To Thine Own Self Be True...But First, Know Thyself - Part I
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
Wha-bam! I just mashed up some Socrates and Shakespeare – Friday night 97 Kiss FM style. DJ Mack in da house! Ambitious, I know…
It’s probably clear by now that I love clichés, quotes and tru-isms (unless this is your first time visiting, in which case please head over to the About Page). I also have an affinity for using, and admittedly over-using, analogies and metaphors. Oh, how I love me some mixed metaphors too! So, I figured why not mix up some quotes?
I’m a big believer in being true to ones’ self. Always have been. Always will be. But, it’s awfully difficult to do if you don’t know yourself first. So, I’m going to start with Socrates (he’s the “Know Thyself” dude). Lest, you think I’m about to get a little lofty here, rest assured – I’m just not that deep or that bright. But I am about to get really real.
I’ve always considered myself to be a self-aware person – cognizant of my strengths and my weaknesses. My ego has always been pretty intact, and I’ve always been proud of knowing who and what I am. Until I didn’t. And I wasn’t.
You see, people are like ogres. And ogres are like onions. Ergo, people are like onions. They have layers. That’s right, I just built a bridge from Socrates to Shrek. Told you not to fret that I was going all high-brow on you.
The onion: you’ve got yellow, purple, white, pearl, sweet, and spring. Throw in some of the outliers in the allium family like the leek and the shallot. Distinctly different on the outside, varied in size, shape, color, utility, and taste; they have at least one thing in common – layers. All of these things are true of humans too. (I’m going to ignore the opportunity to launch into sexual innuendos about how humans taste and stay on topic here. But I respectfully reserve the right to come back later and edit one in).
All of us have good grasp of our outer layer. We know our height, shape, eye color, skin color and hair color. We know when we feel happy, sad, alone, content or angry. We know our sense of style, know if we like to wear our hair long, short, red or blonde, are aware if we are comfortable with our bodies – our lovely curves or t-shirt loving, boyish figures - or if we would like to tone up or lose a little weight. We know if we prefer the indoors to the outdoors, the beach to the mountains, are stay-in-for-the-night bookworms or extroverted disco-ball queens. We know if we’re Coors Light, pale ale or hipster micro-brewed craft beer people. No judgment. Eh, a little shade. I didn’t have to throw “hipster” in there.
You might be thinking, “Hey now, I know myself pretty well.” Perhaps you do. I certainly thought I did.
I’m short, green eyed, and brunette. Okay, that’s a lie. I’m a former brunette. I’m almost fully gray but chemically force my follicles into submission every 5 weeks or so. I prefer to wear my hair long because it makes me feel sexier. I’ve never been afraid to push the fashion envelope and could not care less if that draws positive or negative attention – I like what I like. (Although my work-from-home wardrobe has devolved into something universally monochromatic and neutral toned. I accept this because I fan girl over Jennifer Aniston, and she’s a monochromatic wonder) I was born with long eyelashes and thick hair. I’m of higher than average intelligence, but certainly no genius. I am fiercely loyal and consider my lack of judgment and efforts to understand others’ points of view a virtue (hipsters notwithstanding…). On the other side of the coin, my temper can be quick and hot, and I can procrastinate like no one I know. Willfully procrastinate. My boobs, by the way, aren’t going to win me any wet t-shirt contests. This has always been true and is not just because these retired working girls have not put forth the slightest of efforts to try to defy gravity. I don’t have a weight problem and know that I am lucky that I never have - give or take 10 pounds here and there. Even so, I have always had a horrible relationship with food.
I could go on chapter and verse about myself at this level of self-awareness, but that would just be a laundry list of things about me. The point is, I could and did identify most of my strengths and weaknesses, blessings and curses. Some I simply acknowledged and accepted; others I dug a into a little deeper - my relationship with food, for example.
Peeling off another layer: Why the bad relationship with food? Self-esteem issues? No. That wasn’t ever a real problem of mine. Body dysmorphia? Maybe a twinge. Control issues? Bingo! More often than not, this is as deep as I went. Acknowledge and accept. Or, acknowledge, identify the source, and then accept. To be fair to myself, sometimes I would actually make a change - but this happened less often than it should have as I can be stubborn to a fault.
