How to find yourself again
July 8, 2008 1:53 PM   Subscribe

I lost myself somewhere in the fray - help me draw a map to get myself back.

I don't know how to listen to myself anymore. That small voice inside, my intuition, the part of me that tells me my true desires and what I value and require from life has been stifled by the pragmatic, realist, rational voice that tells me that I need to do the "right", "practical" thing, and leave my wild eyed, optimistic, overly romanticized notions behind.

You know, grow up.

Even if I got the guts to follow my heart, the problem is, I don't know what I want anymore from career, from relationships, from hobbies, etc. I don't know what would fulfill me - I feel like I lost myself somewhere, and its making really. unhappy. Painfully unhappy. I get the feeling that a lot of people feel this way.

So apart from trying to meditate, or reading and re-reading The Little Prince and The Alchemist, what do I do to get back in touch with myself?
posted by Eudaimonia to Human Relations (28 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
posted by tristeza at 1:55 PM on July 8, 2008

Response by poster: I suppose I should add that I'm in therapy and its helping, but I'm looking for specific actions/techniques...I assume this is something a lot of people go through so personal experience/anecdotes that point me, or anyone else in this conundrum, in the right direction would be great! Thanks
posted by Eudaimonia at 2:00 PM on July 8, 2008

I was going to suggest meditation until I saw that you'd dismissed that one. It might help though. As re-reading the Little Prince could.

How about taking a week or two off, traveling somewhere mysterious or magical, (the Salton Sea? Dollywood? Machu Pichu?) walking around a lot, listening to the birds and boomboxes, buying watermellon with chili from street vendors, wandering into barbershops, etc and just trying to generally get quiet enough inside to hear that voice again?

Maybe keep a journal or try to write some poems or paint some pictures to bring out the messages in your subconcious too?
posted by serazin at 2:03 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

i have a suggestion i've trotted out for friends when they hit this quarter/mid/post/life crisis (or whatever). (but beware, it is a double-edged* sword).

pick up a decent biography of someone whose work/life you admire for some reason. don't limit yourself to artists/politicians/incredible_athletes - look for lifes further afield or closer to something you're in the midst of. read a couple of these. heck, even try reading a biography of someone you think you despise. once you put each book down, talk to yourself about it, and what lessons you might take for your own choices, based on your own talents, your own feelings, etc.

*the dangerous side to this approach is that reading about people with remarkable lives can be a real downer if you're not feeling too great about yourself in the first place.

and if that doesn't help, try shuttering yourself up in your pad for a weekend reading nothing but chuck bukowski ;)

posted by garfy3 at 2:13 PM on July 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

The Artist's Way may offer a few techniques. It has some exercises that encourage you to rediscover, refine and focus that small voice.

And you're right - a lot of people feel this way and most just give up. You don't have to.
posted by slo at 2:13 PM on July 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

How old are you? If you're under 25, don't worry, this usually just goes away on its own. Either way, I'd still keep up with the therapy.

As far as specific actions: if you don't know what you want to do, just keep trying stuff until something clicks. Every week, try something different. Rent a canoe, ride a bike, take photographs, teach yourself to knit, make a new dish, whatever. Don't feel obligated to stick with any of it unless you want to. But keep doing things that produce either tangible results (look mom, a painting!) or memorable memories. Don't watch TV. Stay off the Internet.
posted by desjardins at 2:18 PM on July 8, 2008

Can you think back to what used to turn you on in school? I recently found a box full of drawings I did in high school which brought back a flood of thoughts about my ambitions at the time. Nowhere near where I ended up, (I kind of went with the tide instead of piloting the ship for a while) but now I'm pursuing those ambitions again. It's envigorating.

Was there something you had wanted to do/accomplish as a kid but forgot about over time? Maybe work on that.
posted by assoctw at 2:19 PM on July 8, 2008

The Wheel of Life. Seriously. When I did it (in therapy/life coaching), it had categories for: career, health, physical environment, family & friends, significant other/romance, fun/recreation, money, and spirituality/self improvement. After I filled out the wheel (using a scale of 1-6, 6 being completely satisfied with that area, 1 being not at all), I free-associated what would bring my score in a particular area up. I used that to create one specific goal in each low area to work on. I was surprised by the outcomes. You have to be very honest with yourself, but it can work.
posted by dpx.mfx at 2:19 PM on July 8, 2008 [5 favorites]

When I was in a similar fix, somebody recommended reading the book The Artist's Way and doing the exercises in prescribes, particularly the write-three-pages-every-morning journal. You can get a preview -- the author excerpts the chapter about the journal on her site.The book isn't perfect by any means, but it does offer lots of concrete suggestions for tuning in to (and learning how to act on) your inner promptings. I found the three-page-a-day journal extremely effective, and I still use it to jumpstart myself if I'm feeling a little lost.
posted by ourobouros at 2:22 PM on July 8, 2008

I'm looking for specific actions/techniques

This is the kind of thing I'd normally think was goofy, but was very impressed with. I went to a daylong event on women's issues and women's lives, and one of the sessions was on listening to yourself. The bulk of the session was a pep talk, but there was one really surprisngly useful technique - you sit down in a quiet room, close your eyes, and then place the heels of your palms over your closed eyelids, pressing gently. Sitting like that for a few minutes, just listening to your own thoughts, is amazing. Somehow it's different from just closing your eyes, and yet it's not meditation, either. It's just a deep quiet in which you can, actually, hear yourself think.

