Struggling To Figure Out Who You Are? Dr. Sara Kuburic Can Help

Sara Kuburic

Imagine waking up one day feeling like you’ve just lost your sense of identity. Looking in the mirror wondering, “Who am I really? What happened to that person I used to be? And, who do I want to be, and how do I want to show up in my life, and be seen, in ways I’m not?”

My guest today, psychotherapist Sara Kuburic, has gone deep into the experience she calls profound “self-loss,” what’s really happening, and what we can do about it. The journey back to yourself often begins by realizing something essential is missing. In her powerful new book, It’s On Me: Accept Hard Truths, Discover Your Self, and Change Your Life, Sara blends her personal story with insights from philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, to offer wisdom and practical steps for anyone seeking to reconnect with their true self.

Born into war for nearly the first decade of her life, she later resettled as a refugee in Canada. Sara’s interest in psychology emerged from a childhood marked by complex relationships and a continual quest to understand humanity in all its messiness and absurdity. Passionate about helping people live authentic, free and meaningful lives, Sara brings both personal experience and professional expertise to this vital topic.

In our conversation, Sara and I explore the painful emptiness of self-loss, often triggered by major life changes, and how she views self-discovery as an ongoing practice of curiosity, playfulness, and the courage to run small experiments that reveal who you are and what you value apart from others’ expectations, leading to a rediscovering of who you really are – imperfections and all. 

You can find Sara at: Website | Instagram | Episode Transcript

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photo credit: Pavle Kuburic


Episode Transcript:

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:00:00) – I don’t think the self is static. I don’t think you find yourself. You create your sense of self, which is an ongoing experience. It’s malleable, it’s fluid. It’s constantly emerging from your experiences, from your interactions, from the things that you’re learning. And so if you go, this is who I am now, and then you live 15 years and you didn’t bother to create your sense of self, to evolve your sense of self, to start acting like this person here in this reality. And you’re still acting like you’re in college because that was authentic when you were in college. That’s the problem.

Jonathan Fields (00:00:37) – So imagine waking up one day feeling like you’ve just lost your sense of identity, looking in the mirror wondering, who am I really? What happened to that person I used to be? And who do I want to be? And how do I want to show up in my life and be seen in ways that I’m not? Well, my guest today, psychotherapist Sarah Kubrick, has gone deep into the experience that she calls profound self loss.

Jonathan Fields (00:00:59) – What’s really happening and what we can do about it. The journey back to yourself often begins by realizing something essential is missing. In her powerful new book, It’s on Me, Except Hard Truths Discover Yourself and Change Your Life, Sarah blends her personal story with insights from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience to offer wisdom and practical steps for anyone seeking to reconnect with their true self. Borne herself into war for nearly the first decade of her life, she later resettled as a refugee in Canada, and Sarah’s interest in psychology emerged from a childhood marked by complex relationships and a continual quest to understand humanity in all its messiness and absurdity, and deeply passionate about helping people live authentic, free, and meaningful lives. She brings both personal experience and professional expertise to this vital topic. In our conversation, we explore the painful emptiness of self loss, often triggered by major life changes, and how she views self discovery as an ongoing practice of curiosity, playfulness, and the courage to run small experiments that help reveal who you are and what you value apart from others expectations, leading to a rediscovering of who you really are, imperfections, reality and all.

Jonathan Fields (00:02:15) – So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life project. Before we dive into some of the ideas specific to the new book and just here work zooming the lens out a little bit, I’m always fascinated by what brought people to do the thing that they do. And for you, it seems like this is deeply personal. You survived two wars by the age of nine, born in Bosnia. I have to imagine and tell me if this is true, that that experience in some way might have planted seeds that eventually blossomed into the work that you’re not doing.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:02:55) – Oh my gosh. Absolutely. And I think you’re phrasing that very politely. You’re like, maybe, perhaps. But yes, absolutely. I think from a really young age I was confused by humanity. I think when you see so much suffering and so much pain, I guess you’re always wondering why, like, I was obviously naive. I didn’t understand the politics and how everything kind of pulled it. But I think when you’re hiding every night in the bunkers, when you’re not sure if your parents are alive, when you’re not sure why you’re the bad guy or the good guy, and you’re hearing all these narratives, I think you get really confused as a child.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:03:35) – And part of what got me into the work of psychology was just understanding human nature. Like, why do we hurt each other? What is resilience? What makes humans tick? And I think I couldn’t make sense of my own childhood. And that’s probably one of the things that propelled me into this work. And eventually that curiosity turned into something much deeper, which was, how do I help people alleviate the pain that they’re going through? But I think at the very start, it was like trying to understand why things were happening, the way they were happening and trying to understand myself. I think, you know, there’s always a joke in psychology of like, you want to know what someone’s struggling with, like read their thesis like it’s always it’s not always, but mostly deeply personal work.

Jonathan Fields (00:04:22) – Yeah. I mean, that makes so much sense. Not too long ago, we had Daniel Kahneman in conversation here, who I guess he’s probably about 80, 81. When we chatted, he was sharing a story about how he grew up in what was then Nazi occupied France and remembered walking home.

