The Myth of “Finding Yourself” and “Living It” in Daily Life

March 17, 2018

The nature of today’s chaotic world presents an infinite number of distractions that create the illusion that we have “lost” our Self in its midst. When we retreat to a place that eliminates those distractions and outside noise, we are confronted with what I consider to be the truest form of the Self. Over time, this notion has become known as the experience of “finding yourself”. Personally, I find the phrase to be misleading, maybe even a little cliché; It implies that by removing ourselves from our normal existence, we find a new form of Self rather than rediscovering what was already there.

Not so long ago however, I did not find the phrase so cliché that I was immune to it. In fact, I fell rather gullibly for its idealistic connotations when I decided to fly from my home in Boston to Nelson, New Zealand for a wilderness expedition with NOLS. For three months, I traveled through the backcountry of New Zealand’s South Island by land, river, and sea. It was an experience that undoubtedly changed me as a person and my perceptions of the world around me, but not because I had “found myself” in the way the phrase implies.

What I slowly came to realize in the months after my expedition was that it wasn’t the fact that I was on the other side of the world, at the furthest possible location from home, nor was it the fact that I was living without connection to the outside world that made me feel like I was “finding myself”. Rather, it was the constant challenges that I was forced to face head on, whether I was willing to or not, that showed me what I was capable of. One of these moments manifested itself on a dreary, cold morning in late October. Myself and my expedition team faced 2000 meters of elevation gain over a 14-kilometer hike.  As one of the smallest and youngest members of the team, I quickly fell to the back of our group huffing and puffing my way up the mountain ridge. The cold rain, high winds, and my slow pace was a confidence drainer and mental deterrent during our long hike. Yet it was these moments of physical and mental challenge, such as this, that allowed me to push the boundaries of who I was and who I would be.

Earlier, I mentioned that I thought the idea of “finding yourself” was misleading because it implies a permanent discovery of something new rather than a rediscovery of what your Self already was. As humans, we are constantly evolving and adapting. Our hopes, desires, and therefore the challenges we face evolve with us. The search for the feeling of being “found” is never over. The more we evolve and the more we face new challenges, the more we find ourselves again and again.

By losing myself to the experience of living in the backcountry of New Zealand, I gave up the complacency that is commonplace in our society. Complacency can be found in monotonous daily routines, mundane jobs, and tireless hours of working for others. Without being challenged and pushed out of your comfort zone, you cannot be changed as a person.

Challenges can often present themselves through escaping the usual routine and experiencing new things. This is what happens, I believe, when people claim they’ve “found themselves” after quitting their 9-5 desk job to travel the world for a year or two. This idea has been glamorized through book such as “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Wild”, though I have read both books and seen both film adaptations and am very fond of the two stories. However, what is not depicted in these stories are the people that travel the world or go on some epic journey and return home to find that they have once again lost themselves. Because of the lack of challenges presented in what is considered their “normal” lives, complacency ensues and eliminates the sentiment that they have “found” themselves through their experience.

So, does all of this mean that you need to go on some epic expedition of self-discovery and solidarity in order to “find yourself”? In my opinion, probably not. However, I understand that the idea makes sense. Amongst the noise of daily life, it is difficult to find the time, space, and energy to “find yourself” in the same way. Removing ourselves from our usual environment allows us to lose ourselves to new experiences and new challenges. It gives us time to reflect and be inspired. It is time away from the societal expectations that deter us from doing things for ourselves.

However, once we have discovered the boundaries of our beings that are pushed through the trials we overcome, it is a bit easier to create these challenges in our daily lives. We take our experiences and absorb them as part of our own being. We chose the path the draws us the most. And in doing so, we lose ourselves. We search for ourselves. And we find ourselves again. And in this way, we are truly living.