Stop searching for your true self – it doesn’t exist

26 Jun 2024

Life can get quite complicated - and sometimes, you need help from the world's greatest philosophers to figure it out. In her blog, Jara Majerus looks at life through the philosophical monocle, employing the help of some of history's brightest thinkers. This week, Jara asks: who am I? And gets help from Erving Goffman in answering it.

In the last couple of weeks, I spent time with many different people. With old friends from Austria and new friends from Nijmegen, with family and with people I didn’t know well yet. And meeting that many different people in a short time made me feel wobbly.

I tend to meet different groups of people with different versions of myself. Depending on who I am with, I switch from childish to grown-up, from loud to shy, and from overly polite to blunt, my personality wobbling back and forth like a crooked chair.

Being different versions of myself is something that caused me quite some stomach aches when I was younger. I was convinced that having multiple selves meant I was unauthentic and fake. And if there were two things I did not want to be growing up, it was unauthentic and fake. I wanted to be unapologetically ‘real’ .

Over the years, the question of authenticity stuck with me. I always imagined that, somewhere buried deeply within my body, my true self was hidden. I imagined it to be my task to set out, find it, and bring it to the forefront, never to lose it again. Nonetheless, to my surprise, I haven’t been able to find it up until today.

‘I always imagined that, somewhere buried deeply within my body, my true self was hidden’

But recently, I learned that the true self might not be what I thought it was. Sociologist and writer Erving Goffman argues that there is no such thing as a true self. Instead, he is convinced that Shakespeare was right when he said that all the world’s a stage: “We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us.”

According to Goffman, we are all performing different roles based on the people we interact with. Goffman even takes it a step further when he argues that there is no identifiable performer behind all these roles we are playing. In other words, there is no underlying true self beneath all the costumes we put on. Instead, we are all our costumes.

When applying this to my struggle for authenticity, I realized that I was a fool. I didn’t see the wood for the trees: who I am is not one version of myself that I need to unlock. It is who I have been in all my interactions with all the different people I have ever met. I am childish and grown-up, shy and loud, overly polite, and blunt. And it’s time that I start wearing all these costumes of mine proudly.

Read Jara Majerus's blogs here

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