First Things First: Get to Know Yourself

First things first: Get to know yourself. Then living is a lot easier and tremendously more satisfying. This month’s column is a chapter that a local author invited me to contribute; a Jungian commentary on her autobiographical account of her marriage and self-discovery*. Her story may be your story, too, at least in terms of a contemporary woman’s challenge to recognize what gives her life meaning. Often the tension between relationship and being true to oneself poses a severe challenge. I hope my contribution to her book will prove informative and useful to you in your journey.The most effective invitation to launch your self-discovery journey is meaningless suffering. When you no longer know why you are living as you are living, the time has come for you to ask some serious questions about the way you are living your life. When you repeatedly notice that you betray your truth: that’s an invitation to take the first step. When you notice—again—that somebody else’s notion of who you are has more power over you than your sense of who you are:  that’s an invitation to take the first step. When you say “Yes,” but are too afraid to say “No:” that’s an invitation. When you can’t say “Yes,” but are unsure of your “No:” that’s an invitation. Any invitation to take the first step on your self-discovery journey is good enough.

The most effective invitation to launch your self-discovery journey is meaningless suffering. When you no longer know why you are living as you are living, the time has come for you to ask some serious questions about the way you are living your life. When you repeatedly notice that you betray your truth: that’s an invitation to take the first step. When you notice—again—that somebody else’s notion of who you are has more power over you than your sense of who you are:  that’s an invitation to take the first step. When you say “Yes,” but are too afraid to say “No:” that’s an invitation. When you can’t say “Yes,” but are unsure of your “No:” that’s an invitation. Any invitation to take the first step on your self-discovery journey is good enough.

All of these—and all other—first steps boil down to this: you begin to recognize: “Something’s not right.” “Something” doesn’t feel right. “Something” doesn’t suit me.” “It’s so vague, I must be imagining it.”

You’re not imagining it.

If you wait long enough, your suffering will get worse and the call to self-knowledge will become louder.

A dear friend puts it very simply: “Know yourself – Be yourself – Tell others yourself – Forget yourself – Be.” When you can work the first three steps, the fourth and fifth steps are a breeze. We’ll begin with step number one: Know yourself.

Knowing oneself can be a life-long adventure, but it often begins in fear and trembling which scares off some people. Getting to know oneself can be scary because you are discovering that other people’s views of you—their sense of who you really are—fits you like somebody else’s shoe, and although walking in that shoe may be very familiar and you know how to do it without limping, it really doesn’t feel right.

Begin by paying attention to yourself and keeping track of what you notice. Notice when you feel in sync with what’s going on. Notice when you feel less than fully in sync with what’s going on. Like I said, “Don’t kid yourself.” You don’t have to be miserable and suffering the torments of the damned to be registering some important information. Subtle is good.

This “noticing” that you’re practicing is the initial step in getting to know more of what and who you are. You will make use of this “noticing” for the rest of your life. It will serve you well: from making fine adjustment to major overhauls. Here’s what you are doing as you notice: you are getting to know, first hand and personal, what you really are, what really suits or doesn’t suit you, what appeals and what repels. As I like to say, you are calibrating the instrument of life: You.

The author’s story—Vivian’s story—is exemplary. About her mother she writes in the book:

I am of the firm opinion that when a woman is unable to express her true talents and divine gifts, she suffers and that pain warps who she becomes. When Mom blamed herself for being the reason she and her husband could not fulfill their perceived life’s purpose, I believe she become enraged at herself and took it out on others, which is why she punished her children so frequently.

“True talents and divine gifts” come as our birth-right. We don’t earn them. We’re born with true talents and divine gifts. Vivian’s mother embraced an image, a belief, of her life purpose. That might be the right life purpose for some people, but it poisoned Vivian’s mother with rage: she became enraged at herself and took it out on others.

In The Marriagae of Heaven and Hell William Blake wrote a painfully insightful line: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.” Not knowing one’s desire breeds pestilence. Vivian’s mother could not honor her desire, if she even recognized it, and Vivian’s story of her childhood and early adult life tells the pestilence bred of her mother’s attempt to live a life that didn’t suit her, a life that really wasn’t in her to live. Vivian’s mother was born to live a different life: her very own life.

The life we are intended to live exists as a “seed” in us. Our task in life is to recognize that “seed” and cultivate it into the full flower of authentic Self.

