We often hear people talk about wanting to find their true selves, or to be their authentic self. This often coincides with a big life choice like leaving college or going on a months long road trip. Life gets too confusing and you just need to align with your own internal truth through some mystical, journey-like experience.

This mindset isn’t foreign to most of us. When our life circumstances change, it often feels like we change with it. Many people feel a nagging sense of doubt, of not being sure why they make the decisions they do, or why some things make them feel different than expected. There’s this concept that external forces (work, social constructs, whatever) keep us from truly knowing ourselves and if only we could be in touch with our authentic inner selves, then we could rise above our doubts and problems.

So, what’s actually going on here?

When we perceive something, say watching two friends argue in front of us, we process that sense perception (the raw data from our eyes, ears and other senses) multiple times and in multiple ways. We have immediate responses (“oh no, they’re arguing!"), instinctual responses (“I feel uncomfortable”), and slower responses as we process data (“will they come to blows? should I intervene?"). Some of these slower responses even occur days later. These responses are both emotional and logical, and often are based on both the facts of what happened and our personal inner beliefs and values as they stem from our own histories.

Here is where that disconnect comes in. We are very aware of some of those responses, but we are not aware of others. While we may know we are upset that someone had an argument, we may not comprehend that it made us scared because our personal history associates shouting with violence. Or, we may logically think it’s Mary’s fault based on the argument, but emotionally feel she was justified in the circumstance. The details don’t matter, only that we encounter a set of disagreeing judgements, both of which we hold onto simultaneously. The result is dissonance, two simultaneously held beliefs that fundamentally disagree.

Often times, we replay these situations again and again in our head. We feel confused, maybe even upset. The same problem occurs in different contexts, and we get that deep seated sense that something is wrong, but not in a way we can describe. Frequently, it starts small and grows. It can consume us at work and in relationships as these growing doubts seem to prevent us from just being open.

So, we do what all people do and try that self help thing that seems to work well on tv. We get very watered down philosophy, so called “pop philosophy”, that you just need to be in touch with your “true, authentic self” and this disagreement will be resolved. For a few dollars on Amazon, you can find several thousand books promising to reveal your authentic self, to fulfill that little nagging voice we all have in our heads of “but who am I, really?” You can pay to attend seminars, or to go on exotic experiences that promise to reveal this mystery.

The problem here, whether it’s a young adult hoping a months long roadtrip will reveal their true selves or a middle aged woman hoping a book on celestial shamanism will teach her how to be authentic, is that the answer is not a single fixed point. There is no book or workshop that can give you an answer to what is ultimately an ongoing process of being self aware.

Our personal values and beliefs, the things that drive the underlying “authentic” us, are dynamic as well. When you say you know your authentic self, that you are “in touch”, you can only speak honestly for a short moment in time. Thus, if we wish to be closer to our inner selves, to penetrate the outward facing facade we all wear, we must engage in a regular and ongoing practice of being self aware.

When you were a child, you had the belief and value system of a child, even if you didn’t understand those beliefs and values. If you kept those same beliefs and values, you may have grown physically, but you would still be a child psychologically. When you reflect on who you were a few years ago, it likely feels like you were foolish then and are more knowledgeable now.

So, yeah, the base idea that you have some inner set of beliefs and values that aren’t always apparent to you is true. The issue is the oversimplification - those belief and value systems are constantly being updated and changing. So, how do we handle this problem, how do we fight internal cognitive dissonance? We practice self awareness on a regular basis.

Again, there are thousands of books with their solutions on how to engage in that process, and frankly it doesn’t matter whether you choose to travel to far off places or rub magnets on your face and burn funny smelling candles. Ultimately, you need to regularly spend time in a quiet place with minimal sensory input (the shower works well for me) asking some basic questions:

What do I feel? Why do I feel that?

There isn’t an end goal here. You don’t arrive to some singular aha moment and dash naked into the street to scream “Eureka!” You’re closing that gap between your underlying value belief system and your conscious mind. That’s why this has to be a regular process - and why it’s easier to do it when you shower or sit quietly in your home than it is to travel to far off places or attend seminars.

At first, the process is difficult, but over time it becomes easier. Often times journaling - capturing down those questions and the answers to them - is a useful tool to make progress. If your goal is to know yourself, then you have to understand that who you are is always changing and therefore the answer to your question is always changing. You are not going to discover the true meaning of yourself and be done, but instead you want to be continually understanding these internally held beliefs and values and how they influence your judgements.

Save a few dollars and don’t fall into a trap of crappy self help guides. Invest some time in yourself to self analyze, instead. Whether you prefer yoga and meditation or just journaling before bed, there’s no magical process. That sense of feeling out of place or time is your mind’s clue that you need to pay down your dissonance debt - listen to it.