Have you ever sensed that little voice inside that always seems to know which way to turn?
Have you noticed that little voice is not very loud and is more like a physical sensation than a spoken word? A gut feeling?
In contrast, have you heard that really loud, cranky voice that screams "danger" whenever the wind blows? Or worse, reminds you of your failings...again?
Have you noticed that booming voice is often a bit irrational and panics at the slightest thing?
Yeah? Me too.
Well, I've learned to call that little voice my "essential self" and the really noisy one my "social self" from my coaching teacher Martha Beck. She goes into great detail on the two selves in her book Finding Your North Star. But, here's my take.
The Essential Self
We all have an essential self. Perhaps you've heard others call it the true self, authentic self, higher self, inner wisdom, wise self, Buddha nature, Christ consciousness, inner pilot light, inner healer, soul, spirit...the list goes on.
The essential self formed when we were born. It comes from our genes and becomes our spark, our personality, our nature, our character, our inner knowing, our identity.
Just watch a 6-month-old baby. That perfect and precious child only knows what is essential. Whether crying for food, sucking a toe, or having a sudden need for a snooze or a poop, that infant's essential self is in charge. There's no telling that child what to do and when.
The Social Self
However, as that baby grows up, she develops another self -- the "social self." You may know it by another term -- the ego, the false self, the monkey mind, the pleaser, the inner critic. It's the self that develops in response to others. And its purpose is to keep us safe.
Even as infants, we understand the goodwill of the grown-ups around us ensures our survival. And so, we are designed to please others. We are social creatures. We smile to get our mother's attention, learn to share with siblings, do the chores to get ice cream. We learn to sing, dance, read and write. We are schooled in what's right and what's wrong. Why? To be accepted as part of our tribe -- families, communities, society.
We learn the shoulds and should nots of our tribe from parents, grandparents, teachers, pediatricians, police officers, elected officials, celebrities, etc. Our culture gives us rules to follow and a way of being that helps us fit in. It's a pretty efficient system really. That is until it gets out of balance.
A Precarious Balance
Our two selves each have important roles and responsibilities. But maintaining an equilibrium is the key. At one extreme, if I was a person whose social self didn't develop or struggles to play its role in my day to day existence, then I might be considered a sociopath -- someone with no social consciousness and thus potentially destructive tendencies.
Just as all essential self with no social self isn't desirable, neither is the opposite. There is a cost when my social self thinks she's fully in charge. I lose my way. I'm like a traveler with no map or destination. When getting along with others is my only focus, I make choices that aren't in my best interest. The people pleaser side of me takes over, and I'm always the loser in that situation.
When the essential self yields its controlling position to the social self, it's often in response to a trauma -- sometimes minor, sometimes major. When that happens, the social self orchestrates a coup -- gathering steam on its promise of safety and soundness. If it succeeds, the essential self runs for the hills, retreating to the recesses of the mind and body. The loud and bossy social self drowns out the non-verbal nature and wisdom of the essential self. Can't you hear her evil cackle?
At times, I have held on to those traumatic moments, replaying them over and over. I have lived in the stagnation of the social self's fabricated fear. Other times, I have gotten through it, and my essential self has regained a foothold and brought back out the map to guide my way -- the balance restored.
The Dreamer and the Workhorse
Despite being an odd couple, my essential and social selves can work in harmony with each other. They can play for the same team -- my essential self the star pitcher, my social self the reliable catcher. When they have clear roles and responsibilities, and don't mess with each other's turf, they get along quite nicely.
Think of it this way: my essential self is the dreamer; my social self is the workhorse. My essential self thinks great thoughts; my social self takes dictation, types, and edits. My essential self has a wild side; my social self knows when to tone it down a bit. And so, I fit into society, stay out of jail, and avoid being ostracized, while writing creatively, riding a horse at a fast canter, and hiking to the top of a mountain.
Let me give you a few more examples of how my essential and socials selves work together balancing their strengths and weaknesses.
#1: Meal Time
My essential self loves to dream up beautiful gourmet meals to nourish my body. But she doesn't follow directions well. So, my social self is the cook. She shops, preps the ingredients, cooks, and gets it on the table. I'd starve if my essential self was the cook. But I'd only eat Hamburger Helper if my social self planned the menu.
My essential self wants to get all zen on a writing and meditation retreat in Santa Fe, NM with Natalie Goldberg, one of my favorite authors. But she detests detail management, and doesn't have a clue how to research flights on Southwest Airlines. So, my social self is my travel agent. She checks the dates, schedules the flights, gets the rental car, picks my room, and pays the fee. I'd never go anywhere if my essential self was in charge of the logistics. But without the inspiration, my social self would plan a nice and quiet stay-cation.
My essential self fantasizes about being the next Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame. She dreams of dazzling the world with beautiful, thought provoking prose in both fiction and non-fiction. But it's hard to convince her to sit still long enough to get her thoughts down on paper. So, my social self bought the thick and luxurious writing paper, the flowing multi-colored pens, and the Apple computer. She took furious notes in creative writing class and has learned to type fast to keep up with my essential self's musings. She sets the timer for my essential self to write her morning pages and gives her 85% dark chocolate and matcha tea to entice her to get the words out. I'd never publish any of my thoughts on this blog if my essential self was in charge of more than the ideas and the words. But reading my words would be as boring as watching paint dry if my social self was the author.
My Dynamic Duo
Every day I grow in my understanding of my dynamic duo. And every day I seek to re-establish their tenuous balance. Some days I'm more successful than others. If I can see my social self and her monkey chatter coming, I can head it off at the pass by questioning my thoughts. That's a good day. When my monkeys pull my chain and I fall for their tall tale, then it's a day filled with rumination and regret. That's not a good day.
Just knowing they both exist brings me a lot of peace. I'm certainly at my best when my essential self is in charge and my social self is the ever efficient, dutiful, and well paid assistant. That reality happens more than not these days. And the result is my whole operation runs more efficiently and effectively while also being a lot more fun and free.
How do your essential and social selves keep the peace and divide their duties? Share in the comments.