Be yourself. Be genuine. Show people who you really are. Our culture is obsessed with authenticity. But what if the entire idea of being authentic is based on a lie?
There’s a pervasive belief people hold that the person they appear to be is not who they actually are. Underneath all the masks, there’s a real face that’s yours.
This is a myth. There is no “real” you. The “real” you is just another mask, and often one that gets in the way of you being a better person.
Why is the “Real” You Always Better?
The first thing you’ll notice whenever you hear someone talk about their “real” self is that it’s never negative. No matter what they’ve done, the “real” version of themselves is just hurting, or confused, or lashing out.
This already is a huge red flag. People are shitty all the time. They lie, cheat, steal and hurt others. They do this because, in many ways, we didn’t evolve to be perfect angels. We’re a mix of good and bad, although some of us are mixed in different ratios.
So if people are shitty, why is the “real” you always good?
I think the reason is that the “real” you is a self-serving deception. It’s a rationale that explains away all the bad things you’ve done by saying that it wasn’t the “real” you that did that, but something distinct from yourself. It wasn’t the “real” you that lied to your friend, but just something inauthentic you did because you were worried about being judged.
In this sense, the “real” you isn’t truer or more authentic. Rather it’s who you wish you were (or perhaps, more accurately, how you wish other people would see you). That this picture tends to be flattering should be less reason to trust it, not more.
Who Knows You Really?
In an interesting study, close friends were better at predicting some personality traits on a subsequent test than the subjects themselves.
This means that, in some real sense, the people around you who only observe your actions, the people who never see your innermost thoughts and self, nonetheless are better at estimating aspects of your personality than you are.
Consider two possible hypotheses. The first, and most popular, is that there’s a “real” you lurking underneath your behavior to which only you have access. Certainly, if this were true, you’d score much better on self-assessments than people around you, often people who only have access to more superficial layers of what you say and how you act?
Now, consider my hypothesis: that the “real” you is just as much a performance as everything else, except the audience isn’t other people—it’s you. Under this view, it’s no wonder other people around you cannot guess your personality better, they have less reason to deceive themselves about it!
How Your Real Self Gets in the Way of Genuine Growth
In some ways, the idea of a “real” self is a comforting delusion. It allows us to make peace with whatever bad things we’ve done in the past by divorcing them from who we “really” are.
However, this delusion can be damaging if it keeps you from making changes to the person you appear to be. When your “real” self is good, this can insulate you from needing to make changes to the “outer” you that other people witness. After all, if you’re a great person deep down, as long as people get to know you, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re an asshole to everyone else.
Removing that delusion can be painful. It can be painful to admit that the people we feel we are deep down is no more central to our existence than the way we act, speak and behave for the world to see. But removing that separation can also foster growth. Seeing how you’ve hurt people or lived a life less than ideal, and recognizing that you can’t rationalize those harms away, can also give you the impetus to change them.
What are You Really?
Selves, in the end, are just simple models of a more complex reality. That you have a name, personality, abilities, mannerisms, memories and preferences are just ways of simplifying a tremendously complicated reality.
Ultimately, who you are is just a story you tell. Sometimes, in the case of “real” selves, it’s a story you tell yourself (and often a self-serving one). Other times, who you are is a story you tell other people.
Any good writer or journalist will tell you that any event can have innumerable true stories told, depending on what is emphasized or omitted. That a story is merely true still leaves enough degrees of freedom that there can be wildly different impressions generated from it.
As the “real” you is just a story you tell yourself, you can also change it if you want to. Not just your future, but also your present and your past. Not through lying, but through recognizing that there were always countless true stories of yourself that you just aren’t used to telling yet.