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Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Liveby Martha Beck
The Disconnected Self
Melvin worked as a middle manager at IBM, and a miserable middle manager Melvin made. If clinical depression had a phone voice, it would sound just like Melvin's did the morning he called me to see if I could take him on as a client. He'd been feeling sort of flat and listless for a while, he said--no big deal, just the past couple of decades. Lately, things had reached the point where Melvin's work performance and marriage were both showing signs of strain. He thought the problem might be his job, and for the past month or two he'd been surreptitiously checking upscale want ads and sending his résumé to friends at other companies. He'd gotten a few nibbles, but nothing that really interested him. Melvin said all this in dull but fluent Executese, rich in words like incentivize and satisfice.
I decided to give Melvin the little verbal phone quiz I sometimes use to evaluate potential clients before they spend time and money in my office. I asked him his age (forty-five), his marital status (separated, no children), and job history (a Big Blue man since the day he left college). Then we got to the questions that really interest me.
"So, Melvin," I said. "When you were a little kid, did you have an imaginary friend?"
"Excuse me?" said Melvin.
I repeated the question.
"I really don't remember," said Melvin, stiffly.
"Okay," I said. "Is there anything you do regularly that makes you forget what time it is?"
"Time?" Melvin echoed.
"Yes," I said, "do you ever look up from something you're doing to find that hours and hours have gone by without your noticing?"
"Wait," said Melvin. "I have to write this down."
"No, no," I said, "you really don't. Do you laugh more in some situations than in others?"
"Listen," said Melvin tensely, "I didn't know I was going to have to answer these kinds of questions. I thought you could tell me a little about midcareer job changes, that's all. I've had no time to prepare."
I had a mental picture of Melvin calling in the marketing department to measure his laughter rates and interview family members about his favorite childhood fantasies. "Melvin," I said, "relax. I don't grade on a curve. Just tell me everything you can remember about the best meal you ever had in your life."
There was a very long silence. Then he said, "I'm sorry, but I'll have to put together some data and get back to you on these questions. Will next week be soon enough?"
I never heard from Melvin again.
Actually, I never heard from Melvin in the first place--at least not all of him. As a matter of fact, I don't think Melvin had ever heard from all of Melvin. The conversation I had was with Melvin's "social self," the part of him that had learned to value the things that were valued by the people around him. This "social self" couldn't tell me what Melvin loved, enjoyed, or wanted, because it literally didn't know. Those facts did not fall in its area of experience, let alone expertise. It didn't remember Melvin's preferences or his childhood, because it had spent years telling him to ignore what he preferred and stop acting like a child.
There was, of course, a part of Melvin that knew the answer to every question I'd asked him. I call this the "essential self." Melvin's essential self was born a curious, fascinated, playful little creature, like every healthy baby. After forty-five years, it still contained powerful urges toward individuality, exploration, spontaneity, and joy. But by repressing these urges for years and years, Melvin's social self had lost access to them. It was inevitable that Melvin would also lose his true path, because while his social self was the vehicle carrying him through life, it was cut off from his essential self, which had all the navigational equipment that pointed toward his North Star.
Melvin was like a ship that had lost its compass or charts. It wasn't just the wrong job that made him feel so aimless and uninspired; it was the loss of his life's purpose. If Melvin had become a client, I would have advised him to stay put at IBM until he had learned to consciously reconnect with his essential self. Then he would have regained the capacity to steer his own course toward happiness, whether that lay in his present job and marriage or in a completely different life.
I base all my counseling on the premise that each of us has these two sides: the essential self and the social self. The essential self contains several sophisticated compasses that continuously point toward your North Star. The social self is the set of skills that actually carry you toward this goal. Your essential self wants passionately to become a doctor; the social self struggles through organic chemistry and applies to medical school. Your essential self yearns for the freedom of nature; your social self buys the right backpacking equipment. Your essential self falls in love; your social self watches to make sure the feeling is reciprocal before allowing you to stand underneath your beloved's window singing serenades.
This system functions beautifully as long as the social and essential selves are communicating freely with each other and working in perfect synchrony. However, not many people are lucky enough to experience such inner harmony. For reasons we'll discuss in a moment, the vast majority of us put other people in charge of charting our course through life. We never even consult our own navigational equipment; instead, we steer our lives according to the instructions of people who have no idea how to find our North Stars. Naturally, they end up sending us off course.
If your feelings about life in general are fraught with discontent, anxiety, frustration, anger, boredom, numbness, or despair, your social and essential selves are not in sync. Life design is the process of reconnecting them. We'll start this process by clearly articulating the differences between the two selves, and understanding how communication between them broke down.
Getting to Know Your Selves
Your essential self formed before you were born, and it will remain until you've shuffled off your mortal coil. It's the personality you got from your genes: your characteristic desires, preferences, emotional reactions, and involuntary physiological responses, bound together by an overall sense of identity. It would be the same whether you'd been raised in France, China, or Brazil, by beggars or millionaires. It's the basic you, stripped of options and special features. It is "essential" in two ways: first, it is the essence of your personality, and second, you absolutely need it to find your North Star.