Vivian has always had a strong instinct for authenticity Self. “At about nine years of age I got so frustrated with how the Bible was written that I decided to rewrite it.” Not bad for a nine-year-old. Vivian was still connected to her authentic core, to what Jungians call “the Self.”

In her experience of missionary school and mission work Vivian sensed something important.Although refracted through fundamentalist theology and doctrine, there was something “real” behind the words. Yet in spite of her parents’ support from her high school English teacher and her parents who enrolled her in a Christian correspondence writing course, she “didn’t feel right” about pursuing something she wanted “that wouldn’t do anything to save people from hell.” Indoctrination overrode her connection to Self.

In her marriage to Alvin, her first husband, Vivian continued to suffer the conflict between what church doctrine prescribed—trying to be a submissive wife—and a clear recognition: “I simply didn’t agree with him on so many levels that I continually had to fight my urge to tell him off. I noticed that plenty of women in the mission felt the same way about their husbands so it didn’t alarm me.” What a heart-breaking admission: “So it didn’t alarm me.”

When we hit bottom, the only way left is up:

Without a telephone line to call home; surrounded by curious African villagers, having very little money, trying to cook meals and live without running water, dealing with worms that bore their way into my children’s bellies, and working so hard to be a good Christian wife, my spirit of dedication melted in the African sun. I so wanted to do God’s will; I just couldn’t figure out what that was any longer. Everything I had believed was up for grabs.

I began to question everything . . . .

She “began to question everything” and “ached to know” herself, and that conflicted with what she had been taught. The conflict between conditioning—what one has been taught—and being too frightened to act on one’s own behalf nags our attention. Whatever Made Us—God or the Universe or Nature—protests what other people have made us into. Human beings are not blank slates or empty computer disks that somebody can program at will. Vivian’s aching to know herself in conflict with what she had been taught revealed that her family and church environment violated her in fundamental ways.

The mind encodes everything we experience in “clusters” called complexes held together by a specific emotional tone or “flavor.” As C.G. Jung once reminded a university audience, ‘Everyone knows nowadays that people “have complexes.” What is not so well known, though far more important . . ., is that complexes can have us.’**

Complexes are a normal feature of the psyche. They can range from painful and troubling to pleasant and uplifting. A souvenir purchased on a delightful vacation can activate our complex of memories and experiences of the place, people, adventures, and surprises we encountered. Likewise, we have less pleasant complexes: mental and bodily memories of hurts we have suffered infused with the emotional pain we felt and still do experience when something reminds us of the original—or the chronic—noxious experience. Activated complexes have energy. Similarly, a powerfully moving experience, or a persistent sense that there is a certain course or direction that we have to take in life, can appear to be “God’s will.”

Hence the crucial question: How do you recognize the difference between “God’s will” and an activated complex?

Psychological/spiritual wounds and conditioning develop as clusters of experience held together by emotion: that is, complexes. In the case of conditioning, the emotion often has the quality of “should:” “I should do this or that.” “I should be a good Christian wife,” as Vivian felt at the time. For several years Vivian had lived in a family and community atmosphere that emphasized submission, belief, and service. In Africa, something in her rose up in protest to her life experience and learning of the previous several years. The emotion that bound together her identity complex made up of her sense of herself, of her family and community, and what it was to be a “good Christian wife” has a “should” quality. And she couldn’t carry on with business as usual.

When a complex is activated, several consequences follow:

  • The complex seeks expression.
  • Our capacity for empathy for others tends to disappear.
  • Other people are to blame for our level of upset and distress.
  • Our thinking becomes “black and white:” If you’re not with me, then you’re against me.”
  • We behave in a less-adapted manner.
  • We don’t feel like ourselves; it’s as if something has gotten into us.

So how do we distinguish between God’s will and a spiritual or psychological wound, or deeply-ingrained conditioning that has been awakened since any of these can overwhelm one’s consciousness with emotion? This gets sticky: various traditions image the Higher Power in different ways.

“God’s will” may sound old-fashioned, perhaps even a bit embarrassing to some 21st Century ears. C.G. Jung—whose discoveries, life work, and wisdom influence my thinking—pointed to the fact that people have always and everywhere believed in some sort of Higher Power, often expressed as “God’s will.” Jung insisted he was an empirical scientist, working with facts. He strenuously rejected the accusation that he was a mystic. The experience of a Higher Power is a psychological fact, he repeatedly said, that can and does often transcend any denomination or tradition.

