The Path to Self Discovery: Who Are You, Really?
We all enter a stage in our lives where we must engage in self discovery if we want to experience personal growth. As a therapist and online life coach, when working with clients through personal growth, we often discuss questions like these:
Are you the person you feel like you are?
Are you the person that others see?
Is the real you partially unknown, even to yourself?
Heady questions, I know, but worth considering if your goal is to become a happier, healthier, fully self-actualized person. Many of our life coaching and therapy clients begin their journey with us in a place of frustration. They’re here because they want something more for themselves and their lives, but can’t even get a handle on what “the problem” is that they need to address. They just know that they don’t feel good, and they don’t like the results they’re getting. They’re often asking themselves questions like these:
“Why can’t I follow through with the things I know I should do?”
“Why do these things keep happening to me?”
“Why can’t I be more organized and on top of things?”
“What am I doing that’ contributing to the issues in my relationship?”
“Why can’t I just be happy with myself and my life?”
“Why do I keep falling into these types of relationships?”
“Why do I get so stressed out?”
“Why do I react this way?”
“Why do people treat me this way?”
“Why am I always worried about something?”
Can you relate?
Today, I want to start a dialogue around “who are you, really?” Because after all, that’s the first step in understanding yourself, your motivators, and how to grow and achieve your most important goals.
But before we do that, let’s take a look at where the core of motivation lies: in frustration and hope.
The Core of Motivation on the Path of Self Discovery: Frustration + Hope
At the core of all of your questions about yourself and others, is the essence of motivation: frustration + hope. People who ask these questions (like the ones above) of themselves and others are trying to crack into understanding “the problem” because they hope that self-awareness will then allow them to overcome it. They’re saying, “I’m frustrated with the results I’m getting but I know I can be happier, do more, have more satisfying relationships, and get better results from myself and my life — just show me how.”
These “question-ers” are so smart, insightful, and correct: understanding why they do what they do — consciously or subconsciously — is often the very first step in breaking old patterns and launching new ones. If you don’t know what you’re doing that’s creating bad outcomes, how can you ever fix it?
That’s why the first step in the personal growth process is self-discovery. This involves figuring out who you are (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and then using that knowledge to build on your strengths — and even develop new strengths. When we know what we’re doing that’s getting in our own way, then we become empowered to cultivate the positive aspects of ourselves that can help us overcome our limitations, as well as try out the new skills and strategies that will get us better results in every area of life.
How do you begin your journey of self-discovery? The answer may be easier than you think – practice self-awareness. While self-awareness is a skill that you have to cultivate, it’s an invaluable tool to help you reach your full potential.
Let me share what self-awareness looks like in action…
Part 1: An Easter Story
Let me give you a very simple (silly, even) example of what I’m talking about. At the time I’m writing this article, it’s shortly after Easter. Like many kind and loving Easter-celebrating parents, since Sunday, I’ve been secretly eating my child’s Easter candy while he’s away at school and unable to defend his stash from my chocolate-smeared fingers.
Of course, this is a bad idea for a number of reasons. Aside from making me feel guilty, at my age and activity level I really don’t need to be eating an extra 500 junk-calories a day. I might as well just glue Almond M&M’s and Reece’s cups directly to my thighs, as that would create about the same effect on my body as eating them. Yet every time I walk through the kitchen, there’s that darn Easter basket… with the open bag of candy… uuuuhhhhh. Before I know it I have a mouth full of chocolate, and as I’m giving myself a stern talking to about why I shouldn’t be doing this, I still reach for another handful. What to do?
Self Awareness is to Know Thyself, and Prosper on the Path of Personal Growth
One thing I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I have a terrible memory. Really. While I aspire to be a super-together person who gets things done, one of the things I need to work around in order to achieve this is my memory.
When I first realized I was different from other people in this way, I felt bad about it. Who wants to be the spacy, forgetful person, right? I would be endlessly frustrated with myself for forgetting appointments, losing things, getting side-tracked, being late to places. If I wasn’t looking at it, I’d forget it existed. I annoyed myself as much as I annoyed others.
I didn’t want this to be true about myself, so when I was younger I avoided the truth. I’d always have an excuse for being late or losing something. Alternatively, I’d just hate myself and beat myself up about being so forgetful. (As if that would help).
