Strengthening the True Self in Adolescents and Young Adults
Adolescence, by its very nature, is full of turmoil as we transition developmentally from childhood to adulthood. These are the hurricane years when the winds pull us in many directions, sometimes even unpredictably throwing us off course, changing our lives quickly and in frightening ways.
In the middle of any hurricane, there is always an eye, a deep center of the storm where there is no wind at all. That eye is completely calm, even though the winds are blowing in-tensely in all directions around it. It can anchor us through the storms of life, and I call it the ìtrue self.î It is always there.
But, how do we find that “I” during the turbulent years of adolescence and young adulthood? How can we teach others to connect with their own “I”? And how do young people know who and what to trust during this developmental transition?
What is the True Self?
The true self is that authentic little voice deep within that guides us how to live our lives and make decisions. It is the refer-ence point, the specific perspective from which we experience our lives. It tells us what is what, what fits us, and what does not. It is our light that shines. It is what anchors us when we are not sure where to turn or what to do. It may be a fiery ball of energy eager to express itself or simply a tiny ember tucked safely deep inside somewhere, but it is always there in all of us, and it can never be destroyed. The true self is the “I” of the hurricane.
It is important to understand that when we were born, we all lived from our true selves. In fact, we could not have done babyhood any other way. We naturally cried when we were hungry, consistently asking for what we needed. We snuggled when we felt safe. We fell asleep when we were tired. We smiled freely and wiggled all over when we enjoyed our lives. What we felt inside showed openly on the outside during this time when we learned to connect with and attach to those providing our care.
Our viewpoints changed significantly, however, when we began to individuate—the primary developmental task of the pre-school years. When we began to realize that we were separate beings from those others who provided our care, some of us learned that there was room for everyone and each person’s needs. Others of us, though, learned that our needs were less important than those of bigger, more powerful others. As a result, we may have quit asking for what we needed and hidden our true selves deep down inside. Some of us hid our true selves to be safe and literally survive. Others of us hid our true selves to be good girls and boys, to get the approval and affection we necessarily depended upon to meet our basic needs. If we hid our true selves, perhaps even before we can remember doing so, we can trust it was a necessary and wise choice at the time.
I call this process of shifting our reference point from our internal true selves to those more powerful others the “traumatic disconnect.”
As adolescents now, we are considerably more able to take care of ourselves and are individuating at an even deeper level to developmentally become adults. Because we remain well-trained to defer to others for guidance, it seems like a natural progression to turn toward our peers. In this way, we can continue to use the same skills we have already learned to defer to others, but simply shift to defer to different people.
There is, however, a significant alternative worth considering. We can also reconnect with our true selves for guidance, which likely will prove to be even more trustworthy over the many years ahead. But because we have hidden our true selves away so carefully and so long ago, how do we find them again?
The Language of the True Self
The true self speaks to us in what may initially seem like a foreign language: body sensations. When we listen from a deeper place inside, our feelings and other physical sensations tell us how we are experiencing our lives. These are our true selves speaking to us. Perhaps we notice our stomach feeling jittery when we approach a certain person we do not trust. Or our throat gets tight when it is our turn to give an oral report in class. Or we cannot sleep because we are so excited about some-thing happening the next day. Or we feel like we are melting when our grandma hugs us with all her heart and we absolutely know that she loves us dearly. These are all body sensations that bring us information about what we like and do not like, what fits us and what does not. These are examples of our true selves coming to guide us through the hurricane.
I call these times when our true selves speak to us “awakening moments.” Sometimes they are quite predictable, as in the above examples, but sometimes they seem surprising. When something important or new comes to us, our true selves must find a way to get our attention. It often does that with surprises. Perhaps an unusual coincidence gets our attention. Perhaps someone says the precise thing we need to remember or we notice something we have previously overlooked.
