Levels of authenticity: Molding one’s ‘true self’ over time


The authentic self has a dual nature: It is both internal and external, and it is both discovered and created. To know it is not just to examine it, but to participate in it. As with the creation of an inspired poem, authenticity simply “happens” to a person unbidden, yet there is effort and conscious direction involved in bringing it to life.

One way of locating the authentic self is to look at examples of what people do to make themselves happy — or, at least, what people claim makes them happy. Consider plastic surgery as one concrete example. In “Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images” (1997), Susan Bordo probes the phenomenon of people explaining their cosmetic surgeries as something they do of their own volition and for their own happiness. Guests on talk shows, she observes, say things like:

“‘No, I’m not having my nose (straightened)(narrowed) in order to look less ethnic. I’m doing it for me.’ ‘No, I haven’t had my breasts enlarged to a 38D in order to be more attractive to men. I did it for me.'”

Bordo wonders if a better explanation of cosmetic surgery would be that it is something one does “in order to feel better about myself in this culture that has made me feel inadequate as I am.” When a person says she modifies her appearance “for me,” Bordo writes, that person appeals to “constructions” in which “‘me’ is imagined as a pure and precious inner space, an ‘authentic’ and personal reference point untouched by external values and demands. A place where we live free and won’t be pushed around.”

But do these talk show guests correctly and completely describe their motivations for television cameras? When sociologist Laurie Essig researched her book “American Plastic” (2010), she found that most United States cosmetic surgery patients are not wealthy by American standards and that the vast majority pay for their procedures on credit. Interviewees explained their choice to Essig by claiming that they expected their improved appearance to help them in their careers and marriages. Far from using cosmetic surgery to reflect their pure inner essence, their surgeries were, Essig concluded, “a response to economic insecurity.”

Expressing one’s authentic inner self

If finding, touching and expressing one’s authentic inner self were as simple as going under the knife, more people would line up for surgery as part of their spiritual journeys. On the contrary: Authenticity is not an easy purchase. Literature reflects this through its explorations of human emotion, psychological needs and moral questions. “In classics from ‘Don Quixote’ to ‘The Catcher in the Rye,'” Stephen Prothero reflected in his book “God Is Not One” (2010), “the hero is not the person who commands great armies or gathers great wealth but he (and, increasingly, she) who avoids the fate of the fake and the phony. But this is heroic only because it is so difficult.”

None of this discussion is meant to imply that cosmetic surgery is an immoral or bad choice. It is only meant to suggest that the purposes of undergoing such significant expense and pain are obscure even to those who choose it. Most people want to be “true” to themselves, in the medieval sense of the word, implying loyalty. Few want to be phonies, deceiving everyone including themselves.

Why, then, do people display such a wide range of self-expression and self-justification to others? Why do they change their opinions significantly over the course of their lives? It is not only because there is broad diversity among human individuals, nor because some of these individuals have keener self-insight than others (although that is part of it). It is also because there is genuine rational disagreement about certain human universals, namely about the most reliable pathways to happiness and the nearest true meaning of life.

Authenticity is difficult

Authenticity is difficult because, as Bordo suggests, there is no personal space “untouched by external values and demands.” Human beings’ private needs are always interlaced with the particularities of their worlds. Others have needs that must be attended to; they have expectations that must be humored. Without playing by some basic social rules, one cannot even buy a meal in the marketplace, let alone lead a satisfying, rich life. Everyone is caught in a web of dependency and care, a web that changes over time, yet never lets one go completely.

Acknowledging the complexity of authenticity is just the beginning; identifying its content is a lifelong process. Part of it is the luck of the draw — the unique character of each person that has already begun to form at birth — but authenticity is not merely a given fact about oneself to be discovered. As a person, through a series of choices, directs her own growth and influences her surroundings, her authentic nature is colored by her choices. Each person thereby co-creates her own authentic self.

Self-knowledge is always readily accessible

While human personalities are partially self-creating and self-chosen on some level, this does not imply that self-knowledge is always readily accessible. “What kind of knowledge is ‘I know myself and what I would do’?” asked Robert A. Burton in “On Being Certain” (2008). An obscure kind indeed. It is one thing to speculate about what a novel situation might feel like or imagine how one would behave. Indeed, there is character-building value in such thought experiments. But it is another thing to have a sense of certainty about it.

People usually do not know what they would think or what they would do in any given situation until they are in it, when they are forced to discover who they “really” are and to choose who they will really be in that moment. This leads to the question of whether there is no enduring true self at all, but an ever-shifting character that may be situationally dependent.


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