I imagine I would have gone my whole life knowing myself to the extent that I did if I hadn’t hit the skids. And I think my level of self-awareness and self-acceptance was actually pretty darn good. Indeed, when more than one therapist observed the same, I breathed in the affirmation and gave myself a few pats on the back.
“Wait,” you say? “Why did you have more than one? Oh, this chick is hella fucked up!”
Well, in a way I was. On paper I certainly looked like I had my shit together. And off paper - out there in the real world - in most ways I was a-okay. More than okay. I have an amazing family and some truly stellar friends. I’m in good health, have a great education, a fabulously flexible job, a house on the water, and dog that always graces me with that trademark Golden Retriever smile. I’ve always had a certain level of appreciation of how fortunate I am, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t take certain things for granted. Now, I’m permanently inked with the word “gratitude” on my wrist so I’m reminded at least once daily. I definitely needed to play a bit of catch up.
So while outwardly I appeared to “have it all”, I was wrestling with some very big demons. At some point, they grew so large that they began to cast a dark shadow over everything, their tentacles forming a stranglehold on all that was good in my life. It became crippling. Somewhat by choice and somewhat out of necessity, I took a big time out and embarked on a deep, emotional and spiritual archeological dig. I underwent some very intense, concentrated therapy and as I began to real peel away the layers, one of the things I realized was that my level of self-awareness only scratched the surface of what is truly in there.
To illustrate: one trait that got some serious scrutiny is my sense of humor. Being, as a general rule, both self-aware and confident, I make very good use self-deprecation. I can make fun of myself. I can make others laugh. I can make myself laugh. Win-win, right? I gave the impression that I was someone who fully embraced “me” – the good, the bad and the ugly. And in large part that was true. But I also used it as a source of deflection and self-protection. I could prophylactically ward off the criticism of others by putting it out there before they could. I’ve always loved being around people who have a sharp, dry and even caustic sense of humor. Letting it all hang out and surrounding myself with these types of people made me ripe for more than few swipes. But I could take a good punch, and usually enjoyed the reparté. Unless and until someone unwittingly punched too close to something that I found to be shameful or “weak”. That word is in quotes because I believed there to be a big difference between weakness and being weak. Being weak was not okay with me. At. All. I didn’t see it or judge it harshly in others, but it was just not something I could accept from myself. If someone who was not close to me happened upon one of those soft spots – which was rare because I kept them well-hidden and very close to the vest - I usually simply changed the subject or deflected it. But when a person I loved and trusted hit one of those marks they could turn into a landmine, and the person ran the risk of a verbal sucker punch back from me. Not cool, Amy. Not cool.
Historically, the self-analysis looked something like this: (1) acknowledge it – “yes, I have a defense mechanism”; (2) identify It – “it protects me from getting hurt or exposing my shame”; and (3) accept it – “well, that’s part of who I am and how I function.”
As I began to look more deeply inward and with more curiosity, those steps no longer felt like enough. I saw a character flaw that needed to be course corrected or emotional damage that needed to be healed. I also saw the ugly personality trait of lashing out when I felt threatened, exposed or, GASP, vulnerable. There were lots of layers to peel back. Where are the landmines? What are the triggers? Why are they there? How did they get there – was I born with them, did I create them or are they result of the actions of, or my reactions to, others? How do I deal with them in a healthier way? How do I heal them?
And then I had to confront the damage. I put more than a few holes in the fences between me and my loved ones. Some have been repaired, some have not. As with any wound, the ones that have been repaired still show signs of having suffered damage. I have to own that. I have to accept that. I have to learn from that, and I have to grow from it. I have to use my emotional sword to slay those inner demons, confront those flaws, and to diffuse the bombs so that if someone steps on one, inadvertently or not, I don’t explode.