The social self, on the other hand, is the part of you that developed in response to pressures from the people around you, including everyone from your family to your first love to the pope. As the most socially dependent of mammals, human babies are born knowing that their very survival depends on the goodwill of the grown-ups around them. Because of this, we're all literally designed to please others. Your essential self was the part of you that cracked your first baby smile; your social self noticed how much Mommy loved that smile, and later reproduced it at exactly the right moment to convince her to lend you the down payment on a condo. You still have both responses. Sometimes you smile involuntarily, out of amusement or silliness or joy, but many of your smiles are based purely on social convention.
Between birth and this moment, your social self has picked up a huge variety of skills. It learned to talk, read, dress, dance, drive, juggle, merge, acquire, cook, yodel, wait in line, share bananas, restrain the urge to bite--anything that won social approval. Unlike your essential self, which is the same regardless of culture, your social self was shaped by cultural norms and expectations. If you happen to have been born into a mafioso family, your social self is probably wary, street-smart, and ruthless. If you were raised by nuns in the local orphanage, it may be saintly and self-sacrificing. Whatever you learned to be, you're still learning. Your social self is hard at work, right this minute, struggling to make sure you're honest and loyal, or sweet and sexy, or tough and macho, or any other combination of things you believe makes you socially acceptable.
The social self is based on principles that often run contrary to our core desires. Its job is to know when those desires will upset other people, and to help us override natural inclinations that aren't socially acceptable. Here are some of the contradictory operational features that, mixed together, comprise the You we know and love:
Your Two Selves: Basis of Operations
Behaviors of the Social Self Are:
Avoidance-based, Conforming, Imitative, Predictable, Planned, Hardworking
Behaviors of the Essential Self Are:
Attraction-based,Unique, Inventive, Surprising, Spontaneous, Playful
As you can see, you are definitely an odd couple. Only in very lucky or wise people do the social and essential selves always agree that they're playing for the same team. For the rest of us, internal conflict is a way of life. Our two selves do battle against each other, in ways small and large, every single day.
Let's make up some details about the life of Melvin the Middle Manager, to serve as a hypothetical example. When his alarm clock rings at six a.m., Melvin's essential self tells him that he needs at least two more hours of sleep; he's been getting less than his body requires each night for the last several years, and he's chronically exhausted. His social self, however, reminds him that he's been late to work three times this month, and that the boss is starting to notice. Melvin gets up.
He eats breakfast alone. This floods his essential self with loneliness for his wife, who moved out last week. For just a minute, Melvin thinks about calling her, but his social self immediately nixes that idea. For one thing, it's six-thirty in the morning. For another thing, Melvin's wife is sleeping at her boyfriend's apartment. Melvin barely even notices his essential self's suggestion that he go after the boyfriend with a baseball bat, because his social self knows how wrong and futile that would be. Instead, Melvin goes to work.
At the office, Melvin's social self sits quietly through a meeting that bores his essential self almost to death. The guy next to him is a smarmy twenty-eight-year-old with an MBA from MIT who was recently promoted right past Melvin. Just looking at this guy makes Melvin's teeth clench. His essential self wants to squirt ink from his fountain pen onto the little twerp's oxford shirt, but his social self bars the way yet again. Instead, Melvin's essential self writes a nasty limerick about the MIT MBA in the margin of his notebook. Then his social self scribbles it out, lest it fall into the Hands of the Enemy.
And so it goes, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. After mediating this constant struggle for decades, Melvin's inner life is hollow and numb. If you ask him what he's feeling, he won't have an answer; his social self doesn't know, and it is the only part of Melvin that is allowed to speak to others. Melvin's social self has kept him in his job, his marriage, and his life--but only by sending him off his true path. Now everything is falling apart. His sacrifices seem to have been for nothing. The problem isn't that Melvin's social self is a bad person--in fact, it's a very good person. It has the horsepower to get Melvin all the way to his North Star. But only his essential self can tell him where that is.
The Disconnected Self
Most of my clients are like Melvin: responsible citizens who have muzzled their essential selves in order to do what they believe is the "right thing." There are, of course, people who fail--or refuse--to develop a social self. They live completely in essential-self world, never accommodating society in any way that runs contrary to their desires. But I very rarely see anyone like this in my practice. You, for example, are not one of them.
How do I know? Because if you were totally dominated by your essential self, you wouldn't be reading this. You'd avoid taking advice from any book, even if it happened to be the only thing available in the prison library. That's where you'd probably have to read it, because people without social selves generally end up in cages. If we all ignored our social selves, every neck of the human woods would be another variation on Lord of the Flies; people would be stabbing each other with forks, looting rest homes, having sexual relations with twenty-one-year-old interns in the Oval Office, and God knows what else.
So I'd lay heavy odds that you, personally, are heavily identified with your social self. You're reading this because you're the kind of person who seeks input from other people, people like life-design counselors and book authors. You're trying to make yourself a better person, and you're pretty darn good at it. Congratulations. Having a strong social self is a terrific asset. It's allowed you to sustain relationships, finish school, hold down jobs, and meet a lot of other goals. But if, in spite of all these achievements, you're feeling like Melvin--discontented and unfulfilled--I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that your internal wiring is disconnected. You need to re-establish contact with your essential self.
Paradoxically, if you want to do a really good job at this, you're going to have to stop thinking about doing a really good job. To find your North Star, you must teach your social self to relax and back off.
From the Hardcover edition.
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