The path of self discovery begins with an understanding of what is meant by the self.
For this we need to return to the moment of your birth.
It is here that the first labels (gender, name and ethnicity) were assigned to you and noted on your birth certificate.
At first these labels were just sounds in your ear, or shapes on a page.
But as you began to recognise the sounds and shapes, their meanings became clear. You were then free to start using labels for yourself.
Firstly in a simple way:
"I'm a child."
Then in a more complex way:
Finally, in a sophisticated way:
"I'm a thought leader."
These labels are powerful. They help you form an identity you can use to navigate the world.
But their power comes at a price: the more you use these labels, the more they veil who you are.
Veils are useful for keeping others at bay. But their overuse can make life feel dull, restrictive and isolated, rather than vibrant, free and connected.
That's when it can become lonely at the top.
If this is you, your challenge is to gently and methodically begin to peel back some of the labels surrounding your life.
One by one, little by little.
Not so much that they lose their value.
Just enough to discover and enjoy some of the indestructible and limitless you that is there beneath, patiently waiting.
This limitless you is the Self in self discovery. Now let's decode the Discovery part.
The Game Of Self Discovery
The game of self discovery is like the game of chess. It takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.
The guidelines are simple and universal:
1 - At all times and in all directions, your Self is emitting a homing signal.
2 - Tuning into this signal brings freedom and wellbeing.
3 - The ability to distinguish your homing signal from background noise requires a high level of awareness.
4 - Like a muscle, awareness improves with training and atrophies with neglect.
5 - The process of training awareness is an endless unfolding, nurtured by a stance of openness and curiosity rather than a rush to judgement or premature foreclosure.
6 - All three types of awareness (exteroceptive (sensing the external world), interoceptive (sensing your internal world), proprioceptive (sensing the interplay between external and internal worlds)) are required.
Self discovery is a game that can be played solo or with others. Both approaches have their merits, so it is worth pursuing both in tandem.
Finding The Right Support
When engaging in self discovery with others, it is important to consider who these others might be.
For example, you might choose to work with a friend or family member. The benefit here is that this is someone you already know and trust.
Alongside this, or as an alternative, you might seek the help of a professional and experienced outsider.
There are three benefits here:
1 - Objectivity. Unlike friends and family, a professional outsider has no vested interest in you being anything other than who you are. This leaves you free to pursue your own agenda for self discovery rather than someone else's. Being at a distance from the systems in your life also means that a professional can hold a better overview of those systems, including any blindspots.
2 - Relational learning. As we humans usually live in groups, self discovery also includes understanding who you are when you are amongst others. Working with a professional outsider gives you a unique opportunity to form a close relationship in a safe, secure space that is exclusively for your needs. It is here that you can begin to look more forensically at the ways you impact others, and how others impact you.
3 - Knowledge, skills and experience. A professional outsider is likely to have come across many of the challenges of self discovery you now face, in their training and inner work and in their work with other clients. Leveraging this expertise and insight can make your journey faster, smoother and ultimately more rewarding.
If you are interested in finding a professional outsider to work with, there are seven key points to contemplate:
1 - Growth
Look for a practitioner who can offer you ample space to grow. Someone who has, through self reflection and through working with their own practitioner, extensively travelled the terrain you wish to explore.
Let's say you wish to explore how to have better interpersonal relationships. Look for a practitioner who has a deep understanding of the relevant theories and practices, and who has thoroughly examined their own ways of relating with others.
In other words, think like a martial artist. A white belt can improve under the guidance of a black belt first dan, but a black belt first dan will need the guidance of a black belt fifth dan.
2 - Trust
In order for you to grow, you and your practitioner will need to form a good working alliance. One that is built on trust and mutual respect.
The first pillar of this type of trust is authenticity. Seek a practitioner who is clearly at ease in their own skin and natural in your company. Avoid those who come across as too polished, ultra perfect or playing a role. You'll recognise them by the slightly uncomfortable, icky feeling on your skin.
Pro tip: trust your gut. Your enteric (gut) brain, assisted by your cardiac (heart) brain, will give you all the information you need. Your cephalic (head) brain won't be of use in this particular area.
Authenticity is vital. The best practitioners will consistently encourage, implicitly through modelling and explicitly through careful feedback, the emergence and unfolding of your truest self.
The second pillar regarding this type of trust is containment. Your practitioner is responsible for creating and maintaining a secure container within which the work can take place.
