Who am I?: Surviving the search for your True North
There are times in our lives, when we need to reinvent ourselves. And parts of that can really suck. If you find yourself forging your own path and feeling alone, or lost, or even just wrung out... this article can help you learn to come at these challenges from a place of calm empowerment and self-compassion.
Looking for your own True North...
Personally, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve looked around and realized something was off in my life. I’d set my course wrong, using someone else’s True North, and I needed to take a beat, salvage my life for parts, and re-orient myself towards a goal that fits a little better.
Maybe you have too? Let me know if this sounds familiar…
You were living a comfortable life. Sure it wasn’t all roses, but nothing was wrong, exactly. When you woke up in the morning, you knew who you were, and so did everyone else.
And then, all of a sudden, something changed. Maybe it was you. One morning when you woke up you said “this isn’t enough”.
Or maybe something outside of your control shifted; you were downsized, a family member died, you were transferred, school ended … Whether it was your choice, or just the universe messing with you, you found yourself on unstable footing.
You found yourself wondering, “if I’m not an accountant, or a teacher, or a mom… who am I?“
As time passes, you work on yourself. You heal, you search, you keep your antennae up. And one day, you have an idea. Some tiny voice inside you says, “Maybe I could try writing again?”, “What if I started my own business?” or “What if I chose to be alone for a while?” Something in you wants to take a step that’s audacious and unexpected, but feels, somehow, exactly right.
… but forging your own path is really friggin’ hard.
Parts of breaking off the well-trodden path and setting off on my own were fantastic. There were mornings when I woke up full of energy and enthusiasm, marveling at the infinite possibility that is my life. There were hours when I was in flow, losing time to work that sucked in my whole mind and filled me with a sense of joy and purpose.
But these days were far less common than the days when I was exhausted. Days when the thought of crawling out from under the covers just to, yet again, ask myself “How can I be my truest, best, most productive self today?” … was more than I could stand.
And on top of the general exhaustion, there would also be days of panic and anxiety. Days when I was supposed to bring my fragile new identity out and put it on show, where it would have to try to stand up to what I was sure would be harsh scrutiny from the world.
Or days when I didn’t even step outside, I was just stuck in a mental whirlwind of “I’m just being silly” or “who am I to forge my own path? That’s for other, braver, smarter, stronger people.”
Standing before these hurdles, all the bravery and self-discovery that it took to listen to that tiny voice inside us could be lost. Under stress we do tend towards old, bad habits, old thought patterns - it’s only natural to buckle under the pressure and go backwards - And because of the nature of self-doubt, our tendency to beat ourselves up and to see ourselves through the harshest of eyes, this hurdle must be vaulted again, and again.
So how do we find the energy to keep picking ourselves up, vaulting the hurdles, day after day?
Over my many reinventions, from Neuroscience Student, to Children’s Book Illustrator, to Graphic Designer, to Community Builder, to Coach … I’ve learned some attitudes, some tools and some ways of thinking that can help keep you from driving yourself crazy in this process. These learnings have made it so that each time I adjust my path, it’s a little easier, and I’m a little kinder to myself. They’re learnings that have helped my clients through similar journeys, and that I hope will be just as useful for you as you walk your new path.
1. First, Celebrate
Remember, that you are amazing. It’s easy to follow someone else’s path, to close your eyes and sleep-walk through life. It is much more difficult to determine each step for yourself. It involves constant questioning, attention and mindfulness, not to mention the strength to stand up to criticism. You are brave. Brave enough to live a life of intention.
Take a moment to pat yourself on the back… and I really mean it. Take yourself out for a drink, or a peaceful walk, or just take a moment over a good cup of coffee. Take a deep breath and reflect on your bravery and feel deeply proud of yourself.
2. Practice Self-Compassion
Try having a little compassion for yourself. Acknowledge that this is hard work, and this may very well be a tough time for you. In trying to find an identity that feels authentic, you’re also making yourself deeply vulnerable - If your true self is rejected or mocked, think about how much more that hurts than if you’re judged for a life that you’re not that invested in.