Our true selves are amazingly determined to get our attention—and they never give up! This endurance helps us distinguish the messages of our true selves from everyday impulsive ideas that may or may not be good for us. If we do not hear our true selves’ message the first time with their gentle tap on our shoulders, they will persistently bring the same message again and again in stronger ways until they succeed in getting our attention. Perhaps we have even experienced a not-so-gentle thump upside the head. If so, it means we have been ignoring the earlier, more gentle taps on the shoulder.
I once experienced what felt like a giant thump upside the head. When my boyfriend started getting violent with me, I tried everything I could think of to get him to stop hurting me. I tried to love him more, do things that pleased him more often, ma-nipulate his moods, and prove my love for him. I had plenty of guidance from both friends and my true self to end the rela-tionship, but I ignored them all—until I got the big thump that told me my life was on the line. One day when he was really, re-ally angry, I suddenly realized he could actually kill me! Only then could I admit to myself that I was in serious trouble. Only then could I end that relationship and my dangerous habit of allowing someone to hurt me. I believe I am alive today because of that experience of finally waking up to listen to my true self.
I like to think that we do not have to wait for that big thump upside the head, that we can learn to listen to the little taps and tugs before the messages get that big and dramatic. The problem is that our true selves have been hidden away for so long that they are rather underdeveloped. After all, we likely have not been listening to them since early childhood, and true selves require listening to grow.
Signs of an Underdeveloped True Self
We can tell that our true selves are underdeveloped if:
We feel empty inside and try to fill that emptiness with other people, busy activities, or addictions
We act differently in different situations with different people
We cannot tolerate others disapproving of us or getting angry with us
We merge too much with other groups and people, just going along with the crowd
We cannot tolerate being alone, saying “goodbye,” or being rejected by others
We do not know what we really like and care about
We pretend we are okay even when we are upset and hurting inside
We try really hard to be good enough, to do things right, and to please others
We are drawn to specific substances or activities (sometimes harmful to us) to shut down painful feelings and memories we want to go away
Once we reconnect with our true selves and they grow stronger, we feel more solid and secure inside. We can say “no” when we need to, follow and trust whatever genuinely fits our integrity, be more flexible with the necessary limits imposed by others, and feel more comfortable being alone. We can take more initiative to meet our own needs, readily accept responsi-bility for our behavior, and learn to release our feelings safely without hurting either ourselves or others.
These effects are what make it worth the effort to strengthen our true selves. Now, how do we develop that “I” of the hur-ricane?
Strengthening the True Self
There are two key skills to develop during adolescence and young adulthood that reliably strengthen the true self: distin-guishing feelings from thoughts and behavior, and generating at least three options before choosing what to do.
Distinguishing Feelings from Thoughts and Behavior
Feelings are emotional sensations we experience in our bodies that tell us how we are responding to our environment. They ebb and flow as our environment changes. They cannot be seen by others unless we share them either verbally or through our behavior. We cannot stop our feelings from coming through us, but we have many choices as to what to do with them. We can shut them down inside or release them in a variety of ways, including journaling, talking with a friend or counse-lor, crying, or engaging in physical activity. We can even release them right now or wait until later to be safer or more socially appropriate. Feelings include sad, angry, happy, hurt, scared, confused, and powerless. We might feel sad when a friend moves away or mad when we discover that someone has lied to us.
Thoughts, in contrast, come to us in words. They are the observations, opinions, ideas, beliefs, and conclusions we experi-ence in our heads. Thoughts cannot be seen by others and are known to others only if we share them verbally. Like feelings, we cannot stop thoughts from coming to us, but we have choices as to what to do with them. We can ignore them, question them, argue with them, follow them, or consciously choose to think about something different. Examples of thoughts include “She was rude to me,” “I do not understand this assignment,” “This is fun,” and “I am really good at this game!”
Behaviors are our actions, what we choose to do. Unlike feelings and thoughts, behaviors can be readily seen by others. We are held responsible for our behavior because what we do can affect others. Examples of behaviors include eating, talking, driving a car, dancing, studying, and texting. Examples of behaviors that likely negatively affect others include lying, stealing, arguing, ridiculing, and getting violent.