Jonathan Fields (00:04:41) – He wasn’t supposed to be out as a young Jewish kid in Paris found himself having to walk home from a friend’s house when he’s six years old at night and turned his sweater inside out so there was no insignia that he would be noticeable, and found himself walking down the same street as an SS officer and was terrified, and the officer approached him, looked at him, I believe he said he picked him up, showed him a picture of his own son who was the same age, and kind of patted him on the head, gave him like a smile and like just, you know, blessed him on basically. And that experience stayed with him because, again, it was like this was supposed to be just, you know, a representation of the scariest, most awful thing in the middle of a horrendous experience. And yet there was this weird divergence of like, how do I square these things? I would imagine as a kid there were things like that that you experience as well.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:05:34) – Oh yeah, for sure.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:05:35) – I think, you know, when you are a child, you have this beautiful lens of everything is good in the world. And I think unfortunately, as we grow up, that’s kind of taken away from us with different life experiences. And I think as much as there was fear that I didn’t understand, there was always so much goodness. Like, you know, in the bunkers there were strangers that like, made sure they got candy for the kids, which was so hard to come by. And there were people, you know, everyone kind of threw in their mattresses in the bunkers, but it’s like there were those who were like, hey, it’s quieter here because everyone was kind of playing cards and drinking and trying to entertain themselves. And it was like, okay, like, let’s make sure the kids have a place to sleep. And this is a comfy place for the kids, and we can make forts. And I think there was like glimpses of just such humanity and humane times that I think really stand out to you.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:06:29) – And those moments of like, you know, I have one particular moment that I kind of briefly talk about in The book of Crossing a Bridge. And at the time during the NATO bombings, all the bridges were being bombed. And so being on a bridge during like a siren call was super scary because you had no idea if that bridge would be bombed. And so I remember with my mom being in like the middle of the bridge as the sirens went off and watching a plane come towards us, and it was probably one of the most horrifying moments in my life. And we were just like running across the bridge, and there was absolutely no way we could have made it if they decided to bomb that bridge. And luckily they didn’t. And I think it’s interesting to see as a child where I’m like, did they see us and just choose not to because they saw, like my mom and I were on there? Like, I think you create all these narratives of like was did they maybe they chose not to because they saw a child running on there, or maybe we just wasn’t part of the plan.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:07:26) – But I think as a. You’re always faced with like, wow, was that just the greatest gift from a stranger that they offered me? Or was that just a fluke? And I think there’s a lot of experiences like that where it’s kind of left to interpretation.

Jonathan Fields (00:07:41) – Yeah, I would imagine so. It kind of brings us to the topic of your new work, actually in the new book, which is this deep and fascinating exploration of this the self and also the loss of self and how it affects us, how it occurs in our lives and what we do about it. And you use this phrase like self loss, which is really interesting. Right? And from what I understand, you’re training is psychotherapy, right? Which I feel like is a little bit unusual in how a lot of people pursue education in the world of therapy these days. There’s been such a tilt towards CBT and the more sort of like immediate and behavioral things. So I’m curious about, like you saying, this is the thing that’s really drawing me and how that then turns around and forms like this really deep dive into like, what exactly is the self and how does it affect us?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:08:29) – So I stumbled across existential analysis quite accidentally.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:08:34) – I want to say, I think from a young age I was reading very existential literature without understanding. It was existential, like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who I think at their core are existentialist but wrote novels. And I think because I was so young and I had so many kind of complex childhood experiences, it was the only authors that I felt really resonated with me. In retrospect, I’m like, that’s a bit worrying. Like, that should have been a red flag to my parents.

Jonathan Fields (00:09:01) – It’s like other kids are reading comic books.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:09:04) – Yeah, I know, I’m there reading like Crime and Punishment and like, no, it’s from the underground. It’s like, but it was, you know, I don’t think you raised flags for my parents because they had to read it in high school as part of their education. So it was quite normalized. And so I think I always had kind of an existential mindset, and I try to avoid it for a very long time. So when I went to undergrad, Bachelor of Science and psychology, and then I was like, you know what I’m going to do? Like the Neurosci crowd, CBT sounds good.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:09:37) – I love the Freudian deterministic kind of lens. And it’s so funny to look now. And I think part of why I was so drawn to it was because it allowed me to ignore the deeper questions in my own suffering. And that’s not to say that these approaches do that, it’s just how I use them. I was like, great, let’s look at my behavior and my cognition, and let’s not look at the deeper questions that are actually what is triggering me or what I’m grappling with. And then in grad school, I had a couple of professors that were existential analysts, which is super rare in North America. And the way that they present the information, I was like, oh, shoot, that’s so interesting. And I think, you know, I had my unraveling. I talk about in the book of like figuring out that I didn’t know who I was and that that was an incredibly painful experience in my life. And part of that was sitting, you know, in these trainings in existential analysis, they’d be like, what do you value when you look at yourself, what do you see? And I think just being bombarded with these sort of questions, I realized that I didn’t know the answers.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:10:39) – And so figuring out my own self loss and figuring out that that’s what was happening eventually led to me recognizing it in my clients and conducting research that was always kind of on the periphery of self loss. For about seven years during my master’s and my doctoral work. And then I was like, you know what? I’m seeing a global existential crisis. I think it’s time we start to talk about the self. So that was a really rambly answer that we get that we can. It’s all we can do. I was like, but that’s kind of where, yeah, it lent itself of like personal experience and being like, wow, this is a really cool philosophy. And then ironically enough, realizing that the things I was studying, I was actually experiencing and that’s always fun.

Jonathan Fields (00:11:23) – Yeah, it is interesting to write because I feel like we’re so many of us are in this moment in culture right now, where we’re suffering and we feel a sense of suffering, and there’s enough around us that we can point to and say, oh, that’s the source.

