The Surprising Secret to Discovering Your True Self

I want to tell you the secret to discovering your true self. Here it is: there is no secret. Because your true self is a like a beach ball pushed deep under the water—you only need to take your hands off of it, and it will explode to the surface. The real question is: why are you pushing it down, and how do you take your hands off


Photo Credit: McBeth (Creative Commons)

A Ruined Retreat

I awoke on a frosty November morning in the simple solitude of a Franciscan retreat center. No alarm clock, no kids poking my forehead, no breakfast to prepare. No requirements whatsoever. Only the purpose of my weekend: to embrace more fully my true self.

The morning started simply enough, but as I settled into the quiet space, I felt a familiar and unwelcome pang in my gut:

It’s a sense of urgency. It’s my little propeller of accomplishment. It’s my drive to achieve. It’s the ghost of shame, whispering in my soul: “Get it done, Kelly. Discover something meaningful and beautiful, accomplish something real. Your worth depends upon it.”

And it can devastate a day. Or a weekend retreat.

Discovering What We Already Are

“Who am I?”

There is an intuitive kind of wisdom implicit in this question uttered in hearts and homes and psychotherapy offices across the globe.

Not “What could I be?” or “What will I become?”

But “Who am I?”

A question implying the answer is already present. And deep in our bones we know this to be true: I am already here somewhere—my becoming is really an unearthing, an excavation of what already is.

Our true self is here now, but it has been pushed beneath the surface by the hands of time and pain and fear.

Why We Hide

We began this life inhabiting a sense of worth, born into light and innocence. But from the moment of our first cries, people were getting us all wrong. The people we loved were like mirrors in a fun house, returning distorted images of who we are. Images distorted by their own pain and brokenness. And so the hands of a broken world pushed our true self beneath the surface of life.

On occasion, we cautiously, timidly revealed ourselves to others and they acted like judge and jury. And the pain of that kind of shame can split us in two. The true self is pushed safely into the dark depths, and we quickly, resiliently learn to replace it with a more “acceptable” self. We wear this false self like a mask, all the while sitting on this undulating beach ball of the true self, trying to keep it buried beneath the surface.

We push it down with too-thin bodies, impeccable clothing, aisles of makeup, the biggest houses and shiniest cars and trophies and crowds and bank accounts and lovers and righteousness and anger and perfection and flawless children and lots of letters behind our names. We push the true self down, terrified of the moment of revelation.

A Grace-Full Retreat

As the aching in my gut began to grow on that November morning, I stopped and uttered a simple prayer: “Show me who I am.” Several moments of silence followed, and then the thought: 

There is a beautiful, secluded lake about three minutes away, and all I want out of this entire weekend is to walk the three-mile path around it. I want to walk it slowly, with nowhere to go except back to the beginning. I want to walk it mindfully, with nothing to accomplish but a still, slow breath. I’m quite simply starved for the experience.

So I put down my reading and picked up my coat. I walked out of the building and I searched for the entrance to the forest path that would deliver me to the lake. I spotted it—a worn opening framed by stark trees and brown-crumpled leaves. I took my first step onto the path—the crunching of leaves beneath my feet, every breath crisp in my lungs.

And I felt relief well up like a fountain within me.

This is who I am. A country boy, raised in the woods, his home rooted in a stark, barren landscape. An introverted kid, his heart rooted in silence and solitude. An innocent young man, hoping only for peace and joy and simplicity.

This is who I am.

And how often am I pushing this under the water of life like a beach ball? Pressing it down with insecurity and the need to achieve, the compulsion to prove myself all over again. How often do I clean up one more mess while my children are inviting me to play, inviting me to be myself? How often do I make the quiet spaces of life into another final exam, trying to accomplish something that will finally prove my worth?

How often is my true self suffocated like a beach ball beneath the waters of life, pushed down by all my hands of shame?

The True Self Explodes

Our true self is a beach ball submerged by our hands of shame. And it’s ready to explode to the surface.

Are you exhausted by the games we play? Are you absolutely aching to end the hiding of who you really are? Are you ready to remove your hands and watch as your true self rockets to the surface? Are you trembling at the idea—trembling with fear and anticipation? Are you ready to crack the thin veneer of your false self with the hammer of authenticity? Are you ready to take a courageous swipe at all the falsehood?