Feelings, thoughts, and behaviors frequently influence each other, which can become confusing, but they are different ex-periences. Learning to distinguish feelings from thoughts and making conscious choices about what to do with them can save us many embarrassing and problematic moments. We clearly do not need to do everything our feelings or thoughts tell us to do, and sometimes our thoughts seem to get busy solely to distract us from noticing our feelings.
Jenna, for example, kept experiencing thoughts that would come upon her very suddenly that said, “I have got to go kill myself right now.” Following an urgent assessment for imminent danger, we discovered as we worked together that these sud-den thoughts came to her as a very strong distraction from powerful leftover feelings and memories about her childhood trauma through flashbacks. Once she learned to distinguish feelings from thoughts, she could interpret those dangerous thoughts as a signal that she was having a flashback. Then she could safely process the flashbacks to release the feelings instead of killing herself. Learning to distinguish feelings from thoughts thus allowed Jenna to gratefully go on with her life. And when she listened to what was happening inside in this way, she also strengthened her true self.
Learning to distinguish feelings from thoughts is especially critical whenever destructive impulses are an issue. Addictions can also complicate distinguishing feelings from thoughts, as addictive substances and activities are often seductive because they distract us from unwanted feelings.
Generating at Least Three Options
The second key skill that strengthens the true self involves generating at least three options before choosing what to do.
If we can see only one option, we feel pressured to do that one thing, whether we want to or not. If we can see two options, we usually see only the two opposite extremes. Generating at least three options reinforces the reality that we always have more choices than we think we do. It also gives us an opportunity to listen to what is happening inside to select the choices that best fit our true selves. And whenever we listen to our true selves, they grow stronger.
If we experienced traumatic disconnect as a young child, we learned to think in what is called “duality.” We could only see the two options of surrendering to the expectations more powerful others or getting punished in some way. Many of us got so used to surrendering to the expectations of others that that we could no longer even see other options.
Duality is only one very limited way of thinking. It means that we see only the two most extreme options, like good or bad, right or wrong, win or lose, your way or my way, success or failure, pretty or ugly, smart or stupid, popular or alone, in control or victim. We do not want to be at one extreme, so we struggle hard to be at the other extreme. Examples of this are, “I have to pass this math final or I will never get into college,” “If I go on this date, it will ruin my reputation and I will never have another boyfriend,” and “If I do not stand up to this girl who is teasing me horribly, I will end up getting teased forever by everyone.” Additionally, “always” and “never” are words commonly spoken when we think in the extremes of duality.
But there is a full continuum between the two extremes. We do not just have zero and ten, we have all the numbers in be-tween. And sometimes our choices are entirely different options, not even appearing to be in the continuum between zero and ten.
So how do we learn to generate more options? We practice. With practice, we can become able to think, “I do not have to be perfect and get all A’s; I can still go to college if I get a few B’s,” “I do not have to run away from home or just stay and take it; I can ask a school counselor for help,” or “I do not have to risk getting beaten up by the school bully on my way home; I can walk on a different street or simply make sure that I never walk alone.” When needed, we can always ask a friend to help us generate more possibilities. We can even add ridiculous options to make the point. There are always more options than we can initially think of, always at least three options. In other words, we make life multiple choice rather than true or false.
Justin, for example, had a job that he hated. He worked in a customer call center and took one call after another from very angry people who yelled at him. He felt horrible about himself after every work shift. The only other option he could think of was to resign (one extreme), but he had considerable credit card debt to pay off and believed he therefore had to stay and just tolerate the yelling (the other extreme). When we brainstormed other options together, he realized that he could also search for another job within that same company, do a serious search for a different kind of job before he quit this one, move in with a friend to reduce his expenses, move back in with his parents to save money to pay off his debt sooner, or panhandle on the street (the ridiculous option he laughingly added). He then wisely chose to move back in with his parents temporarily to pay the debt as quickly as possible while also returning to school to finish his degree. With his new degree, he had a credential to get a different job that fit him much better, and he landed that new job before he resigned the current intolerable job. It all came together when he learned to generate at least three options before choosing what to do. And when he listened to what was happening inside, he also strengthened his true self.
