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The Right Way to Get to Know Yourself

Seeking your "authentic self" is like looking for a unicorn. Try this instead.

Roam the aisles of big-chain bookstores and you will see that the self-help section is starting to dwarf many others. Many of the most-popular books aim to help individuals to get over something—a breakup, a bad relationship, problems with parents or siblings. The subsections on addiction are growing, too, perhaps as the number of things to which people become addicted continues to expand.

The presence of more books that help individuals overcome adversity is a good thing, especially when that adversity is addiction. Stigmatized still, there is at least some progress in making different sorts of resources available to people browsing these aisles. The internet has further transformed the ways that people who suspect they are becoming addicted can get information or take online quizzes. We can do this privately, and just quickly switch the tab if someone catches us—easier than explaining how we “mistakenly wandered” into the self-help section in the mall bookstore.


It is always good news when people interrogate themselves about their beliefs, values, and actions. It's important to be a self-aware person. Too many people lack self-awareness, for too many reasons. Engaging in self-reflection isn’t a luxury; it is a necessity.

Having said all that, I do have concerns about one set of self-help books—those that seemingly set a person on a quest to find her Authentic Self.

What are we seeking when we engage in self-reflection and self-interrogation to find our Authentic Self? And how do we do this?

The Authentic Self is allegedly the one that has been buried by all kinds of experiences, disappointments, harms, and suffering. Years of engaging in addictive behaviors seem to crush a person’s self. The quest seems to be to find what would be there had we not all these experiences. Or the challenge is to discover “who we really are” once we scrape away all the detritus that has been heaped upon our selves.

To put it rather indelicately, many self-help books attempt to provide remedies for scraping away the sticky build up from the business of everyday living in order to reach an Authentic Self.

But I fear the quest for an Authentic Self is as likely to succeed as a quest to capture a unicorn.

I have several concerns about this Self Quest:

The first is that the contemporary hunt for authenticity in many self-help books tends to be only inwardly directed. One’s relation to particular others, and the broader world, are seemingly not seen as integral and vital to a person’s self or identity. Often the result is that the search for one’s Authentic Self makes a person self-absorbed in some unattractive and even troubling ways. People who are self-absorbed tend to be concerned only with what affects them or only with that which is somehow useful to or focused on them. In some ways, self-absorbed people are only able to see and consider themselves; they make things that are not about them be about them and they are unable to see when some things really are about them.

My second concern is that in the quest to discover that True Self, everything else gets shoved out of the way because it is perceived as an obstacle or hindrance. A person treats herself as an excavation site, and a bulldozer is the primary digging device as opposed to, say, a small spoon.

My final concern is my most philosophical: Wittgenstein wrote, “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (Philosophical Investigations §115). The picture that holds us captive here is that there is an underlying self. It is to this self that all of our experiences attach; it exists before all these other experiences. This self is the most important and it is the one we seek. Our common ordinary ways of speaking reinforce this picture regularly, which in turn shores up the belief in the essential or Authentic Self and explains our quest to recover it.

The dominance of this picture makes it difficult to even ask, “What if there is no underlying self?” and “What if it is a chimera?” These questions may seem heretical to many people who may want to point to their soul as their Authentic Self. But what, exactly, is being pointed at? That’s a question that may not have an answer.

As difficult as it is to ask those questions, it is even harder to imagine alternatives to this dominant picture. I’d like to offer a preliminary sketch of an alternative that I’ll call the Experiencing Self. Denying the existence of the “Authentic Self” in no way entails a denial of the existence of a self. Everyone is/has a self that is unique, because each person has a complicated set of experiences that no one else has. These experiences hang together; they do not need to attach to some underlying self. A person’s self just is all of these experiences, which means that a person’s self is dynamic, and always a work in progress.

These experiences, however, are the very things that the excavation to find the “Authentic Self” shunts off to the side as unimportant or distracting. But even with the Experiencing Self, some excavation work is important; some experiences become supersized and they need to be brought back into perspective. Excavation is only one sort of work that is good for a person seeking self-understanding or self-help to undertake.

One needs also to survey what’s around her: Instead of looking inward to find our true self, we might look just as much outward to the particular others with whom we are in relationship and to the broader world in which we live. We understand who we are when we understand our relationships with others and our ways of being in the world.

This is the best sort of self-help.

There is still plenty of room for authenticity reconsidered. To be authentic or to be an authentic self (with lower-case letters) is to have consistency and congruency in one’s beliefs, values, and actions. It is to act without pretense and false airs. And finally, to be an authentic self is not to engage in the many forms of self-deception.

More from Peg O'Connor Ph.D.
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