As we progress through adolescence and young adulthood, we Americans are frequently encouraged by parents, teachers, and others to find or discover ourselves, to look inside to “see and be the person we are.” The idea is that we have some inner person—our true self—buried within us simply waiting to be called forth and lived or realized. It is as if all along we have been developing a self nonconsciously, one that we weren’t even aware of but can somehow uncover.
Similarly, we are given advice about picking a career with phrases like unearth your calling or discover your passion. Many people spend years and years of their lives searching within, reading self-help books and/or listening to speakers or podcasts about releasing the inner child, soul, or spirit as a way of realizing their one true self.
But is this a useful way to conceptualize who we are? Is the self truly constructed in this fashion? Is there, in fact, a “true” self waiting to be unleashed on the world? Do we have inner, repressed architects, political activists, teachers, accountants or artists? I don’t think so.
Let me explain with a personal anecdote.
Prior to 2016, I had given virtually no thought throughout most of my youth and adult life to becoming an artist or to creating objects that people would come to call art. Through a fluke, I completed a single watercolor painting of a stone wall during a visit to Connecticut’s Weir Farm. I enjoyed it and wasn’t terribly embarrassed by what I produced—the professional artist on duty at the time mildly complimented me.
That led me to buy a few tubes of acrylic paint, some canvases, and a couple of paintbrushes. A few paintings later, an artist friend encouraged me to enter a painting into an art show, and the painting was accepted (and eventually won an award). My artistic side gig has developed considerably from there, although I continue to be uncomfortable with calling myself or hearing others call me an artist.
Was I always an artist but hadn’t realized it? For a number of reasons, that is highly improbable. First, I have never been a doodler or even one who colors in the gaps in the letters of a handout during class, a meeting, or a conference session.
Although I am an admirer of art and love going to museums, prior to a few years ago, I had never considered becoming an artist for more than a nanosecond. Second, consider the statements “I was an artist all along but didn’t know it” or “he was an artist on the inside but didn’t know it yet.” How can we call someone an artist when that person has literally never created anything remotely artistic nor even attempted to do so? Would one say the same about a late-blooming basketball player or opera singer?
Third, as Walt Whitman observed over 100 years ago, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” What he meant was that he has many selves all housed within an expansive self. By extension, Whitman would have said that all of us have many selves coexisting within us.
These mini selves have goals that may overlap or even conflict, such as when acting as a responsible father interferes with enacting the impulsive artist or adhering to professional obligations. At best, one might talk of the discovery of one of the many selves that a person possesses, but we still encounter the problem of accounting for how a mini self became embedded in my consciousness without my knowledge.
Perhaps a better way to think about the self is that it is (or at least can be) in a constant state of flux: it is dynamic, growing and morphing as a person ages, accumulates experiences, and encounters new people and situations. Or, rather, we can say that we have many selves, at least some of which may be subject to change as we travel through our life worlds. Through our interactions, experiences, and self-reflections, we create new selves (or self-components). New possibilities appear to us that we may or may not pursue.
Echoes of the rhetoric of the hidden true self resound in the oft-heard advice from adults, life coaches, and career advisors about “finding our passions” so that we can pursue them and have satisfying careers and self-actualizing lives. However, as recent research from Stanford University demonstrates, we are better off conceptualizing our interests and passions in terms of what social psychologist Carol Dweck has called the “growth mindset.” If we hold the view that our personal interests are preformed and fixed, then we are less likely to persist in their realization, especially in the face of obstacles and hardship. If instead we frame our interests, and passions as self-components that have been and can continue to be developed, then we tend to work harder to realize them.
Our authentic selves are created as we navigate through and interact with the world. We alter the world and the world, in turn, shapes us. In order for personal development to occur, we must recognize that we have room for growth, that there is a gap between what we are and what we could be.
In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, a person is “a being who makes himself (sic) a lack of being in order that there might be being.” For Sartre—as for his partner, philosopher Simone de Beauvoir—to authentically “be” or disclose “being” is to continuously strive for more, to live with intentionality and directedness. We cannot be content with a mere static existence or we are doomed to live unfree.
If we wish to be free, to take responsibility for who we are and what we do, and to move beyond what Sartre calls our “facticity” (roughly, our giveness), we must recognize this lack or gap and act to continuously overcome it, even if we can never actually do so. This notion is consonant with Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization, as long as we understand actualization to be creation, not realization, of the self.
The bottom line: We should not be looking for the authentic self at all; rather, we should focus on creating the selves we wish to live.