But the interesting thing is that as soon as I accepted that I don’t have a very good memory, and that this is just part of who I am — without judging myself for it — I was then empowered to do something constructive with my affliction instead. (This really does relate to Easter candy-stealing. We’ll get there.)
Self Acceptance = Empowerment
Many people believe that “self-acceptance” means settling for mediocrity in themselves. They believe that if they keep beating themselves up and hating themselves for their shortcomings it will somehow encourage them to improve. The opposite is true.
Self-awareness and compassionate self-acceptance actually leads to humility, personal responsibility… and consequently, more useful options.
So, for example, when I let go of the delusion that I could rely on my memory to keep track of myself, I had to find new tools if I wanted to have a good life.
I now carry a planner/notebook with me everywhere (here’s my latest personal-organizational tool crush), and if something is said that I need to remember I immediately write it down. On the rare occasions I am notebook-less and something comes up I know I need to remember, I will send an email to myself with my phone. If I need to take something with me somewhere, I will literally place it next to the door (immediately, while I’m thinking about it) so I’ll see it on my way out. If I need to remember that I need to be somewhere at a certain time, I must set a timer to remind me when it’s time to go. And if I put my keys anywhere else besides on the key hook on my kitchen wall, I might as well have mailed them General Delivery to Argentina, I’ll never see them again. I have about 87 more specific strategies that I use each and every day to keep myself on track, but I won’t bore you with all of them.
BUT, you know what? Because of my heavy reliance on all these compensatory strategies… I actually am a super-together person who gets things done. I’m also pleased to report that I’m no longer embarrassed by this “shortcoming” either. In fact, because of learning about myself, and embracing who and what I am, I’ve actually learned how to turn this quirk of mine into a strength.
Part 2: An Easter Story Cont…
So here we are, in my kitchen, as I’m trying really hard to stay away from my kid’s Easter candy. I run through my self-redirection strategies to see if any of them will work: “I could eat an apple.” “I could drink some water.” “I could imagine my thighs getting lumpy and gross.” Yeah, no. I still wanted the chocolate.
Then, remembering my “forgetfulness” superpower, I realized that If I put my kid’s Easter basket on top of the refrigerator where I can’t see it, I would forget it was even there. So I did that, and then left the room…and here it is like five hours later and I have not even thought about the candy once until I sat down to start writing this post for you.
I know this is a simple example about one small frustration. However, this is also really what self-awareness looks like in action. Like you, I have many things about me that are true (some strengths, and some liabilities), and I use this knowledge and assorted “hacks” every day to help me be my best self and get better results in my work, my relationships, and life. I want the same for you.
How to Uncover Your True Self and Use Your Self-Awareness to Grow When On the Path of Personal Growth
Here’s my point: YOU also have superpowers. You have things that are true about you that you either may not fully know about yet, or that you may know about but want to be different. There may be things that you do without understanding why you do them. You may have automatic reactions to certain situations, and not even know why.
You may feel one way about yourself, but seem totally different to others. (You’d be amazed at how many clients I have who feel so badly about themselves, and yet who are objectively lovely people in every way — beloved both by me and others in their lives.) You may be putting things out in your relationships that others react to, without even being aware of it.
Worst yet, you may judge yourself harshly for the quirks you have, rather than learning how to embrace them, work with them, and even use them to your advantage.
Knowing who you really are, and understanding yourself, is the key to personal development. When you compassionately understand and accept yourself for who you are, all of a sudden you have the chance to develop new strategies and use your strengths to help you balance out your weak spots, in order to help you get the results you want.
If you would like to have a better understanding of yourself so that you have the opportunity to learn and grow, here are two tools to help you get started on this journey of self-discovery:
- Ask Questions
- Ask for Feedback
Keep Asking Those Questions… But Answer Them Too.
We started this post together with a list of “Why” questions that many people ask about themselves. I’ll say to you what I invariably say to my counseling or life coaching clients sooner or later when they’re trying to figure out the answers to these self-mysteries: “Well, why? What’s your best guess?” And you know what? When given time, space and opportunity to reflect… they always have remarkable insight into themselves. YOU can do this too. If you have a “why” question about yourself, grab a journal and write down the answer.
If you don’t “know” the answer, write down the possibilities. I bet you’ll have at least a few nuggets of useful truth fall out of your head for your trouble.