When we step into the fullness of who we are, it is terrifying—all sorts of mess rushes to the surface. Deep grief, awful fears, festering wounds, embarrassing truths—all sorts of flaws and blemishes.

But with it also comes beauty and passion and purpose and meaning and relief—sweet relief—from the pressure of the hiding.

With it comes people who know who we really are and want to be with us anyway.

With it comes the freedom to play and live and love.

With it comes the grace of a gloriously broken creature.

Are you ready to lift your hands?

Questions: When you let your true self emerge, what do you fear about the experience? What do you revel in? Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.  

Preview: My next post on Wednesday, January 23, will build upon this post and is entitled, “A Manifesto for Grace: How a Radical Embrace Changes Everything.”

Dear Reader, My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is now available. There are two ways to get a copy. First, new blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Second, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

35 thoughts on “The Surprising Secret to Discovering Your True Self

  1. Kelly! This took my breath away because it is beautiful and because it came exactly on a morning when I needed to read it. Today is my first day post-therapy, and I planned on using those 90 minutes to write, to be gentle with myself, to BE. But, for the first time in forever, I slept in, and now my busy day is even busier and I honestly don’t know if I can take the time. There so much to do, do, do. As I was waking my son up for school, I was thinking that when I *can* make time to write, I wanted to write about being able to relax into who I AM instead of what I DO and how to figure out how they’re different. Therapy gave me space to BE that I don’t have anymore, and part of my new journey will be figuring it out. Thank you so much for this post. Just in time.

    • Kim, how wonderful to read your post today and to see the way you settled into “being you.” Thank you for posting it!

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  3. I like the post overall, but I think you’re assuming people know their “true selves.” What if we don’t? Does a true self even exist? Are we not complex, evolving creatures, who may want or need something different each and every day?

    • I’m not the Dr., but I feel our “true self” is not created by our mind (thoughts of wants and needs; or attachments). I might add that mindfulness practice (meditation with concentration on your breath where a person lets their thoughts come and go without entertaining them) helps me to shine light on the “I” and the true self.

      • Brian, when it comes to discovering who we are, I’m not sure any of us is “the doctor.” 🙂 Camille, you’re asking great questions. A couple of thoughts: I think I’m actually assuming people don’t know their true selves, not because the true self doesn’t exist, but because we inhibit our own ability to know ourselves, for reasons described in the post. I guess I like the idea that we are complex creatures and our evolution is bringing us ever closer to knowing who we really are. In some cases, that process might bring us to a place where we discover we are the kind of person who does need change and variability from day to day; while for other people that process might bring us to a place of realizing we desire rhythm and ritual. This is a great discussion, I hope it continues!

    • We are all children of God and have one person who he wants us to be. Find it and you have found your true self.

    • I’m mainly responding here to the above, Camille, “Does a true self even exist?” Making a much longer story short: About 30 years ago I had what people call a “religious/spiritual experience”. This experience was totally, completely spontaneous, unexpected, “out-of-the-blue”… There were many “parts” to the experience, but the overall theme was: there was/is a Spirit who is Holy, not from this Earth, dwells in my/our heart/s, and, LOVES MY TRUE SELF!!!!!

      In other words, during this experience, I realized and experienced that I had a True Self… In that experience, I tought, “This Holy Spirit loves my True Self, and I didn’t even know I have a True Self!” There were so many realizations going on at the same time that it’s hard to write about just one or two parts of that experience, but relevant to this article and your comment, I discovered, (speaking only for myself) that I had a True Self that was different than my usual “self, and that until then I had no idea existed (and if I had read or heard of a “True Self” in any Christian or other religious context, I would have totally dismissed it as brainwashing non-sense!), and this True Self was loved by a BEING, not an idea or energy, but an actual being, who I believe is the Holy Spirit.

      So, what I discovered for myself goes right along with Dr. F’s article here, and many other spiritual writers, that the True Self is not like a self among many other selves which come and go according to our needs, moods, etc., but more like a Whole Self which is our real self that we’re born with. It’s our innocent self, the self we are born as, the Self formed of our individuality and God/Holy Spirit’s love, which is quickly hurt in many ways by parents doing what their parents did to their True Selves in the name of discipline, “spare the rod spoil the child”, bullying, social conditioning which happens constantly, all the time, and the True Self becomes “buried”, under our defenses, our denial, and a million other ways we try to deal with these constant assaults on our innocent, open, vulnerable and sensitive True Self.

