Everyone has a sense of self. It is a very complex thing that sits between what we feel about ourselves, what our genetics determines and how others see us. It is essential not only for our well-being but for our very survival as an individual. It should be stable and constant but also amenable to change if circumstances require it.
If such a sense of self is stable, true and acknowledged by others it makes us feel comfortable and secure in the world. It tells us and others who we are, what we do, what we expect and what others expect of us. If such a sense of self is unstable, false or disregarded by others it makes us question ourselves, it makes us suffer, we feel alone, helpless, like we are drifting through life without much control.
Because most of our sense of self is initiated and built up by our immediate family and close social groups we are at the mercy of others and it is a sad fact of life that many people do not develop a stable and true sense of self by the time they reach adulthood. Then they go out into the world without an identity that is true to themselves and suffer from more difficulties than others. There are three paths one could choose. Doing the hard work of looking deeply at yourself and building or strengthening your sense of self. Borrowing an identity and making it fit to your sense of self. Or simply drifting through the world, maybe hitching yourself to one person or another, becoming reclusive or aimlessly chasing different things. Today I want to talk about the first two paths.
Building the True Self
This is the hard path. But one that can lead to lasting happiness or at least contentment. It means examining yourself and really seeing who you are. It is difficult. Many people need help from friends, family, partners or professionals. It is painful because no one is without guilt or responsibility for one’s own suffering. It also means reconciling the way you see yourself with the way others see you. There is only ever so much otherness before you become alien to most people. Depending on your natural need for human connection it will always be a balancing act. But a stable and true self can overcome adversity, it can find and sustain relationships with others even when their identities are different. It makes you comfortable and secure in the world as much as it is possible. But it is hard work full of introspection and painful discoveries to reach such a true self. It is worth it eventually.
Protecting the Fragile Self
For some people this process is too painful. They might never begin it or stop halfway in between. But they do not want to drift through life any more. So they borrow an identity and take on a false sense of self to mask their fragility. It is not completely false, it will fit some parts but not others. It might be too large or too small for you. But most importantly it will not be stable and true.
The suffering parts of your fragile self are still there but just pushed into the background. It will be a constant tug of war between those parts and your new borrowed identity and you will be torn. Because parts of your borrowed identity are certainly true and you do not want to give them up. But deep down your soul feels not true to yourself. So you have to constantly defend your borrowed partially true and partially fitting self. This is not so difficult as long as you are on your own. But the world can be a cruel place and people can smell the incongruities in your false identity. They know and if only subconsciously that something is not right with you. And you will pick up on this pretty quickly too.
So what do you do? You might find people who are similar so you can share your borrowed selves. In fact all of you together can perfect this identity and make it a common goal. But even better you can constantly validate each other to keep the nagging parts of your true but fragile self at bay. The part that says I am not sure this is really me. But of course you are now dependent on the whims of others. If they change the identity you need to change too. Or you fight them and invent more identities with other people. Still you are not closer to your true self.
Then you can not stay within this circle all the time. You are still part of the world and not only do you need to go out, others might come in. And they will see the same incongruities just not only in you. What do you do now? Well you protect the fragile self again. This time not against the nagging part of your soul but against the people who might question your ill fitting identity. And because those people without their knowing speak for parts of your suffering soul, your own doubts about your borrowed self, they quickly become a danger that needs to be defeated.
But you only defeat yourself. Because those people could have been the key to your true self. They might be right about you or wrong, they might be friendly and helpful or obnoxious and dismissive but they could have helped along your way to a true self if you had just listened. But after a certain point people stop listening to you too. They can only bear so much and do not want to be part of your false self. Most people who recognize self-deception will not keep up the charade for long. It would mean deceiving their selfs as well.
Our sense of self can not exist without others. Very small babies don’t have a sense of self yet. Their self is lived through their parents’ reactions until they build their own. As long as you are not an eremite you have to reconcile your sense of self with the outside world. Even the eremite can’t just think certain realities about himself away. Your self needs to be true to your reality and to your soul but also to the reality shared by others. It will always be a compromise and the true self knows this and the places where one can choose an identity and where one has to adapt.
If you have a borrowed self and proclaim to be X than X has to exist in the real world. X has to be seen as real by at least some people who are not X. X needs to be different from A or Y in a predictable way. In fact X has to be predictable and describable and can’t be fitted to wherever it needs to fit. X needs to fit into a broader category and this category needs to contain more than just X. Proclaiming that other people do not understand X or rejecting evidence contrary to X does not make X any truer. Sometimes people will not accept X and it might take some effort until they do. But eventually X has to be ontologically true.
Having a true self is truly wonderful. As we develop culturally and scientifically our range of what a true self can be will become ever greater. But the true self has a basis in you as a physical being, a basis in your soul or psyche and a basis in the world around you. The false self resides in your mind with only tenuous connections to all three. Your mind does not make X true. That would be solipsism in the end.
Your self needs to be true and your identity needs to conform to its three roots (that is your view of yourself, your physical reality and the way others see you). Protecting a fragile self with any kind of borrowed identity will only ever lead to suffering. And sometimes it is not easy to see if a self is true or just very well protected by a borrowed identity. Sometimes we walk both paths at the same time. The way forward will always have painful stages but others might help you. Be wary of the ones who sell you their identity and seek those who can expose the truth about yourself and who do not care about the kind of self you build as long as it is true.
This is one of the more “brainy” posts. I’d love to read your comments about it. Especially when they are critical or questioning. I might even revise and improve the text depending on what you say.
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