When I was in medical school, “drug of choice” was a term used to refer to the most widely accepted medicine (pill, injection, whatever) for a particular condition. There were usually alternatives if patients were allergic or the drug of choice was not available. As a medical student, you were golden if you could immediately name the drug of choice for a given situation when quizzed by one of the doctors.

I now realize that for most of my life I’ve been high on my drug of choice – the drug of approval. It’s been an easy drug to become dependent on without even knowing it. There are plenty of systems in our society that are set up to get us hooked on the smiles and impressed looks on Other People’s faces when we do something that they approve of. It starts as soon as we are born. Our parents and other caretakers are our first encounter with what it takes to get approval. Then, when we’re handed off to the next big system of socialization – school – we quickly learn exactly what we need to do to earn approval. It comes in various forms – attention from the teacher, gold stars, stickers on our hands, nice comments written at the top of our homework, maybe a “Student of the Year” prize at the end-of-the-year assembly, or a row of “A”s on our report card. We adapt our behavior to this system. Some, like me, find that getting all the approval from the system is much easier than expressing what’s real. Starting in first grade, the reality was that I felt like an outsider in almost every way. Not just the fact that I was the only ethnic minority in my entire elementary school class for many years. Or the fact that I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t say in English the names of the things I had eaten for dinner most nights, when I was asked the next day at school. Or the fact that sometimes my mom would pick me up from school and say things to me in Chinese in front of my friends, which further highlighted the gaps between what I experienced at home and what was being presented to me in the great system of American socialization – public school. I just felt both an incredible longing to fit in, as well as a deep knowledge that I never would.

It’s no wonder that I have always been aware of a difference between my social self and my essential self. My social self wanted to be just like the other girls in my class, whose mothers baked cupcakes and seemed so happy and relaxed. My essential self knew that my mother worked, so that we could afford to live in the suburb where these seemingly happy and relaxed people lived. My social self wanted to be comfortable in P.E. class, and not be one of the stragglers who could barely run a mile, and not be the last one picked for any sport involving a ball. My essential self knew that the reason I never developed athletic skills at a young age was because I spent my free time learning music, bathing my ears in sound, and training the smallest muscles in my fingers to do the most intricate of techniques. My social self wanted to feel a sense of belonging to something other than my nuclear family, which seemed like an island of reality only the four of us could comprehend. My social self wanted to appear like what I perceived other people to be – somehow better off, with fewer complications and less confusion. My social self wanted a message from the outside to tell me that I was OK.

My essential self has always been OK, and still is. I was just too busy seeking approval from each system I found myself in, and seeking more and more elite systems in which to find that approval.

What happens when we confuse our social self and our essential self? Or when we don’t realize that there are two (or more) selves competing for our attention and leadership of our lives? I think our bodies start to talk to us – maybe it starts as a vague sense of malaise, or fatigue, or boredom. Maybe it’s a cough that won’t go away. Maybe it’s sleeplessness that lasts for several months. Or maybe it’s pain. I like to say that if you’re lucky, your body will speak to you through pain. If you can still feel pain, it’s a sign that part of you is still awake. It’s what you do in response to the pain that determines the course of your life, and teaches you who you really are. Pain is like that “Check Engine” light in your car that goes on for no apparent reason. It’s not supposed to be there, and it’s up to you to figure out what’s causing it, or if you want to deal with it at all. There are a number of ways to address a warning light. You could take your car in to see the mechanic. Or you could do nothing, either assuming it’s a false alarm or waiting until the car stops running before you address it.

Or, you could take matters into your own hands, open up the control panel to your dashboard, and take out the light bulb itself. This would not get to the root of the problem, but it certainly would eliminate that annoying reminder of something that needs your attention. It’s like getting rid of the “symptom” without examining the underlying cause of the pain. So many blockbuster pharmaceutical franchises have their basis in the miraculous effects of symptom relief and satisfaction that patients receive when doctors write a prescription that they believe will solve their problems. It’s hard to know how many of those solutions amount to simply taking out the warning light bulb. How many of us are going through life, just unscrewing all the warning light bulbs, thinking we’re handling everything smoothly?

We spend most of our lives getting high on our drug of choice. For me, it was approval. For others, it might be rebellion. Or food. Or alcohol. Or actual pharmaceuticals. We all long to feel that heightened state of consciousness  that we call “feeling good”. Our mistake is looking outside ourselves for any drug to bring us this state of well-being. By being alive, we already have within us the seeds of goodness, joy, peace, and freedom. We’ve just been too busy watering Other People’s gardens, pulling out our own light bulbs, or seeking expert opinions, to notice.

Be still. Listen to the silence. Listen some more. You’ll slowly but surely begin to hear the voice of your essential self telling you exactly who you already are, and have always been.