Trusting the True Self
The true self, the “I” of the hurricane, is thus the reference point from which we experience and interpret our lives and make decisions, and when we listen to it, it grows increasingly stronger. Now, can we trust it?
It certainly can be difficult to know what to trust during the hurricane of adolescence and young adulthood. Some things can be scary or embarrassing and still feel right for us. At other times, it seems rational and obvious to make a certain choice and yet it does not feel quite right inside us. Sometimes there is a great deal of pressure from others to choose a particular option, and yet at other times we seem to get no guidance at all.
It may be helpful to remember that we can never, ever please other people all the time, no matter how much we want to. It simply is not possible to please even one other person all the time. We need to find a more reliable guideline than pleasing others to know what to trust.
Keeping in mind the two skills previously described—distinguishing feelings from thoughts and behaviors, and generating at least three options—we can learn to listen to the suggestions of others as well as listen to our true selves to know what best fits us as individuals. In other words, we can continue to listen to selective others who genuinely care about us and in addition lis-ten more and more to our own internal true selves as they develop strength and clarity.
When we find what best fits our true selves regarding a specific issue, we feel settled inside. We usually feel relief. Our brain quits thinking constantly about the issue and our body relaxes. We feel free. We feel hopeful. We smile. Everything in-side says “Yes!” Even if we feel hesitant or frightened about following through, we know we can and that we somehow will. Our clarity always feels right deep down inside of us, where we connect with our true selves. Our true selves are always life-affirming and help us feel fully alive. This peaceful, alive feeling is what makes strengthening our true selves worth the ef-fort it takes.
However, adolescence and young adulthood are the gradual transitions toward that clarity. No longer do we surrender to parents as completely as we used to and we do not fully trust our true selves yet either. Sometimes our independence comes too quickly, and yet at other times, it does not seem to come quickly enough.
Nina, a childhood trauma survivor, once shared with me that the only person she really trusted was her school bus driver. When I asked how she knew she could trust the bus driver, she said it was simply the driver’s energy. Even without words, the bus driver felt kind and honest. She did not tell Nina what to do and she did not shame her in any way. She was reliably there every morning and every afternoon, smiling and making eye contact in a respectful way. The bus driver thus provided con-sistent physical and emotional safety for Nina at a vulnerable time when she was transitioning toward learning to trust her true self.
During those times when there appears to be nobody to trust, these questions may help:
What are you feeling right now?
What would help you feel safer right now?
What would help you feel most like your true self?
What do you genuinely care about?
Does what you are about to do feel right for who you are and who you want to be?
Who could help you generate more options?
The true self in most adolescents and young adults is underdeveloped. This quality can contribute to numerous common problems such as impulsiveness, destructive behavior, rebellion, confusion, fear, suicide, and addiction. Fundamental skills to develop that strengthen the true self include: distinguishing feelings from thoughts and behaviors, and generating at least three options before making choices. When we strengthen the true self, it becomes easier to return again and again to the internal “I” of the hurricane whenever the storms of life throw us off course. A stronger true self reliably helps adolescents and young adults to know who and what to trust.
About the Author
Sandra Felt, LCSW, BCD, is the author of the newly released Beyond the Good-Girl Jail: When You Dare to Live from Your True Self. A grateful recovering good girl, she draws on her own hard-won life experiences as well as more than thirty years of private practice treating courageous survivors of extreme trauma and neglect. A board-certified diplomate in clinical social work and the former director of a child abuse treatment research program, she trains therapists at national conferences, enjoys sunrise hikes, and plays bluegrass bass.