      I hope everyone can get something from my comment. I wrote it hastily, because I really wanted to post this asap and not let it become another entry on my InfiniteTo-do List!

  4. This is essentially the crux of the friction between me and my family of origin. When I am at home, with my husband and his family and our friends, I fully embrace who I am, and those around me are supportive and understanding and wonderful and respectful. Then I go back to visit my parents and have to spend the entire time pretending that I am still exactly who they want me to be. If I dare to express an opinion that is contrary or not pretend that I still follow in their religious footsteps, then I spend the rest of the trip doing damage control and walking on eggshells trying to figure out how to fix it. It’s exhausting, just as you say, and getting back home is exactly freedom you describe.

    • V, you’re living it, and I’m so glad you do have a place where you can be seen and embraced. May you grow stronger in that place so that when you return to the other home, you are more at peace with being you, regardless of the reaction.

  5. am blown away all i can say is ‘show me who i am.who you trully amde me to be and if am not there yet,guide me’

  6. I have to admit I was alittle bit disappointed there wasn’t a 5 step approach to discovering your true self. I think over the years I have become more honest with myself about who I am and how I want to live my life. But I think there is still that little piece of you that wonders am I getting this right. Yes, I am tried of the games that people play and I try hard not to play them. Maybe it is my age, but I dont really hide my true thoughts or feelings on things anymore. I would say this last year how I changed my view about my job was probably the last thing holding me back from really embracing who I really am. So now that I am no longer a workaholic I have time to do the things I love and come even closer to who I see as my true self. I know it is scary. It is like when you take off the training wheels of your bike, you stumble but in the end you gain your balance and your life if richer for it. I think some times it is the little steps you take when you open up yourself to dream. Sometimes we get lost in how we should/could live. Instead of have the courage to step out in a leap of faith to be the person God wants us to be. A couple of years ago I told my husband about a dream of mine to write a book. It was one of those conversations about what I will do once the kids graduate from college. It was at least a good 10 yrs away, and I was trying to figure out what I really want to do with my life. It was just a dream of mine which I think was my first step in moving away from the workaholic mode of life and embracing the idea that it is never too late to do what your heart desires. My husband that Mothers day bought me a laptop, and pretty much said, Why wait until the kids are out of school? He thought I should do what would make me happy now. It was huge for me because he validated that I could dream big dreams and he would be there to share it with me.

  7. Very true when suggested on the text about: …others bringing up ‘fragmented’ valuations and prejudices about oneself. Can we truly construct our selves with those opinions? Most probably: ‘no way’ (nice article… congrats)

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  9. Ever since my childhood, I don’t know how ” I ” came into being. This “I” should not have been there in the first place. This “I” is the object and rest all are attributes ie my name, my appearance, my lineage etc etc. If this “I” is the true self then it is the greatest mysteries of all. Do anybody know?

    • SK, Wish you had been at the Google Hangout today. Your reflections would have fit in nicely with the discussion. Thank you for sharing them here!

  10. I think the biggest fear of being our True Selves is that most people believe its the death of who we believe we are. In many ways it is but we have to remember that surrendering the small limited self of who we believed ourselves to be means we are giving way to the greater part of us. Our True Selves is who we really are and like Kelly says, its there all the time covered by our layers waiting to explode through.

    My favorite definition of the ego or small self is this…A collection of negative limiting beliefs we learned about ourselves and life that we really believe to be true. These learned beliefs create an illusory and small self that we think is who we are. Yet, finding your True Self means allowing it since, in truth, its who we already are, and allowing it means surrendering the small self. Surrendering the small self means being willing to dissolve our limiting beliefs that created it and as we do we automatically yield to the greatest Infinite Intelligence, light, power, god, beauty and perfection that we can imagine.

    • James, stick around here, will you? Love these reflections. I do think one of the most radical transitions that can happen in a person’s life is when they discover the thing they have been calling “me” is really the ego, and the “real me” is something entirely different within us. I like the term “small self.” I’ve also heard “false self” used. Good stuff, James, thanks!

      • Thanks for your very kind words Kelly!

        Yes, I feel the same regarding what you say about radical transitions. We’re so conditioned to believe that we’re only the small self that most people don’t even question it. We just think that’s how we are and that’s how life is. Even when people hear about finding your True Self or realizing the True Self, the ego (the conditioning) tells them its too good to be true. Yet, as you know, our Essence within patiently awaits for us to turn to it and recognize our inherent oneness with the greatest power in the Universe.

