The Two Parts of Self

We often operate in a state of tension and inner conflict between our social-self and our essential-self. Understanding these two parts of our nature, and learning how to get these two parts to work together, is a framework that leads us to our right life.

Leslie Santos
Nov 1, 2017 · 6 min read

Throughout time, the great sages taught that there is no self. Self, as we know it, is simply a projection of our mind. This may be mind-blowing, yet, this teaching is a golden thread that spiritual teachers, from the Buddha to Byron Katie, weave. The unself is a difficult concept to grasp because we must experience a complete undoing of everything we see and believe, and this undoing is often a long and tedious process.

For those of us on the long road to no-self, it’s helpful to begin with what philosophers and psychologists call the two parts of self. I call these two parts of self our essential-self and social-self.

If no-self = no mind. Social-self and essential-self = relationship with mind.

Essential Self

At birth, we dwell only in the world of direct experience — the world we discover through our five senses. This direct experience — I see, I experience — is the operating system of our essential-self. Our essential-self can be summed up in one word: love. It’s us in love with the world, and in love with ourselves as we see and experience the world from our true nature. There are no filters. When we are living from our essential-self, we are present to this moment, and we feel an embodied knowing that we’re loved, we’re safe, we’re seen, and we’re connected.

Social Self

However, as we grow older, we learn to think. As our thinking and reasoning ability grow, we spend more time in our mind and we spend less time present with our direct experience. Our social-self is born and continues to grow through social conditioning. Our conditioning is influenced by our care givers, our teachers, our friends, our environment, our experiences, and how we react to our experiences and our environment. As our mind continues to produce language, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, it makes meaning of the world we encounter. And the meaning we make is rarely accurate.

Thinking is not the enemy; however, when we use thinking to relive the past and worry about the future, we separate ourselves from our essential-self. This separation creates suffering and leads to an inner tension.

For example, my client, who we’ll call Maria, was experiencing an inner conflict in her personal life. Maria’s essential-self knew that her romantic relationship of four years was not in service of her right life. She’d known this for the last two years, but her social-self would barrage her with messages of insecurity. She was associating with her social-self so frequently, that fear, anxiety, panic, anger, and the need to control or blame were her constant companions. The idea of leaving her partner was terrifying, so her social-self managed her fear by telling her how to control her emotion — perfect, please, prove, plan, and point-the-finger so you’ll feel safe.

Maria, like many of us, was experiencing the inner tension between freedom and security. In other words, the tension that arises when we live disconnected from our essential-self and highly attached to our social-self. And when this happens, we become engaged in an internal war — yearning for peace, freedom, harmony, and joy, but unable to let go of safety, security, assurance, and validation.

How to differentiate between your social self and essential self

Your Social Self

This is the part of self that conforms to social structures and expectations. This conditioning happens over time as you’re told what to think, how to behave, how to fit in, how to be accepted, how to gain approval or love. You were socialized to meet the demands of your environment. And while some of the social conditioning was useful, chances are that today you operate largely unaware which part of self is making the decision.

Social Self Communication

The voice of social conditioning manifests itself as a stream of thought in your head, often as the voice of the inner critic. The social-self loves to use words such as should and must. For example, I should stay in this relationship because I might not find another who xyz. I must get him to do pdq so I can feel better. He must not win. I must not lose.

Social Self Signposts

When you live strictly obedient to, or identify solely with, your social-self you:

1) Are able to tune out your essential-self

2) Tuck your head down and get shit done

3) Conform to what is expected of you

4) Use scarcity as a motivator

5) Value security above freedom

6) Believe you must control of your environment

7) Avoid risk and uncertainty

8) Self loath

9) Perfect, perform, please, placate, plan, prove

10) Dismiss your dreams

Your Essential Self

Alternately, your essential-self is your real self, your unique and changing preferences and personality uncontaminated by social conditioning. I call this real self your true nature, which I interpret to mean an embodied experience of knowing and feeling that you’re safe, worthy, loved and always connected to something larger than yourself. Your essential-self is free-to-be, and knows she can have, do, or be anything she desires.

Essential Self Communication

Your essential-self often speaks to you through emotions or physical sensations in your body. When you are congruent with your essential-self, you will feel embodied messages such as empowered, energized, vital, alert, calm, clear, open, free, expansive, engaged, curious, playful and peaceful. When you are not congruent with your essential self, you will feel disempowered, angry, scared, tight, tense, limited, worried, anxious, sleepless, fatigued.

Essential Self Signposts

When you live aligned to your true nature you:

1) Are able to freely express yourself honestly to loved ones about difficult topics

2) Feel a freedom to explore without shame, worry, anxiety or guilt

3) Live openly and authentically to your true passions and interests

4) Operate from a place of love rather than fear

5) Engage playfully with childlike curiosity

6) Know that you’re unquestionably safe, seen and loved, always

7) Embrace risk and uncertainty

8) Make difficult decisions and move forward

9) Align your values with your behaviors

10) Follow your heart

Let’s return to Maria, once she learned to distinguish between these two parts of self, she was able to hear her social-self thought stream for what it was — fear. She would stand in the shower and hear the reasons her partner was to blame, the reasons she was a failure, the reasons she needed the relationship to feel secure. The more she listened, the more she realized that these thoughts were not congruent with her essential-self.

The irony is that when we operate strictly from our social-self, we are experiencing the death of our own true nature. The death of self is happening, too often it is the death of our essential-self. Fear cannot coexist with love.

Every time we shame ourselves, people please, perfect, perform, prove, shrink, swallow our truth, avoid vulnerability or discomfort, we experience a death of our own true nature. What we fear, has already happened.

The person who cannot leave their partner, has already left their true-self. The person who cannot set boundaries, has already said no to their true-self. The person who will not speak their truth for fear others won’t approve, has already disapproved of their true-self.

Once we clearly see the two parts of self, we can consciously choose when to operate from our socially conditioned self because doing so is appropriate not automatic. The objective is not to toss our social-self by the wayside, but uncover which socially conditioned traits are no longer serving us. Our social-self benefits from identification (an exploration into how, when and why it shows up) followed by re-identification (intentionally reconnecting to our essential-self to nurture and support our wellbeing).

En route to no-self, our life work is to recognize when we’re behaving from automatic social constructs, unlearn these automatic patterns and make decisions that feel loving, energizing and essential to who we really are, that is until the day we wake up and realize there is no self and we’re all oneself.

Originally published at

Leslie Santos

Written by

Resilience Mentor and Mother.