Get Feedback From Others Along Your Path of Personal Growth
There does come a point when self-reflection has limits.
For example, it’s really, really hard to identify something about yourself that legitimately lies outside of your awareness. It’s hard to know what we don’t know, you know? When it comes to deeper self-discovery, it’s essential to have feedback. Here are some possibilities:
Friends: Do you have any friends or family members who don’t just know you really well, but who are insightful and wise, and also brave enough to be straight with you? (In a compassionate, emotionally safe way?) If so, and if you’re ready for honest answers, it might be time to have a sit-down with them.
Challenge yourself to be vulnerable, and say, “You know, I’m not feeling good about this specific part of my life, and I wonder what you see that I might be doing here that is contributing to this situation?” If your friend is brave enough to say it (emotionally mature enough to make you feel safe and cared for while they do) and you’re open enough to receive it, these can be life-changing conversations.
[Caveat: This one only works with someone whose judgment you trust, who knows you well, and who cares about you. Don’t try this with just anyone!]
Counseling or Life Coaching: If you want to dig deeper, you might also establish a relationship with a good counselor or life coach who can help you see yourself more clearly. We are professional versions of the wise, caring, trustworthy and brave friends who will be straight with you, in an emotionally safe way.
A good counselor or coach will also have ways of helping you crack into your own truth, through knowing what questions to ask you, helping you make connections, and using their knowledge of psychology, development, systems and more to help you understand yourself.
An advantage of this approach is that a good counselor or life coach won’t just stop with the “Aha moment.” Self-awareness and insight is only useful if you have a follow-up, “Okay so now what do I do about this” conversation.
For example, me just knowing that my memory doesn’t work well is not particularly helpful to me but my strategies and workarounds are. You deserve the same type of action-oriented roadmap that will lead you forward and enable you to take positive action to get better results.
Group Therapy: You’d be amazed at the speed and depth of information you can get about yourself from a good group therapy experience. There are different kinds of groups, and not all of them lead to the type of self-awareness we’re talking about here.
For example, support groups (the most common kind of group) are for people who are all having a similar experience and give them a chance to give and receive compassion and advice from each other. Some support groups are run by a therapist and also offer an educational component as well as compassion and camaraderie.
Other groups are peer-led (meaning they don’t have a professional therapist mediating them) and are simply opportunities to share with caring others, who “get it.”
[Side note: Growing Self has an online breakup support group that is totally free. It’s a private peer-to-peer Facebook group — get in touch through Facebook to be added to the online breakup support group]
However, a process group is a type of group therapy that’s all about getting feedback, as well as support and encouragement from the group.
A good process group is led by a therapist who is able to ask you the kinds of questions that help you get clarity about yourself, and you’ll also be with other people who are talking about themselves in a similarly honest and authentic way. You’ll have the opportunity to share your feedback with others, for the purpose of their growth, and also receive honest, empowering feedback in an emotionally safe environment.
Especially if you are feeling frustrated by the results you’re getting in your relationships, a good group can be a marvelous way to shine a bright light on the blind spots that you may have.
Assessments: Finally, an interesting, fun, and often low-cost way to cultivate self-awareness is through assessments. These may take the form of online quizzes or tests. Or if you’re working with a professional therapist, they may have a variety of questionnaires and activities that you can do in order to “get under the hood,” and discover new things about yourself, your strengths, your growth opportunities, and your personality.
One assessment I really like is the VIA “Strengths and Virtues” Inventory. It was born from the strength-based Positive Psychology movement, which places emphasis on growth and change on what’s right about you, as opposed to what’s wrong. This assessment is free, and will show you what your top strengths are so that you can build on them.
Another assessment that might be useful for you is my “What’s Holding You Back” Quiz. This is a free tool that I have developed for you as part of my Happiness Class, and is available on this site. If you want to take it, start by watching the short video to learn about the domains it assesses, (towards the bottom of the page), and then you can take the quiz. Then, come back to the video and I’ll talk you through what your results mean about you.
I sincerely hope that the ideas I’ve shared today resonated with you, and gave you some direction for next steps on YOUR personal journey of growth and change. Do you have questions or comments about anything I’ve shared? Let me know in the comments below — I read them all!
xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.