Although I do think knowing oneself is vitally important, I don’t necessarily advocate the deep dive approach to getting there. It’s not that I don’t recommend either. It’s just that it can be incredibly challenging – even for someone as self-confident and self-aware as I thought I was. I know I that I am a loving, kind, loyal, compassionate person at my core. I’m fortunate that I have a strong sense of self-worth – I have my mother to thank for that. Although it falters at times, it is a steady undercurrent that has helped me stay the course and not get mired down in, or overwhelmed by, the things that just aren’t so pretty. Still, there are days when I wish I hadn’t started on this journey. That I could put the toothpaste back in the tube. It can be brutal to hold up the mirror, stare into it and then realize you bought the 15x magnifying mirror that sometimes feels better suited for the use for which it was intended – picking at those clogged places on your nose and not the ones on your identity and your soul.
For me, however, to stop here and call it good would be to make a deliberate choice to stop learning and growing and becoming a better, ever evolving version of me. As a mother, a friend, a sister, a wife, and as a human being. It would feel disingenuous and deliberately obtuse. To try to fabricate an end point – to go back to acknowledgement, identification, and accepting without questioning what can and what should be changed? That feels self-protective, selfish, and weak. I was surprised to discover the paradoxical strength I found in identifying and confronting, well, me when I allowed myself to be completely vulnerable for the first time in my life. And that, it turns out, is the opposite of weak. So, I continue to do the work. It’s hard work. I try to laugh my way through it. I try to write my way through it. I try to remember to stop and notice the little things and the beauty all around me. I try to find the ability to let myself cry my way through it when I can. Sometimes, though, I find it necessary to hit the pause button. To take a break and just breathe. And to just be. I’ll still be here when I get back.
If you do choose to peel away some of those layers to see what’s underneath – and that is a deeply personal choice – or if you are someone who already does, please do so with care. It requires work and introspection, but it doesn’t have to look like it did for me. There are so many ways to go about it – self-help books, yoga, meditation, walks on the beach, prayer, honest conversations with a partner, parents, or sibling, finding the right therapist, talking to yourself in the mirror… Yes, I do that. For real. I’d bet my left boob (the least favorite of the twins) that most of what you find in there will be lovely. Acknowledge these things and embrace them. There may be stuff down in there that you haven’t seen before, may not want to see, and may not like seeing. When you come across these, approach them with kindness, compassion and most of all, let the criticism be constructive. If you find something that needs fixing, then fix it. But also acknowledge something that is distinctly and beautifully you. Those things are your core, your foundation. You can remodel around them as needed. Don’t go in and bulldoze the place, and don’t tear things down without leaving the emotional room to rebuild. Perhaps if I had taken this approach all along, I wouldn’t have crashed and burned. But I did, so now I do.
Knowing what makes you happy, sad, content, fulfilled, angry, lonely and WHY - matters. Knowing if you hold certain biases or prejudices, are quick to anger or are conflict averse, are too opinionated or keep important, useful opinions to yourself, are forgiving or overly critical (of yourself or others) - and WHY – matters. Knowing what you value, what you hold dear, what you need to cling to and what you need to adjust or let go of – and WHY - matters. It matters to your own personal well-being. It matters to those you love and who love you. And it matters because you have a unique purpose and place in this world. You can throw the tiniest of pebbles or the biggest of boulders into a lake and a far-reaching ripple effect will occur whether your eye can see it or not. This is true of people too. Your thoughts, feelings and actions have the exact same sort of ripple effect –on you, on the people around you, and on into the greater world – whether you be a stay-at-home parent or the CEO of a multi-national corporation.
As you think about who and what you are, remember that we all have flaws. Remember that we all have an inner ogre, some of them bigger than others. Remember that we all have layers. Many, if not most of them are pretty, colorful and bright, but some of them not so much. Collectively, they come together to make us who we are – and even though we may require some minor tweaks or some major changes – these are just the things that makes us the messy masterpiece that we are.
Only when you not only know, but truly understand, the intricacies of you – and respect them, correct them, or embrace them - can you go out with your best foot forward AND be true to yourself. A Shakespearean directive I’ll attempt to tackle next time.
“My friend…care for your psyche…know thyself, for once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves”
Sound off in the comments below about your own experiences with self-discovery or self-awareness. If you are person who is happy with who and what you are, I applaud you and I admire you. Relish in that self-knowledge and self-love with pride. And don’t keep your secrets to yourself - spread that capacity for self-acceptance and self-compassion to others as often and as clearly as you can. A lot of us can use a little help.