Jonathan Fields (00:11:36) – Oh, that’s the source of that’s the source. And maybe it contributes to it. Right? I’m sure it does. Like so many things, aren’t there going to pile on to a certain extent. But then there’s this deeper thing, which is a profound lack of a sense of identity and meaning that is underneath that, that that piles on this sort of like compound vehicle for suffering or for questioning or for confusion. And we don’t realize that that’s there among the mix, because we can point to all these external factors. And there’s other stuff that’s happening on a much deeper level inside of us. So I love the fact that you’re sort of saying, okay, CBT is not bad, it’s not bad. There are all these other great therapies at work. They’re great, but there are other modalities that we can use to take a different look inside of ourselves and maybe uncover some things. That would really help us that we’re not really looking at.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:12:30) – Yeah, I had a journalist asked me. He said, well, millennials are known for trying to like self realize and self-actualize.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:12:38) – How is your book even appropriate given that like so many millennials are, you know, working towards themselves and I that was a really interesting question because I went like the fact that we’re all trying to self-actualize shows you the gap, right? So if we’re not self actualizing, we’re trying to self-actualize whatever that means in different modalities. It’s like, what does that mean are current about our current state? And so I thought it was kind of an interesting question, just because, you know, so many of us want to feel whole, so many of us want to feel self possessed. So many of us want to feel like we have ownership of our lives and live fulfilling lives. And I think millennials are the generation that’s like, we’re not going to work 9 to 5. We’re not like so much kind of rebellion and changing the script of society and doing social media. And I think that all shows that we’re so desperate to get close to who we are, and we’re changing everything up. And I think that that’s great.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:13:34) – But that also shows us that as a generation, we might be struggling to figure out who we are and why we’re here. I think with a lot of freedom comes anxiety. And Keke talked about it, everyone talks about it. And I think millennials have pushed so many boundaries and created so much more freedom, which is amazing. But I think we also didn’t anticipate the anxiety and the sense of disorientation that comes with something like that.

Jonathan Fields (00:13:58) – Yeah, that makes so much sense. I love that you brought up Kierkegaard. One of the quotes that I’ve returned to so many times in my life, his line anxiety is indigenous of freedom. And it is so true. So true. Yeah, we can’t run from that, you know? And we try and we try and shut that down. But unwillingly, when we do that, we shut down our own freedom rather than just learning. How do we live with this? How do we actually deal with it? You’ve used the phrase self loss or loss of self a couple of times now.

Jonathan Fields (00:14:28) – What are we actually talking about when when we use that phrase?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:14:32) – So I have two definitions. One is self estrangement, lack of congruency, lack of alignment. I think about it as like waking up one day and going, I don’t know who I am, and I’m really not sure how I ended up in this life that I’m living. It’s like when you drive home and you don’t really remember driving home because it’s so automatic and you’re an autopilot and you’re pulling into your driveway and you go, well, okay, I’m home. And I think a lot of people wake up and go, what the heck is this? Like, I am married. Do I want to be married? I have this job. Do I want this career? And I think it’s just this moment of estrangement and understanding that the person that you are feels like a stranger to you, and that the life that you live feels estranged and distant and disconnected. And I think it’s slightly different than just being inauthentic. You know, we talk authenticity is a hot topic on Instagram.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:15:25) – And I think, you know, lack of authenticity can be saying no when you want to say yes. And I kind of see it as your deep diving and you’re in the ocean, but you still understand where the surface is, you’re still like, I wanted to say yes, but I said no or I wanted to say no, but I said yes. So it’s like I’m swimming in the deep, but I know where I can go to get my next breath. Well self losses, you’re so deep underwater, you’re being tossed around that you have no idea where the surfaces. You know, you need to start swimming in a direction or you’re going to die. But you also understand that you have no idea which direction to go and that you might still die if your actions and your next swim is in the wrong direction. So it’s a much more serious state of disorientation. And you know, my. Which leads us to my second definition, which is self loss, is our failed responsibility to be ourself.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:16:16) – And that sounds a bit harsh and it’s not intended to. I think it’s a very liberating concept, but if you have failed to be yourself, you will feel lost and there’s no such thing as a neutral action. So you can’t be neutral either. It’s bringing you closer to your sense of self, because your sense of self is something you create. So it’s an authentic sense of self, or your action is creating an inauthentic sense of self. No action creates nothing. And I think that’s, you know, when we fail to be intentional and make sure that all our decisions are creating an authentic sense of self, that’s when we have failed to take responsibility and we have become inauthentic and eventually, for some, completely lost.

Jonathan Fields (00:17:02) – Yeah, that word responsibility, I know for a lot of people is triggering because it kind of says this is on you, which literally is the title of your book. But at the end of the day, you know, like is one of my dear friends, Mel Robbins often says, no one’s coming to save you.

Jonathan Fields (00:17:18) – It really is on us.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:17:20) – Yeah. You know, I want it to be a liberating concept. Like responsibility is where you find your freedom. It is not about blame. I think I came to that moment of like, no one’s going to save me. When I was at the airport, having my very first panic attack surrounded by the paramedics. My sister’s crying on the phone with a doctor. They thought I was having a stroke, and I realized that in that moment, my sister would have done anything to save me, anything to save me. And she couldn’t. And that was so, so scary for me. And I realized in that moment, literally and metaphorically and figuratively, that the only person that has any control is me. And I think that as much as we want to be saved and as much as people want to save us, it’s not actually an empowering stance. And I think realizing that if you have created a life you don’t like, and if you have created a person you don’t like or love or respect, you can use those exact same tools and that same freedom and those opportunities to now create someone you do want and love and respect.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:18:28) – And I think that responsibility just shows you how much freedom you have to change and to have what you want to have and live the life you want to live. And so for me, it’s actually a really empowering statement. It’s on me rather than like pointing fingers, it’s on me, it’s on you. Do it. And I think it’s funny that humanity has somehow morphed responsibility into a negative thing.

Jonathan Fields (00:18:52) – Like how it’s funny because I think as you’re describing that, I’m like picturing a view of somebody in an office, in a job, and everyone has gotten a message from the manager of a team and basically, like, we need to be in the conference room now, stat, right? And then the manager opens a door, you know, like you hear it fling open and walks in and says, this just happened. Who’s responsible? And I feel like that is the frame that so many of us bring to that word. Maybe because that’s sort of the context that it’s often been offered up just culturally.

