The Self Project
Developing a greater understanding of yourself, though difficult and painful at times, engenders a more accepting, loving attitude toward yourself (and others), and allows you to be more at ease, calm, and comfortable in your own skin. You will be in touch with your emotions, feel more real, experience life more directly, and be better able to discern who you are, what you want, and how to go about it. It prepares you to be a more effective agent in being who you want to be and getting more of what you want from life. You will see that you are not alone, and have the love and support of others. You will see that although there are things you do not like about yourself and what you have done in the past, you are nevertheless worthy of love and acceptance, can get past those things, learn to love them, and let them go.
As you proceed with this project, it is important that you allow yourself to be honest and open. Try not to edit what you write. It is particularly important to think of this as a private document that no one else will see unless you decide to share any part of it. There may be highly sensitive parts you want to hide or delete; and it’s perfectly acceptable to do so; but it is important that you write it first. Some people find they feel safest writing the most sensitive parts on a separate paper that can be destroyed ceremoniously. The order in which you answer the questions is not important and you may wish to skip – and return to – any question you are struggling with.
This exercise is an exploration of your life and who you are. There are no wrong answers.
1) Work on this exercise in short sessions, maybe just 15-30 minutes per session. For example, spend one session separating the chapters, and one session per chapter adding relevant events. Proceed at a pace that works for you.
2) Use a word processor (smartphone/CPU) so you can easily rearrange the items on your lists.
PART 1: The Chapters of Your Life Story
This section helps reacquaint you with your personal history, organize the events of your life into a personal timeline, and provide a framework from which to respond to later steps.
1. Divide your life into chapters
2. Make a list of relevant events for each
3. Highlight the most significant events
Think about the chapters of your life in chronological order, from birth to present. Identify as many chapters as you feel are necessary, perhaps distinguished by age, where you have lived, relationships, school/career changes, what was important to you then, or a combination of these.
Give each chapter a title and provide a brief summary of what was important about each chapter. This can be a simple list of ideas, places, characters, themes; or sentence fragments; or a brief narrative summary (e.g., moved to x city; First job after college; “Health-food phase”; “moved to city after break-up with X”…).
Focus on one chapter at a time; start with whichever chapter draws your attention. Don't feel obligated to start at the beginning. Maybe thinking about the chapters gets you thinking about your earliest memories, or your high school years, or what you did after college graduation, or when you moved to a new location. Go where your mind goes.
This is a brainstorming exercise. Jot down whatever comes to mind. Try to put them in chronological order, but don't get bogged down in that; you can rearrange them later. In this first step the most important thing is to let your mind open up to your past, your personal history, who you are, and the life you have lived so far.
As you go along, make note of any events/thoughts that stand out as relatively significant, meaningful, positive or negative. Highlight them in bold type for later reference.
Recap of STEP ONE:
You are making a timeline of the events of your life, divided into chapters.
You do this task in a series of short sessions, in which you focus on one chapter of your life.
You are highlighting events that stand out as particularly meaningful for whatever reason.
Now that you have described the overall framework of your life story, the task is to focus on the key events. Use this exercise to explore the details and meaning of each event: when and where each happened, who was involved, what you experienced, what you were feeling and thinking. What did it mean to you then, since then, and now? How did it shape you and your thoughts about yourself or others? How did it shape your values? These might be singular events or something more general.
Spend one session per event, or category. Or, if you have momentum, keep going.
Start with the events you highlighted in STEP 1, or select from the following categories.
What are the biggest regrets you have experienced? Describe each regret, focusing on how you became aware of the regret, the nature of the “offense”, how you felt/feel, and how you got over it, or how it still bothers you. How has it shaped you and your values?
What are the biggest resentments of your life? Describe each resentment; who was involved, the nature of the offense, and what you have done to get over it. How did it shape you, your values, and your own behavior and attitudes?
Describe some close calls in your life; times when something bad almost happened but didn’t, something that might have been very hard or bad but turned out ok. For each, what was the effect on you?
What was the single greatest challenge of your life? How did you handle it and how did it affect how you see yourself and your outlook on life?
Describe some of the high points of your life; peak experiences, moments of great joy or pride. How do these experiences continue to affect you?
Describe any experiences that, as you look back on them now, were turning points in how you thought of yourself, others, or the world; experiences that altered your course; choices you made that changed the direction of your life.
