“What’s the light that will guide you out of your own tangled woods—both the woods ‘out there’ in the world and the ones ‘in here,’ inside your own mind?”—Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, chances are you’ve gazed at or even found your way by using the North Star, otherwise known as Polaris, the Pole Star, or the Lodestar. Although the North Star isn’t technically the brightest star in our solar system, with some know-how, it can be located quickly, as it sits at the end of the hand of the Little Dipper constellation.
The North Star is exceptional for several reasons. For one, it appears to stay steadfast as a fixed point in the sky as other stars circle it. Second, it’s almost exactly aligned with the earth’s axis. This means that if you venture further north, it will appear to ascend higher in the sky. At the North Pole, the North Star is visible directly overhead.
These qualities have made the North Star a well-known beacon and navigation tool. It provided nighttime guidance for slaves escaping to northern states and Canada before the end of the Civil War. To locate the North Star, the slaves looked for two stars on the edge of the cup of the Big Dipper (what they referred to as the “Drinking Gourd”) first. These two stars directly point to the North Star on the Little Dipper.
Due to its powerful history as a navigation tool, the North Star has also captured the collective imagination as a symbol for personal growth. Just as the literal North Star provides direction and helps us stay on course, so does our inner North Star. It’s our inner compass; the part of us that knows our passion, purpose, and life direction.
According to psychologist and best-selling author Rick Hanson, Ph.D., “When you find your North Star, you know where you’re headed. That alone feels good. Plus, your North Star is (presumably) wholesome and vital, so aiming toward it will bring more and more happiness and benefit to yourself and others. And you can dream bigger dreams and take more chances in life since if you lose your way, you’ve got a beacon to home in on.”
North Stars are unique for everyone, and only you truly hold the knowledge of what yours are. Some examples of North Stars are fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a pediatric nurse or traveling to Asia, committing to a spiritual path of becoming a more compassionate person, or creating a documentary about a topic you are passionate about. When Hanson inquired into his own North Star, the answers he got were “truth,” followed by “love.” As you can see from these examples, North Stars can be concrete (i.e., realizing a life goal, following through on a cherished dream or project, developing a talent or skill, working toward an ideal career) or more abstract (i.e., cultivating a personal quality; exploring a principle or way of being). (More about how to recognize your North Star in the How to Know When Your Compass Is Pointing North section below.)
Hanson adds that it’s possible to have several North Stars and for them to change over time. For example, you may have a longstanding dream of becoming a yoga teacher, as well as a yearning to return to your teenage passion of photography. While you will likely not know exactly where pursuing these things will take you, Hanson emphasizes the importance of following your current North Star(s). Let your North Star(s) as you currently identify them guide you and trust that the process will take you where you need to go.
If you already feel connected to and are following your inner North Star—great! But what if you don’t? What if you feel confused or stuck? What if you thought you were pursuing your North Star but then other things took over and it became low priority? What if what you decided was your North Star isn’t really feeling like it anymore? Or what if you have already followed your North Star to satisfaction but feel the calling to find another one? Whether you’re already following your North Star or still looking for it, there are several inspiring and surprisingly specific ways to work with this symbol to create more meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in your life.
Our Inner Navigation Tools: The Essential and Social Selves
In her book Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, sociologist, best-selling author, and coach Martha Beck, Ph.D., writes that we innately have “compasses” in our brain and body that can steer us toward our North Star. According to Beck, two of the most powerful pieces of navigation equipment we have to guide ourselves to our true purpose are our essential self and social self.
The essential self is your basic personality, including your likes, deep longings, emotional reactions, and personal identity. Conversely, the social self is the part of you that forms as a result of the expectations, pressures, and norms of other people in your life—from your nuclear family to the culture at large. According to Beck, both of these selves are important and form an interdependent system that helps us to move forward in life—when they’re working together harmoniously.
“The essential self contains several sophisticated compasses that continuously point toward your North Star. The social self is the set of skills that actually carry you toward this goal,” she writes. For example, your essential self longs to learn violin and play in an ensemble; your social self signs up for violin lessons.