Jonathan Fields (00:19:24) – Rather than saying no. Actually, responsibility is like the other side of the coin of power and agency. Yeah, and what if we always say, like, anytime there’s one, there’s got to be the other. And that puts us in a really in a strong stance to actually affect change.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:19:40) – Yeah, I love that. That’s beautiful. And I think even how we tell other people they’re responsible for things, I mean, we’re part of the issue. We’re part of the cultural narrative that shames responsibility. I think being wording it as like, you get to take ownership, you get to create change, you get to be the person you want to be. And we, you know, we have somehow made that into authenticity. And we use authenticity to represent that which I think is beautiful. But most people don’t know that authenticity is a phrase comes from Heidegger, and that he means own this owning of one, like possession. And so to me, it’s like authenticity is responsibility. There is no distinction almost between the two.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:20:21) – And I think that’s kind of the link that we’re missing. But hopefully people will see responsibility and authenticity in the same light because they offer you the same things.

Jonathan Fields (00:20:31) – Yeah, I agree, hopefully. So when somebody is in the throes of the experience of self loss, it’s got to affect them. What in your practice, in your experience, what do you see as sort of the most recognizable consequences of how the experience of self loss manifests in people’s lives?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:20:50) – Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s so diverse and so vast. I would say often I’ll have clients who, when you ask them a question, will go, I don’t know, I don’t know. And then you’ll kind of, okay. Do you really not know? Do you not have access to the knowledge? Do you not have you not practice? Have you not tried or do you genuinely not know? And it’s interesting to see people who feel lost. It can be something really profound where you’re like, I don’t know what my meaning in life is.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:21:19) – Then you can ask them really concrete question like, how did you feel in this moment? They’ll go, I don’t know. And I think the not knowing of self is really fascinating because it’ll come out in phrases. And then the other way that I see it manifest is relationships. This is such a huge one. They have a really hard time having healthy relationships or maintaining relationships, but that’s because who is the other person having a relationship with? It’s really difficult. If you don’t know who you are, your partner is going to struggle to know who you are. You’re going to struggle to find the right partner that aligns with your values and morals and wants and preferences. If you don’t know who that person is. And so I think relationships are often a really strong indication. And then there’s, you know, body when individuals come in and they just absolutely hate their body. I think sometimes that’s an indication of self loss. Just because I have never met someone who hated their body and love themselves. And I always say that, you know, and I think that’s because your body is the self.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:22:27) – Your body is not just something you possess, it’s also who you are. And I think there’s a lot of philosophy out there that divides the two and actually makes that relationship quite contentious. And I think, you know, we now have the entertainment industry and social media that makes people treat their bodies like tools and projects and property. And when they mistreat their bodies, what they’re making it impossible to do is create a sense of self that’s holistic and that’s really representative of who they are. And so there are just so many ways that self loss manifests. And again, it’s not pathological. I’m never saying like it should be in the DSM. I’m saying it’s a human experience that’s quite painful that we don’t have vocabulary for. And there needs to be addressed with the with a degree of seriousness because he has pretty serious consequences. And so I think it manifests in many ways.

Jonathan Fields (00:23:22) – As you’re describing some of this, a picture popped into my eyes, actually a memory from quite a long time ago. Many years ago, I found myself on a dive boat in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and we were living out there for a week, and one night we went night diving.

Jonathan Fields (00:23:39) – It was a new moon, so there was no light anywhere. It was pitch black out. And when you dive, you have a vest that you sort of you weight and inflate, so you’re neutrally buoyant. You’re not floating up or down. You’re just sort of like wherever you push yourself, you go. And we dropped into the water and we each had flashlights or torches. And in the middle of me being there, the only orientation that you had was the flashlight kind of showing you which we where the reef was, what was down or pointing up, where you could kind of see the glimmer against the top of the water. My light went out, so all I had was pitch black. I didn’t know what was up. I didn’t know what was down, what was sideways. I couldn’t feel anything around me. And the experience of that to me was abject terror. Because it was just like, I don’t know what move I need to make right now to find my way. That is a dramatic version, but it sounds like that’s kind of what people would experience to a certain extent when you’re talking about self loss.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:24:39) – Oh my gosh. Yeah. I think actually the metaphor I use in describing the book is so similar to what you just described. And it’s pure terror. It’s staring at the void. It’s it’s acknowledging you have to do something and not knowing what to do. And I think we always talk about different types of threats. What we never talk about is the existential threat. There’s so many people that are alive but not truly living or not truly existing. And I think that terror that you felt and described so well, I think that’s why you feel in those moments were like, okay, life becomes this black void and you have no idea where to move. And you also understand that you are quite literally threatened. And so many of us have this kind of existential death while still being alive. And that’s a really, really scary place to be. Yeah.

Jonathan Fields (00:25:35) – I’m wondering also, is there a flip side to this? You know, if you study eastern philosophy, for example, a common thread across almost every eastern tradition is the pursuit of exercises, practices, paths that effectively help you to liberate yourself from that sense of self.