As you walk a new path, you’re bound to fail… to misstep, get lost and trip-up. These moments sting, they bring embarrassment, sometimes even shame, and often feelings of isolation. But remind yourself that you are not alone in this moment, your flaws are what make you deeply human, what connects you to everyone else. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, they’re what makes you part of “the (sometimes messy) human family.”
Everyone brave has failed, everyone who’s failed has felt that sting. You are not alone.
Remember to be kind to yourself. It’s tempting to just tell yourself to get back up and try again, to use the motivational tricks so many of us have internalized and insist that we just get back at it, right now… The time for getting up will come, but it’s alright to take a moment, and catch your breath. It’s okay to feel hurt, or sad, or tired. It’s okay to be kind to yourself, to tell yourself “this is a moment of suffering, and it sucks!” and give yourself a hug, or an afternoon of journaling, or a fresh mug of coffee… whatever you need in that moment.
This meditation by Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher in self-compassion, is a phenomenal way to take a self-compassion break. It walks you through the thought process in the above paragraph and only takes 5 minutes.
3. Practice Patience
Patience is very hard, and it’s something I still struggle with… a lot. I often say to my friends, “don’t you wish we had a montage button?” I could just press it and the months or years of hard work would be cut into 30 seconds of footage all to a song you could really dance to?
Unfortunately I haven’t found that button yet, and instead, even on a meteoric rise to success, there are long, dark nights when the only thing that sustains us is patience (and maybe a bottle of wine and a friend?). And why I think this is so difficult, at least for me, is because I’m asking myself to have faith that I’m heading in the right direction - to accept that I’m exactly where I need to be on this journey … essentially to trust in myself. And this REALLY doesn’t come naturally to me.
Having that sort of faith in ourselves can feel easy when we’re sky high, but be nearly impossible during those moments when we’ve messed up and we’re feeling all alone in our failure.
I try to remember that this moment will pass, and to be kind to myself in the meantime.
One concrete thing that really helps me, are my accountability buddies - a couple of friends I picked up during a particularly intense fellowship. We’ve known each other during some of the hardest times of our lives, and know the greatness of which we’re each capable - and we work to regularly remind each other of our goals, our dreams, our hopes - and that we absolutely believe that we’ll all get there.
I’ll write another longer article about exactly how we run our ever evolving group - but there’s a lot to be said for a community of true support who can see you for who you truly are, even when you can’t.
4. Watch Out for Killer Doubt
Before we move on, I want to acknowledge a killer doubt - one that can drive you off your path before you’ve even given it a chance… “What if I was wrong? What if my new identity doesn’t fit? What if I’m not cut out to be a writer or a chef or an entrepreneur after all? Is it even worth trying?”
As you can see, I’ve had more than a few reinventions. And each time I realize I’m walking the wrong way and have to set out again, I hear these voices … and one that’s even worse “you weren’t right last time, what makes you think you’ll be right this time?”
And unfortunately I’m here to tell you, no matter how many times you’ve run into your inner critic, the voice of all these killer doubts, and come out victorious… it’ll still be waiting for you the next time you dare to step off the beaten path.
When I find myself in these moments of doubt, I remind myself not to take everything so seriously. This reinvention, is just an experiment! If it works out… awesome, I’ve figured out a lot more about my true self and how to be happy and fulfilled in this life. If it doesn’t work out, at least I really, whole-heartedly tried… I made decisions based on the best information I had at that moment and now I just have more information, and can make a different decision next time.
And remember it really is worth it...
The payoff is living your life as your best self, knowing that you were brave enough to go looking for something that fit you better, patient enough to learn how to live into it, and compassionate enough with yourself to have not lost all energy and heart along the way. The payoff is both when you arrive and live into your full identity, but it’s also learning how to enjoy the journey… forging your own path in a way that doesn’t mean chasing yourself with a stick, or feeling utterly alone, but in a way that is sustainable, joyful, empowering and fulfilling.