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I am re-reading life coach and best-selling author Martha Beck’s 2001 book, FINDING YOUR OWN NORTH STAR: Claiming the Life You Were Meant To Live.  One of the running themes in the book reminds me of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s thought that “your best advisor is yourself.

The only problem with this thought is that for many of us, there is a civil war happening inside us and it’s hard to hear the advice from yourself when there’s all that shouting and contradicting going on.  The war is on-going, apparently, for most people.

Who’s in there arguing?  Beck has an explanation.

Beck bases her life-design and career counseling on the premise that each of us have two sides.  One she calls the Essential Self.  The other is the Social Self.  (The capitalizations are mine.)


Beck says the Essential Self is the essence of your personality, the “basic you.”

It’s the personality that comes from your genes and includes your characteristic desires, preferences, emotional reactions and involuntary physiological responses.   All of these are gifts from your ancestors and from the Universe.

The gifts include your talents and predispositions as well.

The Essential Self is you as fetus.  It’s the you that came into the world trailing clouds of glory before the world stuck add-ons onto you.

Fetus (from “The Miracle of Pregnancy” exhibition at the London Natural History Museum, 2011) by Nathan Rupert via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Essential Self is attraction-based.  It knows what it likes.  It prefers to be unique, spontaneous and playful and it is often surprising and inventive.

Beck’s Essential Self sounds like it’s a lot right-brained.  According to Beck, the Essential Self doesn’t change.

It is like the North Star, “Stella Polaris.”  This star is a fixed point that doesn’t move around in the night sky the way the other stars do.  Because it doesn’t move, Polaris has been used by seafarers to figure out which way they’re supposed to go in the middle of the trackless sea.

Beck believes that your Essential Self is your own North Star, pointing the way toward your own “right life,” the one that will lead to the ultimate realization of your own happiness.


The Social Self is the part of you that developed in response to the people around you.

Crowd by Amy West via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

As Beck points out, human babies are born knowing that their survival depends on the goodwill of the Big People around them.  We are literally designed to please other people.

Cute and adorable is a pretty straightforward human survival mechanism.  On a pragmatic level, cute and adorable is more likely to get fed and nurtured.

Social Self is avoidance-based.  It wants to avoid making trouble, making waves.

It prefers to be conforming.  It spends a lot of time imitating other people and is hardworking, predictable, and really big on making set-in-stone plans.

The Social Self is a fast-talking nagging presence that’s kind of sergeant-major-ish.  It sounds like it’s a lot left-brained.

Your Essential Self cracked your first baby smile, just because.

Your Social Self noticed how much Mom liked it.  Charming Mom with your most endearing smile became a major strategy for getting everything from that extra cookie to convincing her to loan you the down-payment for your new car.

During your lifetime, your Social Self has picked up all kinds of skills from the people around you.

In our society, you learned how to talk and read and dress yourself.

You learned how to dance and drive and share stuff.  You learned how to win social approval.

You learned to display traits that are politically and culturally correct.  (If you belonged to a headhunter tribe or to a yak-herder family, you probably learned other useful skills as well.)

If you were diligent as a youngster, Social Self helped you learn how to be Normal.

If you got really good at it, maybe you even made it to Cool.


Social Self’s job is to know how to override Essential Self’s core desires.

Social Self is very good at raining on Essential Self’s parade and stopping all that impulsive, giddy-making behavior that might upset other people.

After a while, Essential Self starts feeling squashed and fights back, rebelling against all the strictures and structures and rules and regs.  Passive-aggressive behavior is not unusual.

One interesting theory Beck cites is that so-called “self-sabotage” is very often actions taken (or not taken) by your Essential Self when your Social Self insists on moving in a direction that your Essential Self does not want to go.

Falling asleep in the middle of working on some interminably boring, “very important” report, or “forgetting” to pack that report when you are supposed to be meeting that “very important” client might be examples of this phenomenon.

Then Social Self pours on the pressure and the two selves get locked into a battle that leaves you feeling exhausted and drained.

It doesn’t have to be like that.


The other thing your Social Self is very good at is working with your Essential Self to sustain relationships with people who are important to you, to finish school, to hold down jobs and to meet your goals, realize your dreams, and all that good stuff.

According to Beck, that can only happen if your Essential Self and your Social Self are on the same page, if they can work together as a team.

When you get to that stage, then, yeah:  Cicero’s right.  You become your best advisor.

After telling you how your two selves came to be working at cross-purposes with each other, Beck’s engaging book takes you through the process of reconnecting your two selves so the old stuffed-shirt Social Self can pay attention and help to meet the needs and desires of your Essential Self, who is, after all, your true North Star.

There’s a plethora of case studies, questionnaires, exercises and very good information  in Beck’s FINDING YOUR OWN NORTH STAR.  Get the book and check it out.

In this YouTube video published by Aspeakers and featuring Martha Beck, the author recalls how she came to write the book.  She is a wonderful storyteller.


If you do the work and talk it over with your own selves and pay attention to the thoughts you think and the feelings you feel, your two selves can help you navigate your way through the choices and opportunities you encounter, leading you toward a more joyous and meaningful life for yourself.

How do you tell if it’s working?  It’s easy.  Your energy level increases exponentially when you’re paying attention to your Essential Self and honoring the course-corrections your Social Self makes in the process.

And that’s a very good thing….

I have personally used many of the exercises in Beck’s book to help me suss out the direction that holds the meaning and mana for me in my own life.   My copy has all the blanks filled in and notes in the margins.  I’ve bent my head around her concepts and tried to do the work she suggests.

The book has a place on my reference shelf.

Here’s a poem:


You tell me you’ve been noticing

That I’m just not

As bubbly as I was,

Not singing on the wing

Like some demented lark,

Spiraling up into the sun.


You’re right.

I’m not.


You tell me

It caused a disturbance

In your contemplation

Of the mountain of

Your desires and

You’ve interrupted

Your own climbing flight.


Oh, wow.

I’m surprised.


You tell me

That you feel for me,

And wisdom-words come

Tumbling out of you

As you try to pat me

Back into the shape you remember.


Gee, thanks.

You care.

by Netta Kanoho

[A colleague of mine at a real-estate office where I once worked awkwardly tried to give me “sage advice” during one of my down-periods.   Her platitudes were so completely off the mark that I had a hard time not laughing.  But, hey…she did try, and I truly was grateful for that.]

Picture credit:  Polaris by Julian Schugel via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

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