Positive Childhood Events:
Describe one or more positive (happy, beneficial, meaningful) experiences from your childhood. What happened, who was involved, and what did you feel and think?
Negative Childhood Event – Describe one or more negative (unhappy, detrimental, meaningful) experiences from your childhood. What happened, who was involved, and what did you feel and think?
Describe an important loss. It may have occurred during any chapter of your life. How did you feel, cope, and recover?
What are your biggest secrets? Are there any you wish to reveal to someone in particular? What stops you from sharing your secrets?
Describe the most significant health issues you have had to deal with. How have you coped with them? How did they change you or affect your outlook on life?
PART 2: Personal Characteristics
Describe the main influences on, and contributions to, your personal ethics, values, and morals. Think of one or two that are particularly meaningful to you. How did you come to believe what you believe? How have your values changed over time, and why?
Shame and guilt:
Describe how you feel when you break one of your own rules? How do these feelings evolve over time? How do you cope with these feelings, or get over them?
Aside from the positive and negative events you have already described, take a more general, thematic view of your early childhood – before age 8 - and write about how consistently you were attended to by your caregivers. How often did you feel misunderstood, or that what you felt or needed wasn’t seen by others, or was not understood accurately? What effect did this have on you? Also, comment on your tendencies to accommodate to others, to be a people pleaser, or to be self-centered. How did you feel about being alone?
What are your best attributes? What are you most proud of? What are you most confident about? Include anything that perhaps no one knows about you. What things do you wish more people understood about you?
How would people describe you? What words do you hear people say about you, or, what do believe people think about you? You might find it helpful to break this into two groups: those who understand you and like you, and those who do not like or “get” you. What kinds of things would be said in your eulogy?
General attitude toward yourself:
Consider the role of shame, guilt, and self-doubt in how you think about yourself. Assuming there is a continuum for each of these factors, how significant has each one been in your life?
Most people are aware of an inner dialog that comments on their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Sometimes it is critical and judgmental, sometimes it is positive and encouraging. What is the tone of your self-talk?
People vary in how much they worry. Some tend to focus on things that could go wrong, even the “worst case scenario”, and can’t help thinking about dangers and risks. Some people appear to be oblivious to danger, or tend to think things will work out and be ok. Where do you fall on this continuum? What role does trust play in your attitudes?
Describe the role spirituality has played in your life. Include any transcendent, mystical, or “religious” experiences you have had. Include any significant positive or negative experiences related to organized religion.
Describe any significant experiences you have had in nature. What makes these experiences meaningful?
Make a list of people you could count on to help you if you really needed help. Some might be counted on for support, to “be there” for you, to listen, sympathize, or give you a hug or prayer. Some might be counted on for advice or guidance. Some might be counted on for material or financial support. Some just to know they are there.
Describe a time when someone helped you in a significant way.
Make a list of people who love you and wish you well. Identify the person who knows you best.
Describe a time when you helped someone in a significant way.
Make a list of people you love.
Who are the villains in your life? Do you have any enemies? Who hates or envies you, or wishes you ill?
Looking back over your past and current relationships – those most important to you, especially the romantic ones – and describe the role you tend to fall into. Are you the dominant one, the leader, the one who tends to make decisions? Are you the one who gives more than you get; or vice versa?
Filling in the Gaps:
By now, you have already thought about and shared a tremendous amount of personal information, perhaps more than you ever have. Now is the time to add anything else you wish to share or explore. Anything from your life story that would help complete the overall picture of who you are and what’s important to you.
PART 3: Life Management Skills
This section will help you bring into focus things that are working for you, and some that aren’t.
People develop routines to structure their days, weeks, and seasons. What routines are most important to you? Which routines do you feel best about? Which routines are more difficult to maintain? What is your strategy for implementing a new routine? How important is structure in your life?
List your bad habits and describe those you most wish to change. If you have struggled to change any of these, what gets in the way?
Are you able to focus and stay on task? Do you tend to finish the projects you begin?
Consider the condition of your overall health. What areas do you feel good and bad about? Describe the healthy attributes you have achieved. Describe in detail the changes you most wish to make.
How satisfied are you with your current career path? What goals do you have for the near and long term?
Describe any important projects you are working on, or wish to begin. Include any dreams you hope to accomplish in your life.