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Dr. Shelley Uram, a Senior Fellows at The Meadows, recently sat down with Kristin Sunanta Walker on Mental Health News Radio to talk about her new book Essential Living: A Guide to Having Happiness and Peace by Reclaiming Your Essential Self.

Dr. Uram says that she’s noticed over the many years she’s been in practice as a psychiatrist how common it is for human beings to suffer. Even when they are well-off socially and economically, many people still suffer. The reason is that while people are born one and the same with their essence—also known as the “soul,” or “core self,”— they lose touch with it as they grow to adulthood.

“When babies are born parts of their brains are mature already, like the brain stem and limbic brain that controls automatic survival functions like breathing, swallowing, and fight, flight, or freeze. Whereas other parts of the brain, like the thinking and rationalizing pre-frontal cortex, are barely even online yet.

At about three months old, babies get their first sense of ‘me’ from their developing pre-frontal cortex. And every day beyond that, their sense of ‘me-ness’ evolves to become more and more complex and sophisticated. As the baby’s sense of self evolves, the “survival wiring” in the brain stem and the limbic brain becomes more complex.

Those survival brain areas believe that ‘Oh my God, we’ve got somebody here that we need to protect,’ and they start firing like crazy. When the baby gets fight, flight, or freeze reactions from the survival brain—which happens a lot—it’s extremely uncomfortable physically and emotionally. What that does is draw the child’s attention away from the essential self or soul quality, and to the survival responses,” she says.

The essential self is quiet—it’s almost like a whisper. It’s not an emotional or bodily sensation. It’s a state of being. The voice of the survival brain, however, screams its warnings through strong emotions and quickly overshadows any of the quieter, more subtle qualities of the essential self. By the time we are teenagers, we’ve almost completely lost contact with our essence.

We often think that our personalities reflect our essential selves, but Dr. Uram says that that isn’t quite true:

“The personality is rooted in survival-based stuff—fear-based stuff… Much of the personality is a system that our survival brain puts together in conjunction with the thinking brain and other brain areas to weave together an integrated sense of self.”

In other words, whether you identify as someone with a quiet, reserved personality or as someone with a loud, aggressive personality, those qualities could merely be mechanisms you developed as a child to cope with your caregiver’s environment.

For example, if you learned as a child that the only way to avoid having your parents yell at you or hit you was to be seen and not heard, you may have developed a quiet personality in order to survive in that environment. If you learned that the only way to get your needs met was to be loud and boisterous and make demands that overwhelmed your caregivers, you may have developed a more aggressive personality.

The only way to find out who you really are is to spend some time peeling back the layers of personality and fear-based reactivity and getting to know the essential self underneath. Listen to the Mental Health News Radio podcast to hear more from Dr. Uram on the topic of the essential self, or order a copy of her book from your favorite bookseller.

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