In her book Mansfield Park (1814), novelist Jane Austen wrote, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be”.
It’s a struggle many of us share, to be ourselves – to even know who we are. Perhaps that’s why we tend to settle on looking to others for guidance. If we can’t set our own expectations, it’s easier to mould ourselves according to the expectations of others.
But it’s never long before a nagging sense of dissatisfaction sets in. Trying to be anyone other than who we are leads to feelings of uncertainty, self-doubt, and sometimes emptiness.
So how do we become our own guide on our journey of self-discovery? That was a question put to me recently by one reader. I imagine others might add, “Why should it matter that we be our own guide?”
From the time we’re born, we’re flooded with influences that condition us. In addition, much of our life is mapped out for us. If our circumstances permit, we will go to school, graduate from university, get a job, find a spouse, have children, and raise them rooted in the values that we ourselves were taught to follow.
There’s nothing wrong with this path – I’d say it’s important that we are guided and nudged in a productive direction that allows us to be responsible citizens who contribute to society. But there’s surely a balance to be had.
In his book, On Becoming A Person (1961), the psychologist Carl Rogers posed the question: “Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me, and which truly expresses me?” If, after some soul-searching, the answer to that question is ‘No’, it can lead us to feeling unfulfilled and discontent.
It’s wonderful that we have so many positive influences in our lives that suggest ways that we can be our best selves – even the less positive influences can be valuable, alerting us to ways we’d rather not follow. But to find a true sense of meaning in life? That has to come from deep within. No one else can take us to that place.
This takes us back to the reader’s question: How do we become our own guide? The suggestions that follow are by no means exhaustive, but hopefully they make for a good starting point.
Accept yourself for who you are – warts and all: You’re not perfect … but you are good enough, and it’s likely that you give more to the world around you than you take. Try to avoid comparing yourself to others; we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and it’s our uniqueness that gives value to those around us.
Don’t worry too much about your critics: There are people who love and like me, and I’m certain there are several people who dislike me to varying degrees. It’s impossible to be everyone’s cup of tea. Criticism, like praise, is just a snapshot of what a person sees of you. When someone praises you, it doesn’t make you any better; similarly, just because someone criticises you, it doesn’t make you any worse.
Write down a list of five to 10 values that really matter to you: Are you someone who thinks contributing to society is important? Maybe you think a commitment to spending time with family is vital. Do you feel that you should give something back through charity work? Is taking regular time out for self-care high on your list? Writing a list of your top values gives you a concrete idea of what’s important to you, and can help drive future actions and decisions.
Make time for regular self-reflection: On a weekly basis, you might ask yourself, “Have my behaviours this week reflected the values that are important to me?” The point of this exercise isn’t to strive for perfection. Rather, it’s a reflection that enables us to see the small changes that need to be made to help our progress along. Don’t be too critical, though – remember to give yourself an occasional pat on the back!
Give yourself the space to be you: As far as I understand it, the journey to self-discovery is not a straight line that always moves forward. Often, a few steps back are taken, some circling takes place, and then there are the squiggly lines that represent the confusion and uncertainty that creeps in from time-to-time. It’s all normal, and part of the process of learning to be our own guide – enjoy the process for what it is.
Last but not least … know that it takes time: Whether it’s going to the gym, learning to be more mindful, or pushing for that promotion, we seem to expect quick results from almost everything we do. When it comes to learning about who we are, patience is a virtue. Getting to know ourselves is a lifelong process that unfolds along the way, and it can be a pleasurable one if we remember to slow down, relax, and enjoy the ride.