The Body Compass: How Your Essential Self Communicates

We Martha Beck coaches are obsessed with helping clients communicate consciously with what we call their “essential selves.” As opposed to the “social self,” the essential self is always focused on our best lives and will actively resist anything that is not in our genuine best interest. Unfortunately, the essential self is not verbal, while the social self thinks almost exclusively in language. To access our essential selves, we pay close attention to the physical body, which responds with tangible tension and resistance when we try to take the wrong path, and leaps forward joyfully when we take the right ones.

Lately, several coaches and clients have asked me what to do when the body gives contradictory instructions – for example, when we feel powerfully attracted to a romantic partner who has damaging character flaws, or we want to quit a terrible work environment but have heart palpitations at the thought of losing the income.

The way to address these situations is to realize that they have many components. Test your body’s reaction to each component of a situation, and you will find that you may have strongly negative reactions to one element while being drawn toward another. For example, your attraction to a dysfunctional person might be urging you to spend just enough time to recognize your own dysfunctional patterns; it is the learning, not a long term relationship, that is calling you. In the case of the terrible job, you may find that your fears are based entirely on your own negative thoughts – thoughts like “I have to keep this salary,” or “Jobs are scarce. I’ll never get another one.”

A key to recognizing when it’s time to tease out different components of a complex situation is staying alert for a sense of “revulsion,” rather than simple fear. Following our hearts is often scary, but the fear feels clean, and does not spoil the desire or yearning to experience our heart’s desire. Revulsion feels like eating something poisonous. It sickens and disgusts. When you feel fear, simply examine your frightening thoughts until you can see where they may be exaggerated or unfounded. Revulsion is telling you to give certain components of your experience a very wide berth.

Distinguishing between a generalized “negative body compass reading” and a cluster of little yellow flags is key to negotiating our complicated world and resolving our psychological blind spots. Rather than running from everything that gives you a twinge of discomfort, take the time to read your compass thoroughly. It will be well worth the investment as you become more discerning and less likely to make unconscious decisions.

Essential Self/Social Self

In this fun video, Martha shares the difference between your “social self” and your “essential self”.

[Can’t see the video above? Watch it online!]

Was Nancy Reagan right? How just saying NO can change your life.


by Pamela Slim

I knew my soon-to-be three-year-old son Josh had achieved a new level of negotiation finesse when his vigorous “NO” was tempered into “No Thank You.”  It is hard to get angry at a little man who is exceedingly polite about totally refusing to do anything I ask him.

Josh, stop throwing Legos at the wall and GET YOUR SHOES ON.”
“No thank you Mom!”

Get off that little boy and stop choking him Josh — he doesn’t like to play rough!
“No thank you Mom!”

Josh, you have to eat your veggies if you want to be big and strong like Spiderman!
“No thank you Mom, pass the Cheetos!”

Do you see what I mean?

Josh’s outright refusal to comply with my requests are the manifestation of a very clearly expressed essential self. Unencumbered by the need to please anyone but himself, he feels perfectly empowered to tell me and anyone else who will listen that he will NOT do anything that doesn’t feel good.

The concept of essential and social self was described in Martha’s book Finding Your Own North Star:

“Your essential self formed before you were born, and it will remain until you’ve shuffled off your mortal coil.  It ‘s the personality you got from your genes:  your characteristic desires, preferences, emotional reactions and involuntary physiological responses, bound together by an overall sense of identity.  It would be the same whether you’d been raised in France, China, or Brazil, by beggars or millionaires.  It’s the basic you, stripped of options and special features.  It is “essential” in two ways:  first, it is the essence of your personality, and second, you absolutely need it to find your North Star.

The social self on the other hand, is the part of you that developed in response to pressures from the people around you, including everyone from your family to your first love to the pope. As the most socially dependent of mammals, human babies are born knowing that their very survival depends on the goodwill of the grown-ups around them.  Because of this, we’re all literally designed to please others.  Your essential self was the part of you that cracked your first baby smile; you social self noticed how much Mommy loved that smile, and later reproduced it at exactly the right moment to convince her to lend you the down payment on a condo.  You still have both responses.  Sometimes you smile involuntarily, out of amusement or silliness or joy, but many of your smiles are based purely on social convention.”

