Unlocking Self-Knowledge: Self Discovery is the Key
Have you ever worked at a job that just didn’t feel right, but had to keep going because you didn’t have the luxury of living without the next paycheck? Maybe you’re even feeling stuck right now, struggling to figure out where you’re meant to be. I have great news for you; this doesn’t have to be your life forever. Striking out on your own path to self-discovery is nearly never impossible, even when it feels like it.
Were you ever the kid on the sports team that didn’t fit in with the rest of the team, but showed up to every practice anyway because being part of a group made you feel safer in your own skin? I know I was.
Sometimes, I still have to fight back against the urge to conform because it’s comfortable. The urge to follow what everyone else is doing permeates every aspect of life, and it’s a powerful temptation… but what happens when you do it indefinitely?
A Solid Identity is Built Upon Self-Discovery
This phenomenon isn’t limited to people, surprisingly. Have you ever come across a brand, as a consumer or creator, that felt like it was struggling to convey a true sense of identity? This is a problem in business for consumers and creators, as well.
It’s so easy to check all the boxes everyone told you meant “success,” or climb to the top of the corporate ladder before realizing how long you’ve been wandering aimlessly, and how misaligned you really are. Have you lost yourself along the way? Whether it’s a quarter- or a mid-life crisis, you are bigger than this fear. I know because I’ve been there, too.
I hit a breaking point during my junior year of college. I had completely lost my sense of identity. On a hot spring night, I vividly remember waking up with night sweats. My head ached so badly it felt like I’d just spent hours playing pickup basketball, and my sheets were as as if they’d come right out of the washing machine.
This was the moment where I couldn’t deny it anymore: I wasn’t ok. I needed help, and I was finally ready to ask for it. I called home and asked my mom if I could see performance coach, Neal Bowes.
My process of self-discovery began that day, and over the years I’ve found a system that works for me — even when the work is hard. I know the road I’m on right now is leading me towards my true purpose and enabling me to fully express who I am and what to be in the future. I hope the bits and pieces I’m sharing with you from my journey will make yours a little easier.
Self Discovery Starts the Second you Realize You’ve Fallen off the Path
Not fully understanding yourself is like walking down a path deep into the woods as the sun is setting and the fog sets it. As you struggle to stay on the trail you think will lead you home, the trees and mountains all around you slip from sight, and you barely notice anything further away than five feet from your footsteps.
You see a path diverging from the one you thought was the only option, but it’s crooked and covered in roots and thorns. You wonder, “does it make more sense for me to follow that direction and divert from the current course, when the one I’m on feels so much safer?”
If you’re even having this thought to begin with, trust the visceral feeling that’s telling you this: “Maybe I’m not as clear on what’s in front of me as I should be.” This is where self discovery comes into play,
It’s not just a gut feeling, after all. Living for others will never create the impact you want to accomplish instead of loving the life you’re building. In a Cambridge study titled Knowing Yourself and Being Worth Knowing, Jordan Mackenie argues, “We are in an inescapable relationship with ourselves that requires both self-love and self-respect. Self-love gives us a non-instrumental reason to know ourselves, while self-respect demands that we take this reason seriously. To pursue a project of self-discovery carefully and for its own sake, then, is part of what it is to stand in a loving and respectful relationship with ourselves.”
Self-Discovery is the Root of Self Love
How can we create this kind of loving and respectful relationship with ourselves if we don’t know where to start? The first step to self discovery is recognizing that you’re heading in the wrong direction.
This is what being off the path looked like for me, at multiple points in my life:
1. Professional Experience: A jarring moment I’ll never forget happened in a typical meeting. Hearing that my idea needed to be validated by two direct reports above me hit me right in the gut. Just the thought of playing a corporate game simply to feel heard, seen, and validated was not a path I could accept for the rest of my life.
Knowing yourself allows you to realize if your actions are fully aligned and allow you to stand out 100% with your ideas – the way you are meant to do so.
2. Personal Relationships: A relationship my junior year of college ultimately broke the camel’s back. When we broke up, it felt like I had lost everything. Stripped of everything I thought I knew about myself, I had to hit reset. I invested everything in who I was into the relationship until I didn’t know myself, and when the proverbial band aid was ripped off and the relationship went astray, I was more scared than I had ever been in my life.
Knowing yourself allows you to give your all to a relationship. If it goes away, don’t lose yourself in the process.
3. College Social Life: I accepted a bid for a fraternity my freshman year at UGA. Drugs, extensive alcohol, and desperatelyand fast, so trying to fit in just to have friends break me down. I quit within the first two weeks. Even though “everyone else was doing it,” it felt so off for me. Dropping out was the best decision I made in college. I remember how pissed the recruiting chair was when I told him I wouldn’t follow “them.” It seemed like he’d put his whole sense of identity and belonging into something that wasn’t a real representation of anyone.
Knowing yourself empowers you to draw a line in the sand and stand up for what you believe in, and just as importantly, what you don’t believe in and won’t compromise your values for clout.
If we’re honest with ourselves, this is a situation we tend to recognize quickly. It’s all about acting on the realization that follows. This is where self discovery begins.
Evaluating and Filtering Friendships and Relationships
Do you truly know your people? It’s hard to know you’re connected with the right friends if you don’t even know yourself. The same is true with romantic relationships. At times, I’ve invested everything, including my sense of self, into past partners. When the proverbial band aid was ripped off, I was more scared than I had ever been in my life. People tend to grow apart with age, and I’ve noticed myself falling out of touch with some of my high school and college friends.
