Discovering Your Intrinsic Self

Imagine living life more on your own terms instead of allowing societal expectations or others’ perceptions about you to influence both your choices and how you feel about yourself.    

To accomplish this, you have to change the way you define yourself and measure your personal worth. If you tie your identity and value to your performance, the good you do for others, and outside validation, you’ll end up struggling with self-defeating habits and you’ll block your ability to access inner wisdom. Such external orientation causes you to be overly concerned and anxious about excelling and being accepted. You waste energy trying to manage others’ perceptions so they will accept and approve of you, attempting to live up to an ideal of who you should be in their eyes.

In practicing psychotherapy for more than 30 years, I have come to realize that the very qualities we view as virtuous and that have contributed to our success often keep us disconnected from our deeper self and stifle personal growth.

Anita, a 42-year-old office manager with a great job, financial security, and a loving family, is a perfect example. Anita compared herself to others and felt constant pressure to do more and be better. Anxious about being accepted, she pushed herself hard and went above and beyond what was expected of her at work. She became adept at reading what people want and then molding herself to their expectations.

These stressful patterns began in her early years. Although Anita was born in the United States, she was the only child of East Indian heritage in her school and felt ashamed about being different. Excelling academically was her way of proving to herself that she wasn’t deficient. She was so concerned about how people viewed her and she so desperately wanted to belong that she overlooked her own needs over and over again.

I explained to Anita that the way to break free of this external trap she’d set for herself was to connect to her intrinsic self. When we operate from our intrinsic selves, our inner qualities such as resourcefulness, perceptiveness, intelligence, and sincerity become what determine our personal worth.

How We Learn to Define Our Self-Worth

Too often, our culture and our parents send us a powerful message that our worth is all about what we do rather than who we are. Although striving to do well and having aspirations are important, we need not see ourselves as deficient when we fall short of a desired goal.

Your value does not depend on how well or how often you express your inner qualities—your value is simply inherent, whether you express them or not.For example: If you are intelligent, your inherent worth doesn’t increase simply because you received good grades. If you are alone on a desert island, you are just as worthwhile as you are when you are using your intrinsic qualities to contribute to society. Connected to your intrinsic self, you and you alone define what makes you worthwhile, rather than others’ perceptions of you.

Because society encourages an outward focus and discourages contact with our inner selves, most of us spend a lot of time in our heads, disconnected from our bodies. We worry about the future much more than we sense ourselves in the moment. 

Yet to access deeper knowing, we need to get in touch with our intuition, emotions, and body sensations (such as feeling a knot in our stomach or noting we are breathing faster), in addition to using our intellect. By becoming more attuned to our inner compass, we come to know ourselves more deeply and can better sense what is right for us in the moment. We learn to recognize warning signs of stress that are telling us when we need to slow down or assert ourselves, as well as when we need to reach out for support or be alone. We also discover that far from thinking only about ourselves, becoming more self-directed actually increases our capacity for compassion.

Connecting to Our Intrinsic Selves

Two core practices will enable you to connect with your intrinsic self: affirming your true value and challenging outdated assumptions based on old survival strategies. Here’s how I guided Anita through this process.

I first invited Anita to list five intrinsic qualities that made her a worthwhile person. Her list included qualities such as having a good sense of humor and having a love of learning. I then suggested that she look in the mirror daily and read the list out loud, followed by, “and this is what really makes me a worthwhile human being.”

After a few days of affirming her inner qualities out loud, I cautioned her to notice what thoughts arose when doing the mirror exercise. The first thoughts that often show up are judgments about how silly this exercise seems. It is also common for a self-critical voice to surface that doesn’t believe your intrinsic qualities are the primary source of your value. Your critical voice may show up as an inner bully that focuses on your shortcomings and tells you that you are not enough. It can also be sneaky, distracting you every time you try to affirm your intrinsic worth. If your wiser self actively challenges this negative self-talk, you will in time feel the truth of your affirmation.

Recognizing and affirming your intrinsic worth isn’t merely puffing yourself up with a pep talk or thinking of yourself only in terms of positive qualities. You still see your shortcomings, yet you also see how they don’t detract from your value. You’ll also come to know yourself from the inside out, connecting your worth to your unique inner qualities—regardless of how often, or how well, you express them.

The other core practice, identifying and challenging our outdated core assumptions, is just as important. For example, if you grew up in a chaotic and unstable family, you probably found that being invisible and compliant deescalated the tension. Your self-concept might then have revolved around keeping the peace and not making waves—that might not serve you as well in your adult life. Sometimes speaking up and making waves is important.

Think about your own experience growing up. How did you behave around your parents, teachers, and friends that increased your chances of feeling valued or accepted? Now picture yourself not acting in these usual ways. Would the response of your family, authority figures, and peers be any different? Would you feel any different about yourself? The answers to these questions can give you a glimpse into your outdated assumptions and perceived threats.

For example, if in childhood a parent praised you for being their confidante, then being empathic and helpful probably became the hallmarks of your identity. You might then have formed an assumption that not attending to people means you are less worthwhile, so you went through life putting everyone else’s needs before your own. Again, although this helped you feel secure as a child, continuing to rely on this strategy to ensure your emotional security as an adult is not healthy.

When we recognize that our younger selves are activated and we actively engage those inner voices, then outdated threats lose their power over us. Our wiser adult selves know that we do not have to excel or please others in order to be accepted or feel acceptable.

Anita Challenges Her Assumptions

Anita formed an assumption as a child that if she didn’t excel and if others could see her shortcomings, they would not want to be around her. Even though she didn’t consciously believe that now, Anita’s younger self was convinced that her shortcomings were still proof of her deficiency and not fitting in meant that she would be alone. The 14-year-old in her could not see the difference between her current adult situation and her experience in junior high. Her younger self didn’t realize that her adult self did in fact have inner resources that could help her deal with stressful circumstances.

As Anita began to equate her value with her inner qualities and challenge her core assumptions, she experienced more peace and fulfillment. She redefined her ideas about what it means to be successful. She also stopped trying to conform to a “right” way to act, and she started to listen to and trust her inner wisdom.

When you connect with your intrinsic self, outside forces and outdated scripts no longer push you around. Instead, you recognize your true value and enjoy direct access to your deeper truth, experiencing less stress and greater personal and spiritual fulfillment.

Author Biography: 

Dennis Portnoy is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice who gives presentations and conducts workshops on self-care, burnout, and compassion fatigue as it relates to people in helping roles. He is the author of Over-Extended and Under Nourished: A Self-Care Guide for People in Helping Roles (Hazelden, 1996). Portnoy is currently working on his upcoming book, The Intrinsic Self: How Defining Yourself and Your Worth by Your Achievements and Usefulness Is Undermining Your Happiness and Serenity. Visit dennisportnoy.com.