Knowing who we really are is probably the most important task of our lives. It’s the Essential Self that can lead us to the best paths and choices to make. When our identity becomes aligned with the wisdom and knowingness of the Essential Self, it becomes a valuable compass. – Dr. Shelley Uram
“Essential,” derives from the Latin essentia, which has the root esse meaning ‘be’ or ‘being’. Psychiatrist Dr. Shelley Uram says that the key to happiness and fulfillment is not having more money, greater success, or loving relationships. Because underneath all that wanting are the qualities like love, peace, and joy that are already present at our very core – our Essential Self.
What is the essence of our being? Happiness.
How do we reclaim it? Well… we just need to do some circuitry rewiring of our ancient survival brain mechanisms.
Essential Living teaches us how to do that. Dr. Shelley provides us sort of a brain’s schematic diagram and working procedures. She offers us self-assessment exercises, frameworks, and tools to chart our way back to the Essential Self.
Time for recall!
What You Really Want Most
The Essential Self is what most of us want out of life – maybe not initially in our conscious awareness, but deep down, at our core. When you begin to remove some of the blockades created by our out-of-date ancient survival brain, you will likely find your Essential Self calmly awaiting your return.
Question: What do you want more than anything in your life?
More money? Success? Loving relationship? Good health? Fame? Gotta be honest here. Dr. Shelley asks what’s really “juicy” to you. No worries, there are no wrong answers.
Got it? Write it down.
_________________________________________ <– that’s #1
Next question: If you had that (answer #1), what would it give you?
_________________________________________ <– that’s #2
Let’s go deeper: If you had that (answer #2), what would it give you?
_________________________________________ <– that’s #3
I’ll share my answers to give you an idea of where we’re getting at.
#1: I want more money
#2: If I had more money, I could pay off my debts, provide for myself and my family, invest in my business, buy whatever I like, do whatever I want… there’s a lot I could do that comes with having more money.
#3: Freedom!!! I would be very happy and at peace
There it is, the Essential Self. 🙂
Dr. Shelley has asked thousands of people these questions and however varied the answers are at the surface level (#1 and #2), they all boil down to the inherent qualities of the Essential Self.
These are peace, happiness (joy), a sense of freedom, a sense of connectedness, and love.
This is what we really want the most. Not what we have, not what we do, but what we are – the Essential Self.
Switch On the PC
While all parts of our brain are vital to our overall health and well-being, in terms of reclaiming our Essential Self, the prefrontal cortex is the brain area we most need. Whether it is actualizing our what is primarily important to us and/or transcending beyond that, it is the prefrontal cortex and related areas that grease the way for us!
There are three main levels of the brain:
- Brainstem – the most ancient part. The master regulator of the entire body. It keeps everything in balance and running smoothly, such as breathing and certain reflexes. It shuts down when we are faced with a life-threatening situation. It puts us into “freeze” mode. And you look like this:
- Limbic Brain – involved in how we emotionally respond to a situation. The drives for hunger, reproduction, shelter, safety, and companionship originate from here. (Check out our insights from The Abandonment Recovery Workbook for a closer look at one of its subparts, the amygdala.) The first two are related to our ancient brain mechanism – the fight, flight, or freeze mode. To reclaim our Essential Self, we want to switch ON the PC!
- Prefrontal Cortex – the higher brain involved in complex processes like reason, logic, problem-solving, planning, and memory. Here’s where we can consciously align with the Essential Self. But here’s the thing. When the two lower brain areas (the brainstem and the limbic brain) are activated into survival mode (fight-flight-freeze), the PC (prefrontal cortex) goes “offline.” Simply put: PC offline, Essential Self offline; PC online, Essential Self online.
It’s Not a RAM
Our Essential Self is potentially accessed when we are in the “here and now,” and not the “there and then” of the story of our lives. Our Essential Self is a state of being, not a story or memory.
Dr. Shelley talks about the different types of memory. One of which is called Episodic Memory. We are less conscious of this memory.
Our brain begins to create episodic memories when we’re about 3 ½ years old. That’s when we start creating “the story of my life” and become identified with it.
The more we identify with the story of my life, the more we disconnect from our Essential Self.
Don’t dwell in the past. We’re not there anymore. And no matter how many times we go back, we won’t find ourselves there.
Thou Should Not
When we are simply being our Essential Self, these inherent qualities are effortlessly manifested by us. They are non-conceptual and timeless; they are more of a state of “is-ness” than “doing-ness.” Also, they don’t require any thought. If anything, our thoughts can get in the way! They are our selves, who and what we are – the most real. These qualities transcend deeper than thinking and emotions of our day-to-day lives.
While it is commendable to embody the inherent qualities of the Essential Self – peace, joy, and love, it should not come from a place of expectation.
Expectations, according to Dr. Shelley, are offshoots of our deeply set beliefs. And these are major barriers to reclaiming the Essential Self.
“Spiritual people” are still people. They still experience everything that any other human does.
Spirituality, or in this case reclaiming the Essential Self, does not mean you should try to be peaceful or joyful because it is expected of you. That would be obsessive-compulsive spirituality!
The Essential Self is simply being real. No image to protect. No shoulds to try.
This means that whichever perception, experience, person, or belief that has been locked together with a fight, flight, and freeze response, it has the potential to be triggered or retriggered. Whenever one of these complexes is created, it is usually stored in the brain, ready to fire whenever you are reminded of that perception, experience, person, belief, etc.
When you hear a particular song, does it remind you of a specific person and the experience you had with that person, which then triggers a certain emotion in you? Seems automatic, eh? That’s what “complex” is.
