Many people, young and old, struggle with the whole notion of identity. Who am I? What should determine how I present myself to the world? Where do I fit in? Do I belong anywhere?

As young people struggle with life directions and career choices, these can feel like awkward and difficult questions. Similarly, many people in mid- life wake up and realize that the choices they made as young people were misguided. Nevertheless, these choices have had a huge shaping influence on their lives. Some of the problem is that for the most part we identify ourselves by what we do, and sometimes by our interests. Of course there is a convenience factor to this in the social fabric of things. Unfortunately however, we often get caught by our own labels. We become prisoners of the boxes we jump into.

One of the primary goals in any journey into consciousness involves an exploration into who you most deeply are. If you don’t ask the questions, chances are you won’t get an answer. Asking questions comes with the territory when you start waking up to who you are. One of the most interesting ideas that Jung re-invigorated (it didn’t originate with him) was the whole notion of the archetype. Plato was one of the first teachers to talk about this concept. It is the idea that there are patterns of energy that exist a priori (before) manifestation.

A simple example of this is the tulip bulb that contains the archetypal energies or potential form of the tulip, or the embryo that contains the DNA coding of the human. On a physical plane of course we now simply refer to the DNA, but if we are talking about the spiritual or psychological imprint, it is useful to think in terms of the archetypes that inform us.

Very often, when exploring this notion of identity with a client, I use an animal analogy as a metaphor. The other day I was with a middle-aged woman who was struggling with what she wanted the 2nd half of her life to be about. I mused aloud about what animal she might feel most akin to. In other words, if deep down she were more like a butterfly, she would be very unhappy with a job and a set of relationships and expectations that expected her to be a mother bear.

She got the point. My question was simply a jumping off point for a process of inquiry that would demand attention and rigour. There is no point trying to shape yourself into something you are not. Forget trying to fit in with someone else’s idea of who you should be. If you are a bookish academic, you are not going to become a jock. And if you are a jock, you are probably not going to become a ballet dancer.

Paying attention to your dreams is something I consider essential. When I have a client bringing a dream to the session, it makes my work as a therapist so much easier. It feels like we start at a core place and work outwards, like a thread unwinding. When the client doesn’t have a dream, it can be much harder. We are starting from the outside and trying to get underneath the persona (the mask we show to the world). It is very easy for both the therapist and the client to get led away from the core issues because the ego finds this kind of exploration challenging and provocative. The client may show up claiming he/she wants to get to the root of his/her issues, but then resists like mad when confronted. The ego is threatened by change. It has developed a certain identity, and even if it is dysfunctional, it feels safer than the unknown. The ego cannot know what it cannot know.

However, as we loosen the grip and constraints of the egoic box we have tried to fit into (for a myriad of reasons) we begin to free up all the latent energies of our deep archetypal patterning. As we give ourselves permission to explore and be who we most deeply are, we give ourselves an opportunity to stretch, become and live more fully – to engage with our lives and purpose in a more creative, dynamic way.

Listen to David Whyte recite Rilke’s poem, The Swan: (although it is scratchy it is well worth watching)

The Swan – Rainer Maria Rilke

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on
and cling to every day,
is like the swan,
when he nervously lets himself down into the water,
which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan,
unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried,
each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

translated by Robert Bly

Watch Maya Plisetskaya dance The Dying Swan: Music – Camille Saint-Saens. She is a marvel.