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There is one tiny, three-word question that can evoke a flood of confusion and pain or offer us the potential to unlock a life of well-earned peace and joy. It is, in fact, the ultimate existential question.

Who am I?

If you’re a warm-blooded, thinking human being, you too have been challenged by this perplexing topic.

I spent many hours reflecting on this as a young man, without ever really finding resolution. Today, I answer the question with some confidence. I’m not sure that I have the final answer, and like any good scientist I’m open to being entirely wrong.

But I believe that each of us has two intimately intertwined and interdependent selves.

The first I refer to as the “authentic SELF.” It’s the you that is there at the very beginning, and the you that is there throughout your life. The enormity of the mystery of this personhood is well beyond our current scientific insights, but it’s my personal belief that a divine superpower creates this unique and special SELF.

When you see this SELF as divinely made, it’s easy to appreciate that our fundamental essence (perhaps it’s our soul) has been made with boundless love, no garbage included. This is the joyful, curious, creative, confident spirit that shines undiluted in children. It is the uncontaminated simplicity and optimism of youth.

The other self is man-made  –  or more accurately  –  mind-made.

You see, we humans have been gifted with a massively powerful brain, which is traditionally viewed as the seat of our consciousness. It plays a highly significant role in who we are. And the most primal of that brain’s functions, the one it defaults to even without conscious thought, is to keep us safe.

This protective-above-all neurobiology is active throughout our life, especially when we’re young and vulnerable. During these critical formative years, our brain responds and evolves to protect us from real and perceived threats. The result is the secondary and reactive mind-made self, which dilutes the authentic SELF as it forms.

The problem is that our cerebral real estate is limited; our brain physically cannot grow or expand due to our hard, bony skulls. So, the emergence of the mind-made self comes at the expense of the original, authentic SELF.

We reach adulthood with a complicated psychic design composed of protective mind-made parts huddled around—and sometimes obscuring—the quintessential, authentic SELF.

Given the complexity of our personality mosaic, it’s not surprising that so many of us end up struggling with that weighty existential question, “Who am I?”

The truth is that we are both of those selves. We are a colorful, dynamic montage that shifts situationally in order to survive.

But this complex design can cause us profound distress.

The workings of the mind-made self are often contrary to the instincts of the authentic SELF. For example, our primitive, child-like SELF wants to trust others, while our mind-made adult self, having experienced the pain of disappointment, arms us with the shield of suspicion and the sword of mistrust.

These intrinsic tensions drive our everyday psychic pain. The power struggle between our protective neurobiology, which is based in fear, and our fundamental essence, which is characterized by positivity and love, undermines our happiness and robs us of our peace.

When we understand this to be a potent source of our prevailing anxiety, restlessness, and discontent, the road ahead becomes clear. It is immensely valuable to identify who we truly are—to differentiate between the authentic SELF and the mind-made self and to moderate the extent to which the latter governs our thoughts and emotions.

When we limit the intrusion of the mind-made self, we get out of our own way, freeing our authentic SELF to lead. This is personal mastery. This is the road to peace and happiness!