        I appreciate your blog kelly!

  11. So the answer to finding out the True Self is letting go (so to speak). For me, that is not a definitive answer, particularly in this society.

    Besides a retreat, how else can you let go?

    • George, it’s a great question. “Letting go” is, I think, a great way to describe the process that must happen on the way to discovering our true self. I have several thoughts. Historically, traditions involving prayer, contemplation, and meditation have cultivated an ability to let go. We ended up talking a little bit about this in Sunday’s UnTangled Google Hangout. Second, I get this question so often, it’s part of the focus of the book I’m writing, which is to say, I’m working on a more comprehensive answer to your question! And finally, I’ll be announcing on the blog soon a little experiment I’m going to conduct over the holidays. For seven days, I’m going to live like it’s 20 years ago, which is to say participate in no technology or activity that didn’t exist in 1993. I believe this will function as a sort of retreat in the midst of everyday life. Via a blog post, I’m going to invite others to join me in doing it and then writing about it. Would love to have you try it out in some form with me!

  12. Hi, i would like to explain what is it i am feeling right now but it seems too hard to do. I love your piece here and i actually have found myself already doing some of the tarehings. It is from this experience that i manage to delve into a rather deep part of my mind which shows me that there are layers in my mind. Each layer floats to the surface when faced with certain situations while others stay on the backdrop. I found out i am able to switch between this layers and this actually forms the core of my emotional capacity. I tried finding my true self but out of so many it is hard to find The One. So can i ask, is having a combination of all these my true self or have i lost my original one under so many faces?

    • Dill, This question is at the heart of the book I’m writing. So much of what we read about the true self and false self treats them as if they are separate, monolithic and easy to recognize entities. I want to talk about what the true self actually is, why and how the false self develops, and how to deconstruct it, layer by layer, as you say. I’m still working through these ideas in the writing process. I hope you’ll be patient!

  13. “with it comes the grace a of gloriously broken creature” possibly the wises and most beautiful description of ones self that I’ve ever come across. Thank you

  14. I had an experience of my true self 20 years ago. I had a nervous breakdown when my 4th child touched it. I was shy like her in my inner child. I was also poor as I just realized we had 3 mortgages and back taxes that no one was addressing. My motherhood came alive, but the jobs caused me to by Hypomanic and I was flooding with feelings galore from my childhood and my future. I found out I was neglected by my Dad, brother who died 20 years earlier, and my Father. I got sidetracked with the recovery movement and lost my kids, my house, my financial support and go divorced. I was a mess, but had to go to work. I never finished my recovery or my Motherhood. I lost my children due to my mania. I was trying to fix everything and then just love and be a Mom. It didn’t work that way. I couldn’t concentrate and worked, never being my real self. If I got happy a little bit, I got yelled at by my Mom and Xhusband. I have been homeless for 20 years and really want my loving, nice self to come out. It is a mess, but I am trying to led God lead me now, but I live with a very codependent family who is mentally ill and poor, so the atmosphere isn’t the best. I have my dream deep inside, but am angry I was never taken to the hospital 20 years ago. My nephew committed suicide 12 years ago and I always felt I could save him, if we dealt with Mental Illness in our family. I have PTSD, but still feel the little girl inside who was never able to learn and support herself and take care of herself. My kids live in 300,000 homes, but have never had a Mother as I was too sick with clinical depression, so I am frozen around them, but my inner child still wants to come out and play. I am angry she is not allowed to come out, so I lash out at the wrong people. I used to be a Cheerleading advisor, Sunday School Teacher, and quite involved with my kids, but realize they just laughed at me and shunned me and called me crazy. I am irresponsible, but can work hard if yelled at. I can see others depression and want to help, and want to be a Mom and Woman, but keep getting abused by my family. They all left me in my toddler state brought on by our situation and I have a 20 year headache, but still feel my true self inside. My X is a people pleasing super responsible boy who has sued me for child support with my disability of OCD, ADD, dependent personality, Fatherless Daughter Syndrome, etc., and just calls me crazy. I won’t be around them anymore as I am the elephant in the room, but have to much love to give, I just can’t give money. I am tithing to get me through, but also want to live now and I am not going to hide my mental illness anymore, but be real. I got hit for being nice and I don’t want to be nice about things, yet I am a Christian and know that I must love, I must be the change in the world, but feel unless I get a house of my own to be me, I will be a doormat.
    I was able to get a Real Estate LIscence years ago and negotiate with three banks when we had 3 mortagages and back taxes, so I know I can learn, but really just wanted to be a MOm and let others pay the rent. I am not a career person and only have empathy skills, but no one has empathy for me. God is the only one who knows who I really am. Shy and anxious like he made me. God wants me to be powerful, of sound mind, and outgoing. Being unloved by a human is hard. I must not be a doormat, but try to be nice. I am still in shock because we inherited 250,000 and didn’t pay off our little house because my husband at the time got us 2 mortages to go to Disney world. I am a mess, but can see others cry and have total empathy. I wanted to be a Mother of a genius, not someone who is poor and homeless. I have made a fool out of myself , but know I have some codependent answers, and won’t be made a fool of anymore. I’ll stay away from my family until I am alive, but I am dead without them. I will always be angry I wasn’t taken to the hospital 20 years ago when my true self was emerging. She is going to be dynamic if she ever gets out.

