For many of us, the search for our true selves is a lifelong journey of self-discovery. We meet different people from different backgrounds and cultures, put ourselves in different situations and circumstances, and see life as one big trial and error experiment that is designed to teach us more about ourselves. Each experience brings us one step closer to the answer.
When we are in our 20s and free from our parents we go through what many of us call “phases”. We “try on” different friends, fashion, hobbies, lovers, locations. We are trying to figure out what fits and what doesn’t. What part of this expansive world of opportunity and possibility do we belong in? What category of people or thinking do we want to be associated with? What category of people will accept us and what category of people will not? What really lays behind the mask that we present to the world? To what extent does the character that we play and present to the world resemble the real individual being behind the mask? It’s a search for authenticity and a search for a home for our authenticity.
When it comes to being yourself, many people like to refer to a famous quote from Shakespeare, “to thine own self be true.” In the meantime, the research suggests that it is true and it also tells us that people that are more true to themselves tend to be involved in healthier and more positive relationships.
Research conducted by Amy Brunell, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University involved 62 college-age couples that completed detailed questionnaires about themselves and their relationships. The participants that were most true to themselves most consistently tended to be in the healthiest, most functional relationships, and reported a greater sense of well-being. Research also revealed a curious distinction regarding men. If a man was true to himself it tended to encourage his partner to feel more positive about their relationship, however, when a woman was true to herself it didn’t seem to influence her partner’s positive feelings about the relationship. Brunell suggests that this could be due to the different roles that men and women play in a relationship. She says that “women tend to be the regulators or keepers of intimacy in the partnership. When women have partners who strive for openness and honesty, it makes the job of regulating intimacy easier. For example, it becomes easier for her to disclose things to a man who once closeness.”
How do you know if you’re being true to yourself? Brunel suggests that you can try answering questions like:
– do I usually behave in ways that are consistent with how I view myself or do I go along with the crowd?
– Do I pretend to enjoy things that I don’t really enjoy?
– Do I pretend to agree with others when I really disagree?
Managing ourselves in social situations requires some element of “swimming with the tide” so if these questions lead you to believe that you are not being true to yourself you may want to also consider how frequently it happens and the extent to which it suppresses who and what you really are.
In a study published by the Journal of personality, Wake Forest University psychologist William Fleeson found that “being true to yourself” can mean acting counter to your personality traits. Fleecon’s research indicated that introverts feel more true to themselves or “authentic” when they are acting extroverted. For example, a shy person that attends a party and socializes extensively was more likely to report that he was being his true self in that situation. The research also confirmed that these people are not faking it. Fleeson says that “authenticity is consistently associated with acting highly extroverted, even for those who characterize themselves as introverts. Despite the cultural assumption that consistency with one’s traits would predict authenticity, it did not.”
Fleeson’s research also found that people that think of themselves as disagreeable or rude feel like they are being more true to themselves when they become agreeable and polite. People that consider themselves careless feel more true to themselves when they become cautious.
The research also showed that being authentic or feeling like you are being the real you was consistently associated with acting emotionally stable and intellectual regardless of any personal traits to the contrary. Fleeson says that “Being flexible with who you are is okay. It’s not denying or disrespecting who you are. People are often too rigid about how they are and stick with the comfortable and familiar. Adapting to a situation can make you more true to yourself in some circumstances.”
The research essentially reminds us that we have many options that we can draw upon to decide how we will behave in any given situation. In the meantime, it’s possible that the real you may actually need some improvement. For example, if you are extremely cautious you may be feeling like you are missing some of the potential enjoyment of life as a result of never being prepared to take any kind of risk. Fleeson says that one of the implications from the findings in his research is that “it might be possible for individuals to improve the mental health by acting against their personality traits.”
Psychologists generally agree that authenticity is a cornerstone of mental health ”and correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills. Acting in accordance with one’s true self is often called self-determination and is ranked by some experts as one of the most basic biological needs. What is authenticity? When he was a social psychologist at the University of Georgia, Michael Kernis developed a technical description of authenticity as “the unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in one’s daily enterprise.” Although authenticity may seem so intangible that it cannot be objectively measured, Kernis and his associate Brian Goldman developed a test distinguishing four components of authenticity.
“The first, and most fundamental, is self-awareness—knowledge of and trust in one’s own motives, emotions, preferences, and abilities. Self-awareness encompasses an inventory of issues from the sublime to the profane, from knowing what food you like to how likely you are to quit smoking to whether you’re feeling anxious or sad.”
Self-awareness also forms an element contained in the other three components.
Kernis and Goldman found that a sense of authenticity tends to be accompanied by many benefits. People that had a high score on the authenticity profile were more likely to respond to difficulties with effective coping strategies rather than resorting to drugs, alcohol, or self-destructive habits. They were more likely to report being in satisfying relationships, enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and purpose, show more confidence in taking on challenges, and appear to be more successful in pursuing goals. It is not clear whether authenticity causes these psychological advantages or results from them. However, Kernis and Goldman suggest that people crave authenticity because people that scored low in the authenticity profile were more likely to be defensive, suspicious, confused, and easily overwhelmed.
If the advantages of being authentic are so great then why is it that everybody is not authentic? Perhaps the most obvious point to be made is that defining one’s true self can be extremely difficult. This is something that has challenged philosophers for centuries. Socrates famously asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living but was very vague about what the advantages of such insights might be. In the meantime, the 20th-century existentialists questioned whether an ultimate self resides within. They take the view that the self was made. Therefore, philosophically, is the authentic self is something within that should be discovered or something that we make?
I would suggest that both categories of philosophers need to make room for each other. I think it seems clear that we are born with certain traits and characteristics that form our authentic selves. Then we go into the world, and our experiences and knowledge alter our authentic selves accordingly. Therefore, our authentic self is a combination of the traits and characteristics that we were born with and the knowledge and experience acquired over time. And those experiences have molded us and perhaps expanded upon our original traits and characteristics.
The second reason that people may not be authentic is that they view their true selves as being somehow inconsistent with either the people they spend time with or the overall environment in which they live. Take, for example, being gay in a cultural environment where it’s considered unacceptable or, even worse, a punishable offense. Kernis and Goldman admit the “potential downside of authenticity.” Truth can be painful.
Living an authentic life also requires that one has reliable self-knowledge and makes choices accordingly. This is not necessarily as simple as it sounds. Consider how many decisions you make daily including what clothes to wear, your hairstyle, which brands you want to associate yourself with, and how you treat other people. If you are happy with your authentic self and live in a way that fully discloses it, then these decisions are easy. In fact, they are not decisions–they are merely the sequence of events that happened in your day, the natural expression of you.
On the other hand, if you are not happy with your authentic self or live in a way that hides it, the decision making is an endless grind because the consequences of every decision must be considered and interpreted through the eyes of other people. This is a terrible way to live.
Therefore, a critical MPI principal is not just living your authentic life but, just as importantly, living in a way that allows other people to live their authentic life. This means supporting changes in our social, cultural, and political environments that enable everybody to live a life that caters for and encourages their individual expression, not just because it seems like the right thing to do, but because the individual expression of all members of society results in a greater contribution to the well-being of each society (by injecting different points of view, ideas, perspectives) and therefore benefits that society. The unique gifts of each individual that can contribute greatly to society are often expressed through individual expression and, therefore, the suppression of individual expression ineffectively suppression of the ability of each individual to contribute to society and directly results in diminishing the potential of that society.
Next article in this series: “Morality”