But what happens when these two systems aren’t working harmoniously and regularly communicating with each other? Beck explains that many people live from the social self at the expense of the essential self, and actually put others in the captain’s seat when it comes to steering their life direction. As you can imagine, this can lead people very off course from their North Star: the miserable student struggling through medical school who finally admits it’s his parents’ dream and not his own; the woman who realizes in midlife that her husband’s expectation for her to not work leaves her feeling unfulfilled and bored.
There can be many reasons for feeling a pervasive sense of imbalance and unhappiness in life (including but not limited to trauma). However, Beck says that long-term feelings of “discontent, anxiety, frustration, anger, boredom, numbness, or despair” may also be clues that your social and essential selves are not synced.
At its core, the work of finding and moving closer toward one’s North Star is a matter of reconnecting the essential and social selves. Like a satellite, the essential self is continually transmitting signals. However, the signals themselves won’t plot your path to fulfillment if they’re not received, decoded, or implemented. That’s where the social self comes in—it’s like a sophisticated computer program that can translate the essential self’s signals into useful, actionable information. To help with the reconnection process, Beck’s book has self-tests, exercises, tools, anecdotes, and a map detailing the life transition change cycle (highlights in the Tips section at the end).
“Identifying your own North Star is a deep psychological and spiritual art. Actually getting there is more like following a recipe.”—Martha Beck, Ph.D.
How to Know When You’ve Fallen Astray
In this age of overwork and overstimulation, it might feel a bit confusing to figure out how close you are to your North Star. Every day you might check items off your to-do list, which can certainly give a sense of productivity and accomplishment—but how connected are these daily tasks to your North Star? Is there any room in your day to connect to your North Star? Maybe it hasn’t even felt like there’s been a moment to pause and ask that question.
According to Hanson, “Everyday life is entangling. It’s so easy to get caught up in routines and obligations that gradually take over to set the course of your life. It may look goal-directed…but we know inside that there is no deep purpose to it, no fundamental aim that gives clarity, meaning, and richness. Then life starts to feel hollow, more about getting through than getting to.”
So what are some clues that you may have fallen astray from your North Star, or that this part of your life needs some loving attention? Hanson describes it above as a feeling of hollowness and drudgery. Beck writes that people experience lack of enthusiasm, boredom, numbness, disconnect from body/emotions, and a pervasive sense of “yearning emptiness” when they’re not on track to their North Star. She cautions that addiction can set in as a way to attempt to temporarily relieve these feelings, resulting in the essential self confusing the addictive behavior or substance with the North Star.
Beck writes that the essential self often sends out distress flares when we’ve wandered off course. This can look the same as unconscious self-sabotage (for instance, flubbing an interview for a job that might look good on your résumé but will likely bore you to tears)—but it’s actually a form of self-preservation; that is, preservation of the essential self.
How to Know When Your Compass Is Pointing North
Now that you have a good sense of how it feels when you’re off course, how do you know how it feels when you’re on track and heading toward your North Star? According to Beck, even when the mind can get mired in confusion and the demands of the social self, the body is often exquisitely in touch with the essential self and responds with energy, vitality, and increased health when North Star–affirming choices are made.
In addition to the body, “emotion is a glorious force that will push you toward your North Star with breathtaking speed and efficiency,” writes Beck. She describes feeling joyful, entranced, and like you’re “falling in love” as clues from the essential self that you’re on the right track. In addition, she reports that experiencing increased intuition and synchronicities are also signs of being on course to your North Star.
“Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.”—Richard Nelson Bolles
Nine Tips for Finding and Deepening Your Connection to Your North Star
See the tips below for some inspiration to support the process.
