Culturally, we regard the period of adolescence and the years that follow as the time of life people find out who they are and what they want; we like to think of the adult self as more like a butterfly than not, emerging whole from the pupa. Similarly, we think of the capacity for self-knowledge democratically, meted out in equal portions at the banquet table of life. Neither is true. For many, locating the true self is a process that can stretch over decades of life; for others, self-awareness remains, for different reasons, out of reach. There are those who find themselves living “as if,” in fear of discovery, uncomfortable in their own skins, unsure where the “real” self resides or what it is.

At the same time, being able to access the true self increases a person’s well-being, satisfaction, and sense of meaning in life, as the work of Rebecca J. Schlegel and her colleagues showed. Your happiness may depend on your ability to find your true self first.

Why is finding the “real me” so hard for some people? Many reasons can be traced back to childhood and here are some common ones.

Relying on extrinsic definitions of self

Those of us who’ve grown up with definitions of self imposed on us—whether that’s of the “obedient” or “willful” child, the one destined to fill Mom or Dad’s dream of being a doctor, or who’s been told he or she “better not fail”—are more likely, according to the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, to experience lower well-being, feel separated from their true selves, and have more trouble setting goals which enhance their sense of self. In the extreme, this can lead to what’s been called “the Imposter Phenomenon.”

First reported by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1976, the study originally focused solely on women, although it’s been shown to affect men as well. The phenomenon describes people who feel like frauds because they attribute their success either to chance or to effort instead of ability, all external evidence to the contrary. This, in turn, leads to a fear of being found out or uncovered. 

Clance and Imes described two kinds of family histories that contributed to the phenomenon, the first being the family in which the child goes beyond his or her designated role. Say that one child has been labeled the “smart” one and the other “the socialite” or “the pretty one.” If the latter were to become a high achiever, she’s likely to feel like an imposter, having internalized her parents’ self-definitions. Also vulnerable is the child who is told from the beginning how special and superior he or she is, possessed of innate abilities, how he or she can do anything effortlessly and perfectly. That kind of over-praising sets a child up for the inevitable realization that some things aren’t easily accomplished or perhaps can’t be done at all, which will leave him or her feeling like a failure or fraud. The key here, as it is elsewhere, is internalizing those parental expectations and making them the predominant script for defining the self.

Research by Denise Castro and others showed that the Imposter Phenomenon also shows up in other unhealthy family environments such as those in which the parent-child roles are reversed, and the child becomes the parent or parents’ caretaker. (It’s called “parentification.”) Inevitably, the child will think of her or himself as inadequate and fraudulent, as their studies showed.

Self discrepancies

Proposed by E,Tory Higgins, this is a useful way of looking at self-definitions in a nuanced way.  The theory proposes that there are three domains to the self: 1) the actual self which is the one you show to others; 2) the ideal self which is comprised of the traits you hope to possess; and 3) the ought self which is comprised of the qualities you or someone else believe you ought to possess (as a sense of obligation or responsibility). The greater the discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal/ought selves—especially if your parents were critical of or punishing because you weren’t the child they wanted, or tried to restrain or control you to become the child they desired—the harder it will be for you to manage the feelings aroused by the discrepancies. Depression can be a function of the disparity between the actual and ideal selves; social anxiety can arise from the actual self/ought self discrepancy.

Children with histories of insecure attachment—daughters and sons with unloving, hypercritical, or detached mothers and sometimes fathers—often have internalized their mothers’ messages about their actual selves and are unable to distinguish who they are from the ideal or ought self their mothers impose on them as a standard. In order to appease their mothers or to reduce conflict in the home, they may begin to act “as if,” denying their sense of actual self in the process and playing out behaviors they associate with the ideal or ought selves. Feelings of insecurity and inauthenticity are often part of the legacy bequeathed by an unloving mother as is a distorted sense of the actual self.

 Inadequate ability to reflect

If we are honest about it, our actual selves are usually a mixed bag of traits, some good and some not so good, and some downright awful. A certain amount of acceptance, along with hopefulness about your ideal and ought selves, is key to having the real you show up, along with self-knowledge and awareness. Influence from the inside and out often gets in the way of the process, and keeps us from expressing ourselves authentically. From the inside, our tendency to over-rate our qualities —the “above-average effect”—and how we deal with success and failure diminish our ability to see our actual selves. While we are quick to attribute success to our actions and traits, we’re likely to attribute failure to the acts of others or circumstances beyond our control, as the work of Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated. 

Outside influences that skew our self-awareness include wanting and needing validation of the self by others (that need doesn’t end in childhood!), and many of us will find ourselves tailoring our actual selves to fit someone else’s expectations. This too will engender a sense of self that feels inauthentic or fraudulent. There’s risk in showing your true self to someone else, after all—what if he or she doesn’t like the real me?—and the desire to be accepted may trump even the need to express the actual self. A classic experiment, conducted more than a half century ago, by Solomon Asch showed that the need to conform can’t really be overestimated. The experiment was simple: the participants (all male college students in this 1950s scenario) were gathered around a table for what was billed as a test of perception. They were shown two white cards: one with a single black line and one with three black lines of varying lengths. They were each to pick out the line that matched the single line on the first card, and did so going around the table. The last guy seated, unbeknownst to him, was the only subject not in on the real experiment which was to test conformity. They went two rounds in agreement and then, in following trials, the group as a whole disagreed with the last man seated. Amazingly enough, 36.8% of those tested actually buckled under the pressure, trading in perception for conformity with the group. 

Think about yourself, and where in the scheme of things you locate yourself. Do you know yourself and do you like what you see—perhaps not unconditionally but well enough? Or is your actual self hidden from view most of the time? The road to self-knowledge starts here.

Photograph copyright © Monika Koclajda. Used with permission.

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Copyright © Peg Streep 2014


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 Schegel, Rebecca, Joshua Hicks, Janine Arndt, and Laura King, “Thine Own Self: True Self Concept Accessibility and Meaning in Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2009), vol. 96, no. 2, 473-490.

Deci, Edward L. and Richard M. Ryan, “The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behaviors,” Psychological Inquiry (2000),13, no, 4, 227-268.

Clance, Pauline Rose and Suzanne Imes, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High-Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice,” (Fall, 1978), vol., 15, no. 3, 1-8.

Castro, Denise, Rebecca Jones, and Jamid Mirsalimi, “Parentification and the Imposter Phenomenon: An Empirical Investigation,” The American Journal of Family Therapy (2004), 32 205-216.

Higgins, E. Tory, “Self Discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Affect,” Psychological Review. (1987), vol. 94, no 3, 319-340.

Lovallo, Dan and Daniel Kahneman, “Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions,” Harvard Business Review (July 2003), 56-63.

Asch, Solomon, “Opinions and Social Pressure,” Scientific American (November, 1955) vol. 193, no, 5, 31-35.

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