We hear it all the time – the trite and tired advice of self-help blogs, books, and videos.
“You have to be the best version of yourself.”
“Just be yourself.”
“Stay true to yourself.”
At a cursory, surface-level glance, this advice appears self-evident. Of course, we should seek authenticity rather than confine ourselves to roles and traits outlined by others. Surely we would be better off being the person we “want to be” rather than the person we “should be” based on external pressures.
But when we dig deeper into the “be yourself” advice, it begins to ring hollow and raise more questions than it answers.
One such philosophical and psychological question entails the problem of attribution. How much of our behavior is environmentally and consciously driven (as opposed to the products of innate, stable traits)? Did we skip the gym this week because laziness is part of our personality, or are we simply missing the environmental cues and intrinsically-motivating activities that will get us to exercise more? Are we rude to our co-workers because we have rude and mean-spirited personalities or are we simply lashing out against environmental stressors?
One oft-debated personality trait is shyness. Suppose I am a shy person who is very intimidated to go to parties. I don’t enjoy meeting new people because in my mind I am not a “people person.” As a result, I have very few friends and spend most of my days reading and watching movies. Suppose I want to change this. Suppose I seek to become more extraverted and socially comfortable.
Some people say I should “accept myself as I am” and embrace my shy side. Some people are just naturally charismatic and I am not. In order to be happy, I need to find the upside of “being me.” On the other hand, others would contend that a shy person can become more gregarious through repeated practices, small and manageable failures, and consistent effort and commitment to change. I may not transform myself into a monarch social butterfly, but I can redefine myself from a shy person to a more outgoing individual.
In this case, the definition of “being yourself” is fluid to the point of near meaninglessness. If I change from an isolated and socially shy to a more outgoing individual through trial-and-error improvement, then some may say I “changed myself for the better” or “adversity helped build my character.” Other would argue that I was an outgoing person all along waiting and the right circumstances and adversity to “bring my true self to light” or “reveal my character.”
To take “be yourself” advice seriously, we have to consider what it really means to be “me.” What does it mean to be an individual? The word individual stems from its adjective cousin indivisible or “unable to divide.” When we consider ourselves individuals, we are speaking to some irreducible entity that we identify in consciousness as “me.”
And yet how often do we truly acknowledge our own indivisibility? How often has someone said the following?
“I’m sorry. I am not myself today.”
“There’s another side of me that many people don’t see.”
“You don’t understand. When I am with him, a whole different side of me comes out.”
“I have a drunk alter-ego.”
“Wow, I am not in my right mind today.”
Whenever our behavior is subpar, whenever our actions do not reflect a positive sense of self, we are often quick to dismiss our “true self” and conveniently place blame on some other, lesser self. Every time someone utters these words, we deny our individuality by suggesting that we are, in fact, further divisible.
As discussed by Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus, we have a minimum of two selves following us at all times – the narrating self and the experiencing self.
The narrating self is the storyteller within. It strings together our past memories, present circumstances, and future aspirations into a coherent story. The narrating self is a planner. It sees where we are and where we want to go. The narrating self makes New Year’s Resolutions. The narrating self promises to “never drink again” whilst in the throes of a wicked hangover. The narrating self promises to eat only lean meat and vegetables every day so we can reach our weight loss goals.
The experiencing self, on the other hand, lies tethered to the present tense. The experiencing self only answers one question.
“What should I do to feel good now?”
The experiencing self is a benevolent (albeit indulgent) caretaker, keenly steering us toward pleasure and away from pain. It keeps in tune with our present circumstances and proposes deviations when the aspirations of the narrating self reek of idealism.
These two selves come into conflict quite easily. Especially situations like this:
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
“Okay, it’s 4:30. Time to wake up.”
“I don’t want to wake up. I feel tired. Five more minutes.”
“If we wake up and get moving, our energy will come back. Trust me.”
“But our bed is warm. We don’t want to feel cold. Make it ten more minutes.”
*Hits Snooze Button*
Or situations like these.
“Yeah! 5:00! Time to go home and make some dinner!”
“But we planned to go to the gym after work.”
“YOU planned to go to the gym.”
“WE are in this together.”
“But why? We worked hard today. Why should we punish ourselves with barbells and treadmills?”
“We’ll feel great after. Trust me.”
“No! I’m hungry now. We can go tomorrow.”
The conversations follow the same predictable patterns. The narrating self proposes an action with a short-term cost and a long-term benefit. For example, working out is difficult and painful in situ, but wildly beneficial in the long-run.
The experiencing self, terrified of short-term pain, digs in his heels. The narrating self, in turn, tries to rationally explain her case – that if we push through the discomfort, we will emerge feeling fantastic. But the experiencing self doesn’t listen to reason and cannot consider the future. To him, plunging into pain feels like a kamikaze mission. So he pushes back, trying to mollify the narrating self with procrastinating promises.
Unfortunately, the experiencing self often proves too powerful for the narrating self. In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the experiencing self as an elephant and the experiencing self as a rider. Sure, the rider has much stronger reasoning faculties. But the elephant holds more raw power. The rider can gently steer the elephant in the direction it wants using subtle environmental cues. It cannot force the elephant to do its bidding.
These two selves battle back and forth every day in my mind. Sometimes the narrating self holds firm. Other times, the experiencing self wears her down. But regardless, I rarely (if ever) feel like I represent one, indivisible, unified “self.” My mind is an ever-swirling maelstrom of competing motivations.
So if someone tells you to “be true to yourself”, “be authentic”, or “be the best version of you”, it may behoove you to question what they mean.
“What do you mean? Only you can define who your true self actually is.”
And there is a problem. This advice asks us to narrow in and focus on an ever-moving target. Who we are, our likes, dislikes, motivations, fears, values, and beliefs are all subject to change. Sure some qualities remain more or less stable, but no quality serves as an immutable construct that we can point to as “an authentic self.”
Perhaps we can better serve ourselves by not looking too far inward. Maybe finding more authentic joy in life comes not from trying to pin down the amorphous and atomized morass that is “myself”, but from seeking to bring out the best in others. Perhaps the best way to define ourselves is to examine and improve our interpersonal relationships. This mirror motivates us to become better versions of ourselves.