  15. My theory is, we are our true selves when we are babies in our mothers womb.
    Unaffected by the outside world we simply want to Love and be Loved.

    And that’s the simple state of every human being before it gets pushed down as you put it by life.

    Although its pushed down, its still a formidable subconscious force that exists within all humans.

    The meaning of life is to love and be loved, starting with self-love, Love of your true self.

    And the way to make it work is remembering to protect your true self by detaching all life’s baggage and keep it separate from your true self.

  16. I guess if I had any fears it would be facing, or realizing all the mistakes of my past. However, I would absolutely revel in the sense of freedom of not having to perform, act, or pretend to be untrue to myself.

  17. Love this post Kelly. I believe our purpose and mission in life is find and reconnect to our true selfs. We came into this world forgetting who we were and so our life is a self-discovery mission to make contact again with our true selfs. The art of doing this I have found, is to first accept this idea we are lost and need to be found again, and to enjoy and experience the journey and each and every step as we try and find ourselves, and enjoy life along the way. Live is not meant to be a struggle, we are born to love, be jolly and we are born to explore and discover who we really are and our purpose. The key here is to live with life and not our minds. To live in each and every moment that life brings. As when we do this fear is non-existent, as fear is just our imaginary minds creating a false believe that something will happen in the future, that does not exist in the now. Live each day as a self-discovery journey by being like a curious child who wants to know what, how and why things are happening now. They live in the presence of now and this is how to live life with joy, happiness and a more peaceful mind.

  18. I read this article out loud to myself, letting every word soak in. I have been through a difficult few months trying to unearth who I am really am and I can say, it’s been a struggle. I still don’t see the light, because I feel like a little seedling buried beneath the soil but I’m slowly feeling that my time to emerge is coming. I fear the messiness, the chaos and size of this experience. I believe it is bigger than me, and I think that is what scares me – or perhaps scares the false self that I have constructed. I fear the pain that comes with it. I have repressed a lot of this pain and have internalised this believing it to be a part of who I am. I fear I will not be able to handle this pain. I fear the uncertainty and the unpredictability of my true self. I fear looking at myself honestly and I fear that I am not the person I thought I was. I fear that I am not perfect and I fear of what other people will think. When I let my true self emerge, I will revel in the beauty of who I am, the space to hold all my strengths and weaknesses, the openness, the freedom, the happiness and the truth of life. Everything will feel spacious, I feel like I can truly breathe without any guilt or shame, be fearless with who I am, and come from a place of love that connects me with world. I will revel in the honesty, in the acceptance of what is and the confidence to steer my self in the right direction with confidence and conviction that does not feel pushed or pressured – it just seeps in. I will revel in the calmness, being centred and grounded, not dependent on outside forces to feed myself, because I know I am whole. Thank you, Kelly. That was a really helpful exercise.

  19. Dear Mr. Flanagan, our God given true self has at it’s core a God given irrepressible impulse to cocreate with God’s heart pure joy for others, we have four God given realms of Heart, heart of a child towards God/parents, heart of a brother or sister towards our neighbors, heart of a spouse towards one’s God given spouse, heart of a parent towards one’s God given children. When we create pure divine joy for the other from the respective position of that particular coresponding realm of heart, then we are truely connected with one’s true self, an extention of God’s love in manifestation….

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