Containment comes from healthy boundaries (establishment of a warmly human yet professional working relationship with conversations beginning and ending on time), appropriate handling of client disclosures (practitioner knowing what to do with offered information, keeping strict confidentiality and knowing how and when to break confidentiality), the rupture and repair process (practitioner knowing how to handle those rare, challenging yet potentially also strengthening instances when the client feels unmet or let down).
When authenticity and containment are both sufficiently present, something amazing happens.
As a client you begin to relax and to feel safe. With this, valuable information from the outer reaches of your awareness begins to make itself available to you. As you and your practitioner work with this information, you begin to change profoundly for the better.
3 - Balance
Some practitioners are more yin-orientated, nurturing and caring, whilst others tend naturally to be more yang-orientated, direct and cavalier. The best practitioners are able to blend yin and yang, authoritative and facilitative approaches, into a seamless, integrated and powerful whole that is, at all times, in service of the client.
To explore this a little further, I recommend reading the first chapter of Helping The Client by John Heron.
4 - Supervision
If you have found a spacious, trustworthy and balanced practitioner, you're well on your way. The next thing to check is whether your practitioner is in supervision.
Every practitioner, no matter how talented or experienced, should be discussing their work with a qualified, trusted and experienced supervisor at least once a month as a matter of good ethical practice.
Supervision is where the practitioner's blindspots become known and worked with, and where the gnarly knots that inevitably arise in client work can be untangled. It is a rich source of learning and growth for the practitioner, and a matter of safety and efficacy for the client.
Incidentally, a good supervisor would also be taking their work with supervisees to supervision, for exactly the same reasons.
Working unsupervised is, in my book, a cardinal sin and a deal-breaker. I would never consider working unsupervised, being the client of an unsupervised practitioner or referring a client to an unsupervised practitioner. Just as I would never consider taking off on a plane whose pilot is intoxicated or whose pre-flight safety checks haven't been carried out.
Feel free to directly ask a practitioner whether or not they are in supervision, paying close attention to how they respond. It will tell you a lot.
5 - Transference
Even the most highly recommended practitioner may not be the right choice for every client, particularly if something about them jars badly with the client or too closely resembles someone from the client's world.
The latter is an example of the phenomenon of transference, and it's a reminder of the importance of safety and trust. A good relational fit with an ethical practitioner sets the scene for a client to open up and for deep insight to occur.
My advice is to persevere through the challenge of finding a suitable practitioner. Take the usual common sense steps, such as putting the call out amongst folks whose discretion and judgement you trust. And bear in mind that nothing is wasted in your exploration, even if you encounter unsuitable practitioners and have to backtrack.
When you find yourself the right practitioner and you're courageous, well supported and motivated to put in the hard work, your life will begin to change for the better.
6 - Countertransference
At some point your external attributes (chiefly money, power, status and beauty) may begin to influence the relational dynamic between you and your practitioner.
It is normal for proactive countertransference (when the practitioner unwittingly begins to view their client as something or someone other than who they actually are) to occur every now and then.
The key is for the practitioner to recognise countertransference and to work with it, particularly in supervision. When handled this way, countertransference need not be a problem. In fact it can often be quite helpful, especially for the practitioner in developing empathy and insight with their client.
For example, the practitioner may come to more deeply understand how painful it can be when others see you for your external attributes, rather than for who you are as a whole person.
From your perspective, simply notice the relational dynamic as it begins to take shape. Be mindful of practitioners who begin to wither in your presence or try to assert their dominance over you, particularly if you are also a well-known individual.
The relationship between client and practitioner is sacred. It needs to be egalitarian, albeit necessarily asymmetric (it's about your needs, not those of your practitioner; your practitioner brings knowledge and experience to the table that you might not yet have).
7 - Enjoyment
Last but not least, try to find a practitioner whose company you really enjoy. Especially if you're looking to work with them over the long-term.
Of course it's nice to enjoy your investment of time, money and energy. But there's more to it than this.
David Christian of The Big History Project refers to Goldilocks Conditions: the "sweet spot" conditions arising in the universe that allow paradigms to shift and life to flourish. Not too hot, not too cold, just right.
It's like that in this kind of work. Find a practitioner who wants to work with you, and who you want to work with. Someone who really takes time to hear you and to understand you. Someone whose approach is neither too timid, nor too challenging, but instead is robust and flexible, adapting dynamically to your needs in the moment.
When you find such a practitioner and together you develop a good working alliance, you'll notice leaving each conversation in much better shape than you arrived. Feeling energised and invigorated. And together with your practitioner you'll be able to trace your arc of progress over time.