By Yulia Petrina (Bugle Team)
For millennia, the idea of discovering our true selves has teased humanity, and our modern society hasn’t lost interest in this quest. As Carl Jung said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”
Today, finding out who you “truly are” seems easier than ever before. Besides therapy, we have a wide selection of personality tests and theories at our fingertips, ranging from complex and scientific to popular and easily understood (think MBTI), the idea being that behind learned behaviors, fears, and other obstacles hides the “true self” waiting to be discovered.
While “self” in the broad sense encompasses not just personality traits but a wide range of characteristics from memories to appearance, when talking about finding out “who we are” we usually mean our personality traits. Therefore, we can enlist the help of various personality theories to figure ourselves out.
Psychodynamic models (such as Freud’s Id, Ego and Superego) claim that personality is developed in childhood and afterwards can only be changed through interventions. Dispositional theories rely on identifying personality traits; according to various models, there can be as few as five (the Five Factor Model, or Big Five) or as many as sixteen (Cattell’s 16PF system). Biological approaches (neurophysiological, behavioral genetic and evolutionary personality theories) try to explain personality in terms of physiology, genetics or adaptability and are linked to dispositional theories in that they try to measure traits using psychometric tests. Cognitive and humanistic theories see personality as dynamic and explore how people subjectively experience their worlds. Learning theory models of personality (which rely on behaviorist and social-cognitive paradigms) suggest the idea that we are the sum of our actions – in the words of Aristotle, “we are what we repeatedly do”.
To some extent, all these theories assume there is a true self to be found, be it stable or pliable, composed of five or sixteen traits, shaped by genetics or experience. However, another camp of thought exists, and it’s that no theory can give us the clue to finding that elusive true self. Reminiscent of the ancient Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion, some claim that there is no single true self to be found. Depending on how you look at this, it can be either worrying or liberating. Let’s have a look.
Hume argued that the self is not some separate entity, but is composed of related but ever-changing features, so even though you might think you are the same person as five years ago, in fact, you have gradually become a different one.
Another hypothesis comes from the Identity Narrative theory, which suggests that our selves are stories we tell about ourselves, constantly changed and updated as we acquire new information and experiences. According to D.P. McAdams, we need to have a coherent narrative about ourselves in order to have a healthy mental life.
Theories that accept that the self is always in a state of flux explain quite well why we often feel so alienated from our past selves. Incidentally, the Narrative Identity theory could also explain why people are generally so reluctant to change – after all, if you change one chapter in your book, you might have to revise the whole plot, and you can’t do that in five minutes.
Yet another idea is that everyone has multiple selves. In fact, in his book “Psychobabble: Exploring the Myths of the Self-Help Generation” (an entertaining and refreshing read, by the way), Dr. Stephen Briers goes so far as to jokingly suggest that we might all suffer from very mild DID (Dissociated Identity Disorder), shifting seamlessly between our different selves in our everyday life according to the situation we find ourselves in.
All of this might sound rather scary. We need to make sense of the world and be able to make predictions about it. We rely on having some idea of who we are for feeling confident and secure, and we find it comforting to think that we know, at least to some extent, who the people around us are. Despite our modern-age obsession with change and progress, most of us humans like stability, familiarity and certainty.
So what are we to do? Should we reject these counterintuitive ideas that there is no stable anchor within us or embrace them?
Perhaps the answer is that everyone should decide for themselves. Used in the right way, even popular personality tools such as MBTI can make you more mindful of your inner life – and isn’t that pretty useful when things like behavioral economics are so popular? On the other hand, you might find it quite liberating that you are not confined to only one type and way of behavior. After all, do we really have to label it?
Baggini, J. (2011, November). Is there a real you? [Video file] Video posted to: https://www.ted.com/talks/julian_baggini_is_there_a_real_you
Briers, S. (2012) Psychobabble: Exploring the myths of the self-help generation. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Butler, T. & Scurlock-Evans, L. (2013) Personality and individual differences. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Vazire, S. & Wilson, T.D. (Eds.) (2012) Handbook of self-knowledge. New York: The Guilford Press.