How To Live In Your Truth: The Difference Between Personal Values And Social Conditioning

To live in your truth can mean a lot of different things. Intuitively, you know that state. You can feel it when it happens.

But to put it into words can be hard. Based on the changing circumstances, living in your truth may manifest in several ways:

  • Making decisions based on love rather than fear;
  • Saying no when you mean no, and yes when you mean yes;
  • Living according to your values;
  • Sourcing your sense of power and self-worth from within;
  • Prioritizing self-expression over the fear of judgment;
  • Honoring your gut feeling and intuition alongside analytical thinking;
  • Seeing your thoughts, feelings and beliefs as temporary experiences, and not who you are.

Living in your truth may sound serious and philosophical. In reality, it usually manifests through the little things in your life. How you make everyday decisions often shows whether or not you’re being true to yourself.

For example, when a friend asks you for a favor and you’re barely managing your own tasks, what do you do? Do you drop everything and run to them, risking that your own needs won’t be met? Or, are you able to refuse in a kind, compassionate way?

When you’re deciding what to wear to a social gathering, how do you choose your outfit? Are you going to wear what “you’re supposed to” for this occasion? Or, will you dress the way which makes you comfortable?

When you make such small choices, they may seem insignificant. You may think that they don’t impact your life. But even if one individual choice doesn’t change much, together, they add up.

Besides, as the popular adage says, how you do anything is how you do everything.

Each little action either brings you closer to or away from living in your truth. It’s important to find out how your truth looks and feels like. This way, you can start reinforcing those behaviors and mindsets that align with your true self.

But first, it’s helpful to understand why we struggle to embrace our truth so much. After all, shouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world?

What It Means To Live In Your Truth

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to live in your truth. When I graduated from university, I simply… didn’t know what my truth was.

What I knew too well were the limiting beliefs, fears and societal demands that were driving my behavior. On the one hand, I desperately wanted to fit in and “be successful.” Having a well-paid job and validation from my family and peers was something I thought I needed to be happy.

At the same time, a part of me didn’t want to do things the easy way. I didn’t want to settle for a “whatever career,” just for the sake of security. I thought my life should be about much more than just that.

“What should it be about, then?” — you may ask. Well, I didn’t know back then. Finding my truth required me to go through personal transformation. That was the time in my mid-20s when I lost ground under my feet. I was trying to figure out who I was, outside of my upbringing and social norms.

Many psychologists and researchers talk about the importance of tapping into our “true self” to live a happy and fulfilled life. Each person has a unique set of traits, predispositions and gifts. When you align your life with them, you’re more likely to live a satisfying life.

Kennon M. Sheldon, who’s been researching this topic for decades, looks at a “life true to ourselves” through the lens of the goals we pursue. He calls them “self-concordant” goals. These are the ones we feel “wholehearted about pursuing” because they stem from our true selves.

According to Sheldon:

“To ‘be true to oneself’ is to consciously refer to one’s stable values, motives, and beliefs as one makes decisions, which can be difficult when momentary social influences are insensitive or contradictory to these values and beliefs.” — Kennon M. Sheldon

This is where we arrive at the major obstacle to living in your truth: social conditioning. When your external environment ignores or discourages who you are deep down, being true to yourself is hard.

Over time, you absorb those beliefs and rules that are not “yours.” You start being directed by them to the point of losing the notion of what your true self feels like.

To restore that awareness, you first need to understand how you were conditioned to live by society’s truths and not your own.

Why You Struggle To Live In Your Truth

Each family, community or society has its rules and collective beliefs. Some of them are formally defined — for example, by law. Other are seamlessly integrated into how members of society interact with one another.

These types of rules are necessary for large groups to function and prevent conflict. There’s nothing inherently wrong about them. The problem is that they aren’t always healthy. Many of those rules hinder individual freedom of expression without adding benefit to the whole.

Passing those rules and beliefs from one generation to the next is what refer to as “social conditioning.” It’s the process of imposing them on the individual without acknowledging that they’re arbitrary. Instead, they’re often considered the one “right way” to do things within the collective.

Social conditioning can include rules and beliefs held by society, community or your family. Some most common examples revolve around:

  • forming romantic relationships (e.g. pressure to get married by a certain age),
  • what you need to do to be respected (e.g. working as a lawyer is seen as more prestigious than working as a cleaner),
  • whom you should fear and whom to trust (this can include all kinds of beliefs, from race prejudice to distrusting a person with tattoos).

Social conditioning is often the main force holding you back from living in your truth. When you follow society’s norms before your inner wisdom, you’re more inclined to focus on the external metrics of success, rather than the feeling of fulfilment.

