I come across this term a lot.
I have been pondering on it as part of a bigger question of trying to understand ‘who am I?’ (that’s what happens to you when you have a mid-life crisis).
As it is used in pop-psychology more broadly, ‘authentic self’ seems to refer to an idea that below or beneath the identity that we put forward to others are drives and motivations and desires and interest and beliefs and instincts that actually define the true ‘us’. That is, if we dig away at the socially constructed layers of ourselves, we will ultimately find the true expression of who we are.
The goal, not surprisingly, is to find and embrace one’s ‘authentic self’.
On the surface this concept appeals to me, the idea that there is a true ‘Gareth’ and if I find him and let him free, then I will be happier and more content and more successful. I will be living more authentically…blah blah blah.
But the more I think about the concept, the less sense it makes to me. I’ll try to articulate some of my objections.
- You have to go back to early childhood to find a time when you were less influenced by social conventions and more motivated by inner drives and desires (think about how much kids just do what they want to do). But that provides me with little guidance on my ‘authentic self’. Little Gareth was cute yes, but an idiot and probably highly annoying. Is that my authentic self? (don’t answer that question)
- The idea of a stable/consistent self doesn’t really hold up to experience. Think about how different a person you are when hanging out with a friend, versus visiting a lecturer to request an extension. My guess is those are very different versions of you, but is one more authentic than the other? Who we are at any point in time is intertwined with the context we’re in and the people we’re with. How do we tease those apart?
- There are much better and easier ways of explaining (and embracing) those parts of yourself that are consistent across time and related to your wellbeing (see below).
- There seems to be an implicit assumption that your authentic self is good and if you find it, you’ll be happier. But it seems just as likely to me that you could discover that your authentic self is a complete dickhead, in which case you might prefer to keep the socially constructed version of yourself.
- The concept of ‘authentic self’ is so slippery that self-help people can make a lot of money encouraging you to keep chasing it, knowing that it might be a wild goose chase. Furthermore, the chase can leave you more distressed if you can’t find it. You think ‘there must be something wrong with me if I can’t tune into my authentic self’.
- Your hopes and dreams and desires and interests shift over time. I once wanted to be a rock star. Then I wanted to be a computer programmer. Then I wanted to eat cheezels and drink wine. Which one of these is the authentic me?
- Some religious and therapeutic approaches actually suggest we loosen our grip on our intellectualised self. They want us to do the opposite of honing in on an authentic self.
The end result for me, at least, is that I have no idea what my authentic self is, and the search for it has yielded only frustration.
I don’t say this to recommend that you abandon your own efforts to find your authentic self, but simply to provide some comfort and solidarity if the journey to find your authentic self is not yielding anything of great value.
If we look at the concept of the authentic self from a functional perspective (i.e. what would be useful about being able to describe one’s authentic self?), then it seems to come back to the idea that this knowledge would help you make decisions and choices in life that enhance the quality of your life.
There are other frameworks that are more precise that can help you do this.
Values are statements of who you want to be and how you want to live your life. I’ve written about them before and there are many exercises online that can help you identify your values. If you think of your life as one giant map, with many possible directions you can go in, values are like the compass points that you follow. They are different from goals (which are statements of what you want) in that they describe orientations, not outcomes. For example, I might have the goal of writing a book (outcome), but the underlying values that drive that are hard work, creativity and contribution. Once you have a handle on your top 5 or top 10 values, you can use these to help you make decisions (i.e. which of the choices I have are most consistent with my values?).
Your brain is a meaning-making machine that is designed to help you navigate the environment better so you can survive, thrive and reproduce. It develops ‘models’ for different situations and contexts and people and objects that help you navigate and interact with those objects. For example, my mental model of ‘roads’ helps me drive on them when I have a car but not step out onto them when I am a pedestrian. Whilst your brain is pretty good at developing useful models, sometimes it develops shitty ones that make life harder and lead to poor decisions. You can however update your mental models by learning new perspectives on things. I like the website https://fs.blog/ which explores the role that different mental models have on our success across multiple areas of life (business, productivity, relationships, health etc). You can also look into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which explores the links between our beliefs, emotions and behaviour. Expanding or updating your mental models is a way of making better decisions and enhancing the quality of your life.
We spend a large chunk of our lives on auto-pilot, reacting and responding to things without necessarily engaging in much conscious contemplation before doing so. This is OK if our auto-pilot settings are good, but often we make important decisions on the basis of emotions or faulty logic. Mindfulness is “is being present in the now. In other words, it is the psychological process of bringing your attention to the present moment, without judging what is going on.” Mindfulness opens up a space in which we can make decisions based not on our automatic reactions but other criteria (e.g. values). If someone says something nasty to me, I can react immediately with anger or upset, and perhaps counter-attack. Or I can take a brief moment to notice my reactions to their comments, but make a decision to act on the basis of something else. For example, I value ‘compassion’, so I might instead ask the person if they are struggling with something that would make them say that nasty thing.
We’re all products of evolution, meaning we have certain needs that are connected to our survival. Food, shelter, water, clean air are all things we need to survive. But we also have psychological needs. I’ve spoken about these before. For example, we like to feel competent, free to make choices and have meaningful connections with other people. Our decisions and choices are influenced by these needs, so understanding them can help you make better decisions. I
Observer self vs thinking self
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), clients are encouraged to connect with two different versions of ‘self’. The thinking self is made up of all the thoughts, memories, feelings and sensations that make up your everyday experience. The thinking self is usually the one we consider our actual self and hence we attach ‘I’ to it regularly. For example:
- I am happy
- I am sad
- I am an idiot
- I am the best
- I did something bad
- I am going to fail
The thinking self can get a bit out of control at times and cause misery and suffering.
Thus in ACT, clients are encouraged to connect with another self known as the ‘observer self’. The observer self is essentially consciousness. It is the space in which all those thoughts, feelings and sensations and memories are experienced and noticed. The observer self is not judgmental or critical or anything other than simply awareness. Connecting with this self can be a source of peace, even in difficult times. If this all sounds a bit flakey, like I am just replacing authentic self with an even more abstract version of self, I encourage you to look further into it. One of the best explainers of ACT is Russ Harris. See if you can get one of his books to read.
I’ve personally abandoned ‘authentic self’ as a concept of any real use to me. I think there are better avenues to explore in terms of concepts that might help you make better decisions and improve your quality of life.
This speaks to a higher point that I am try to make.
Those of you interested in improving your health and wellbeing will encounter many concepts and ideas that purport to provide you with the benefits you desire. Some of those concepts will have value to you, some will not.
We can sometimes get fixated on certain concepts or ideas that we believe will provide us benefit, but, after an extended period reveal themselves to have not been particularly useful. At such points we need to have a willingness to let those ideas go and entertain new or different ideas.
There are many people (myself included) providing advice on how you could live a better life. Treat that advice like a question. For example, if I say ‘use a mindfulness app’, you could treat that advice like ‘I wonder if using a mindfulness app will be useful to me?’ This sets you up to experiment with that idea in your life and see how it goes. You can, on the basis of that experiment, then decide if mindfulness apps have a place in your life. If not, you can let the idea go and move to the next question.
This is one of the great benefits afforded to us because of human progress. We have the time and opportunity and access to ideas that enable us to run experiments in our own lives.