1.) Stargaze (literally!). Spend time outside looking at the North Star. As psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said, “If you put yourself into the icon, the icon will speak to you.” In other words, connecting with the North Star visually and viscerally can stimulate emotional insight. Further, spending time under the stars has been shown to be beneficial for your sleep-wake rhythms and psychological well being. Also, experiencing the state of awe while looking at something as vast as the night sky can pique your sense of curiosity, increase feelings of generosity and goodwill towards others, and decrease stress.
2.) Get curious. Ask “What’s my North Star?” or “What’s the most important thing?” and take note of what answers come. According to Hanson, answers can take several forms, such as body sensations, single words, or images. If responses come in the form of images, you can take it a step further by dialoguing with them.
3.) Ask for guidance. If you feel confused in a situation, ask how your North Star would guide you through it, says Hanson. Write down what comes out in a journal and reflect on the answers. When done regularly, journaling has been demonstrated to improve immunity, decrease depression and anxiety, and encourage a fresh perspective.
4.) Make joy a priority in your life. “Putting joyful activities into every nook and cranny of your day is a great way to start toward your North Star,” writes Beck. When we infuse our daily lives with things that bring us joy, however large or small—be it kayaking, wearing plaid, playing Vivaldi while cooking dinner, planting vegetables, listening to flamenco guitar, or watching dogs play at the dog park—it gives us a potent jolt of energy and happiness. This, in turn, can be used as fuel for life, love, and work.
5.) Break it down. Once you identify your North Star(s), it will almost always take a considerable amount of dedication and work to get there. To stay on course, Beck advises breaking overwhelming goals down into small “turtle steps,” or easy steps that your essential self can do. This is akin to the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, which advocates breaking down tasks into the smallest, most manageable steps possible as an antidote to procrastination and paralyzing fear. For example, if your dream is to write a novel but you freeze every time you sit down to write, task yourself with writing for exactly 1 minute every day for a week. This creates a feeling of accomplishment and makes it easier to start taking steps toward creating a writing habit.
6.) Regularly recommit to your North Star(s) when you wake up in the morning, recommends Hanson. This can be as simple as writing your North Star(s) down in a journal (or even printing them out on stationery and framing it) and having a daily morning ritual of reading them aloud, which helps to encode your words more deeply into your memory.
7.) Play. As you’re working to reach your North Star, it’s imperative to take regular play breaks. It might seem counterintuitive, but scheduling periodic play breaks in the day actually boosts productivity, work performance, focus, problem-solving abilities, and creativity.
8.) Challenge yourself. When pursuing your North Star, it’s important to challenge yourself by learning new skills, trying new things, and studying new topics. For example, take up studying a martial art or learning a new language. Learning new things has been shown to keep your mind and memory sharp, as well as your creativity flowing and your learning abilities on point (all essential when cultivating your life purpose).
9.) Find support. “Despite our individualistic culture’s pretense that we can all build our dreams by our little lonesome, the truth is that we must have social support to do something as audacious as finding our own North Stars,” writes Beck. Reach out to friends and family, find an accountability buddy, work with a therapist or life coach, or join or start a group to ensure you get the support you need.
The North Star is not only an exceptional celestial body; it’s a symbol for your deepest calling(s) in life. By tuning into the messages of the essential self, which are most often transmitted through the body and emotions, the social self can then be utilized to carry out the tasks necessary to steer yourself northward. By recognizing when you are and aren’t on track, and by using tools such as making time for joy; play; mindful, goal-oriented work; and reflection, you can move closer to living a fuller life in alignment with your passion and purpose.
About This Contributor: Chiara Viscomi, MA, LMFT (MFC #104851) is a practicing licensed marriage and family therapist in California. She received her master’s in counseling psychology with a certificate in creative expression at Sofia University (formerly known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). Prior to that, Chiara received a BA in psychology and a BFA in drama at the Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is passionate about expressive arts therapy, depth psychology, transpersonal psychology, and integrative approaches to wellness. In addition to her clinical work, Chiara is a longtime professional writer and editor in the healthcare field, as well as a musician and performing artist.
To find out more about her approach to psychotherapy, visit www.lapishealingarts.com.