When Michelangelo was asked how he was able to create such transcendent sculpture out of what are essentially lifeless slabs of stone, he is said to have replied, “The living art already exists inside the stone. My job, as I see it, is simply to remove the excess marble.”

There have been various interpretations and incarnations of this quote throughout the centuries. It has become one of my favorites. I first heard it in a lecture by author Marianne Williamson. I use it in my life, and in my psychotherapy practice, because it speaks to my hopeful belief that at the core of our humanity lays our inherent individual potential. This potential, and the striving for it, are our birthright. You can see it in infants and children. They are built to maximize their individual gifts.

And then life happens.

And we react to it.

We react to being hurt, to being judged, to being rejected, to being afraid. We react to broken families, to toxic relationships, to the feeling that perhaps we are not quite good enough.

Our reactions take the form of defenses, of emotional armor, of masks. We apply them, in the moment, for self-preservation – or so we think.

But over time, all of these layers, all of this excess, begin to obscure the truth about that essential you. The very things that you put in place as protection become the roadblocks to the happiness and fulfillment you say you want.

For me, in my long and continuing quest for personal authenticity, the excess marble was shame regarding my sexuality. My excess marble was mistrust and fear of others (well earned I might add, but destructive nonetheless). It was fear of failure, and ironically, fear of not living up to my potential. It was holding onto anger, at myself, and others. It was a refusal to forgive.

Through my own work with a wonderful therapist, I began the frightening but humanizing work of examining my “emotional wardrobe” – all the things I put on in order to survive, or thought I did. I began to ask myself, which pieces were serving me in being the person I said I wanted to be – and having the life I said I deserved – and which things did not. And once I had that information, what was I willing to remove?

With each new year, new month, new day, I continually ask myself the same questions.

And I ask them of you.

What is your mask? What is your “excess marble”? What layers obscure the truth about you? What armor have you acquired over the years that could be reconsidered? Which pieces still serve you – and which pieces are you willing to remove?

Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy, said, “every living thing has only one inborn goal – to actualize itself as is.”

As you move through your days, I hope that you hold on to the image of your pure potential. Remember that the essential you is not the mistakes you made. You are not the armor, nor the excess marble. You remain what you have always been – but sometimes forget.

Each morning, as I prepare for the day, I take comfort in knowing that I have a choice.  I take comfort in knowing that in any given moment, I can lift the veil. I can remember who I am and what I want. I can acknowledge the barriers to my happiness and, should I decide, I can choose to do it differently.

Or not.

And so can you.