How to Become Your True Self
What social science tells us about living authentically
Posted November 18, 2014
When those of us who are single at heart try to explain that to other people, we are sometimes put on the defensive. How can we possibly choose to live single? The whole idea of being single at heart, as I define it, is that for some people, living single is the way they live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful life. But how do you know what way of living is right for you?
The question of how to become your true self and live most authentically is one that pertains to every aspect of our lives, not just our choices about marital status or relationship status or parental status. All of our goals and aspirations, from the biggest and broadest to the smallest and least significant, are part of the calculus of living a good life.
According the "self-concordance theory," the most important thing we can do to become our true self is to pursue the goals that are right for us. If we choose wrong – if we pursue goals that do not reflect who we really are, what we care about, and what we are good at – then even if we achieve those goals, we are not going to feel happy or fulfilled.
In a recent issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review, Kennon Sheldon reviewed the social science research relevant to the question of how we choose goals that best serve our quest to become our true self. Here's what I see as some of the implications of the research.
When you set a goal or make a plan, how do you feel about it?
- Do you feel ambivalent about it?
- Do you find that you just can't get yourself to follow through?
- Do you disparage your own goals or plans when you are talking to other people?
- Do you feel pressured by other people to pursue the goals you chose or the plans you made?
- Do you feel constrained to pursue particular goals (for example, getting a law degree instead of a degree in English literature because you think you will need the better salary that a law degree might bring)?
- Do you worry that if you do not pursue a particular goal or plan, you will feel guilty?
Or do you feel entirely differently?
- Do you really enjoy pursuing your goals or plans?
- Do you identify with what you are doing? Does it seem like what you are doing reflects who you really are?
- Do you find what you are doing interesting? Meaningful?
- Is it challenging in a way you appreciate?
- If you are doing something in some sense because you have to (for example, you are doing your job because it pays), do you sometimes find that it is so engaging that even if you didn't need the money, you might want to do it anyway?
- Are you more attuned to your own feelings of growth and self-improvement than to other people's evaluations of how you are doing?
If the second set of feelings describes you more accurately than the first set, then you are probably doing a good job of becoming your true self.
What kind of a person are you?
Are you the kind of person who springs into action immediately or do you take time to pay attention to how you are feeling? Sheldon believes that this "trait mindfulness" is important. It is defined as "the general disposition to be attentive to one's feelings, desires, sensations, and emotions – to simply observe one's reactions and emotions rather than being pulled immediately into action or reaction." Research suggests that people who are more mindful in this way are more likely to pursue goals that are consistent with who they really are.
Similarly, people who "follow their gut" rather than trying to be overly rational may also do better at choosing the goals and plans that are right for them.
Are you surrounded by people who make it easy to be your true self?
Self-concordance theory is mostly about you and not about other people. But the people around you can be important in making it easier for you to become your best self rather than standing in your way.
In the workplace, you are doing well if you have a boss who tries to see your perspective, who tries to give you choices, and who provides meaningful rationales for any advice that is offered.
That's true in sports, too. In studies of athletes at all different levels, researchers have found that leadership style matters more at the highest levels: "Having a supportive coach may be especially important for elite-level athletes, so that they can remain in touch with their original motivation to compete."
In our everyday lives, some of us are fortunate enough to have friends or relatives who know us better than we know ourselves, and have our best interests in mind. They might know before we do when we are pursuing a goal that is never going to make us happy. If we are super lucky, they will know how to tell us that in a way we can hear.