Jonathan Fields (00:25:58) – And so it’s almost like self loss is positioned as an aspiration, and that there’s a certain freedom that comes from non grasping to a very rigid or defined sense of identity, that if you can stand in that place, if you can allow yourself to be in that place, that there’s a spaciousness and expansiveness of freedom, that is almost described as bliss. In fact, like samadhi, like in Sanskrit, translates to bliss, which is the aspiration of that path. I’m curious whether you see are there benefits of being or experiencing a state of self loss?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:26:38) – So fascinating. I think there is a sense of being uninhibited when you’re lost in terms of you get to experience things almost for the first time, you get to entertain ideas you haven’t entertained. You don’t have these preconceived ideas and beliefs, perhaps, or values or morals that you’re grasping on to so tightly, and you might feel so lost that it could be overwhelming because of the freedom. But also it can be the beginning of the creation of self now, because essentialism is probably the opposite of what you’re describing.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:27:16) – I do think that there is similarities in terms of I don’t think the self is static. I don’t think you find yourself. I don’t like that phrase. That’s a passive phrase that believes your sense of self was already created and given to you, and all you do is grasp it, and either you fail to do so or you don’t. I like you create your sense of self, which is an ongoing experience. And for me, it’s malleable. It’s fluid. It’s constantly emerging from your experiences, from your interactions, from the things that you’re learning. And so I don’t know how I would compare it to eastern philosophy in that sense, but I think both are looking from your description. It’s like both have a sense of fluidity and freedom and they’re not constrained by it. But I think in existentialism, it’s an ongoing thing that you’re constantly creating and taking responsibility for, for molding and evolving as you experience different things in your life. And so if you go, this is who I am now, and then you live 15 years and you didn’t bother to create your sense of self, to evolve your sense of self to start acting like this person here in this reality.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:28:28) – And you’re still acting like you’re in college because that was authentic when you were in college. That’s the problem. And so I do think that there is freedom in how much play we can have with it and how, yes, you might make a mistake. And then you can also use that same power to make here. Right. And then you can experiment with who you are. And I think when we do something we all have an idea of who we are. So maybe we’re like, I’m so thoughtful and I’m so kind and I’m so patient. And then I see you in the car and someone cuts you off and you’re not so patient and you’re not so kind. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think in that moment we have two options. We can either change our perception of ourselves and go, okay, maybe I’m not as kind as I think I am. Right? Because you’re looking for alignment between your thought and your action. So you have to change your thought. You go. Okay, maybe I’m not so kind.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:29:24) – Or you change your action and next time someone cuts you off, you don’t yell, you don’t honk. But what we’re looking for is constantly alignment between your perception of who you are and the feedback you get from the world, depending on how you show up. And so I think that’s why it’s so malleable. And that’s why depending what you experience and if you decide to change your thought or your action, you’re constantly evolving and changing. And I think there’s something really liberating and fun about that.

Jonathan Fields (00:29:51) – Yeah.

Jonathan Fields (00:29:54) – Do you have a sense that so many of us define ourselves in the earlier parts of our lives, and that may go into like 20s and 30s, even in no small part in relation to how others expect us to be. Whether it’s family, whether it’s friend groups, whether and that we’re so concerned about being accepted and complying to the norms of those who we want to be seen as being a part of, that we don’t even really explore in any meaningful way who we are until something happens that kind of shatters that model and forces us to say like, but outside of the expectation of others.

Jonathan Fields (00:30:37) – Who am I, actually?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:30:39) – Oh, yeah. So it’s a wonderful question. Absolutely. I think a lot of us want to belong, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an innate human need desire. I think we need to stop shaming each other for wanting to belong. But I think you get to choose who you want to belong to. And that’s where your power is. Do you want to belong to someone who will actually see you for you, who will give you the space and the freedom to experiment with who you are and to grow and evolve? Or do you want to belong to a group of people that have a very distinct expectation of how you need to show up? And I think when we’re in our 20s, I mean, we’re all belonging to each other and no one knows who they are. And it’s a really neat kind of experience. But I think part of the problem is that we confuse our roles as our identity. And so we’ll take on one role or two roles and then be like, that’s just who I am.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:31:36) – It’s like, no, that’s part of who you are. That is how you’re showing up in the world, but you’re also so much more. So if you’re in college and you play sports, you’re like, I’m a jock. And if you’re, you know, in chem, you’re like, I’m an intellectual. Like, and that’s fine. That can be a part of you. But I think we get so attached to our roles, and roles come with a lot of expectations. And I think sometimes we just need to zoom back and go, like, there are a bunch of roles in my life. What are all the roles that I am participating in? What are all the expectations? Which ones align, which ones don’t? And I think this is where we need to be a little more careful with what roles we take on as time goes on. And you’re right, like so many of us do, what’s necessary. And then a crisis hits and either you experience something traumatic or you became a mother or father, or, you know, you lost your job, or you’re relocating and something is plucking you away from your normal context and putting you in a different one.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:32:34) – And that’s when we usually recognize the lostness, because when we’re in the routine, it’s so hard to notice that we’re lost because we’re an autopilot. And I think it’s usually with like a big shift that is asking us to to ground in ourselves or protect ourselves, that we realize that we’re not actually sure who that is.

Jonathan Fields (00:32:55) – Do you have a sense then when somebody hits that moment, maybe it’s a slow awakening, maybe it’s an actual something that happens, and in that moment, it’s almost like you didn’t know that you had lost yourself along the way until you’re plucked out of that scenario and you’re forced to really take a look at who you are and what matters, and that oftentimes that’s the moment where you’re like, I really don’t know. I don’t know what I care about. I don’t know what I’m passionate about. I don’t know what I love, I don’t know who I am without being in relation to this other person or group or a company or organization, and I really want to figure it out.

