When I came to America, I learned a lot about the importance of being an individual. I loved that idea. It wasn’t something I was exposed to much in Iran. My own childhood experience was defined by being told that I had to sacrifice everything for my family and community. I learned to feel that I was nobody; as though, on my own, I didn’t exist. So when I came to America alone in my late teens, the idea of being an individual seemed delightful. No one to answer to. I was responsible only for myself. My mistakes were mine and so were my successes. In America, I wasn’t a “thing” attached to anyone else.
That was good enough for a while, but as the years passed, I still felt unhappy and unable to make good decisions. Lost, I found myself either in an indecisive head-space or in many situations of self-sabotage. Part of me wanted to stay in a relationship; part of me wanted to get out. Part of me wanted to become a therapist; part of me wanted to be a dancer. Part of me wanted to get married and have kids, and part me felt lucky without kids. That was when I realized that the idea of individuality wasn’t working for me.
What if “self” doesn’t have anything to do with being an individual? In my college psychology class, we learned about the idea of inner children. The idea that healing means healing our inner children seemed right to me. I’d always felt a younger part of me to be very close, but I felt I had to hide her, hide from her, and ignore her desires so I wouldn’t seem crazy. But now, in that psychology class, I was being taught that not only was it okay to have inner children, but also that we must listen to and engage with them.
That was the beginning of my discovery of self; a journey that has taught me self isn’t an individual, but a combination of many parts, sides, and voices deep within us. That self is like a box of chocolates. Inside there are many pieces with different sizes, shapes, and flavors, but together they create the whole that makes up the chocolate box.
It has been a wonderful process to learn about my own box of chocolates. And there is nothing more exciting than working with people who feel brave enough to reach inside themselves and reconnect to their different parts — lost parts, forgotten parts. To me, that reconnection is “self-awareness.”
We use the term self-awareness a lot, but what is it actually? In my own life and practice, I have found self-awareness to be a kind of honesty and sincerity about my history on this earth, both as a child and an adult, from my primal shame to my proudest accomplishments. I know self-awareness by feel. It feels like a “woke state” in which I can see, sense, and feel things as they are, without any fear of judgment, interruption, or interpretation from my inner or outer critical voices.
Also, when I am self-aware, I know exactly why I am here on this earth; why I am a human; and what my purpose is. Instead of, “Why did this or that happen to me?” I am more grounded and able to see things with perspective.
My own growth in self-awareness started with understanding where my blind spots were and what blocks me from true awareness. In driving school, they teach you where your blind spots are because obviously you can’t see a blind spot directly. By being honest and getting to know my denial, projection, repression, rationalization, and dissociation, I learned that these defenses, though helpful at some points in my life, kept me from seeing the big picture.
Denial, projection, repression, rationalization, and dissociation were actually great sources of protection when I was a young girl, yet the continued use of those same defenses as an adult became a barrier to my growth. What made seeing these blind spots hard was that they were actually protectors trying to shield me from pain. For years, I repressed my childhood abuse because, if I had remembered it, I might have been too devastated to go forward or become free.
Even though the pain belongs to the past, these protectors are at work 24/7 blocking us from some imagined pain in the present time. They are like parents who would do anything in their power to make sure their child is safe. But our protectors are mostly motivated by past experiences and traumas; just as a person bitten by a dog might keep his daughter away from dogs, and thereby from a wonderful friendship with one, so too our protectors aren’t necessarily wrong in their actions, but ultimately keep us from experiencing a lot of joy.
Or, just as a protective parent might do everything for his son, and thereby cause the son to lose confidence in himself, so too our inner protectors might want the best for us, but still keep us from growing and believing in ourselves. Because our protectors do care about us — and we care about them — it can take bravery to tell them, “Thanks for offering your help, but I’d like to try this on my own, even if I fail.” That’s the attitude we have to have towards our denial, projection, repression, etc.
As you can see, self-awareness isn’t actually an awareness of one “self.” To me, It’s an awareness of the complex system of voices, parts, and sides within us –– that make up our self. Real self-awareness means taking the time to learn about the conflicts between our diverse voices, so that we can resolve them and live more peacefully. If we don’t do this, we will repeat old stories, beliefs, and thought-loops about ourselves. We will let our old inner protectors keep doing everything for us, protecting us from events that we no longer need protection from. And sadly we will always find ourselves doing things that don’t actually make us happy, no matter how much we insist that they do.
Have you ever found yourself wanting something so badly, but when the opportunity came, you sabotaged your chance? Perhaps only parts of you wanted that opportunity, while another part of you hated the idea of it. Have you ever heard yourself say, “Why did I say that?” Or, “How could I do that?” We ask these questions when we are not yet fully aware of — but starting to glimpse — our inner conflicts.
Once we are aware of these inner conflicts, we can try to resolve them. If we continue to see self-sabotage as just “a mistake,” then we miss opportunities to create inner harmony. Once we get good at negotiating and compromising with ourselves, we can become great mediators with others. We can use the same self-awareness to prevent, reduce, and resolve conflicts with friends, partners, and colleagues. We can make amends and say we are sorry for hurting others, and we can have the mindfulness to cause less harm in the first place.
What becomes possible when we accept the idea that the self is not alone?
So much. We can change old narratives about our lives. We can learn to unconditionally accept our pasts, even as we move beyond them. In bringing together the different parts of me, of us — the author, the dancer, the therapist, the child — we can find not chaos, but an inner democracy in which all of our lives improve.
I'm a licensed clinical social worker with two decades of experience working in New York City public schools and providing social and emotional support for urban youth, immigrants, and their families. I'm Director of Counseling and founding member of Harvest Collegiate, a progressive public high school in Manhattan, where I also train social workers. In my private practice, I treat adults through a mixture of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and Reiki. In my spare time I write literary nonfiction.