I felt the knot expanding in my abdomen and heaviness beginning to crush my chest as I packed up to head home during my last camping trip of the season. Although I was excited to go home and see my husband, I was simultaneously dreading going back to the city. The tension in my body was similar to the way I felt on Sunday evenings as I prepared to return to a soul-crushing job I had many years before. But unlike that job, I adore my husband and enjoy my life. I was puzzled as to why I was feeling this way. I had no idea that I was about to encounter what some refer to as my true self.
‘You should feel grateful,’ I told myself. Not everyone has the freedom to do things like this. Not to mention, this last trip of the season was an unexpected gift. It’s typically cold and rainy this time of year, but this week was dry and sunny, with highs in the seventies.
Over the last week, I’d witnessed the most beautiful sunsets that reflected on the glass-like lake. The ridges and shoreline were aglow with yellow birch, golden tamaracks, and majestic pines. And having this little-known state forest to myself was the icing on the cake. Everything was perfect and I struggled to understand why I felt so upset.
I hated feeling like this and I was angry that I allowed myself to ruin an otherwise perfect day. That anger lit a fire in me that pushed me to dig deeper to uncover what was really causing this sense of dread. Piece by piece I thought about everything that made me feel at home in the woods and compared that to my life in the city. Was it the forest, I wondered? No, I enjoy a similar feeling in the parks near my home. Was it not having to work, cook, clean, and run errands? Again, I concluded that I enjoyed those things similarly in both locations. Was it the solitude…?
In an instant, I knew that solitude was part of whatever it was that I was rumbling with. I dug a bit deeper and realized that when I was alone in nature, I had a sense of freedom that I was missing in my day-to-day life. With no one around to try and impress or please, I was free to be me, fully immersed in my true self. Out in the woods, I had no need to try and prove I was worthy by being kind, insightful, or driven. I could just be me.
Just admitting that to myself made me feel as though 500 pounds of armor had instantly fallen off of me. I saw how I had spent most of my life desperate to belong, while at the same time building walls that I believed would prevent me from being hurt. As a result, I hid things about myself and my life that I was ashamed of. Terrified of criticism and rejection, I stayed quiet, even when I strongly disagreed. I played the roles I assumed others expected me to play.
I realized that until I found true belonging in myself, I would forever struggle with these feelings of disconnection. It was clear to me that there was no way I could go back to the way things were and that was terrifying. I knew that leaning into my true self could mean criticism and rejection. Things were undoubtedly going to change. But I knew that in the long run, denying my true self would be more painful than facing rejection.
Although this story might sound like a flash of divine intervention, the truth is that this day had been coming together for years. Ever since my first solo camping trip, each following trip revealed parts of myself (my false self) that were holding me back. All of those revelations brought me to this day when I finally found the courage to say enough is enough.
That was the day I committed to start integrating my true self into my daily life. I was going to say what I believed even if it meant that people would reject me. I would stop hiding my weaknesses and vulnerability and allow my whole self to be seen. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I’d spent more than forty years layering this armor on. But the freedom of living from my true self felt so good that I was determined to try and integrate it into my daily life—not just my life in the woods.
As you might expect, being true to myself wasn’t—and isn’t—always a walk in the park. Saying what I believed led some people to ridicule and even stop talking to me. Although it hurt to be rejected for speaking my truth, I began to notice that something else was happening. The handful of people who pushed me away opened space in my life for people who value all of me—not just the parts they agree with or make them feel good about themselves. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back I can see that belonging to myself was one of the best decisions I could ever make.
Lessons from my true self journey
The phrase “finding your true self” is remarkably common and although I use it myself, I don’t think it’s the best way to describe this journey. It’s not really finding but remembering—a sort of homecoming if you will.
Nature versus nurture has been debated for as long as philosophy and psychology have been around. Today, most experts agree we’re the product of both and have thus turned their focus to the how. This, along with the insightful work of thought leaders like Richard Rohr and Brené Brown, has helped me better understand my journey home to my true self.
This is how I understand my own journey as of the day I’m writing this. I imagine that as I continue to learn and grow, I’ll develop a deeper understanding of authenticity and the journey back home to my true self.
We come into this world as unique and authentic beings. Even identical twins don’t look exactly alike. And we all have a remarkably unique set of gifts and talents. Then somewhere along our journey, we get the message that who we are is not enough. So we start trying on personas as a way to fit in and belong. As Richard Rohr writes in Immortal Diamond and Falling Upward, these are necessary experiences in the first half of life.
At some point, most of us come to the realization that this striving and performing is no longer working for us. At that juncture, we begin peeling back the layers we spent a lifetime plastering on ourselves like paper mache on a piñata. Many people, however, don’t find the courage to embrace their true selves until the very end of their lives, unfortunately. But as I shared in my story, I believe that it’s well worth the effort to start your journey sooner rather than later.
As we make progress toward integrating our true selves, don’t expect that we will act from this place of authenticity 100 percent of the time. Although I’ve done a lot of work to embrace my true self, I’m a human being who gets triggered, reacts, and slips into ego (the false self) more often than I’d like. That’s all part of the process. This journey home to our true selves is a lifelong practice. Even my oldest and wisest spiritual mentor admits that he doesn’t get it right all of the time.
