When you know yourself on a deeper level, you can create a life that is meaningful and joyous for you, according to psychotherapist Joyce Marter, LCPC. Art therapist Lisa Mitchell, MFT, calls this deeper level our “essence.” This is you at your center or core.
Knowing yourself also helps you distinguish your issues from someone else’s. “The better you know yourself and your psychology — your triggers, your relational themes and patterns, your biases, your tendencies — the better able you will be to both take responsibility for yourself as well as let go of that which is not yours to contain,” Marter said.
Below are different ways to get to know yourself, at your core — everything from therapy to creative exercises you can try right now.
1. Seek therapy.
Marter believes everyone can benefit from therapy at different points in our lives. In particular, she noted that your early to mid-20s are an important age for attending therapy to get to know yourself as a separate individual and young adult.
2. Seek experiences in groups.
Being in a group provides the opportunity to learn about the roles we play with others — “leader, mediator, clown, princess” — and to get feedback from others on everything from our personality to our communication, said Marter, founder and CEO of Urban Balance, a counseling private practice in the Chicago area.
You can try classes, experiential workshops, retreats, support groups and conferences, she said. For instance, for her clinical training, Marter participated in a Tavistock group relations conference.
3. Explore your nouns.
This is an exercise Mitchell does with her clients. Cut out 20 strips of paper (the size of fortune cookie strips). On each one write down the noun that represents you. Think of these strips as a puzzle. Put the strips into a pyramid: On the bottom put the most concrete nouns. At the top put the noun that encompasses everything.
For instance, Mitchell’s clients usually start with nouns like woman, man, wife, husband, sister, son. Then they move on to nouns like artist, analyzer, mediator. These are the ones that line the top.
“At the top, for me, I always end up with ‘artist,’” Mitchell said. “It informs everything I do.”
If you’re not sure about your nouns, ask yourself these questions, she said: “What were you like as a kid? What roles did you play? What have people told you over and over again when they compliment you? What would your best friend tell me about you? Who do you admire the most and what roles do they play? Oftentimes, that’s just a projection.”
Once you’re done, snap a photo. Mitchell suggested making it your wallpaper on your computer or phone, or taping it to your bathroom mirror. Continually remind yourself that no matter what you’re going through — stress, illness, failure, tragedy — you aren’t any of those things. You are an artist or an analyzer. You are that noun at the very top.
4. Practice meditation.
Meditation “quiets the mind chatter,” Marter said. “By quieting the mind, we can connect with our hearts, which is where our spirit resides.” She suggested trying this meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn and this one from Deepak Chopra.
5. Try something new.
Trying new activities or hobbies helps you to see yourself in new contexts and discover new aspects of yourself, said Marter, who also pens the Psych Central blog “The Psychology of Success.”
She shared a personal example: “When I went ziplining and rappelling in Costa Rica, I discovered aspects of myself around fear, courage, trust, letting go [and] surrender, and childlike glee and wonder. The experience brought out emotions and aspects of myself that daily living wouldn’t normally trigger.”
6. Pinpoint your peak experiences.
To help her clients explore their essence, Mitchell asks them to discuss and record their peak experiences, which she describes as a moment “your mind is blown away” or “you just felt absolutely right in the world.” Then they describe how this experience made them feel (such as blissful, free, excited, tingly).
For instance, one client told Mitchell about being in a church in Italy and utterly mesmerized by the stained glass windows. She’d never seen anything more beautiful in her life. Another experienced profound openness and peace while sitting in the meadow.
In reality, these peak experiences, Mitchell said, are a reflection of who we are. “What you saw and experienced was only a peak experience because you brought yourself to it … It is a direct mirror of the essence of you. [It is] you showing up in the world.”
The woman mesmerized by the pure beauty of the windows is that pure beauty. She couldn’t have seen that beauty if she weren’t connecting to that part of herself, Mitchell said. The client who found profound peace in the meadow had experienced significant trauma. She thought those feelings were robbed from her, Mitchell said. But by being able to connect to that serenity, she realized that it is indeed within her.