in Cognitive Wisdom, Prism of Life, The Myth series

THE FOLK concept of true selves is implicit in the everyday talk about “who you really are,” “being yourself,” and “finding yourself.” These phrases imply the existence of a fundamental layer of a person’s identity that defines them as an individual. 

In fact, we’re often bombarded with the adage to “be yourself.” 

Adam Grant wrote¹ in the New York Times that “we are in the Age of Authenticity, where ‘be yourself’ is the defining advice in life, love, and career.” A study² from 2011 found that in college commencement speeches, one of the most common messages was “Be True to Yourself.”

In other words, these colloquialisms suggest that who someone is as a whole is understood to revolve around a central “core” of identity-conferring properties. Indeed, imagery depicting a core-like entity expanding within the bounds of a larger entity activates feelings of authenticity.³

Based on these interpretations, perhaps, living according to your true self means seeing yourself for who you really are based on your sincere striving to embody the value and achieve the goals you truly believe in.

But even this interpretation starts looking all over the place when we accept the possibility of shifting goals and flexible morality. And against the backdrop of those possibilities finding a reasonably convincing definition of true self starts feeling like an act of chopping onions.

So, why don’t we try taking the help of notable philosophers and thinkers of the past to understand the concept of true self from a better perspective? 

Let’s find out. 

EVEN DAVID HUME, often recognized as a foremost exponent of philosophical naturalism and whose writings proved to be a major precursor of contemporary cognitive science, sounds very puzzled while discussing the concept of the self in his Treatise of Human Nature(1739)⁵:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.“

Hume inferred that what passes for the self is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions”.

For every bright-eyed humanist urging us to shed our social conditioning to discover the authentic self within there is a jaundiced philosopher telling us it is an illusion. Jean-Paul Sartrewrote that he “had no true self” and his self was in fact “an empty palace of mirrors”.

John Locke, the English philosopher, thought that the most important component to our identities was our memories⁸. Who we are is what we remember. 

Looks like the philosophers don’t seem to have a satisfying answer.

So, let’s get the help of experimental psychologists to unravel this enigmatic concept.

IN ONE OF HER EXPERIMENTS Strohminger, an assistant professor at the Wharton School, asked people a question: If you went into another body, which of your traits would most likely come with you? 

Above other personality quirks, memories, and preferences, people consistently said they would retain their morality traits.

This work is just one of many demonstrations over the years of a psychological notion called the “true self.” The true self is different from the self, which is made up of a blurry combination of your physical appearance, intelligence, memories, and habits, all of which change through time. The true self is what people believe is their essence. It’s the core of what makes you “you”; if it was taken away, you would no longer be you anymore.

What parts of yourself do you consider to be your “true self”? 

When you actually act in certain ways, which actions are in alignment with your true self, and which contradict your true self? Remarkably, not only do most people believe in a true self, they answer these questions in the same way. They consistently say that their true self is the parts of them that are fundamentally morally good.¹⁰

Time and again moral traits are the deep-down core of what makes a person specifically them. This is true whether you ask people⁹ to assess situations where someone had brain trauma, took psychoactive drugs, swapped bodies, or was reincarnated. If their moral traits were retained, they’re still “themselves” — if not, they’ve changed more fundamentally.

THE TRUE SELF IS A GOOD SELF— The true self is perceived as moral and good. People believe their deep inner selves have overwhelmingly desirable features even if their real present selves are flawed.¹¹

Generally speaking, positive personal changes are seen as discoveries. That is, they are not seen as a form of change at all, but as revealing what was always hidden deep inside.¹² This may explain why mental illness is often portrayed in clinical psychology as covering up the real self.

While research shows that the true self is principally moral, it also shows that many valued traits are ascribed to the true self.¹³ In individualistic cultures, the idea that all of us have within us a trove of hidden talents and abilities waiting to be exposed looms large, and its popularity may be made possible by the notion of the true self.

SINCE THERE SEEMS to be a lot of skepticism among philosophers and psychologists about whether people actually have a true self, the path to authentic self might look like a slippery slope. 

From both social and psychological perspectives, a person is considered authentic if she is successful in meeting certain criteria. Authentic people are not only motivated to learn more about themselves. They are equally interested in understanding their strengths and weaknesses, besides being willing to honestly reflect on feedback regardless of whether it is flattering or unflattering.

Most important, authentic people behave in line with their unique values and qualities even if those behaviors may conflict with social conventions or other external influences.¹⁴ For example, introverted people are being authentic when they are quiet at a dinner party even if social convention dictates that guests should engage themselves in conversation.

THE IDEA OF TRUE SELF might seem slippery and nonlinear, but it may have important implications. Believing that deep down we are fundamentally good may anchor a sense of personal identity and self-worth. Pursuing goals that are intrinsic to ourselves may lead to greater well-being¹⁵ than pursuing those that are more peripheral, such as materialistic desires.

Similarly, holding a belief that other people have morally good true selves may be a crucial foundation of interpersonal trust. This belief in a benevolent social world may be a basic assumption¹⁶ which, when traumatically violated, can have dire psychological consequences.

We would like to believe that authenticity brings us benefits. Perhaps that’s the reason why big and successful business houses have worked with consultants to leverage authenticity in the workplace. However, until we learn more about whether being authentic reaps the same benefits as feeling authentic, we are left with a tough decision.

 — Thanks for Reading

Originally published on Medium


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