Updated: Aug 7, 2020
“The heart has to shed the distractions that keep it from knowing the truth about itself… you won't be what you are until you stop pursuing an identity in anything other than God. The source (and love) of your life rests in that mystery alone.” — Belden Lane
Here is one of the most important questions you will ever ask yourself:
What is the deep truth of who you are?
I've been in an all-out wrestling match with that question for most of my life. I lost my true self very early on in my childhood, and like Jacob on the banks of the river Jabbok, I have been wrestling with God through the long night of that separation, fighting to get back to who I really am.
It's taken a long time—decades, really—to learn, as Jacob did, that my ego is no help in this quest, and is, in fact, one of the primary obstacles to the restoration I seek. That's why Jacob had to cross the river Jabbok all alone—the river's name literally means “to empty out”—leaving behind all the riches and people and roles he had collected over the years to give him his “identity.” It was the only way he could confront the truth about himself. You cannot cling to your façades and reach for your true self at the same time. Our hands are simply not big enough to carry both at once.
As it turns out, much of the struggle to recover your true self comes through the mindful, meticulous process of letting go of all the things that are not you. As the physician and teacher Rachel Naomi Remen wrote so beautifully:
"Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn't you—all of the expectations, all of the beliefs—and becoming who you really are."
To find the truth, you must be ruthless in exposing everything in you that is false. The way you walk, or talk, or enter a room. The things you say. The ways you spend your time. The things you give your attention to. The things you cling to, and the ways you cling to them. The false self is like a second skin we put on to hide the truth underneath. We wear it so close to us that we easily deceive not only the world but also ourselves regarding who and what we really are. We believe—desperately believe, in fact—that our elaborate façade will win for us the things we crave—belonging, affirmation, success, love. Much of the time it doesn't work, but even when it does, it's not really you that's getting all these things your heart desires. It's the false self you've created. The second skin you put on to fool the world has separated your true heart from the very things you seek.
The only solution is to tear it off of you. You have to “skin yourself alive”—a process that is every bit as messy and excruciating as the metaphor suggests. We become intimately attached to these false selves we construct, so much so that separating our true self from them can feel very much like dying. The greater our attachment, the greater the death.
The answer—our salvation, really—is found in God’s* love. Your true self is rooted deep in God, and it's only through a courageous trust in the love of God for your true self that you find the tenacity and grace you need to endure the process of dying to all that is false within you.
Jacob wrestled with God all through the night, all the way to the morning. Even when it was obvious that he could never win, he refused to let go of God until God blessed him. And what was the blessing God gave? A new name. He revealed to Jacob who he really was. He restored Jacob’s true self. You can read the story here.
If you want to name what is false in you, you need look no further than your attachments. Where do you get your identity from? Money? Success? Beauty? Intelligence? Possessions? Hobbies? Politics? Your role in life—as a mother? as a father? as an athlete? as an artist? as a leader? None of these things are wrong in themselves, but our attachment to them makes them so. This is the truth St. Augustine was trying to convey when he wrote these famous words:
“You have made us for Yourself, oh Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in You.”
Or as Beldan Lane put it: "You won't be what you really are until you stop pursuing an identity in anything other than God."
The first step to recovering your true self is to call out your own bullshit. You have to root out falseness in your life, and wherever you find it, tear it off of you, and let it go. Stop the pretense. Drop the façade.
It’s not an easy process, but if you’re feeling brave, start here, with this: a False Self Inventory. Print out the Wheel of Life graphic above, or recreate it in your own journal. Then, for every section of the wheel, write your honest answers to these questions:
How do I use this area of my life to craft an identity I want others to see?
In what specific ways do I hide or pretend in this area of my life to protect my ego or my reputation?
What would it look like if I dropped all pretense in this area of my life? What would my life look like then? Who would I be?
“Sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self, in all it's elemental poverty but also in it's great and simple dignity; created to be the child of God, and capable of loving with something of God's own sincerity and His unselfishness.” — Thomas Merton
*Sidenote: As I follow the Christian tradition, I use “God” when referring to the Divine. But don’t let that throw you off. You may use “Source” or “the Universe” or some other marker.