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'The Danish Girl': Walking a Path to Self-Discovery

'The Danish Girl' shows we search to better understand who we are in this life.

Key points

  • People are explorers in search of a better understanding of the complexities of what makes them who they are.
  • An investment in understanding oneself can arrive when there is dissatisfaction felt about one's life.
  • Individuals investigate whether they are content with how they express themselves and whether it's authentic.

“We are all strangers to ourselves.” —Rene Descartes

Many times, we may hear, “Life is a journey.” As we walk along a path that can include joys and struggles, we are provided the opportunity to gather data along the way. We become explorers in search of a better understanding of the complexities of what makes us who we are.

Upon this quest, we may ponder regarding what we enjoy and what brings about pain and disappointment. We may investigate whether we truly express our authentic selves. Are we content in the manner of our expression? Do we live a life that represents our inner core, or do we live a life longing for who we believe we ought to be? Within the film The Danish Girl (2015), we witness Lili Elbe’s (loosely inspired by her life) transformation upon her path of self-awareness and self-knowledge with the support of loved ones.

Lili Elbe, performed by Eddie Redmayne, is introduced as Einar Wegener, a painter in this biographical romantic drama directed by Tom Hopper (2015). Living and working alongside his wife Gerda, acted by Alicia Vikander, Einar discovers Lili, the gender identity of a woman that he begins to self-identify as his true self. Locating Lili and becoming better acquainted with her leads Einar to desire to say goodbye to his male-identified gender and embark on living life as Lili.

At times, an increased investment in understanding oneself arrives as a result of a felt dissatisfaction with the way in which one is living. There may be a drive for change that facilitates evolution. At other times, one may lack the desire to change or evolve, but one must take on the responsibility to have greater attunement to make an important decision in one’s life (Voorhoeve et al., 2011). Despite its origins, the process of self-discovery can be emotionally laborious and can involve a host of complex emotions. For example, as Einar becomes increasingly aware of Lili coupled with the desire to embrace her, the audience views the numerous internal conflicts experienced by a desire to avoid, a desire to hide, fear of rejection, fear of being “found out,” and finally contentment in self-knowing.

To progress in self-awareness leading to an increase in self-knowledge, it is helpful to consider the utility of the following:

1. Loving the honest eyes of others

Because we may have limited access to our true selves, others may have a better sense of who we are and why we behave in specific ways (Kamm, 2011) while offering interpersonal input to assist in creating an authentic narrative. Our understanding of ourselves is “inseparable from the perception…of others” (Rass, 2011). Consequently, we find that Lili did not travel independently on her self-discovery journey. Rather, she had the privilege of having access to supportive individuals in her life, such as Gerda and Einar’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil (performed by Matthias Schoenaerts).

2. Being thoughtful about whom we place trust in to provide input

Individuals can hold stereotypes for specific behaviors seen in others. Societal influences can impact an individual’s ability to feel welcomed to learn and express their genuine self. In response, one may resort to suppressing aspects of one’s identity as a result of real or imagined fears. Possessing trusted individuals to occupy emotional resources for support and validation and equally to challenge and confront can foster self-discovery and emotional growth.

3. Building a clear narrative to communicate with others who one genuinely is in the world

Crafting a narrative that accurately reflects one’s truth can ensure that when others are curious to better become acquainted, one has a defined way of introducing themselves. Possessing a narrative that feels aligned with how one understands one’s present self can create a positive self-concept and secure feelings reflecting self-esteem.

4. Engaging in introspection

Introspection is a constant thread that elucidates aspects about the self that bring upon self-awareness and, in turn, self-knowledge. Introspection brings to consciousness one’s hopes, desires, and fears, allowing one to navigate one’s lived experience with greater intention.

“There are many versions of the truth about one’s life and many narratives that might make sense to a person” (Voorhoeve et al., 2011, p.138). We are complex as humans, and it is not always easy or a welcoming experience to grow our understanding of ourselves. What we find can be confusing and create challenges within the world in which we navigate with others who may not be ready to accept who we are. Thus, is there any utility in increasing one’s self-knowing? Does it lead to a better quality of life?

Within the film The Danish Girl, we find Lili engages in a steadfast pursuit of self-knowing with efforts supported by the unwavering care of loved ones that was riddled with conflicts, ruptures, unconditional love, fulfillment, and, ultimately, peace. Might we all be so brave to be as committed to knowing ourselves? Might we all be so lucky to have loving individuals who will support what we learn about ourselves on the path of self-discovery?


Kamm, F.M. (2011). Understanding, justifying, and finding oneself. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1234, 168–172.

Rass, J.D., R. (2011). Introduction to perspectives on the Self: Conversations on identity and consciousness. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1234, 1–4.

Voorhoeve, A., During, E., Jopling, D., Wilson, T. & Kamm, F. (2011). Who am I? Beyond “I think, therefore I am”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1234, 134–148.

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