Are You More Likely to Lose Yourself—or Find Yourself—in a Relationship?

You won't lose yourself in a relationship if you understand "self" correctly.

Posted Apr 15, 2012

There are many reasons, valid and invalid, why you may avoid romantic relationships. Here I want to address two in particular: you want to find yourself first, or you don’t want to lose yourself to the other person and/or the relationship. A forthcoming article in the journal Philosophical Investigations by Camilla Kronqvist (Åbo Akademi University, Finland) titled “Lost and Found: Selfhood and Subjectivity in Love” brings a fresh perspective on both of these concerns and suggests that they are misguided.

In her paper, Dr. Kronqvist explains what these two concerns have in common, using the existentialist writing of Jean-Paul Sartre. They both involve a sense of the self as something that exists, a separate entity that a person has to find and can then lose, rather than, as Sartre maintained, something that emerges from a person simply by being. Much the same way that a fictional character is constructed in our minds by his or her behavior and speech, we determine who we are by what we do, say, and think, not by defining ourselves as something and then trying to live up to it.

The whole point of being human, according to Sartre, is that we are free to define ourselves, to decide who we are going to be, rather than having to be what anyone wants us to be, or even our own attempts to be something other than authentic. This concept would later be cast in a feminist light, in response to traditional gender roles, by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. Sartre and de Beauvoir, as well as their predecessor Immanuel Kant, believed that each person has the freedom and the responsibility to determine who he or she is going to be. We can embody certain socially-defined roles, but only if we freely choose to, not just because others expect us to.

It is only if we think of the self as something predetermined that exists prior to our actions and thoughts that we can think of “finding” ourselves. But in reality, there is nothing to find—your self has to be made. When people say they need to find themselves, what they usually mean is that they don’t feel they have been themselves; they’ve been inauthentic, playing a role to please other people or something they thought they should be, and they feel they need to get back to being themselves. But that authentic self doesn’t exist in the air; it has to be created.

And once you understand your self as something that you create, you then realize that it’s your responsibility to maintain it. This is where the fear of “losing yourself” in a relationship comes in: the only way it can happen is if you let your partner control you or try to change who you are. Of course, the temptation to let your partner do this, or to want to do it yourself, is often irresistible, especially if you’re afraid of losing him or her. But it takes strength of character to resist this, to remember that only you can determine you are, and only you can “lose yourself” to somebody else.

Furthermore, as Kronqvist explains, taking the responsibility to create your self by being yourself does not preclude being with somebody else, and in some ways a relationship can help you in the process of self-creation:

"The encouragement to 'be myself,' then, is an encouragement to enter into my relations with others without reservation, to scrutinize my wants and wishes, and not to deceive myself about who I become through my actions. By doing this, I am independent in the deepest sense of the word, not alone but together with other people. (pp. 13-14) "

Also, she explains that while people often emphasize the exposure and vulnerability that relationships can create, an opinion shared by Sartre himself, this neglects the strength and security one can gain from a close relationship, which can help give a firm foundation on which to embark on a journal of renewal and self-creation.

A relationship doesn’t have to endanger your sense of self if you remember it’s your responsibility to create and maintain who you are. As I explained elsewhere, you have to be yourself to attract someone who appreciates you for who you are, which is what I think we all want from a relationship. But whether or not you’re in a relationship, or not even seeking one, it’s important to keep in mind that being yourself is not a matter of “finding” your self but creating your self, which is at the same time frightening and awe-inspiring.

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See here for a list of some of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships and other topics.

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