I have been curious about the concept of being “true to yourself” (i.e. honoring one’s true self) for a while. It’s a motto for some and an aspiration for others. This article will provide you with deeper (psychological and scientific) insight into the phenomenon and offer a broader understanding of what it really means to be true to yourself.
I chose to approach this subject (and this article) from the opposite end of the spectrum: the converse of being true to yourself which is being false (in behavior, action, or choice) to one’s true self. In doing so I realized that when people make the claim of being true to themselves there is an automatic assumption that they know who they are – which has to be a prerequisite to recognizing when you are being true to yourself, right? Otherwise you have the basis for self-deception. Psychologists define self-deception as the act of deceiving oneself or the state of being deceived by oneself.
While conducting research for this article I stumbled across the writing of Austin Cline who has also written on the topic in Sometimes We Mislead Even Ourselves in which he writes: For you to actually deceive someone, you must know the truth but then lead someone to believe the opposite. If you get someone to believe something which is false but were never aware that it was false, you cannot be accused of deception. You were wrong, but you weren’t deceiving anyone.
That’s a thought-provoking conundrum. But what if the person doesn’t know the truth? This begets the question: can you be true to your false self? I contend that you can due to the fact that most people simply do not know who they really are, and therefore, are simply guilty of self-deception. We have all deceived ourselves at some point in life. Many marriages, friendships, and careers are sustained by self-deception. People subconsciously employ self-deception as a survival strategy. Teenagers use self-deception to get attention, win affection, and gain acceptance.
Austin continues: the process of self-deception represents a conflict between the conscious and unconscious portions of our minds. We may be faced with reasons that tell us that something is false, but the strength of our desires, biases, and prejudices work against us, causing us to develop the belief that it is true after all.
So the longer a lie is told to one’s self, the more that lie becomes credible. It also becomes necessary in order to continue reaping the benefits that are associated with it. Before long the true self is supplanted by the deceived self which must be nurtured, and the lie gets perpetuated. This often results in confirmation bias which aids self-deception. In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs. In other words, we seek information to support our beliefs because we believe what we want or need to believe.
Michael Shermer stated in the September 2002 issue of Scientific American: Smart people believe that biases are some of the non-smart reasons we have for arriving at beliefs; the confirmation bias is perhaps worse than most because it actively keeps us from arriving at the truth and allows us to wallow in comforting falsehood and nonsense. This bias also tends to work closely with other biases and prejudices. The more emotionally involved we are with a belief the more likely it is that we will manage to ignore whatever facts or arguments might tend to undermine it.
Just to be clear on this: self-deception is strengthened by confirmation bias and is unintentional because one is not aware of it. Many confuse it with deception which is not the same thing. Deception is willful and starts with knowing the truth. It is marked by the careful construction of a facade (a false, superficial, or artificial appearance or effect) that is used to deceive and manipulate others for some selfish gain.
As Austin eloquently points out: the deception of others is typically regarded as a moral flaw, self-deception is usually treated as a reasoning flaw. And what are the causes of self-deception? Why is it so difficult to be yourself? Why do people lack authenticity? What motivates us to do what we do? And most importantly, what does it really mean to be true to yourself?
Psychologist Edward Deci, and author of Why We Do What We Do, supplied many of the answers that I was seeking. He writes: Many modern psychologists and sociologists view the self as socially programmed, which means that people’s concepts of themselves are said to develop as the social world defines them. The development of self is significantly influenced by the social world, but is not constructed by that world. Instead, individuals play an active role in the development of self, and true self develops as the social world supports the individual’s activity. True self begins with the intrinsic self – with our inherent interests and potentials. False self begins when we attempt to gain contingent love or acceptance.
When someone is only willing to give us love under certain conditions (set by them) or accept us based upon rules (set by them), that’s contingent love and acceptance. These are external rewards that compel us into action. It’s a common theme that pervades almost every area of life; especially work and relationships which are the two arenas in which self-deception runs most rampant. They are the source of people’s greatest stress.
Work and relationships represent the domains that are the most challenging for us to be true to ourselves because we are subconsciously thinking, “How much of my true self can I reveal before jeopardizing my acceptance, or risking rejection?” These are the undercurrents. The intrinsic self needs to be free – or at least afforded more freedom – without consequence.
Either way you slice it, not being accepted or being rejected has the same end result: the withholding of coveted rewards and benefits. As long as people are motivated by contingent love and acceptance, they are susceptible to their controlling effects which influence their ability to be true to themselves. Deci references this occurrence in his book as introjection. He describes introjects as powerful motivators which relentlessly cause people to think, feel, or behave in a certain way.
One of the most powerful introjects is fear. In particular, fear of losing something. Employers thrive on wielding the power which is ascribed to them by employees. The fear that people have of losing their jobs is palpable. Insurance salesmen make an easier sale when you have a greater fear of losing your life. In relationships mates threaten the withdrawal of some resource, reward, or benefit for control. The fear of losing respect, money, friends, status, beauty, etc., all contribute to introjection which is the process that facilitates the emergence of a false self. It’s a controlling process through which people can lose contact with who they really are, while pursuing what they really want.
