“You cannot find yourself by going into the past. You can find yourself by coming into the present.” ~Eckhart Tolle
It was 3PM on a Wednesday and I had nothing to do. An empty schedule with limitless potential.
I was miles from home in the freezing fog of San Francisco. The bustle of traffic reminded me of my hectic life back home, but I wasn’t bothered. I had nowhere to be and nobody to answer to, just like the day before and the next day. I was free.
I brought my favorite travel companion along with me to aid in my journey of self-discovery: me. Not the busy Account-Manager-me. My true self.
Last year was painful for me. Like many others, I found myself ebbing and flowing with the tide that is the nine-to-five. Living for the weekend so I could escape the grind and live outside the snow globe even if just for a moment.
Life is more than clocking in and out with dead eyes and a slack jaw while counting the milliseconds as they fade toward your Friday night. I’m on this earth to be—not to be someone else for a paycheck. In recognizing that I needed a vacation, I downed a bottle of wine and booked a two-week trip to my city by the bay. Fourteen days of sweet liberation.
Maybe you can relate to my reality.
Back home, Rebecca in accounting is a constant complainer. She brings you down like an iron pair of boots. You’ve got to grin and bear it because she processes your expense reports and you see her every day. You’ve gotten so adept at feigning interest that you’re losing sight of what’s underneath the mask.
Rebecca gets the sympathy mask. Your boss gets the I’m-passionate-about-my-job mask. Jackie in distribution gets the I-like-politics-because-you-like-politics mask. We wear whichever we have to in order to make things easier. Nathaniel Hawthorne said it best:
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” ~The Scarlet Letter
Two psychological terms stand out as they relate to being someone you’re not: cognitive dissonance and the act of compartmentalization.
They go together like a cerebral peanut butter and jelly sandwich. To understand our challenges, we must first define them. Enter Merriam-Webster:
Cognitive Dissonance: Psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously
Compartmentalization: Isolation or splitting off of part of the personality or mind with lack of communication and consistency between the parts
When was the last time you spent an entire day doing exactly what you wanted to do? Said exactly what you wanted to say? You have a belief system, a rule set. Stuffing these things in a box and being someone else makes you exactly that. Someone else. This is compartmentalization.
It’s a defense mechanism to combat the cognitive dissonance you feel when you have conflicting personalities—when there’s a difference between who you are and who you become in certain situations.
When faced with a challenging situation, a compartmentalized person has to decide how to act. Quelling the reaction most natural to their authentic self, they respond inauthentically because they’ve developed a completely separate personality.
We must be mindful of who we really are—and we get to decide who that is.
“We are our thoughts” isn’t just Eastern voodoo wisdom. The word “brainwashing” has a negative connotation, so let’s call it brain painting. Painting your mind with things you love is a surefire way to become a happy you. This is nothing more than surrounding yourself with people, books, subjects, and thoughts that make you smile. Be selective and consistent with what you allow in.
It’s important to take time to harbor your own well-being in a world that demands so much. Almost two thousand years ago, stoic philosophers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius told us to retire into ourselves. Frequent self-examination has been a practice for thousands of years.
Being comfortable with and conscious of what you find is the definition of knowing who you are. Constantly look within and connect with your mask-less you. We can nurture our inner authenticity by being mindful every day.
- Meditate. You don’t have to have an Om tattoo and a stick of incense to find a quiet place to look inside. Take a twenty-minute vacation inside your own soul. Be cognizant of what you find.
- Observe. Take a walk and leave your phone at home. Look at everything around you with child’s eyes. Notice the beauty in the trees or the vastness of space. Be a living part of your surroundings.
- Create. Doodle something while your coffee brews in the morning. Take a few minutes to write something meaningful. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it comes from your own creativity. Exercise your mind, amigo. You’ll be surprised at how out of shape its gotten.
Traveling solo isn’t an escape. It’s a small opportunity to delete distraction. Lucius Seneca said, “All of your problems are with you.” Running away from them is impossible. But we can, for a time, run away inside our own soul.
I spent my favorite day in San Francisco walking through the residential Noe Valley and Dolores Heights. A simple stroll down sidewalk after sidewalk, without a boss barking orders or my phone buzzing with e-mails. Just me and my smile to enjoy the cool breeze.
It wasn’t so much the city I enjoyed, as it was the chipping away at my mask. Each footstep, a small victory at finding myself underneath it all. I remembered not who I was, but who I am.
Though I’m back to the doldrum routine of my everyday life, I’m still the same human I was in San Francisco. Underneath the demands of a challenging career lies the same person that wandered those sidewalks so many weeks ago. A smiling nomad. He who digs coffee shops. The one who loves wine.
We have the tools and presence of mind to make our journey for authenticity a daily practice. Recognizing when we’ve strayed from our true selves is the first step to staying the course. No one can be you better than you can. Look inside, befriend yourself, and be free.
Photo by Frank Kovalchek
Trevor Smith lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his dog and guitars.