Jonathan Fields (00:33:34) – And, and you offer some great ideas and insights, but to a certain extent, it sounds like we’re also experiencing a death. Yeah, a death that maybe has actually been unfolding for years or decades without us paying attention to it. But then something happens, and we have to recognize there was either a sense of self that was born earlier, that is now no longer here, or it was never there. But there’s got to be this experience of grief that comes along with that realization that we have to grapple with, along with figuring out how do we actually figure out, like, what is myself?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:34:06) – Yeah, there is so much grief and so much loss. And it’s, you know, this is not something I’ve written about in my book, but it came out in my research really prominently. And that was the feeling of death. A lot of people experienced in self loss, like they would be like, I felt like I was dying, I felt like I was drowning, I felt like I was being set on fire.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:34:26) – Like people would use these vocabulary like their death, like they’re describing their death when they’re talking about self loss. And I think I didn’t make the book super dark, so I did didn’t quite go there yet. Book two. But it is fascinating. And I think there is a grieving because maybe you never knew who you were. Maybe that sense of self was never constructed and maybe was in you lost it, but in the end, it’s kind of irrelevant because the you’re in this situation of self loss, I think. What makes health law so painful is the fact that most of us have participated in it. We are the reason why it unfolded the way that it did. And I think there was willingness, even if it was passive and somewhat accidental. There was still, you know, we made those decisions. That was our responsibility. And I think that’s really difficult when we’re grieving who we were or the fact we never knew who we were. I think we’re also grieving the way that we’ve treated ourselves.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:35:23) – I see this with my clients all the time where for them, the hardest thing to forgive or to grieve is how they treated themselves, how they’ve allowed themselves to be so lost. And I think we just need to have so much compassion in situations like that. But I also understand it’s different to go, okay, this person caused my pain than to go. This person pushed me. But then I decided to also do x, Y, and Z, which led to this pain. And so I think the part is where the shock is. And then we get this kind of sense of distrust, which is dangerous. Let me go. I can’t trust myself. I can’t protect myself. I can’t rely on my intuition. And then we spiral. It’s almost to an extent when there is a big event that causes self loss, that’s almost easier for us to understand and grapple with. Then when it’s quiet and almost passive and gradual, and it’s kind of an erosion of self that occurs over years, and then you go, okay, how did this happen? And you realize it was just, you know, the fact that you didn’t pack the extra batteries when you went underwater, you know, it’s something like that.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:36:35) – We were like, wow, I made small decisions that I didn’t think were important. That now led to this really terrifying consequence.

Jonathan Fields (00:36:44) – I would imagine you see this a lot also in parents that on the one hand, it’s got to be almost like disconcerting too, because on the one hand, you’re stepping into this new identity and there’s no training for that. There’s no you just you wake up every day, you’re rolling with it and you’re figuring out like, how do I step into this new identity? Or part of me that is like playing, like playing the parent, and maybe you love it and you’re passionate about it, and it’s such an enriching part of your life. And at the same time, I wonder if the deeper you get into that, there is more opportunity for that to pull you further away from an essence that existed there before that you become increasingly estranged from, and then at some point start to mourn that loss. As much as you may be joyful about, like the fact that you have a wonderful family and kids, and that’s got to be just such a complex set of feelings to deal with.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:37:41) – So complex. I kind of wish that people warned parents about it. You know, like when you become a parent, it’s either going to feel like another additional beautiful form of self expression, or it’s going to feel like a threat. And sometimes you don’t know until you’re in it already. And I think even if you do think it’s a beautiful form of self expression yourself is how you act. I’ve kind of alluded to this. There is no self without your actions. You can’t just think about yourself and that’s that self actualization. Your actions create the self. And so I think what happens is because all our actions or actions of parents become about the child and the role of a mother or father or a caregiver, they then start to see themselves purely as that one thing, and the rest of it is lost. And I think it’s because all their actions and the way they’re expressing the self is all towards one particular role. And I think one of the best things to do is to I mean, this is so hard and people talk about it all the time.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:38:47) – It’s the most cliche, but it’s like, make sure you still do things that represent you that are outside of parenting. And that’s such a simple advice. It’s actually quite difficult to implement when you’re that busy and overwhelmed, but I think it’s actually preserving your sense of self, of like allowing you to still feel like you. Because again, becoming just the role of a parent will never represent you holistically. And I think the more the longer we do it, we’ll start losing connection with any other part of us that that was there, that could be there. Because all we’re focusing on is something external and parenting is beautiful, but it is external, you know? And we tell people like, don’t get lost in your romantic relationships. Make sure you have a relationship with yourself. Yeah. Also in parenting and I understand the first year you need to keep them alive. Like this is this is really important. But, you know, whenever your gaze is constantly external, that’s, I think, what can threaten the internal connection if you’re not paying attention long enough after 2 or 3 years of being a really great parent.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:39:53) – You’re not going to know who you are if you haven’t taken the time to internally look at yourself.