This brings us back to contingent love and acceptance on which Deci writes: when controlled, people act without a personal sense of endorsement. Their behavior is not an expression of the self, for the self has been subjugated to the controls. In this condition, people can be reasonably described as alienated. To the extent that a behavior is not autonomous it is controlled.
At this point, it all started to make sense to me. This put me one step closer to answering the question: what does being true to yourself really mean? Once again, I referred to my goldmine to bring it all into focus. Deci claims that we all have three needs that form the basis of our motivations: the need for autonomy, the need for competency, and the need for relatedness.
It’s important to fully understand the definitions of these three vital needs so a brief description of each is in order: autonomy means to act freely with a sense of volition and choice, and to act in accordance to one’s self. It means feeling free and volitional in one’s actions.
Competence is when a person takes on – and in his or her own view – meets optimal challenges and feels effective as a result. At the very core, people need to feel useful, as if they are making a contribution, or that they are a part of something. Studies show that there’s a direct correlation between employee job satisfaction and recognized contribution to the success of their company.
Relatedness, is the need to love and be loved, to care and be cared for. More on this in a moment.
Of the three needs, autonomy may be the important because it fuels growth and allows people to experience themselves as they really are. Studies have shown that the person who feels competent and autonomous, who directs his or her own life, is immeasurably better off than the person who does not. When autonomous, people are fully willing to do what they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment. Their actions emanate from their true sense of self, so they are being authentic.
According to Deci, authenticity necessitates behaving autonomously – acting in accord with one’s true inner self. The key to understanding autonomy, authenticity and self is the psychological process called integration. Various aspects of a person’s psyche differ in the degree to which they have been integrated or brought into harmony with the person’s innate, core self. This is the fertile soil in which the seeds of your true self are planted. It’s imperative to integrate all of the aspects of your true self into your life. Failure to do so results in alienation from your core (“true”) self. This is when people begin to make statements like, “I’ve lost touch with myself” or “I’ve forgotten who I am.”
Some will assert that losing yourself, or forgetting who you really are is actually worse than not knowing who you really are. At least you’ve had the opportunity to be true to yourself (for some length of time), where as those who have never known who they are, will only have the false pleasure of being true to their false selves – which to them will seem real.
As people grow older, they change. This core self that Deci writes about makes absolute sense in the realm of marriage, which by its very design, requires concessions to be made. Unfortunately, one of the concessions which is often made is the honoring of the true self at the expense of appeasing a spouse. When concessions do not reflect an authentic decision, they have a controlling effect.
It is my opinion that fifty percent of marriages fail because half of the people getting married choose the wrong person. Another twenty-five percent fail because one of the spouses is giving their true self to the false self of their mate and they eventually discover it. The remaining twenty-five percent (and yes, I’m being extremely optimistic and generous with this percentage) are comprised of individuals who are being true to themselves – in life and in the context of their marriages. My research supports this belief.
As long as we continue to adhere to this romantic (albeit foolish) notion that commitment is an obligation instead of a volitional promise, divorce will continue to be on the agenda of far too many married couples. Marriage promises that are made are only as authentic as those who make them. Women should not seek Mr. Right, but Mr. Authentic, and have the patience to allow his authenticity to emerge. Ditto for men seeking a wife.
Deci writes on this subject: In these mature relationships, people freely give and they freely withhold giving. There is a balance of getting what one needs for oneself and giving to the other. Giving is not at the expense of one’s self but is wholly endorsed by the self. What characterizes the most mature and satisfying relationships is that the true self of one person relates to the true self of another. This is what is meant by the phrase, “Someone I can relate to.”
While work and relationships might be the leading cause of stress that arises from the challenges of being true to yourself, they can also help to define and liberate one’s true self. Each exposes you to inauthentic situations that can be used to claim your authenticity. You can turn away from the controls that give birth and rise to one’s false self, and turn to your true self in the process. Those are defining moments; you must choose how you will define yourself, or the situation from which your false self arises will define you.
So how do you become true to yourself? And what does it really mean to be true to yourself?
Paying attention to who, what, when, where, and how you feel most comfortable is the first step. Establishing your values and boundaries will get you half way there. Your ability to be internally motivated to do what you want based on desire – not obligation – will move you farther along. Integrating your values and beliefs into your life on a daily basis so that they are consistent with your behavior, actions, and choices – whether in a relationship or not – brings you home to your true self.
Once you arrive at this place that is foreign to so many, you will inherit the job of being true to yourself; a full time job that gives you the strength to fight for what you believe in, and a voice with which to express your opinions. Being true to yourself will allow you to create the conditions and the rules by which you live and free you from the control of others, bringing you inner peace with who you are, and who you are not, and making you more accepting of what you have and don’t have. Most importantly, you will be able to find love and acceptance of your true self, which in turn will afford you – the real you – non-contingent love and acceptance from others.
Gian Fiero is a seasoned educator, speaker and consultant with a focus on business development and music/entertainment industry operations.