Since writing her newest book, Steering by Starlight, this definition has been updated:

“I used to think of the human psyche as having two sides:  the
“essential” self, which determines our talents and preferences, and the
“social” self, which predisposes us to respond to other people’s influence.  Over the past few years I’ve also come to believe there is
a third self, one that goes beyond the boundaries of both the genetic
and social selves.  Buddhists call this “no-self,” a confusing term
meant  to focus our attention on something the intellect can’t grasp.
Other traditions call it the great Self, an identity that is shared by
everything that exists.  I’m going to call it the Stargazer, because it
never loses sight of your own North Star, your destiny.”

Pressure on the essential self

If Josh’s life progresses along the path that most of us take, as the years go by, his willful determination will be tested by nagging parents (me and Darryl), zealous teachers, managers, mentors and eventually a spouse.  His natural inclination to only do what feels good will be tempered by the need to please others.

I am going to hope that between his life coach Mom and medicine man Dad that he will still turn out a happy, confident and balanced young man (Meet you back here in 20 years to see how my predictions turn out, deal?).

But here is the interesting part:  Josh’s inner NO won’t go away, it will just go underground.

For some people, it gets buried so deep that they can’t even hear it anymore.  Some don’t believe it exists!  That is when Martha and I hear our clients say things like:

  • I don’t know what I am passionate about
  • I don’t even know what I feel
  • I am not sure which decision to make – should I stay or should I go?

For these situations, identifying your inner NO is the first step in reconnecting your essential and social selves.

Ready to try?

Getting your essential self to Just Say NO

This slightly involved but very powerful exercise is lifted directly from Finding Your Own North Star, starting on page 17.  There is a lot more detail in the book and some hilarious examples of each question, but this stripped down version should still give you enough information to be effective. Take out a pencil and paper, or fill out this Word template Download just_say_no.doc .  You are going to identify a number of ways in which your essential self says “no.”


1.  Energy crisis.

Try to remember three different events or types of events (dental appointments, jobs, classes, social functions, etc.) where you had to show up but felt reluctant and low-energy.

Event #1:  ________

Event #2:  ________

Event #3:  ________

Now please circle the response that has the most negative associations for you.

2.  Sick, sick sick.

Try to remember three times when your health was below par.  What was going on in your life during each of these three time periods?  Please list each situation, along with the physical symptoms you suffered. Don’t worry if these situations are the same ones that came up in the last section, or if all three caused the same symptoms.  Repetition is welcome in this game.

Situation #1:  _______  Symptoms:  _______

Situation #2:  _______  Symptoms:  _______

Situation #3:  _______  Symptoms:  _______

Circle the worst symptom.

3.  Forgetting.

Write down the information that you find difficult to remember (for example, “people’s names,” “my kids’ school schedules,” “where I put my important papers”).

Info-type #1:  ________
Info-type #2:  ________
Info-type #3:  ________

Circle the type of information you forget most often

4.  Bundles o’ Blunders.

Write down three stupid mistakes you remember making.

Mistake #1:  _______

Mistake #2:  _______
Mistake #3:  _______

Circle the most disastrous mistake.

5.  Social Suicide.

Name three people who bring out your very worst social behavior.  It might help to review hour life’s most embarrassing moments; the two are often linked.

Person #1:  _______

Person #2:  _______

Person #3:  _______

Please circle all three of these names.

6.  Fight or Flight.

List times when you couldn’t sleep, slept very poorly, or slept so much you felt groggy and squalid.  What was the problem in your life that caused the sleep disturbance?

Problem #1:  _______

Problem #2:  _______

Problem #3:  _______

Circle the issue that most disrupted your sleep.

7.  Addiction.

Name a bad habit or obsessive thought pattern you’ve been unable to eliminate:  ________________.  Now remember what happened to trigger that bad habit the last three times you fell off the wagon. (For example, “I’d had an argument with my mom,” “I’d been working day and night for a month,” “I was facing a performance review.”

Habit Trigger #1:  _______

Habit Trigger #2:  _______

Habit Trigger #3:  _______

Circle the “trigger” that is the most likely to make you tur to your addiction or habit.

