The drop from naive over-confidence to wise, realistic humility never feels good, but pausing the roller coaster while it’s still on that first cliff and avoiding the pain—which turns out to be a lot of people’s move—isn’t a great strategy. Wisdom isn’t correlated with knowledge, it’s correlated with being in touch with reality—it’s not how far to the right you are on the graph, it’s how close you are to the orange line. Wisdom hurts at first, but it’s the only place where actual growth happens. The irony is that the cliff-pausers of the world like to make the wiser, braver valley-dwellers or continual-climbers feel bad about themselves—because they fundamentally don’t get how knowing yourself works. They haven’t reached that stage yet.
Getting to know your real self is super hard and never complete. But if you’ve tumbled off the cliff, you’ve gone through a key rite of passage and progress is now possible. As you climb up the orange line, you’ll slowly but surely begin to repopulate your Yearning Octopus with your real self.
At the moment, it probably won’t be obvious what those missing yearnings of yours are exactly—because they’re on an even deeper floor of your subconscious. They’re in the basement of the basement of the basement—in a place called Denial Prison.
Our brain’s Denial Prison is a place most of us don’t even know is there—it’s where we put the parts of us we repress and deny.
The authentic yearnings of ours that we’re in touch with—i.e. those that proved to be authentic during interrogation—were easy parts of our true selves to find in our subconscious, lying in plain sight, right below the surface of our consciousness. Even our conscious mind knows these yearnings well, because they frequently make their way upstairs into our thoughts. These are the parts of us we have a healthy relationship with.
But then there are the parts of you that weren’t living on your octopus where they’re supposed to be—instead, you found an imposter in their place. These lost parts of you are often incredibly hard to access, because they’ve been living deep in your subconscious, on a floor so low it’s almost not there at all. Almost.
Some parts of us are banished down on basement because they’re extraordinarily painful for us to acknowledge or think about. Sometimes new parts of us are born only to be immediately locked up in prison as part of a denial of our own evolution—i.e. out of stubbornness. But there are other times when a part of us is in Denial Prison because someone else locked it up down there. In the case of your yearnings, some of them will have been put there by whatever masked intruder had been taking its place. If dad has successfully convinced you that you care deeply about having a prestigious career, he probably has also convinced you that the part of you that, deep down, really wants to be a carpenter isn’t really you and isn’t what you really want. At some point during your childhood, he threw your passion for carpentry into a dark, dank Denial Prison cell.
So let’s gather your courage and head down to the basement of the basement of the basement of your mind and see what we find.
The other part of our Yearning Octopus audit will address the hierarchy of your yearnings. Almost as important as the yearnings themselves is the priority they’re given. The hierarchy is easy to see because it’s revealed in your actions. You may like to think a desire to do something bold is high up on your hierarchy, but if you’re not currently working on something bold, it reveals that however important boldness is to you, something else—some source of fear or inertia in you—is currently being prioritized above it.
It’s important to remember that a ranking of yearnings is also a ranking of fears. The octopus contains anything that could make you want or not want to pursue a certain career, and the reverse side of each yearning is its accompanying fear of the opposite. The reverse side of your yearning to be admired is a fear of embarrassment. If you flip over your desire for self-actualization, you’ll see a fear of underachieving. The other half of your craving of self-esteem is a fear of feeling shame. If your actions don’t seem to match what you believe is the internal hierarchy of your yearnings, usually it’s because you’re forgetting to think about the role your fears are playing. What looks like a determined drive for success, for example, might actually be someone running away from a negative self-image or trying to escape feelings like envy or under-appreciation. If your actions seem beholden to yearnings that you don’t believe you actually care that much about, you’re probably not looking closely enough at your fears.
With both yearnings and fears in mind, think about what your internal hierarchy might look like, and return that same important question: “Who made this order? Was it really me?”
For example, we’re often told to “follow our passion”—this is society saying “put your passion yearnings at the top of your hierarchy.” That’s a very specific instruction. Maybe that’s the right thing for you, but it also very well might not be. It’s something you need to independently evaluate.
To get this right, let’s try to do a fresh ranking, from first principles, based on who we really are, how we’ve evolved over time, and what really matters to us most, right now.