Humans are social animals. We thrive as a species, in part, because we are able to work together in order to solve common problems. And working together often means compromise. Social life is tactical. We need to assert our needs and desires but we also need to be sensitive to the preferences and motives of others and to the social and cultural situations we find ourselves in.
What this means is that sometimes we do not get to express our true selves. We all wear a lot of hats and play various roles, but deep down each of us has an authentic self, the person who we feel we truly are. And that person can often be drowned out by the struggles of daily life.
Sounds like some hippie psychology, right? Perhaps. However, scientific research suggests that we might want to take this type of thinking seriously as understanding one’s true or authentic self may prove vital to psychological health and well-being. Sure, we need to fulfill our social duties and get along with others. And we also need to do what we have to do to pay our bills and take care of our families. But we also need to make sure we carve out some space for our true selves.
Studies, for instance, indicate that when people feel like they are engaging in behaviors because they value or enjoy them, they experience higher well-being. And when people feel like their behaviors are motivated by external forces (e.g., money, social pressure) their well-being often suffers. People are also more likely to successfully complete goals that reflect the true self. In short, it is important to find goals that reflect your true self in addition to the goals you pursue for more practical reasons such as paying your bills.
The true self also has implications for how meaningful people perceive their lives. For example, studies show that people who report that they understand who they truly are and that their behavior typically expresses this authentic self are more hopeful about the future than those who do not feel that they understand or act in accord with their true self. Similarly, those who feel they are living authentically (e.g., in line with how they perceive their true self) perceive life as more meaningful than those who do not feel they are living authentically.
So how do you find your true self and live an authentic life?
The experts say you need to identify the goals you pursue because you truly value or enjoy them. These types of goals reflect the true self. Goals you pursue for reasons such as money, to please others, avoid guilt, or to reach a certain social status are less likely to reflect a true self. Most of us have these types of goals and some goals are reflect multiple motives. However, it is important to identify some goals that reflect your true passions.
In addition, experts say that finding your true self requires some self-reflection and a willingness to be honest with yourself. What characteristics define you? What are your strengths and, just as important, your weaknesses? Finding your true self is not simply an exercise in self-affirmation. Instead, it involves a willingness to identify and accept your limitations and your less then desirable traits. This also means a willingness to accept critical feedback from others openly and not defensively. The idea is self-honesty.
As research interest continues to grow in the study of the true self, we are learning more and more about what makes people feel like their lives are meaningful and fulfilling. Living authentically may prove to be a key component of psychological health.