“People of the Book” –Jews, Christians and Moslems – refer to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Koran for guidance as to God’s will. Followers of other faiths have their scriptures and traditions as well. I believe it to be true that followers of these kinds of traditions believe that God revealed the truths contained in scripture to special people, often called prophets. Lesser mortals, many people believe, do not get direct communications from God.

I am no enemy of revelation. But scripture records “other people’s” revelations: the revelations that came to the prophets in the various faith traditions. And then there are all the interpretations of the original revelations, which constitute the faith tradition. That can leave the individual doubting her own sense of what works for her and what doesn’t. I am no enemy of other people’s revelations, but I have to do two things. I have to “try on” the guidance in the revelation, and at the same time, I have to discover if it is a good “fit” for me. To repeat what Jung said, if people have held onto scriptures for centuries there probably is some value in them. Discovering how they apply to me is my challenge.

One foundation underlies all the great spiritual traditions: Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. Regardless where you are, following this golden rule will serve you well. (Go to the Religious Tolerance website,, for many versions of this rule.)

In times past, people have had revelations that, they say, came from God. We find many of those revelations in the scriptures of various traditions. But do people have revelations these days? I submit that people still experience revelations: they can manifest as a “felt sense” (e.g., that something isn’t right for me), as a persistent fantasy, in encounters with other people and in dreams.  These sorts of experiences—the persistent sense that something doesn’t suit oneself, fantasies, dreams, and encounters—challenge us to discern whether it is a complex beleaguering us or if we are getting a message from outside our waking consciousness that we would do well to pay attention to.

There is a useful test for discerning whether a complex has us in its grip or a power outside of waking consciousness has a message for us: Test all traditional revelations and your own inclinations and impulses against the Golden Rule. If a complex has colonized your consciousness and your emotions, examining it in the light of the Golden Rule will tell you whether you should or should not act on the impulse and the emotion. If your impulse, inclination, and emotion pass this test, then you may be experiencing a personal revelation. Remember: the traditional scriptures record the Higher Power’s revelations to people throughout time.Follow the Golden Rule (in any of its many variations—the core teaching is the same), and test your personal revelations against it.

We see the most fundamental level of personal revelation in Vivian’s experience: “I ached to know myself without regard for what I was taught, but no one else would allow it and I didn’t know how to do it on my own. It was too frightening. Even when I could finally act on my own behalf, I was too conditioned to think poorly of myself to begin the process.” Here, the revelation comes as the ache to know herself.

So it begins: Our innate, fundamental nature protests being violated. The felt-sense that something’s not right. The “fit” between oneself and one’s circumstances (environment, family, school, job, marriage, etc.) doesn’t feel right. Maybe one doesn’t know what would make a better fit, but for sure, the current one limits, twists, compels one to appear to be something that one experiences as more or less false, inauthentic. Conflicts with other people, especially those we have to live with, can become intense. Typically “It’s their fault” I can’t be real, authentic. “They” are to blame. “They” won’t let me, when in truth I’m not sure what my “real” really is. “But it’s not this!” Fantasies bubble up into consciousness: “If only.” If only I had different parents / siblings / partner / job. And at night dreams wake one with haunting emotions.

Fantasies and dreams communicate in image and story and reveal to our consciousness what our usual waking consciousness does not see. Fantasies and dreams provide the commentary on our waking life. The images and stories in fantasies and dreams show us our blind spots, our one-sidedness, our hang-ups, and also, sometimes, possible ways forward out of our stuckness toward becoming what we are meant to become.

A couple of examples will make this clearer.

One woman (not Vivian) had struggled for decades with self-discovery. Of the hundreds of dreams she had experienced and recorded in her journals, one in particular cast a blazing light on her situation:

I am at a large theater production.  I am getting the chairs set up and arranged for the show. . . . I go out to the outer area to get them and tell them where to sit. As I am going out to the outer room, I see lots of other people I know. I get sidetracked talking to them. I finally get to Mom and Dad and I tell them where our seats are. They start to walk in and I again get sidetracked talking to people. . . . When I finally get back inside the theater area I see that Mom is in her seat, but Dad is trying to climb up into a higher seat, like a director’s chair. It is to the right of my seat. It is too difficult for him to climb into since he has difficulty walking and standing. And it is also not on the aisle. I am exasperated because once again I tried to go out of my way to do what I thought was best for him, and he chooses something else. . . . .

This dream helped her focus on the effect her father had exerted on her over many decades of her life. He had been a dominating force: his affection for her and hers for him; his volatile moods that she had endured; his aspirations for her that she had attempted to fulfill. And more. This one image informed her self-discovery work for many months in countless variations.

