Who am I?  Not only have I heard this question many times from clients and students, there was a time when I asked it often of myself. Usually it comes out in despair after a relationship breaks up: I don’t know who I am. This is not a nice spot to be in!

Plato said the secret of a happy life is to “know thyself.” So, who am I really? We all have reference points we use to answer this question. I am a single mother. I am a teacher. I am a business owner. I am a clerk, nurse, musician, or baker.  Our egos can thus feel gratified, but this occupation is never really who we are—it’s what we do.

Remember Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s famous phrase: “You are not a human being having a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being having a human experience.” This made a lot of people happy to realize that they didn’t need to be anything, they just needed to BE. What a relief! What does a being do? Just be!

If you were raised in a perfect world with perfect parents, the “who am I” question is never an issue. The answer is obvious to these people. “I am me. Who else could I be?” wrote Dr Seuss. Such individuals have a strong sense of self. They intuitively move through life in their own way and live the life they want. This is not selfishness; this is happiness.

The more neglect one experiences as a child, the more “who am I?” can put one into a tail spin—and, the more that person doesn’t know who he or she is. Why? Parents mirror us so that we can see ourselves. Perfect parents recognize the uniqueness in each of their offspring and are able to point out “you” to you in their loving. By allowing that uniqueness to spring forth, one would naturally gravitate towards that which makes one’s world right—and one’s self happy.

But there are no perfect parents, and we’re all products of our conditioning to some degree. We become who they wanted us to be—they being parents, teachers, authority figures, etc. They told us who we were. We decide that in order to be loved, we must be what they want. Feeling that we are not enough, we model ourselves after whatever our family, social status, and/or peer group thinks we should be. Or, we rebel and become the opposite. But rebellion is not us either.

Much of this conditioning is obvious in the media, through the constant visual reminder of what and who we are supposed to be. Then, one day (usually in our forties), we wake up and say: Who am I? What am I living for? What do I want to be when I grow up?

Thus begins the spiritual quest to get us out of our conditioning so that we can discover who we really are and why we are really here. What’s it all about anyways? Who am I? These are spiritual questions that can only be answered by the self. When the conditioning is stripped away, the question shifts to: Who do I want to be for me? If I develop my skills, talents and abilities the way I want and followed my own inclinations and intuition, where would it lead me?

Depression is a disease of disillusionment that is more rampant in our society than cancer. Depression is a result of being stuck in a mass lie—the lie of who we were conditioned to be. To help others out of unhappiness, we have to help them see who they are, what they truly want and really need. This is totally different for everyone.

The problem is that, without help, it can be very difficult for people to get out of their conditioning and discover who they really are. So, how do we do it?

Awareness is key. Not only is our mind conditioned, but conditioning is constantly assaulting us. When we become aware of conditioning, we can choose to opt out of it. Doing any kind of personal growth work that focuses on the self can help tremendously. Counselling and coaching can also be a great asset to people who want to live a self-actualized life. As one woman remarked in a weight loss class, “I blessed my fat every day until it disappeared because it showed me who I am not and helped me find myself—the real one, the one I kept hidden all along, safe and protected under all that weight.”

Another path to awareness is to observe oneself without attachment or judgment. We are not our mind. Our mind is just a computer we’ve been filling up with files all our lives. Worse yet, some of those files have bad viruses. Always, we are operating either out of conditioning or enlightened self-interest. With awareness, we can shift at any moment.

Meditation is another great way we can get out of that over-identification with our minds and conditioning. To become still is to become comfortable in our own skins. The impatience and discomfort people feel when they start meditation is the same stress that will eventually cause disease in one’s body if not resolved. Regular meditation discharges stress energy and brings us face to face with the deeper self, the one that is unique and magnificent, totally lovable, and has never been conditioned. This experience cannot be understood by the mind because it is an internal process.

If nothing else, listen to your own self-talk. Self-talk is simply a tape in your head of conditioned responses that keep playing in the background. The more judgment that voice carries, the more you are living from conditioning and not enlightened self-interest. Judgmental people are angry people who never got to be themselves, so they don’t want anyone else to have that privilege either. It’s easy to lighten up on others when you lighten up on yourself. To really be yourself is to be happy.

Jackie Posednar was the publisher of Alaska Wellness magazine until her death in 2012.