You become absorbed with how others perceive you. And, it’s understandable. It originates in our tribal history when approval of the group was essential for survival.

But the times we live in are different. Nowadays, being too invested in your social conditioning usually leaves you feeling inadequate. You may end up thinking that you’re “too much,” “not enough” — or otherwise unsuited for life.

You already know that such self-limiting beliefs aren’t helpful. But that doesn’t mean social conditioning is easy to let go of. Why do we cling to it so much, even when we know it’s to our detriment?

One reason is that much of our conditioning happens during childhood. This is the period when our brains are extremely malleable. And, at the core, beliefs are well-worn neural pathways in our brains. The pathways which formed when you were little are quite literally “wired” into your neural network.

To replace them with a new set of beliefs — those that are more aligned with your true self — you need to override the old ones. It takes practicing new neural connections over and over, until they become stronger than the previous ones.

This is how you move closer to living in your truth: by encouraging beliefs that are in line with your personal values, rather than your conditioning. These beliefs allow you to:

  • realize that you’re already enough,
  • believe in yourself and your capabilities,
  • see life as an opportunity to grow, rather than as a constant struggle to get by.

No matter where you are in your life journey, it’s possible to develop those beliefs. It’s just a matter of time, doing inner work and building accurate self-knowledge.

On the psychological level, one important thing happens as you move closer to your true self. Two forces within you stop fighting — and start aligning instead.

Namely, your ego meets your soul.

The Journey of Aligning The Ego and The Soul

The journey to living in your truth takes time. Most people need years or even decades to tap into their true selves.

An interesting way to look at it was introduced by Richard Barrett, a British author, thinker and founder of the Barrett Values Centre. He mapped out 7 stages of psychological development that we can all go through in our life. Those stages are connected to the corresponding needs we must satisfy to move forward.

In a way, Barrett’s model is an “upgraded” version of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You can take a look at it below:


Psychological development happens as we move through that pyramid, from bottom to top. Notice that, in the middle, the pyramid reverses. That’s when we enter the “transformation” level of consciousness and “individuating” stage of psychological development. At this point, you have an opportunity to undergo a profound change — i.e. to start living in your truth.

You can look at it as a “rite of passage.” You go from being primarily driven by social conditioning to living according to your values — aka, your true self.

This is also when your ego ceases to be the exclusive force running your life. When personal transformation occurs, your soul begins to have a say, too. Here is how it happens, according to Barrett:

During the first three stages of psychological development — surviving, conforming and differentiating — your focus is on meeting three basic needs: physical survival, belonging, and respect. Barrett calls them deficiency needs. They’re organised around one main goal: self-preservation.

These needs are usually met by listening to your social conditioning. In this part of your life, you’re driven primarily by the ego. You learn how to find a sense of security by avoiding threats and mastering deficiency needs.

Then, at some point in your evolution, you move on to the next stage: tapping into your true self. This process starts at the “individuating” stage of psychological development — and continues all the way into the “serving” stage.

This is when the connection with your soul is restored. According to Barrett, it requires you to surpass social conditioning and move beyond satisfying deficiency needs only. You need to embrace that your soul also has its needs — and figure out how to meet them.

Barrett points to these three as the main needs of the soul:

  1. Finding meaning and purpose,
  2. Making a difference,
  3. Serving.

As you move into the top three levels of the pyramid, your primary focus shifts to satisfying your soul’s needs. Your ego, however, doesn’t disappear. As you live closer and closer to your true self, the ego gradually becomes the servant to the soul — and aligns with it.

Overall, Barrett presents the journey to ego-soul alignment as a linear process. However, he also notes that we can temporarily tap into higher or lower levels of consciousness, depending on what’s currently happening in our lives.

You may switch between living from your soul and your ego. Sometimes, you’ll be guided by personal values and other times, by social conditioning.

But how can you tell the difference between the two?

How To Tell Personal Values From Social Conditioning

Sometimes, it may be tricky to tell what drives you — the soul, or the ego. The difference between personal values and social conditioning can be subtle.

When something makes you uncomfortable, is it because you’re suppressing your true self and being driven by conditioning? Or maybe, you’re about to follow your soul’s calling and that feels scary?

Resistance and discomfort may be signs of living in your truth. As Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art, “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

But sometimes, resistance also has a valuable message to communicate. There are times when you may still need the protection of your ego — for example, to dodge temptations or shield yourself from toxic relationships.

When I was in my odyssey period trying to figure out my truth, I often had trouble discerning my soul’s voice from my conditioning. Over time, I noticed reliable clues that helped me tell the difference.

