I want to deal here with some questions about the nature of the “true self”. What does this mean and why do we need a self?
Well, there is an implication that a purity of self is desirable as a bastion against the multitude of outside influence.
No matter what happens, the self is a reliable constant, remaining long after you’ve left that job, split up with that partner, or abandoned those plans for self-improvement…!
In a slightly more negative way, there is an innate desire to “find” ourselves, to connect with something transcendent that allows us to escape the drudgery of mundane existence.
We are on a search to uncover our authenticity, to make sure that we don’t waste a drop of finite, fragile life.
Google defines it as:
a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.
Some synonyms Google provides are: ego, I, oneself, persona, person, identity, character, personality,psyche, soul, spirit, mind, intellect, inner man/woman/person, inner self, one’s innermost feelings, one’s heart of hearts.
So, there are a lot of options here for locating the “true” self: within a kind of metaphysical soup of mind, ego and spirit, containing dashes of thoughts, feelings and impulses – as distinct from the physical body.
This all sounds rather ephemeral so far. I would venture to say that Google is not really sure what the true self is.
What we’ve done is establish that to have a “true” self, we must go beyond “thinking man”, from self-aware to self-reflexive.
The self as mind
Having established this, perhaps we are to equate the self with the mind: that collection of thoughts, emotions and memories that makes each of us unique.
Being material creatures, we are often tempted to think of abstract concepts spatially, as though the self is lurking somewhere in the dark depths of our organs, lodged perhaps between the lungs and the heart.
In reality, we are conceptually removed from the weight of flesh and bone.
My mind can be floating in a country far away from my physical location, conversing with people I no longer know or will never meet, or simply raking through abstract ideas that have no visual form.
It also changes so much over time: I am not the same person I was last year, last week, probably not even yesterday. So much can happen in a day.
Why should we even bother looking for it?
Why would we even want to have a true self at all? Why not have a false self, or live with multiple selves (as long as that didn’t warrant us labelled with a mental health disorder)?
It could be rooted in a need to have an anchor, an enduring essence within the constant sea of uncertainty.
Perhaps it is part of becoming an adult and individuating away from one’s parents, background, friends, inherited traditions and behaviours.
However, some say that the self is already here, comfortably hiding inside until one should only look properly.
So does this mean that we are born with a core self that has been obscured by the influence of others and the environment, and we must find it again? Or, that the self we were given by others is false and inauthentic, and therefore we must find a new one?
Probably a bit of both.
We take what we like, and leave behind what we don’t like. What we have left is an adult self, a “true” self, something self-created and original. And it is not so much to do with the nature of the self we choose as the fact that we have made the choice.
Defined by the social self
Having found our true selves, some would say that the true self is who we are when no one is watching. I disagree with this fundamentally because the idea that we consist of our purest essence when alone implies that we are somehow muddied by the presence of others, who distract and tempt us away from our true path of authenticity.
If the self is so easily influenced, then it makes for a rather flimsy and insubstantial anchor. I would argue that we only really become fully human in the presence of others, not just with those who are physically with us but also as part of the social web.
Many studies have shown how babies raised in orphanages where their physical needs were cared for, but never touched or held, suffer a much higher than average rate of death in infancy.
This is because the self, the “personality”, is not a static object but a dynamic process that requires the presence of others to find expression.
Is having a true self illusory?
Perhaps it’s not so much a case of finding our way back to ourselves as seeing past all the trappings of our individual identity to something beyond our own selves.
We might think of what we want as a “true” self, but really we want to step outside ourselves and connect with some deeper purpose.
It’s not very common to openly talk about a longing for a deeper purpose, but I don’t know anyone that this wouldn’t secretly resonate with.
Each person wants some unique aspect of their identity to become known and make a difference, whether that’s bringing joy to others through becoming an entertainer, or a fantastical ability to design bridges that help people get from one place to another.
That’s the crux, isn’t it? The true self isn’t lurking somewhere in isolation inside us, but manifests and becomes real when we mature and step outside ourselves.
It doesn’t physically exist as a static object but is a process of growth and expansion, becoming more than we were or thought we could be.
The true self is who we are when we authentically connect with others. We stop thinking about the “I” and starting thinking about “we”. But before we can see clearly we must become aware of ourselves, and therein lies the eternal paradox.
Catherine Julianne is a writer and digital communications professional obsessed with the field of personality systems theory. She also likes drawing, yoga, meditation and being in nature.