A man in his 40s had a dream that starkly portrayed how he had been conditioned to restrain his impulses to go after what he wanted:

I see a dusty dirt road. On the left there is a table. Two men sit with their backs to me. On the right of the road I see a butcher block, a butcher in his white smock, and a side of meat on the butcher block. A big dog is standing in the middle of the road, looking toward the right and the side of meat. There is a collar on the dog’s neck, and a leash, but the leash is not tied to anything. The dog is poised to run, but can’t budge from the spot.

The story in this dream clearly shows learned inhibition: the leash hangs slack from the collar; the dog can’t move a muscle to lunge for the raw meat. The “news you can use” from this dream showed the dreamer what his conditioning had accomplished: paralysis. He was trained to be unable to go after what he wanted. The haunting image of the dog poised to lunge troubled him for a long time as he haltingly attempted to act on his desires.

Dreams—and fantasies, too—usually tell stories, or a part of a story, that doesn’t make much literal sense. One approach takes an “as if” stance: There’s something in you (the dreamer) that looks like Dad trying to get in the director’s chair. There’s something in you that looks like a big dog frozen in place and unable go for the raw meat.

These meaningful images shake us up. In dreams and fantasies, we experience images and stories that represent clusters of data in our psyche. In the dream images a complex network of experiences that expresses a central core of meaning and appears as dad, or a dog, or raw meat, or the director’s chair. Jung pointed out that the actors in our dreams are really complexes.

So far it may sound as though you have to walk the journey self-discovery and self-knowledge all alone. True, nobody can do it for you, but there are guides. A good guide doesn’t have “the answer” to all your woes. It’s more like having a companion who has a flashlight to shine a beam in dark corners and identify potholes in your path. The good guide knows something of the territory from personal experience, and from companioning other on the journey. Equally important, the guide who is good for you is a person with whom you feel safe, who “gets” you, who “tunes in” accurately enough that you feel seen and heard, and with whom you can explore not only what emerges in you, but everything and anything that transpires between the two of you. Here again, the “fit” between you and your guide makes all the difference.

Self-discovery characterizes the self-discovery path. The two example dreams marked stations of self-discovery on the self-discovery path for each of the dreamers. Both the woman and the man had more dreams, more “news they could use,” as they unraveled the Gordian knot of their conditioning, became aware of their complexes, got better and better at recognizing what did and did not suit them. Gradually they discovered that other people—although irritating, challenging, difficult to deal with—were not really the problem. Other people are different from oneself in ways one may or may not enjoy.

Know yourself . . . .

The environment each of us was born into and in which we grew up has shaped us in distinctive ways. But our environment encountered an essential nature in each of us that it could only shape, not erase or completely overwrite. A unique fundamental pattern informs what we can become, like the genetic programming in a seed that will, in time, mature into a member of its species, but recognizable and different from every other member of that species. In Jungian psychology we call this the Self. The Self makes itself known in many ways: in our fascinations with and antipathies to others; through fantasies and dreams; in longings and persistent urgings, such as Vivian’s life-long desire to write.

The Self in Vivian began to manifest early on when her teachers recognized her writing talent. Vivian recognized this prompting of the Self. She recognized the protest of the Self when, in Africa, she could no longer live according to the “rules” prescribed for a “good Christian wife.” Vivian’s self-discovery traces her path to self-knowledge.

Discovering what the Self intends us to become can take the better part of a life-time because self-discovery continues till we depart this life. When you are hurting and realize that exploring the possibilities for change could not be more painful than the status quo, you have taken the first step toward further discovery of what you essentially are and what you can actually become. When you chose to follow what energizes and fascinates you, even though other people may not understand or support you, you venture onto the path you have to take. Becoming real is full of false starts, wrong turnings, and dead ends. Don’t give up! It’s worth the effort! The winding path does lead to the goal. The reward is being really You.

Know who you are. Be who you are. Tell others who you are. Be.

*Vivian Probst (2016). Yo-Yo Wife.

** C.G. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 8, para. 200. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Religious Tolerance link>

June 2017, Excerpted from Yo-Yo Wife, Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology (a.k.a. Jungian Analysis) at the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee, WI. He is a teaching and supervising faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago, IL, and again he will serve as Director of the Analyst Training Program at the Jung Institute, beginning in September 2017. To schedule an appointment, contact him at 262.695.5311.