So that's a specific technique. Another is freewriting. Get a blank book and open it and just start writing, about anything. It doesn't have to be about the big questions in your life or anything, and it's not for anyone else to read. Describe the room if you have to, or whatever you're looking at, or what you did step by step all day - but feel free to spin off in any direction as you write. Just commit to writing nonstop for, say, 2 minutes to start. Then increase the amount of time you do that. It's surprising where you end up, sometimes.

The last concrete strategy I would suggest is walking. Probably many forms of exercise would fill the bill, but I think walking lends itself to reflection really well, especially if you don't listen to music while you walk. Just keep moving forward and pay attention to the thoughts that arise in you.
posted by Miko at 2:24 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A few clarification questions: How old are you? When would you say you started feeling this way? Can you think of the last period in your life when you didn't feel "lost"? If you feel comfortable sharing that last one, please do. Can you give a concrete example of a "true desire" that you recently passed over in favor of a "practical" thing?

I'm...24. Yes yes I KNOW. Though age is not irrelevant to the situation, I think the problem I'm facing very well could persist well into my "adult" life and does for a lot of folks.

As to why I started feeling this way...well, I always have, kind of. I'm an only child with a rocky/abusive/insane family - always felt like I needed to be stable for their sake, and also so I didn't end up like them. Working on that in therapy right now. I was able to be a bit more impulsive and follow my passions before because I was a little bit younger and could justify my actions under the guise of immaturity. Recently I set aside dreams of "artistic" pursuits - science writing, photography, in favor of something more practical (and less self invovled), so I went and got my master's in public health. And I feel guilty because I don't feel fulfilled. I want to reconcile my wants and my shoulds, basically. Thank you everyone for the suggestions so far, they really are a comfort.
posted by Eudaimonia at 2:25 PM on July 8, 2008

I have definitely employed lots of strategies to work on (and resolve, for the most part!) this question, so I can sympathize and make some enthusiastic recommendations. Here are the things that I did to try to get sorted:

- Went away for a week by myself with a camera and a journal and wandered around a small beach town with no car and nothing to do but walk to the bagel shop, ponder the sea, chill on my bed in my motel room, walk to get dinner. No phone, no email, no car... it was lovely.
- Took some classes I was interested in but weren't related to career quests
- Went back to my high school (alone) and gave a talk on career day
- Visited my college (alone) and wandered around
- Saw whatever movies I felt like seeing
- Visited a friend whom I had lost touch with, someone I knew at a time when I was very rebellious and impulse-driven

There were some illuminating results. Visiting the friend reconnected me with a sense of who I was when she and I were close friends, which was a kind of touchstone for me. If you can think of a time in the past when you felt the most "you", I'd try to trigger that time (with a visit, listening to the music, etc.) Going back to high school and college and feeling what those places evoked for me now was interesting and strange. A building I used to dread entering because I was so over my head now felt like a quaint place, and I realized I was no longer afraid of my own shadow. The classes and the movies were a sort of unfettered exploration into my interests in a way that wasn't burdened by having to turn them into a job.

I also read a lot of self-discovery books and got the most insights from the author Barbara Sher. And I worked my way through the previously-mentioned Artist's Way twice.

Some additional notes:

- Don't give "intuition" too much power. I don't dismiss it out of disbelief, but because I think for many people what they call intuition is just an assortment of other random ideas about what's "right", albeit from earlier in life. A lot of our fears and seemingly innate tendencies are often just socialized into us and should not necessarily be heeded. Even going back to your 7 year old self and examining his/her passions might only yield those that your parents praised in you.

- Nevertheless, there was a lot to be gained for me in casting my mind back in time. So do think about not only the things you liked in the past, but also include the stuff you did or wanted to do that got you in trouble. Think about any turning points, like times you applied for multiple jobs/colleges and chose one (or had one chosen for you), relationships that didn't work out, and times that you considered something and then decided against it. You may have additional information now that in retrospect makes one of those discarded choices valid again.

- I had a lot of fun doing random self-discovery exercises like writing things that I like on separate slips of paper (everything from "the beach at night" to "metallic pens" to "small electronic devices") and sorting them into all sorts of piles to look for patterns and clues.