7.  Moody Blues.

List the last three times you experienced a very bad mood or a mood that seemed inexplicable, unjustifiable, or extreme. Again, note what was happening in your life at the time this occurred.

Bad-mood setting #1:  _______

Bad-mood setting #2:  _______

Bad-mood setting #3:  _______

Circle the situation that brought out your worst mood.


Step 1:

To get your essential self to “speak” to you, we first need to assemble all the things you hate most.  In the spaces below, list the answers you circled on all the exercises in this post.

List your:

A.  Lowest energy situation:  _______

B.  Three people who bring out your worst social behavior:

1.  _______

2.  _______

3.  _______

C.  Worst medical symptom:  _______

D.  Most forgettable information type:  _______

E.  Stupidest mistake:  _______

F.  Problem that most disturbs your sleep:  _______

G.  Worst bad habit “trigger”:  _______

H.  Setting for your worst mood:  _______

Step 2

Now we’re going to create a little scenario together — a scenario that should set your teeth on edge.  Using the items you’ve written on the list in Step One, fill in the blanks in the following story.  For example, if you wrote “dental appointments” next to the letter “A” in Step One, you’ll write “dental appointments in the blank labeled “A” below.

Your own worst case scenario

Imagine for a moment that you are in (A:  Your lowest energy situation)


You are surrounded by (B:  all three names on your list)




You are not feeling your best, in fact, your (C:  worst medical symptom)


is bothering you more than ever before.

You’ve been given a lifetime assignment that involves working with (D:  most forgettable information)

All the people in the room are authorized to watch you constantly, criticize your performance, and punish you if you make any mistakes.  Speaking of mistakes, you have just done (E:  stupidest mistake)


a fact that is being noted by your three supervisors.  Your life in general is pretty difficult right now; that whole thing with (F:  most sleep-disturbing problem)


is happening all over again.  You’re also trying to deal with (G:  worst bad-habit trigger)


To top it off, (H:  your bad mood situation)


is more intense than ever before.

Just when things are at their worst, (B-1: the person who makes you feel most uncomfortable)

walks up.  He or she orders you to sit up politely, smile in a way that is both humble and worshipful and say to the entire assembly, “I admire you so much.  Thank you, thank you for letting me be here.  You are such a terrific person, and this is just what I deserve.  I want to live this way for the rest of my life.”

Step 3
Read over this scenario, once you’ve filled in the blanks.  Really put yourself into it.  Then pay attention to your own reaction.  How do you feel?  Rotten, I hope.  If you vividly imagine this horrible situation, you’ll experience your own particular blend of anger, despair, illness, and anxiety.  This should reach a peak when you imagine facing the person you hate most and turning over all your power to change anything.  Whatever you feel in this moment is the sensation of your essential self saying NO!

Don’t run away from this feeling just yet.  Focus on and wallow around in it.  Explore its particular shape, texture, and size.  Notice how it differs from other negative feelings.  Your true path will take you through frightening challenges, saddening departures, angry resistance and a number of other profoundly unpleasant experiences. But the pain you experience en route to your North Star feels clean, necessary and right to the essential self.  It is very different from the intense aversion you would feel in the scenario we’ve just created.  You’re not supposed to feel that way, ever.

That feeling of choked hostility, or numb depression or nauseated helplessness is a sure sign you’re steering away from your North Star towards a life you were not meant to live.  When you feel it, you must change course.  You must say to the people around you what your essential self is saying inside:  Nope, Not going there.  Not doing that.  Sorry, but the answer is no.”

Or, as Josh might add, NO THANK YOU!

I have been told that as a toddler completes the rite of passage of “not a baby, not yet a little boy,” (sorry Britney) a cheerful YES will occasionally pop out of his mouth.  I’ll believe it when I see unicorns and leprechauns doing my yard work.

For now, I am learning from Josh to embrace my inner NO.  I suggest you do the same.

And don’t worry, there’s a positive side to all this: next blog post (April 1) we will complete the exercise for finding out how your essential self says “Yes.”  Feeling that, instead of what you felt doing this exercise, will give you the gumption to say “No, thank you,” to everything that doesn’t feed your soul.

I’d love to hear what insights you glean from this exercise!  Please share in the comments.