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

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?

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.