Jonathan Fields (00:39:58) – So let’s talk a little bit about that process. Let’s say for whatever reason, you find yourself in a moment in life where you realize you’re like, I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what direction to turn to or what to think about, what to do to start to figure it out. And I really do want to figure this out, because the way that I’m feeling right now, I don’t want to keep feeling how does somebody start to take action in that moment?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:40:26) – I think about it as dating, um, in terms of, remember going on a first date regardless if that was yesterday or 50 years ago, but what you do is you become hyper observant. You’re like, they grazed my arm. Was it on purpose? Was it an accident? Their feet are they you know, they’re facing me in my direction. Okay. They laughed. They seem funny. They asked a thoughtful question.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:40:52) – Okay. I feel like they believe this about money or politics or whatever it is. And what we’re doing is we’re just observing and taking it in and trying to make sense of it. And we’re so interested because we were so infatuated. And that’s kind of the intensity with which I think we should approach ourselves. It’s like, okay, I keep crossing my arms when I’m in this meeting. Is this an accident or is it not? Is my body language an accident? Okay, I keep feeling this or I’m not feeling anything. And I think it’s observing ourselves. A good question that I like to ask and get people to journal about is what did I learn about myself? The reason you do that is because implicitly, what I’m asking you is observe and acknowledge first of all, or else you won’t be able to answer that question. And then every day your awareness will build on itself. And, you know, I break it down to mental, emotional and physical in my book. And for example, for me during my self loss, the number one thing this suffered was my emotionality, my my ability to tap into my emotions.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:41:58) – I think that from a really young age, I went into self-preservation. There was no self exploration, self-awareness. There was no space for that within those couple of years of tension. And then while I was going through my teenage years in my early 20s, I forgot that I was no longer under threat and maybe not forgotten. That’s what trauma does. I still thought I was threatened and I still had to just survive. And for a long time I was just surviving. And so what? I was not sitting there journaling about my feelings. I was like, do I have money for tuition? Am I getting good grades? Will I get a scholarship? And, you know, I had manifestations of her quote unquote admirable. But all I was trying to do was make sure that I was okay and I was going to survive. Looking back, that was my form of survival. And so I think for me, I was so disconnected that if you ask me how I was feeling, I wouldn’t really be able to tell you.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:42:57) – So that’s where I started. And, you know, now I do these exercises where I ask people to put a timer for like seven seconds, and then I’d be like, okay, in seven seconds, write down four emotions you’re feeling right now. A lot of people can’t do that. Or four seconds. One emotion you’re feeling. A lot of people struggle to do that, and that’s because we’re not constantly having the inner dialogue. And this back and forth of like, what am I feeling in? So many of us feel so many things at once, and we’re just not taught how to access it. And so for me, my journey started with like, what am I feeling? How am I going to use that as a messenger rather than a threat? How am I not going to allow my emotions to dictate my actions and still validate them? And so it was a lot of emotion, like work around emotions for other individuals. It’s a lot about, you know, their beliefs and habits and more.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:43:52) – The mental decluttering, what are the things they need to let go of, the narratives they need to let go of so they can make space to construct the narratives that actually will serve them. And then, you know, the body. So I think if you’re listening, what area do you feel the most disconnected? Because we all feel disconnected to varying degrees to all three. And that’s so normal. And sometimes it’s really overwhelming to go work on all three, like your body and your mind and your. And it’s like, if you had a hierarchy, what would it you know, what would it sound like? And for me was emotions, body, the mind. And so I felt the most disconnected from my emotional inner self. And so that’s what I started working on. And then eventually stumbled upon my body and was like, okay, the fact that I don’t know where these bruises come from is a sign that I’m not paying attention. You know, I slammed into something pretty freaking hard. If I have a giant bruise, how do I not remember that? Like, why was my instinct not to pay attention and honor my body and see what he needed and.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:44:53) – Acknowledge the pain that it was going through, you know. And so I think, why do I? I started to not watch TV or be on my phone when I’m eating lunch for many reasons, part because I should learn to be bored once again. I think that’s a good feeling. But also it’s like, how about you engage with your body, with the taste and the smell and the signals of like, does that feel right for you to not feel right for you, you know, dancing, whatever you want to do. But it was like learning what my body was trying to communicate, getting my body seat at the table, understanding that what he had to say was just as important as what my mind and my heart had to say. And so, you know, it depends where you’re at. I would get a little hierarchy going, pick that thing, be intentional about it, see how you can really connect to that part of yourself and then work your way down.

Jonathan Fields (00:45:44) – Yeah, that’s so interesting to sort of set up those three like mind, body, emotion and then ask yourself like some version of where do I feel? What’s my relative sense of connection to each of these three? What do I feel most disconnected to or connected to and kind of start there? It sounds like what you’re describing is really you just basically you just run a series of experiments, but you don’t do things just to do them at the same time.

Jonathan Fields (00:46:09) – You do them and then you inquire into them and you basically say, how is that making me feel? What is this telling me about myself that I didn’t know before? So it’s not even about like, oh, I’m going to go on a date like, this date has to succeed. I hope it works. It’s more like, I’m just going to do this because I want to see what it’s going to tell me about myself. And that to a certain extent, it’s almost like it lets the takes the pressure off, striving for any outcomes with any of these things that you’re doing, because it’s just the only thing that your metric is just learning. Like, did it teach me something about myself?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:46:40) – I love that, and I love that for dates. That’s advice I give cleanse all the time. It’s like instead of sitting there and being like, is it going to work? Do they like me? What did I learn about themselves? Like, think about what you’re learning about who you are as you’re on this date.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:46:54) – And I think that’s a really fun reframe. And I think the creation of self is trial and error, you know, and I think that that’s great. And I use Julia Roberts as an example, I don’t know, in the book with like she someone who used in the movie Runaway Bride used to eat eggs depending on who she was dating and what that their favorite eggs were. So she would pretend that it was boiled or scrambled or whatever, and that those were her favorite eggs, when in reality it was just the eggs of the person she was dating. And that’s how they like them. And there’s a scene in the movie where she realizes that she’s doing this. I’m trying to make this story shorter, and I made it longer. And the point is, she goes home and makes like eight different types of eggs in her dining room table. Sitting there gets a spoon and starts eating and tasting because she goes, okay, I pretended for so long to like these types of eggs, I actually don’t know what I want.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:47:50) – So I’m going to sit here, I’m going to taste it, I’m going to figure it out. And I think that’s such a profound example. It’s so simple and kind of silly, but it’s the best. It’s like, that’s what you need to do with life sometimes. Grab a spoon, start tasting things and figure out, does this align? Is this who I want to be? Does this work for me? Does this not work for me? Do I like it? Do I not like it? And stop putting so much pressure to just no, because I think some things just need to be experienced before you can figure out, okay, I would do that again. I would not do that again. That choice was okay. That choice, you know, should have looked a little different. And I’m creating my sense of self in a very deliberate, intentional way. And so I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to be human or to even be yourself. I think there has to be a sense of playfulness that comes with it, because it is.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:48:42) – The world is absurd. So. So say, if you believe the world is a little absurd, then just kind of have fun with it and enjoy the mess that comes with, you know, creating your sense of self.