I’ve found that the best, dearest and deepest relationships I hold close today are with people who have a clear and deep understanding of themselves. They have so much to teach me about finding that same level of self-knowledge. Sharing the same pursuits and core values with people in my life makes me feel sure I’m a member of the right communities.
Knowing Yourself Helps you Know Where to Go
Knowing yourself helps you recognize when the relationships around you aren’t the best fit, even if there’s a decent percent of overlap. Time is our most valuable asset we have, and it’s hard to give yourself fully and show up 100% authentically with people who don’t do the same for you. Nurturing relationships that can evolve is a sign of growth, I think.
I’m not suggesting you need to figure out exactly how your perfect life should look like. No one can! I’m still a firm believer that living intentionally and being fulfilled demands us to firmly plant flags in the ground and draw clear boundaries. Mapping out this course will guide us in the direction that’s truly meant for us.
Taking this action requires a commitment to what we know is right. When I hit my breaking point in college, it took a lot of work to move past the hole I felt stuck in. If you’re stuck right now, I hope sharing the steps that worked for me can serve as a ladder to climb out to the light where you belong.
My Toolkit for Self-Discovery
When I hit a hard reset on my life after I hit my breaking point during my junior year of college, I began exploring the depths of who I was in a much different light. Here’s the steps I took and have evolved into today
1. Taking Some Time for Solitude: I spent the summer between my junior and senior year working on a farm and power washing. Having very little human interaction gave me the time and clarity to think freely, calmly and truly listen.
2. Going to Therapy: I began seeing a sports performance psychologist, Neal Bowes, who helped me really look at myself in the mirror and realize my gaps. He forced me to ask questions such as:
- Why did I constantly push myself past my breaking point and burn out? Why was I being a people pleaser, feeling compelled to give so much of myself right away in relationships, just so the other person would like me?
- Why did other people see me as always being in a rush?
- How did others see me from the outside, and did that differ from how I viewed myself? How can I learn to listen before I speak to better adapt in different social environments?
Important Note: Therapy has been an ongoing process for years. I still go biweekly, and it’s an excellent and regimented life-reset. Going to therapy is highly stigmatized, but it definitely shouldn’t be viewed as a weakness.
As NAMI notes about stigma, “Navigating life with a mental health condition can be tough, and the isolation, blame and secrecy that is often encouraged by stigma can create huge challenges to reaching out, getting needed support and living well.” If anything, seeking out the support you need and deserve is a sign of incredible strength.
3. Having My Friends Give Me Peer Reviews: I asked my friends to share how they felt about me as an individual, both as a friend and person. Seeing myself from their point of view helped me understand what I was like to be around. When conducted with care, this can be a really helpful process of analysis for introspection. The feedback I received has helped me make important changes. Taking a hard look in the mirror isn’t easy, but it can spark the most transformative change.
4. Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” Course: Taking this course, Start With Why, has been instrumental to my development. The lessons I’ve learned have enabled me to plot out my defining life moments on a map, both good and bad. Having this all laid out helped me find the consistencies that define who I am as a person; who I have always been and wanted to be. From this exercise, I developed a sentence around my One Word exercise with Rich Keller. These were the tools I needed to take more intentional actions and construct my new life.
5. Discussions with Family about the Past: It’s hard to move forward if you still have lingering traumas from the past dragging you down like dead weight that never leaves your side. Unless we process them, the damage trauma leaves behind can drive negative patterns of behavior. Rectifying the harm these situations caused helps us come to terms. Even if we can never fully understand why things happened, we can take away its meaning in the context of our own lives. Moving forward with clearer context is a powerful way to live.
These are the five basic steps I used, but my process has expanded over the years as I add new tools to my arsenal.
6. Daily and Weekly Journaling: Synthesizing my day helps me truly make sense of my thoughts, inward discoveries, effective synthesis, and plots going forward.
7. Meditating: Starting my day with meditating is really healthy for me, especially because I work at a fast pace and often have to make big decisions through the day. Meditation makes me feel more grounded in my decision making, to think more clearly both about the short and long term, and to understand myself better.
8. Rich Keller’s SCORE One Word Program: My work with Rich really helped me gather all my most intentional actions from the past year together under one cohesive umbrella. That umbrella is the core value I can give to the world, and the one I can build my brand identity around. Start with yourself, then build a professional life around the one core value that makes you unique. Doing it in this order is instrumental; we must do the internal work first. This is the one word I follow and live by: PATHFINDER.
Self-discovery is an evolving process that takes on many different forms. There are so many ways to conduct it, all of which we should take into consideration. Finding yourself isn’t a box to check off on a to do list, but we can always strive to know ourselves better and better. Without taking the time to look inward, it’s hard not to stay more stagnant when we should be growing into our shiny new shells, the armor that protects us yet still fits like a well-tailored suit.
I think it’s so critical to try a lot of new and different experiences. Break out of the mold. Forge personal and professional relationships with people who can broaden your worldview. Research and engage with ideas that challenge you. Diving fearlessly into the own unknown sharpens our intuition and solidifies our sense of right and wrong. Are you still debating which path to take? I recommend the road to self-discovery. On an individual level, it helps us all make more intentional decisions.
I’ve laid out the primary experiences that equipped me to get on the intended track that really feels right. If I don’t commit to keeping up this hard work and self-reflection, I know I won’t be able to show up 100% authentically in my personal or professional life.
This is just one of my hopes for everyone: that you can show up 100% as yourself in every area of your life. Everyone deserves this; it’s a feeling that makes you feel so alive.