The Key to Finding Yourself is to Stop Searching
Three Steps to Stop Questioning Who You Are, And Start Being Them
I’m in the ‘limbo’ years in life. I’m neither here nor there, I’m split between two cities, university, a part-time job, and freelancing, and my friends are suddenly spread out around the country.
I’m still trying to figure out who I am and who I want to be. And its stressful this ‘finding yourself’ business; the constant questioning and self-doubt that comes with trying to find your place in the world that’s only just opened its doors for you. If you ask me to describe myself, I’d craft some sort of a narrative based on who I think I should be or how others see me, but honestly, I really don’t know.
Pop psychology calls this a ‘quarter-life crisis’ — the intense soul searching, stress, and feelings of falling behind that knock twenty-somethings sense of who they are. Many of us are switching roles, location, friend’s groups — all the external factors of what make you, you.
But I’ve come to realise that that’s exactly where the problem lies: defining identity on external factors. The essence of who we are comes from just being, from living our lives authentically and in that moment, and an image of ‘identity’ is simply an after-effect of this. It happens of its own accord.
We’re not a character in a book, crafted and artificial like the lives they live. We just are. We’re not products to be made, branded, and advertised. We just are. And we don’t need to ‘find’ ourselves by going around in circles trying to sum ourselves up in a tinder-size bio. We’re just need to be.
So how do you push through and quarter-life crisis and stop getting caught up in the ‘who are we’ question? How do you live authentically without obsessing over who the authentic ‘you’ is?
Here are three steps to finding yourself without doing any searching.
1. Let Go of the Image of Who You Are
I’ve previously written about the role of social media in encouraging us to squeeze the events in our lives to a neat narrative, and the same goes for our image of who we are. Just think about how every social media sight requires pictures that reflect who your personality and a bio that sums you up. It’s like an online store where we use a product picture and description to sell ourselves to others — no wonder we’re obsessively trying to define ourselves.
But to truly be ourselves, we need to loosen our grip on this narrow self-image. As writer and philosopher Alan Watts says:
‘waking up to who you are requires letting go of who you imagine yourself to be’ — Alan Watts
Don’t reduce yourself and your experiences by thinking ‘that’s not very me’. Allow yourself to try new things, experiment with your appearance, meet new people, without using it to ‘find yourself’.
2. Immerse yourself in the now
You may be wondering how you can let go of this self-image you’re so attached to, and the much-quoted spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle teaches us that the key is to immerse yourself in the present.
He distinguishes between the mind-driven ‘phantom identity’ or ‘ego’, and your true essence of being. The former is the mental image of yourself that you build as you grow up, based on your personal and cultural conditioning. It’s a sense of self that’s dependent on external and changeable factors such as appearance, job, family, role, age.
This self is always concerned with keeping the past alive due to fear of what it would be without it, and clings on to an image of success and fulfilment in the future.
The true self, however, is the one that occurs when we are simply being, and living our lives in the moment. It’s one that doesn’t need finding, because it’s always there.
You experience it by keeping your mind focused on whatever you are doing, whatever conversation you are having, and wherever you are in that moment — without your mind wondering off to a self-conscious image.
3. Look Inside Yourself
To immerse ourselves in the present we need to stop defining our identity on external factors.
This lesson is in one of my favourite books, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Esther, the protagonist, is at her friend Joan’s funeral, at the critical moment in the novel where her situation is suddenly changing and she realises she needs to get rid of her past and enter a new present. To reassure herself and feel stable in her identity she listens to her heart beat:
‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart — I am, I am, I am’
Many people feel a strong attachment to this quote, evidence by it being a popular tattoo choice. It has such a strong message for those who, like Esther, are in the little-bit-lost stage of their early twenties: I don’t need to find myself, I already am.
Stop asking the questions, start living and the answers will come. Our true selves are who we are when we let go of all the stories, labels, and judgements we have told ourselves.