Jonathan Fields (00:48:54) – And I love that you basically just given me permission to go and ask to taste every flavor of ice cream next time. I mean, like the local ice cream store.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:49:02) – Oh my god, please be like I’m figuring out my authentic self. I, like.

Jonathan Fields (00:49:05) – Sarah, told me to do it. It’s okay. I’m trying to discover I’m fine. I’m reassembling myself. It’s all good.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:49:11) – Should we start a trend? I think we should start a trend where people like go and experience a food, a type of food, a bunch of it, to figure out what they like. Okay, I think we should do this social media goal.

Jonathan Fields (00:49:23) – I think this is going to be like a new club, a new like a new challenge, the social media challenge.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:49:28) – I love it.

Jonathan Fields (00:49:29) – Food for identity.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:49:31) – Oh my gosh. Yes.

Jonathan Fields (00:49:32) – It occurs to me also that that one of the things that we’re really talking about here, without naming it is, is the scale of awareness. Because we can run all these experiments, we can try all these different things. Unless we cultivate the skill of being aware of what it’s telling us. It’s kind of it’s all for naught. Do you have I mean, I have a long standing my. On this practice, which has been just so helpful to me in cultivating that skill on a regular basis. But I feel like a lot of us walk through life on much more autopilot, without a sense of scanning and inquiring into. Do you have a sense for sort of like an easy first step into cultivating the skill of awareness?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:50:13) – A hard question. The reason why I think it’s a hard question is because I think the number one, maybe I don’t want to be that grandiose, but a huge obstacle to self awareness is lack of safety. It doesn’t feel safe enough to see the truth.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:50:30) – It doesn’t feel safe enough to see the reality because you don’t think you can handle it, because you will require change. And you know, as a therapist, you’ll encounter clients sometimes where you’re like, I think, you know, I have an example where I had a hunch that something happened to the client. They didn’t want to they didn’t talk about it. And until they build enough sense of inner safety, they didn’t admit to themselves, not to me. Had nothing to do with it. With me, it was they went, oh my God, that was traumatic. Like they weren’t ready to admit that reality and be aware of that reality until they felt safe enough that they can handle the burden that it comes with and the pain that it comes with. And I think so many of us want to push self awareness, which, by the way, I think is like the foundation of every change. So I’m one of those people. But I think we also have to be so careful because if there’s no safety, self awareness can be quite painful and traumatic and cause a lot of damage.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:51:27) – The person needs to be needs to have the skills and their inner safety to face their truth. That’s something I talk about in the book. So, you know, I think self awareness is great in terms of you can do little journaling questions of like what was the dominant like thought I had, what was an emotion that kind of ran through the day? How is my body feeling really scanning and starting with the basic three, I think components we were talking about. But like a little question for each to to start getting that awareness. But I think more than that it’s working on safety. Do you trust yourself? If you were to face something that was really painful, do you think that you can handle it? If the answers are no, I think then the shift has to be on safety before self awareness, and I think that that’s a step we don’t talk about enough.

Jonathan Fields (00:52:20) – Yeah, that’s such an important point and I would imagine a part of that. If the answer is no I don’t feel safe enough, is do I feel like I can cultivate that quality myself, or would it really help me to be better resource to go and find somebody who can help me through this? Who can you, whether it’s a friend, family or qualified mental health professional, because we’re not all capable of just everyone’s been through a lot of different things, and a lot of times we need help in creating that.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:52:49) – Yeah, absolutely. And I love that it’s okay to ask for support. And so many of us need it. And, you know, and this is kind of chicken or the egg, but most of us will just pay attention to all the times you made the wrong calls or made the mistakes you know, or things you regret. Sometimes I’ll get people to just write down like, what are the choices you made that were actually good because they don’t think about them. And I think sometimes it’s just about being aware of all the times you showed up for yourself and all the times you created safety. And sometimes we do need someone else to ask us that question. But you know, if you’re someone who’s not feeling super comfortable and super trusting of yourself right now, I think maybe writing a little list of like, when are all the times I showed up for myself? When are all the times I protected myself that can be really helpful to like, read over every day as you’re working in your self awareness, just so that you have that life jacket on as you’re like jumping off the boat.

Jonathan Fields (00:53:48) – Yeah, I love those suggestions and I love just planting the seed of awareness and safety as this dual exploration, because I kind of have to go along hand in hand for it to be effective and not potentially even like dysfunctional or deepening into something that paralyzes or worse, zooming the lens out. I think it’s such an important moment for us to be exploring this sense of self, this sense of self loss, in the sense of self recreation or exploration, discovery and the way that you tee it up is like, yeah, there are big issues here. But at the same time, what if we could step into this from within a matter of just like childlike curiosity, almost like, you know, like a stance of wonder, a stance of play, like, what if this was just something that we got to explore, not that we had to explore? And what would I do and what choices would I make if that was a way I was stepping into it. So it feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation.

Jonathan Fields (00:54:45) – So in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:54:51) – And it’s going to sound so cliche.

Sara Kuburic, PhD (00:54:52) – Because of our conversation. But I think a life that you own, a life that’s yours, life that you possess. I think a good life is a life that that is yours. And so even if you make a mistake and you go, but that was my mistake. And, you know, it’s like, okay, but that was my regret, okay? That was my relationship. I think there’s something so beautiful. And I think a good life is not a perfect life, but it’s a life that belongs to you.

Jonathan Fields (00:55:18) – Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode safe, bet you’ll also love the conversation we had with Nedra Glover. Talk about how boundaries affect our sense of self. You’ll find a link to Node.js episode in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields.

Jonathan Fields (00:55:38) – Editing help by Alejandro Ramirez, Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelly Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.

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