One of the central concepts of Martha Beck life coaching is the social self versus the essential self. The social self is the part of us that was shaped by all of our conditioning since birth – our parents, our culture, our schooling, our peers, and basically every interaction we have had with the environment of other human beings. The social self is trained to act according to the rules and expectations that have been set by others, which are often unconsciously dictating our lives to this day. The essential self is the core of our being, and the shared tenderness of humanity that all of us have, regardless of our circumstances. It is our spirit, our resilience, our connection to peace, our essential goodness. It is our destiny. It is also our unique potential for bringing the best of our own gifts into the world during our lifetimes.

The belief in Martha Beck life coaching – and validate this with your own experience before you decide to believe it yourself – is that our dissatisfaction with our lives, our health problems, our chronic addictions, our habitual patterns that do not serve us, all of these come from the disconnect between what our social selves tell us versus what our essential selves are asking us to be. These conflicting stories can actually paralyze us at any time in our lives, if we are listening to two different stories and unable to distinguish between the two.

One of my ongoing internal conflicts has been the need to have a “clean” sounding elevator pitch or cocktail party story for my life that satisfied my social self, versus the yearning I had to tell a very different, irreverent story matching my essential self desires. When anyone asked me what I do, I used to take comfort in being able to say, “I go to Harvard,” or “I am in medical school”, or “I’m a VC” (that was a particularly sexy one), or “I have my own business” (I’ve liked that one pretty well over the past five years), or “I’m a violin teacher” (not one that I like to choke out). Right now, in my imagination, I wish I could say something like, “I’m a writer and speaker, and I do the occasional coaching session with clients I really really like. But we’ll see! Life is evolving.” And I wish I could say, “I live in ____” and have people feel slightly jealous. Lately, the fill-in-the-blank place I’ve been imagining is Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The sense of nurturing I think I’m feeling in the CIIS and Martha Beck groups is being around people who are choosing change and transition. Feeling permission to change directions is a big source of comfort and freedom for me. Sensing possibilities, and then going with them by acting upon those intuitions, is really important to me. I was actually watching the opening sequence of the PBS special on National Parks last night, which showed a live volcano erupting into the ocean, laying down new volcanic rock at the edge of land and sea. The narrator said, “Even as this lava has destroyed everything in its path in order to get here, it reminds us that the earth is still being created at its thresholds.”

As a woman, I feel the additional layers of social self stories. I have the dichotomous beliefs that (a) a woman, no matter how prolific in her own work, is somehow incomplete without a man and a family to take care of, and (b) a woman whose life is defined only by taking care of a man and her family is somehow incomplete by not living her own potential to contribute to the wider world. No wonder I feel paralyzed to move fully in either the direction of my career or my relationships! Either path – according to the folklore of my social self – contains the fiery pit of essential-self-sacrifice.

I stand at the cusp of these things, looking in. Somehow it seems easier to look back and justify the life choices and commitments we’ve already made. The older women I’ve talked to – or the women my age who are already married with children – seem to always have smooth justifications for why it was “better to have loved than not at all” or how “children have brought more joy than anything else in life” or “how much the divorce taught me about myself”. It’s important to have self-reinforcing stories to carry you forward in your own life. In fact, one of the tools in Martha Beck life coaching involves telling your life story backwards, looking at how the chain of supposedly “negative” events of your past have led you precisely to the thing you have always wanted.

But it doesn’t help when you are standing on the edge, looking out, trying to find that first step to take. It doesn’t help, in other words, in the creative process itself. There must be something else besides stories that carries someone over that cusp of brand new creation, of burning up the old while simultaneously laying down something new at the threshold. I’m still in search of that.