"It's like we all have a protective shell - an outer layer - that we keep around us all the time. We are leery of exposing too much of ourselves, afraid someone might take advantage or hurt us," says one observer.

"It is safer to stay aloof. But by doing that, we don't share our real selves and needs. We simply bump shells a few times a day."Bumping shells - scratching the surface of the other's shell with the rough surface of our own - brings us only the knowledge of that touching. It brings us nothing of the warmth and nurture on which we humans thrive. Relating to others through a closed, hard shell is to exist on a starvation diet.

Inside the shell is a core self, sometimes mushy or underdeveloped, but nevertheless a core that, like a seedling when tended, can become deeply rooted and massive in its growth, filling in all aspects of our being.

The central issue for all of us, in our "process of becoming," is to discard the shell without and to firm and fill out the core within.

Babies come into the world without shells. How, then, do most of us end up with such hard protective coverings? If you are like many people, from your earliest moments you were deluged with negatives - with labels of "good" or "bad" based on how you behaved or thought or felt. Under that pounding your attention diverted from developing your core to fortifying your shell.

One person speaks of the sweeping consequences of developing a shell: "I've been a pretender all my life. I've always been afraid if people knew the real me, they wouldn't like what they saw."

Says another: "It's like every day we put on our `acting clothes' and go on center stage with an act we hope others will believe. Sometimes we get so good, we not only fool other people, we fool ourselves."

Shedding the shell and developing the core is perhaps a lifelong quest. If you want to develop the "real me," however, there are steps you can take to accelerate your growth.

Recognize your intrinsic worth. As a self, you are like the stunning and one-of-a-kind picture created by a turn of the crystals in a kaleidoscope. As such an unprecedented event in the universe, you need not copy anyone. Nor is your worth diminished by your difference from another.

Switch from vertical to horizontal relating. If you compute relationships on a vertical plane, you will view people as being either above or below you with respect to value. You yourself diminish your value if the people you place higher than yourself on the vertical scale have an opinion different than your own.

On the other hand, if you view relationships on a horizontal plane, you see people as different but equal in value. You are entitled to your opinion - or to a simple preference - no matter what position anyone else takes.

You develop your core when you take ownership of your opinion - when you let it flow from your inner self - and when you stand by it. Your opinion is yours to determine. If someone challenges your position, you may simply say: "I understand we're different and each of us is entitled to our own opinions. My opinion is. . . ."

See disapproval and anger through adult eyes. When you were a small child, anger had survival significance. Through child eyes, the adults - the giants in your life - were capable of overpowering, of hurting, of even destroying if they chose.

Today, you may carry a protective shell because you still see anger through child eyes. Commenting on the difference between a child and adult perspective, one hulking football player put his long arm around his sliver of a mother and said, "I wish I had known what a little mite you were when I was a kid."

As an adult, you can afford to see anger for what it is - someone else vibrating, perhaps making big noises because something is out of alignment with his or her expectations. At times, you may want to view the anger as a temper tantrum coming from the vulnerable 2-year-old who resides in all of us.

You may not like the anger, particularly because it may remind you of times as a child when you felt very vulnerable and unprotected. But you are no longer a child. You are much, much bigger and you have choices you didn't have long ago. You can, for instance, ask another person to explain the hurt or pain under his anger, you can refuse to discuss the problem until the other person speaks to you calmly, or you can leave the scene.

You can develop your core self by recognizing that anger is part of the human condition, that it passes, that you continue to survive, and that how a person chooses to express his disappointment has everything to do with him and nothing to do with you. Anger may also be viewed as a possible signal of an underlying problem that needs to be worked out.

Next week: More on developing the core self.