“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” – Walt Kelly
Do you have this sinking feeling that somehow you are off your true path?
As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, I am currently wrestling with self-sabotage, or as I call it “Shadow Boxing”. I have (fairly) clear path ahead of me, and suddenly, I find myself spinning my wheels, unable to make progress.
This article deals with Part 1 of this Shadow Boxing process: knowing what you are dealing with. Every good warrior knows that step one is; Know the Enemy. In this case, the enemy is me. What exactly does that mean?
In her book, Finding Your Own North Star, and on her blog, Martha Beck describes people as having two sides: the essential self and the social self. The job of the essential self is to direct you on your true path, while the social self ensures you don’t fall off a cliff on your way.
The essential self can sabotage the best-laid plans of your social self. Like a gifted four-year-old, she can shut down progress with the equivalent of a temper tantrum, if she feels unheard or cornered. Moving away from your true direction, or ignoring pain can trigger a cascade of behavior that requires you to remove the offending (albeit brilliant) child to a quiet space for time out
In my case: my essential self wants to become a professional working actor and writer. My social self is the one that makes me sit down and research drama schools, save money, and buy airline tickets. When I step on stage to audition, my essential self wants to be daring, silly, heartbroken. My social self is worried that I look fat in my stretch pants.
You can see that my essential self is not going to get what she wants if she doesn’t listen to the social self and reserve plane tickets. Conversely, it is disaster for me to step on stage with my social self in charge. Watching a character walk on stage worried about her butt being too big is hilarious; watching an actor walk on stage worried about her butt is painful.
The social self and the essential self balance each other. As long as both are working in proportion, we are functioning in society and moving along our true passion path. Martha Beck maintains that the essential self needs to be the navigator, while the social self acts as an advisor or strategist.
If these pieces are out of whack, we can find ourselves in a self-sabotage spiral.
Having an understanding of the social self and the essential self will help you understand some types of self-sabotage.
I will explore the two selves, and then give you some action items you can use this week to start discerning which of your “selves” is acting and when.
The Social Self
As humans, we are social animals. Children would never survive if they weren’t accepted into their family. The social self defines the rules of our tribe, and ensures that we are acceptable to those important to our physical and emotional survival. We need the social self to be a functioning human being – without it we become at best lost dreamers that never impact the world or allow it to impact us. At worst, we become dangerous sociopaths.
Until fifth grade I enjoyed school, loved my neighborhood, had lots of friends and a relatively trouble-free childhood. In the summer between fourth and fifth grade, my family moved. Enter a new school and new neighborhood.
The new school was economically different, and a demanded more “street smarts” from me than my previous school. I had never been the new kid before, and my fifth grade year was a rude awakening. I somehow ended up on the wrong side of the school bully. More than once I found myself in the center of the taunting playground wolf circles made up of the bully and her gang. I spent the next two years a miserable outcast.
Relief came in the form of junior high. (I bet that’s a rare statement!) The summer between seventh and eighth grade, I re-engineered myself, with my social self at the lead. I debuted my eighth-grade year 20 pounds lighter, with a new haircut and “cool” clothes.
While this “new me” contained seeds of my maturing essential self, it was largely a response of my social self to trauma; a survival instinct kicking in. I watched the popular kids; what they wore, how they styled their hair and makeup, even how they stood and walked. I made myself over in their image.
This makeover was characterized by a lot of self-loathing. I hated my curly hair because I couldn’t wear it the way the cool kids did. I hated my body, because it was chubby. Driven by the need to be accepted, I carved off large parts of myself and put them away. My essential self was muted and gagged.
Characteristics of the social self:
- People pleasing
- Respects the rules
- Tends to be very practical, and literal.
- Thinks in language and logic.
- Is motivated by the desire to fit in
The Essential Self
Your essential self is what knows the true path in life. It is who you are, your legacy, your unique makeup of abilities and passion. If you are doing something that makes you loose track of time, it is a clue to your essential self. The kernel of your essential self can be very high energy. If you are in line with it, you will feel like a “room without a roof”.
Our essential self doesn’t care what is socially acceptable, and is the best navigator to our life mission. The problem is that as we get older, our social self tends to take charge. This is where the roles get out of balance. The social self is meant to be the logistics and PR person, not the vision guide.