- I tried to tentatively explore as many clues as possible. For instance, if I thought that my piles of liked things (research + movies) pointed to me making a documentary, then I thought of a subject and read a book about documentaries and saw a bunch of them and went to a conference for the subject I had in mind and filled a notebook with ideas of who to interview and what I'd ask. The fact that this particular exploration didn't end in me making a documentary doesn't matter, because I had fun exploring the subject, ended up taking other clues into directions that I'm still traveling in today, and because someday when a documentary is irresistible, I'll make one.

- Think about the people you admire, or aspects of their lives that you admire, because these are clues to your values. Who are you a fan of? Even if it's just something like admiring the way someone arranges their apartment, that's a hint.

Sorry this post is so long, but it was a long process.
posted by xo at 2:42 PM on July 8, 2008 [17 favorites]

Read The War of Art. It's about overcoming the restistance you have to doing the things you feel like you need to do (but just don't do).
posted by PFL at 2:45 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, I forgot to mention this excellent book: Start Where You Are, by Pema Chodron
posted by desjardins at 2:48 PM on July 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Nthing writing in a journal, and I would actually recommend asking yourself "what do I want?" kinds of questions.

One day, ask yourself, "What do I want my home to be like?" Write as descriptive and concrete of an answer as you can.

Another day, ask yourself, "What do I want my work days to be like?" Again, write a clear description that answers that question.

Once you've tried a few of these, ask yourself questions that will expand your answers: "Why is my home/job/life not like that now?" "What might happen if my home was more like that?" Use these questions to explore and understand tradeoffs, rather than just to brush aside obstacles. Sometimes your fears are good ones, and sometimes the tradeoffs are ones we're not willing to make. This will at least help you take a good look at the choices you can make.

Also, just a word of encouragement: good for you for exploring your own desires and needs and priorities. You deserve a fulfilling life just as much as the rest of us.
posted by kristi at 2:49 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try to find people who are adults and do the right thing, but still have wild eyed, optimistic, overly romanticized notions (also known as a SOUL). Once you've found them either try and help facilitate their goals, or just participate with them. Being around inspired people is inspiring.
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 2:59 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

2nding Barbara Sher - particularly her book "I Could Do Anything If Only I knew what it was"

One thing I learned from her was to figure out what gave you joy and then find a way to bring more of it in your life - it doesn't have to be your full time job, but just more than you have now. She has exercises to help you figure out what you want and other to help you figure out how move in the directions that you want to go (and overcome the barriers that you put your own way.)

I think you have set up and either/or situation - either adult and realistic or artisitic, wild-eyed and impulsive. There is third path of people who pursue their own desires in a realistic way. It's worth figuring out how to do it for yourself since those are people who tend to be satisfied with their lives.
posted by metahawk at 3:20 PM on July 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

At 24, you shouldn't be checking your rear view mirrors, you should be cleaning your windshield, and keeping the hammer down. Which is to say, looking for a map "back" to who you were, for a 24 year old, can be an attempt to return to a state of some chronological immaturity, or to get a guilt-free "do over" on your teens. Even the best aspects of ourselves from childhood, such as child like wonder, need careful integration or preservation in a larger, stronger adult persona, if they are to have value in adult life.

That's what makes "quarter-life crisis" an ironic term; under 25, being deeply introspective isn't generally all that productive, as you haven't had the time to garner enough life experience to ponder with much profit. If I were you, I'd pay for some vocational testing, get into a job/career with some challenge that was a decent fit for my abilities, and look for self-fulfillment in new experiences and a broader circle of friends, lovers and enemies. Do that assiduously for the next 5 or 6 years, document your journeys well as you take them, and then you'll have grist for introspection.

There are no reliable maps into the future.
posted by paulsc at 3:31 PM on July 8, 2008 [14 favorites]

Dreams. But take a really 'outside the box' abstract approach to it. Look at them in a skewed way and shake them out for any patterns or meanings? That one's hit and miss but they're there, they're yours and they're free anyway :)

All these things aren't fulfilling you and it is because ?X? is missing? So try breaking it down and looking at it in reverse - A is missing from B. I'm not getting Y from Z. And (ect.)
AY(ect.)=?X? might be a lot easier to articulate into something tangible?

Looking at these things one by one you can figure out if these are even things you want, or things that are impossible. Or some other flaw that means you can just ditch the idea and move on.

Just look at things one by one and start out simple. Clean your clothes out or better yet do the whole house, bit by bit (they will probably tie into one another quite nicely anyway).
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 4:17 PM on July 8, 2008

If you're suppressing your inner voice in favor of other considerations, it may pay to be more impulsive. Not the dangerous kind, just the kind that gets you to do something different.
posted by rhizome at 4:33 PM on July 8, 2008

Yes, give yourself a nice, good change of pace. Shake things up just a bit, get out of your rut. Try something new every day. It can be surprising how much that will lift your spirits and provide a new perspective.