It’s when we associate a set of responses, the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response, with a perception, experience, person, or belief and they lock in together over time.
Some examples of complex:
Freeze response + person leaving
Fight response + authoritarian person
Flight response + bully person
So, how do we unlock these complexes? We have no control over any person other than us, or any external circumstances.
What we can do is become aware of our responses, become response-able. With greater awareness, we gain a higher perspective, we shift to our prefrontal cortex and we are able to respond better.
Next time you’re triggered, take full response-ability.
The more we turn our attention away from our Essential Self, the more symptomatic we become. The more we disconnect from our Essential Self, and become increasingly symptomatic, our risk for self-medicating gets higher and higher.
Essential Self –> Deep Set Beliefs –> Expectations –> Negative Feelings –> Symptoms
Dr. Shelley illustrates that the degree to which we have turned away from our Essential Self is the degree to which we suffer.
Dr. Joe Dispenza calls this “Identity Gap” in his book Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself.
Let’s do some identity-check through these self-assessment questions:
What symptoms are you currently experiencing? (cancer, diabetes, heart problems, hormone imbalances, backaches, ulcers, migraines, fatigue, etc.)
What negative feelings do you have? (depression, resentment, anxiety, feeling of emptiness, frustration, etc.)
Could you relate them to certain expectations (ex: I should be successful) that developed from your deeply set beliefs (ex: I am not worthy, I am not enough)?
Dig deep. Peel away the layers. The Essential Self is still there, has never left, and simply awaiting your return.
Five Core Issues
This model contains five Core Issues to which most people can easily relate. When a person optimizes their functioning in any of these areas, they become able to reconnect with their Essential Self. The more of these Core Issues that a person comes into greater balance with, the greater their access to the Essential Self.
Adapted from Pia Mellody’s Model in the 1980’s, Dr. Shelley elaborates how these five Core Issues tie in with reclaiming the Essential Self.
1st Core Issue: Self-Esteem
Each of us is unique, but we all have the same inherent worth. How much do you value yourself? Dr. Shelley says that practicing esteeming ourselves from our inherent worth is usually the only way to break the old habits of esteeming ourselves based on external validation.
2nd Core Issue: Boundaries
We must exercise our ability to say “no” to anything that doesn’t align with our truth. We must learn to identify who/what we are not and integrate that awareness into our lives.
3rd Core Issue: Reality
Beliefs shape our reality. This again begs us to examine our beliefs. Are they true for us? Dr. Shelley encourages us to be in touch with our own reality so as not to get lost to conformity.
4th Core Issue: Dependency
Practice self-care. When you care for yourself, you know what you truly want and need for yourself. It leads us to reconnecting with our Essential Self.
5th Core Issue: Moderation
Dr. Shelley stresses that too much intensity overdrives the limbic brain, thus driving us further away from the Essential Self. Practice moderation in everything.
“The Work” consists of a short series of questions and “Turn-arounds” that you ask yourself when you find yourself figuratively bumping into people, situations, relationships, and feelings that bother you, or just don’t feel quite right. Most things we find or experience as stressful, actually are reflections of thoughts that are not true.
Dr. Shelley finds this exercise as a perfect complement to the Core Issues we’ve just discussed. It’s adapted from Byron Katie’s The Work, which she delineates in her book Loving What Is.
You have something that bothers you? What are your thoughts about it?
Let’s put in “The Work.”
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
Just like in our first exercise (What You Really Want Most), we’ll have different answers to the initial questions, but we’ll arrive at the same final answer.
All forms of self-inquiry ultimately lead to the Essential Self.
When we practice the above as often as possible, we see our life’s direction increasingly shift toward a life directed by the Essential Self, thereby increasing our sense of peace, freedom, love, joy, and connectedness.
- Clarity. Clarify deeply what is most important to us. Dr. Shelley advises us to listen carefully to our bodies. The body is the messenger of the Essential Self. Is it calm? Is it tensed? What is the message behind the body sensations?
- Integrity. Once we’re clear on what’s true for us, we must align our lives with it. Our decisions, attitudes, and behaviors should emerge from this truth. Tony Robbins exclaims, “Know thy self, and then Be thy self!”
- Responsibility. Don’t give your power away. Believe in yourself. Live the life you love.
The Doors of Perception
That connectedness with others that so many people want is actually an inherent part of our Essential Self. It is revealed when our nervous system feels safe and calm enough to allow the doors of our perception to open.
The doors of perception to our Essential Self do not open through the intellect or our thinking. One of the ways they open is when our brain feels safe and allows us to deeply relax and become quiet inside.
Great advice from Dr. Shelley: our ancient survival wiring (lower brain) needs to be addressed first before we can work with the higher brain.
Unlearn first before learning.
As we unlearn the false self and start reclaiming our Essential Self, we learn that our true nature is one of connectedness, not separateness. This awareness leads us to greater levels of love and compassion.
How can we cultivate that awareness to open the doors of perception? Among the many practices and tools Dr. Shelley presented in the book, she points to meditation.
Meditation is one of the “3 Pillars of Awesomeness.” It is an invaluable tool we can integrate into our lives as we go on reclaiming our Essential Self.
Leaving the doors open for you,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
SHELLEY URAM is a Harvard-trained, triple board-certified psychiatrist and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. She speaks around the country about psychological trauma and how it often interferes with our ability to thrive in life. She is best known for communicating very complex information in an interesting and easy-to-understand way.
Dr. Uram conducts patient lectures and provides ongoing training and consultation to the treatment staff at The Meadows, and is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Arizona College of Medicine.
Learn more at shelleyuram.com