Fast-forward two years. I’m now a sophomore in high school, and I’m in love for the first time, with a boy named John. Talk about going all in with your essential self! My world opened up; I connected body, mind and soul with another person. My life took on huge meaning that up to this point, I had never conceived of. I had been known as a “good kid”; I always had good grades, obeyed the rules, and rarely missed school.
Then John and I broke up.
Suddenly, getting out of bed was nearly impossible, and I had a panic attack walking into school. Seeing John in the hallway talking to other girls was just more than my bleeding heart could take. I had no passion, or sense of self to replace the boy that had become the center of my life; so I left.
High school ceased to offer any true meaning to me. My essential self had been “let out” of the cage during my love affair with John, and wasn’t about to be put back in the cage. I could no longer do anything just because it was the right thing to do. Unable to swallow attending high school “just because”, I dropped out, moved out on my own and went to work waiting tables. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I intuitively knew I needed to listen to myself and find my way.
Characteristics of the essential self:
- Passionate, energetic
- Tends to express herself in images, movement and stories, feelings, colors
- When she does use words, they often seem to come from “out of the blue”
- Not very good at short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.
- Knows what she wants, or at least what she doesn’t want.
Odds are, you’ve sensed this duality of the essential/social selves in yourself, and may have even stuffed your essential self into a nice, tight little box with a lock on it. Our society teaches us to value the social self as the “right” one, and our essential selves tend to take a beating in the process of fitting in.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life seesawing back and forth between my social self and my essential self. For years I thought my social self was the “right one” and my essential self is the “crazy one”. In my latest iteration of this cycle, I’ve discovered neither is right or wrong, but I need to understand them and use discipline to balance them.
Immediate action steps for this week:
1) Get Curious.
Ok, if you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you are already an emotionally curious person, but I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t get curious about your feelings, they are never going to get their message through. Brené Brown’s says that the most heart-forward and resilient people are emotionally curious. We have to learn to recognize when our buttons have been pushed, and get curious about how our feelings relate to our thoughts
As a journaling exercise, write down a time when you felt really uncomfortable, engaging in self-destructive behavior. In Rising Strong, Brené Brown list some examples that help you recognize these “hooks”.
- I feel so crappy, I just want to punch something, eat (oreos, Vodka, etc.)
- My stomach is in knots
- I’m yelling at the driver ahead of me, my kids, the McDonald’s clerk.
You don’t have to get a clear “solution”, but just be willing to look at these times and ask yourself “how did I get here?”
It’s easier to shut down these emotions and stuff them. The purpose of this exercise is to practice exploring them. A huge step toward resiliency is learning to catch ourselves and develop the habit of curiosity to replace denial.
2) Practice feeling
As a 5-minute meditation, simply sit, breathe, and scan your body. Start at the top, imagine a golden light sinking into your head. Track it down your body, and just notice. Are there parts the light won’t go? Other parts it flows into easily? That’s it. Just getting in touch with your body.
3) Look for joy
Have you ever done something that was so enjoyable you completely lost track of time? Choose one of those times, remember the activity in as much detail as you can, and repeat the 5 minute meditation. Notice the difference in your body, your heart and thoughts. You may feel joy, warmth, energy, or like your head is opening up. These feelings are generated by your essential self. You can train yourself to use these feelings to help guide your path.
If you want some great exercises to work through, get a copy of “Finding Your Own North Star” by Martha Beck. This entire book is in a workbook style, and has loads of “how to” information on recovering your ability to hear and follow your essential self.
If you want a more in depth meditation exercise you can either download my free meditation here – password “ListenToMyDream” OR go to headspace.com and check out their app. They have a free 10-day trial and it’s a great simple app to begin a meditation practice.
Have you had experiences with battles between your social and essential selves? Do you have specific stories to share? Have to worked with these different selves, and figured out ways to communicate with them? Maybe this entire concept is new to you? Comment or drop me a line, and let me know what you think.
Next time: The shadow knows…
My own understanding of my social and essential selves has helped me to make decisions to stay on my true path, and stopped some of my self-sabotage. To these two selves, I would add a third: the shadow. Carl Jung describes the shadow as holding all our unconscious pieces of personality. Next time, I will explore the shadow self; how it is built, the problems it creates, and what to do with it.