Oh, and also, while you are doing that, try to remember the things you used to love doing and revisit those. Take them for a spin again and see if you still love them.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:46 PM on July 8, 2008

Screw the right and the practical.

I'm 25, and I have the rocky background, as well has the need to be 'stable'...I drove myself crazy trying to be a model for my siblings and be there for my mom. I had a nice little future planned out (college, marriage, job). A broken engagement, severe family crisis, and a crappy post-college job later, I was in your boat.

People say a change of scenery works, so that's what I did. I went the more extreme route and quit my job to take a series of low paying internships. But hey, I got to live in San Francisco, New York, and soon the desert.

It feels so right to go against the grain I made for myself. I still don't know what the hell I'm doing, but it doesn't matter now. I have enough to survive, and I'm gaining new friends (and a wide variety of new skills). And my family chugs along without me. I had to learn I'm not their puppetmaster, that they can function without me.

I feel freer now than in quite a while. My solution won't work for everyone, but I highly recommend the fuck-it-all attitude. Most traps are in your own mind.
posted by shinyshiny at 8:59 PM on July 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

When was the last time you set goals for yourself?

I would suggest making two lists. The first is commonly referred to as a gratitude list. It consists of the little things, and the big things, that we are genuinely thankful for in our day to day lives. Start with twenty things, and don't stop until you have twenty. Tomorrow pick it up and add 20 more. When you have 100 things you are grateful for on your list, you may begin to wonder why you were unsatisfied in the first place.

The second list is one of goals for yourself, both short and long term. These are career goals, social goals, travel dreams and wishes, don't limit yourself. List things you want to accomplish in the next week, month, year. Where do you picture yourself five years from now? Ten? By resetting your goals you give yourself inspiration and motivation. That person you lost may gradually begin to find themself again.
posted by netbros at 9:08 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know what would fulfill me - I feel like I lost myself somewhere, and its making really. unhappy.

At 24, you aren't lost, you are merely staring at a gigantic roadmap of possibilities.

The very last thing you need out of life is a GPS telling you to turn right in 300 feet.

Get in your car, drive down a random road for a while. If you don't like the scenery, turn onto another road. Pretty soon, you'll find something you like.
posted by mark242 at 12:22 AM on July 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

I was feeling similarly for a long time. I got it in my head that it would be fun to hitchhike around Atlantic Canada to go back to some places that meant a lot to me a long time ago. It's something that I did 10 years ago before my life got more normal. I was feeling really bored with my life, and so scared of trying something like this that I was literally having trouble sleeping before the trip.

Anyway, the trip was amazing and I feel like a different person and back to my old self.

I'm not saying you should hitchhike around anywhere. I don't think you should. But maybe doing some big project like you might have in the past would help you. Taking a trip or doing something a little crazy. Just a thought.
posted by sully75 at 4:46 AM on July 9, 2008

With regard to work, I recommend reading both The Pathfinder and What Color is Your Parachute? and finding the commonalities between both of them. These are from experts who have helped people find their way, work-wise, and so they know general patterns and common pitfalls.

The Pathfinder says that the number one reason for dissatisfaction with work is not doing something that is one of your core talents.

Both books highly suggest imagining and listing all the features of your ideal career, without boundaries, and then embracing/making plans on how to get there. Their encouragement to simply think seriously about pursuing the highest and most total fulfillment of what you want career-wise is at the very least a good thought-experiment.

Both also encourage structured, detailed introspection. Figuring out various concrete things, for example, "what kind of people do you like working with."
posted by philosophistry at 12:45 AM on July 10, 2008

Yoga at least two to three times a week. And read this book and this one. They are both thinly veiled Buddhism, but I can tell you they both made a HUGE difference for me. The first one is about letting go of your ego and just "being". The second is about letting go of the past and existing in the moment. Makes it SO much easier to listen to yourself when all of the inner monologues are quieted. Otherwise you can't hear anything.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:21 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I just thought I'd update...after doing a lot of journaling and spending the last few days alone (its kind of amazing how much I feel like Eudaimonia-lite when I'm around groups or giving a lot of myself to friends, but I digress), I've realized that one thing I've given up on is travel.

I know everyone wants to travel, but it was an integral part of my life goals, and I haven't done it in a while. So I'm taking a 2 week trip to Japan, where I've always wanted to go! Yay! If anyone has ideas for journeys or tips about a female travelling solo in the land of the rising sun, please please MeMail me!

Thank you all so much for the tips and advice. I am taking it all to heart, and know that all the excellent advice will help someone else in my position.
posted by Eudaimonia at 4:48 PM on July 12, 2008

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