Finally, it’s important to highlight that while many of my personal insights came to me during silent reflection in the woods, getting in touch with your true authentic self is not a solitary act. Other people, both friends, and foes, act as mirrors, reflecting back to us our most profound strengths, weaknesses, fears, and insecurities. Most, if not all, of my insights about how I was stifling my true self, had to do with how I was interacting with the world around me.
How to find your true self outside
1 – Get outside!
Daily if you can.
I wrote about the benefits of getting outside in previous posts. I dug into building courage and confidence here, and covered connection to ourselves, others, nature, and spirituality here. While long solo wilderness trips are wonderful opportunities for reflection, depending on our current season of life, this may not be an option for all of us. But no matter where we are in life, most of us can carve out 5 minutes a day to go for a walk, dig in the garden, or just sit outside and be.
“As of 2022, the average daily social media usage worldwide amounted to 147 minutes per day”—nearly three hours! In the US, a 2021 Forbes article reported that “Americans spent more than 1,300 hours on social media” during the previous year. That’s more than 32 40-hour workweeks. Surely most of us, myself included, can carve out time by simply putting down our devices. This one small act alone would have a profound impact on our mental health crisis.
2 – Embrace the quiet.
We live in a noisy world and much of that noise is simply a distraction. At worst, all of the notifications, news, email, and podcasts induce unnecessary anxiety.
One of our most treasured experiences is our annual 10 to 12 day Boundary Waters trip when we disconnect from the grid and savor life without news, email, and social media. Other than an occasional group of canoeists, the only sounds we hear are ourselves and the songs of nature.
While it’s impossible for most of us to enjoy this level of quiet regularly, it is possible to make it a daily practice. I’ve been meditating nearly every morning since 2019. It took years of practice but I’m finally learning how to quiet my mind and just be. Other ideas to help you embrace quiet include turning off your music or podcast for the last 5 minutes of your commute or workout, taking 2-minute breaks throughout the day to close your eyes and focus on your breath, or reading books before bed instead of watching TV or scrolling social media.
3 – Self-reflect
Journaling is a great way to connect to your true authentic self. Almost everyone I know who feels confident being themselves is self-reflective. I personally process things more linearly with paper and pen. But I know others who are just as effective mentally reflecting while running, cycling, or driving to work. If you’re new to journaling and are interested in following prompts that will bring you closer to your true self, check out my self-discovery journal here.
4 – Move!
I touched on movement in the previous points, but it’s so important that I’m going to dig deeper here. One of the ideas that seared into my mind while reading Bessel van der Kolk’s incredible book The Body Keeps the Score is how “animals who survive an attack by predators will get up, physically shake it off, and run away.”
Who among us has not felt like we’ve been under constant attack over the previous two years? How have we dealt with that relentless stress and anxiety? I wonder how those who make movement a priority have fared in comparison to our less active counterparts.
Over the years, our lives have become increasingly sedentary. And for many of us who are active, it’s often compartmentalized—we get up early to go for a run, sit all day at work, come home and make dinner, and spend the remainder of our waking hours in front of a screen. But experts like van der Kolk remind us that our mind, body, spirit, and emotions aren’t separate compartments, but interconnected pieces of our whole true selves.
Combined with getting outside, embracing quiet, and self-reflection; movement has helped me connect to who I am at my core. My first solo backpacking trip, for instance, helped me recognize the real fears and anxiety that held me back from achieving my potential for most of my life. Bringing my mind, body, and emotions together as one brought me the clarity and confidence I needed to move forward.
Again, like everything I’ve covered so far, you don’t need to take a five-day solo backpacking trip to make progress. Simply going outside for a daily walk can help you start to reintegrate all the different aspects of your self. Check out the video below to learn more about how movement, specifically yoga, helps people bring their mind, body, and emotions together so they can start to heal and move forward.
5 – Lead by example.
As you begin to connect to your true self, don’t forget to pay it forward. There’s a phrase that makes its way around the internet several times each year. “Be so completely yourself that everyone you meet feels safe to be themselves too.” Reconnecting to your true self is not only a gift to yourself, but also a gift to the world.
Have you ever heard that the best way to really learn something is to teach it? As we get to know and appreciate our true selves, sharing that authenticity with others can help us fully integrate. By practicing authenticity, vulnerability, and non-judgment with others, I’ve become more comfortable sharing my beliefs and values. And equally as important, I’ve been able to allow space for others to feel safe sharing their beliefs too.
Becoming your true self means embracing and integrating ALL of you. And by allowing your true authentic self to be seen, you create a safe space for others to do the same.
The journey home to our true selves isn’t a straight line, nor is it always easy. Along the way, we’re often forced to face our greatest fears of criticism, rejection, failure, and loss. But those who find the courage to keep going always find that they gain more than they lose.
The world needs you to share your true voice and authentic gifts. Playing small and toeing the line to fit in serves no one—especially you. Are you ready to step outside your comfort zone and into the courage to be true to you?
Looking to get outside and connect with others on their own journey to authenticity? Are you local to Minnesota? Sign up to be notified of upcoming events here.