If at any point you aren’t sure where your thoughts, beliefs or decisions are coming from, do a quick check-in. Use one or more of the signposts below to assess whether you’re living out your values — or being driven by old beliefs.

Whatever you notice, don’t judge yourself. Psychological evolution is a process that takes time. Living from your conditioning may be as valid as living in your truth, depending on the circumstances. Your only job is to notice what you’re doing — and then, move on.

Living in your truth isn’t something you can force anyway. All you can do is observe and facilitate it.

“I have to” vs. “I choose to”

When you’re driven by your conditioning, you often do things to prove your worth. You’re still fighting to meet your deficiency needs of survival, belonging and respect.

This is when you feel like you “have to” do certain things. You can’t see yourself as the person in charge. Events happen to you, and you simply react to them.

From this level of consciousness, you may say: “I have to do the laundry” or “I have to send the report.” The notion of choice isn’t present in your awareness.

When you move closer to living in your truth, this changes. You’re now looking to meet your soul’s needs — the deficiency needs are already mastered. From this place, you’re more likely to say “I choose to do the laundry,” or “I choose to send the report.”

You know that, in the end, you don’t have to do anything. It’s a choice to keep meeting your needs to survive and thrive on this planet. This also means you don’t attach self-worth to the things you do. You see yourself as complete — and nothing you do adds to or subtracts from this realization.

As writer and traveller Gary Snyder said, “Knowing that nothing need be done is where we begin to move from.” When you see everything you do as a choice, not a necessity, you know you’re tapping into your truth.

Avoiding threats vs. embracing opportunities

One measure of how advanced you are in your psychological evolution is whether you expect to see threats or opportunities.

In the first three stages of growth described by Barrett, people are primarily focused on avoiding threats. It makes sense — you’re trying to meet your deficiency needs and preserve yourself. That’s the job of the ego-driven consciousness.

Whenever you see yourself motivated by avoiding threats, this is usually a sign you’re driven by your conditioning. In the past, you were told that to be safe and respected, you needed to follow the rules. Breaking them may seem like a risk you can’t afford.

But when you align with your values, many threats turn into opportunities. It’s a matter of how you interpret the events in your life. The things you were trying to avoid a few years ago may now seem like chances for personal or professional growth.

When things get uncomfortable, you no longer see it as something you need to escape. Living true to yourself gives you confidence that you can handle whatever life throws at you.

When your soul starts directing your life, this puts you in a place of power.

Outcome- vs. process-oriented consciousness

In the self-help world, the slogan to “focus on the journey, not the destination” became popular to the point of trivial. But it has depth to it.

Moreover, it can help you discern when you’re driven by your conditioning — and when your true self is guiding you.

When we live for the approval of others, it’s easy to fall into the outcome-oriented mentality. You know it’s happening whenever you don’t pay attention to the moment. For example, you don’t care about how satisfying your work feels, as long as it grants you a nice 6-figure salary and the applause of your friends.

In other words, your main motivation isn’t how your work makes you feel on the inside. Rather, you put a priority on how it makes you look on the outside.

But when you start making decisions based on your values, this changes. You’re more concerned with the process and with what it has to teach you. It doesn’t mean that what you do is always pleasant. But when challenges arise, you feel excited to take them on. Facing them gives you a sense of purpose.

This often means that you give up outcome-oriented consciousness and become more present. Being true to yourself requires you to constantly ask: What is my truth right now?

There’s no other way to find out but to be present. Your soul thrives when you’re connected to the moment, rather than making decisions based on memories of future projections.

Parting Message

Living in your truth may sound like a lofty concept — but it doesn’t have to be.

In essence, it’s about knowing your personal values and basing your decisions on them more than on your social conditioning.

It requires accurate self-knowledge to live as your true self. You acquire it as you move through the consecutive stages of your psychological evolution.

The point of that evolution is aligning your ego with your soul. Of course, it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a life-long journey.

However, you may already be getting glimpses of how it feels to be your true self when you:

  • Say “I choose to” instead of “I have to”;
  • See opportunities where you used to see threats;
  • Value the process more than the outcomes of your actions.

All these stem from being loyal to your deepest values. When you put them before your conditioning, you move closer to your truth.

You become rooted in yourself. Over time, living this way becomes your default.

Remember that moving towards your truth is the natural direction of your psychological evolution. You don’t have to force it. Sometimes, all you need is to not stand in the way of that process.

There’s nothing particular you need to do. Rater than about doing, this process is about a certain way of being.

So be patient and mindful, and let the walls of your conditioning go down gradually. Your true self is already there behind them, waiting to be seen — not invented.

At Big Self School, we believe that outer impact starts with inner growth. To get advice and inspiration for living from the inside out, sign up for our newsletter.

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