When you’re struggling with a complicated decision, you’ve likely been told to “trust your gut” or to “be true to yourself.” There’s a common conviction that if you just listen to your inner voice, it’ll guide in the right direction, clear of others’ expectations.
The true self: Even Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
But, what exactly is the true self and where did this idea come from?
To Thine Own Self Be True
If you look across all cultures, the idea of the true self appears frequently. “It’s the essence of what makes you who you are, who you really are deep down and beyond surface capacities,” says Nina Strohminger, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “There’s a notion that there are parts of the self that are really who you are and parts of the self that don’t constitute who are you are quite as much.”
What we consider as part of the true self depends on our values and beliefs
We believe that the true self is hiding underneath the trappings and labels of our everyday life—parent, sibling, partner, insert job title here. Our external identity can also be colored by our experiences, the expectations of others, and how others may view us (aka “the smart one” or “the sporty one”), which can further obscure a true self. Yet, if we can reimagine those layers, we can connect with our authentic self and live a happy and fulfilled life.
“You don’t necessarily see your true self all the time. It’s not on display but it can be revealed and it’s who you really are,” says Strohminger. Finding an authentic self is often described as a layered process. It’s like peeling back the skin of an onion to reveal its essence, an idea central to what Carl Jung describes as individuation—the process of becoming more aware of oneself.
Strohminger believes we may have an inner need for persistence and consistency that may explain the allure of the idea of the true self. “I act differently in different contexts or over time. Nonetheless, I still believe that there’s a self deep down that is consistent over time and that could be revealed, that has qualities that aren’t illusory,” she says. In much the same way that we recognize a caterpillar and a butterfly as essentially the same thing, despite its physical transformation, we have a need to recognize our identity as consistent, despite differences in actions or behaviors in specific contexts.
The True Self as the Good Self
When we think of a true self, we often think of an inner voice pulling us in the “right” direction. In fact, researchers have found that there’s a deep-seated tendency to think that the true self is good, “that deep inside every individual, there is something motivating him or her to behave in ways that are virtuous.”
For example, as Strohminger and her colleagues describe in Perspectives on Psychological Science, when someone transforms into a “good” person, like in “A Christmas Carol”, we believe that Ebenezer Scrooge has revealed his inner self. In contrast, when Sandy transforms at the end of the musical Grease, her leather-clad, bad-girl persona isn’t the “true” Sandy, but one trying to win the approval of her peers and love interest.
Strohminger thinks there’s an evolutionary reason for this bias. As social animals, we rely on cooperation to survive. “The whole ability to identify people over time is linked in important ways to our motives of trying to figure out who a person is really. We’re trying to figure out who they are as moral beings,” she says. “You need to keep track of individuals over time to know who’s cheated, who has defects, and who’s generous. If you’re not able to keep track of individuals, you can’t get the building blocks of morality off the ground.”
Does the True Self Exist?
While the idea of a true or authentic self is found throughout psychological literature, Strohminger notes that it’s really a folk concept: the true self is imbued with a lot of meaning, there isn’t much scientific evidence to back it up. “We’re not trying to say that this is a real psychological concept or that it somehow reflects a psychological reality,” she says.
It’s a subjective notion too. What we consider as part of the true self depends on our values and beliefs, says Strohminger. For example, given a story about a Christian Fundamentalist who is also a closeted gay man, whether people believe the man’s “true self” is the homosexual side or the Christian side resisting the homosexual urges depends on how conservative the respondent is. “If you ask conservatives, they’ll say the true self is the part that’s resisting. If you ask liberals, they’ll say the true self is his homosexuality,” says Strohminger. “It’s very much perspective-dependent.”
But It’s Good For Your Well-Being
Scientific or not, the true self is connected to our sense of wellbeing. Studies have found that those who identified with a concept of true self had stronger senses of well-being and purpose. Other studies have found that those who made major decisions guided by a “true self” felt more satisfied with the outcome of their decision-making.
Artwork by KYLE BECK