! Not only knowing myself but guiding others on the journey too. And while I can’t give you an exact road map – it’s not an A to B kind of journey – I want to offer up a few broad pointers. Some tips to get you on your way. This is top 5 that worked for me. I hope they work for you too.
This one won’t give you the feeling of knowing who you are but it’s still a worthwhile step. A psychologist friend shared it and it represents a small, but important, mental shift. It’s a good one too for untangling your work identity from your true self, and it’s frighteningly simple.
Here it is: say your name out loud. Right, that is who you are! Now, say anything else that describes you. For me it’s: I’m a mum of two kids, a wife, daughter, friend, writer, coach and Aperol Spritz lover. These things are what you are. Or at least what I am. Anyway, the point is, don’t mix them up. Who you are is your name. What you are is all the other stuff. The what stuff is not who you are. You’re just you.
Beyond working out who and what you are, most people want to have that feeling or sense of who they are, which goes beyond just knowing their name. They want a “sense of self”, so to speak. This is what I longed for when I was drowning in my Big Job, and this is what my clients kept confessing to me too.
So, let’s go deep. No more faffing about. It turns out, connecting with self and knowing who you are is all about hearing and developing your “inner voice”. Yep, it’s that simple. It sounds a touch corny but it’s the truth, and seriously awesome. Why? Because getting clear on who you really are brings with it some A grade cool. Suddenly, you’re one of those people who are “completely themselves”, comfortable in their own skin. And the inner voice can give all of this.
So how do you hook up with the voice? How do you get acquainted? Well, you’re going to need to give yourself some serious time and space. Not just five minutes between meetings or after school drop off. The inner voice does not announce itself with the TV blaring and the kids crying while you try and throw together home-made chicken nuggets. No, the inner voice won’t share its wisdom unless you’re really listening. It’s like the great aunt who demands your full attention before she speaks.
And deep down, you know exactly how to get her talking, how to connect with the voice. You know the activities that create space and silence. They differ for everyone but yoga, walks and meditation are a good start. Turning off the TV and stopping screen use is good too. Also camping, retreats and anything in nature. Put bluntly, your life is too busy and your brain too crowded. You need to stop the overload and pare things back to hear and know the voice. To know and hear YOU. This ain’t going to happen any other way. You need to get brutal.
God bless Martha Beck. Some 15 years ago she wrote a book by this name which totally nails how and why so many of us lose ourselves. It’s really the starting place for anyone feeling lost or stuck and is compulsory reading for high-achieving, perfectionists – just like my clients.
The core concept of the book is that we bowl on into this life with our “Essential Self” formed and then go onto develop a “Social Self”, which is shaped by cultural norms and social expectations.
The “Social Self” is the one that goes to law school when you dream of being an artist, and the one that takes a job in finance when you’d like to try your hand at carpentry.
The Social Self says yes to a work barbeque when you’re dying to slob on the couch, and it agrees to help deliver a flailing work project when you’re desperate to leave by six to make a Pilates class.
Basically, according to Martha, if you spend enough time doing what you think is “the right thing”, rather than doing those things that make your Essential Self yodel with joy, over time your Essential Self gets eclipsed. It gets lost in the quagmire of “being good” rather than “being true”. Finding Your Own North Star beautifully unpacks how this might happen to us and then walks through some specific exercises to find your way home. It’s a ripper starting point. Read it.
Another simple strategy – in the absence of knowing who you are – is simply deciding who you want to be. That’s right. You simply decide. You see, we define ourselves through our actions, so it is entirely possible to just decide who you want to be, and then make your decisions and actions accord with that vision. Over time, you will become that person.
And I should know. It worked for me. Some time ago, before I discovered Martha and got down with my inner voice, I was fed up, fearful and frazzled. I couldn’t fathom how my helpful, workaholic approach wasn’t getting me where I wanted to go. On paper I was smashing it, but nothing about it felt very good. I was sick of playing it small and I wanted to live more boldly, but with balance too. And, so I did.
How’s that? Well, with every decision made and every action taken, I would check back with my twin goals of boldness and balance, ensuring alignment. From quitting my Big Job to doing a late-night supermarket run, these were my reference points. The touchstones for everything I did and do. And since I wasn’t ever someone who would have gone for gentle run before sitting down to write a blog like this one, I think I can say I’m becoming that person.
Finally, for me at least, knowing who you are also involves knowing why you are. That is, why are you here and what’s your purpose? Yep, you’re going to need to tackle the big questions, and if you haven’t thought about them since your naval gazing Uni days, you’ll need to start with the basics:
What’s important to you?
What gives your life meaning?
What makes you feel fulfilled?
Who can you serve?
When are you your best self?
Defining your why narrows your focus and defines your boundaries. It shaves away the fluff and leaves you with your core. It’s a reverse-engineered journey back to self, if you will. And indeed, the two are inextricably linked: Deepak Chopra says the very purpose of life is to find yourself.
To that end, if you can’t find yourself or your purpose, don’t fret. They can be lifelong pursuits. They also shift like sands over time so remember, if you do find them, there’s no assurance that they’ll stay put. But their pursuit is our growth. Our gift.
For me, my purpose was there all along, lingering in the background like a wannabe boyfriend. My fifteen-year-old self could have told it to you in a heartbeat, but she took a detour and got waylaid. Two decades later, with the birth of my daughter, the Big Job I never loved, and the realisation that our family couldn’t work this way, my purpose stepped out of the shadows and announced itself. It had been a while, but I was finally ready.