To thine own self be true

The idea that we should be true to ourselves has a long and honourable history, and also has much to commend it. However, much depends on how it is interpreted. A very common interpretation is that it involves being clear what your ‘true’ self is and then acting in accordance with that. This entails digging deep into yourself to find out what your ‘true’ or real self is.

This is highly problematic, as it is based on an oversimplified understanding of what it means to have a ‘self’. The technical term for this is ‘essentialism’, because it is based on the false idea that everyone has a fixed ‘essence’, an unchanging underlying personality or identity. This is what is seen as a ‘true self’ – the ‘real me’, as it were.

So, what is wrong with this assumption? Why is it problematic? The short answer is that it is just too simplistic to account for the highly complex processes that shape who we are. It also assumes that we are fixed entities that stay pretty much the same throughout our lives. It therefore fails to appreciate the dynamic nature of selfhood. If our ‘true’ self were fixed, then no one could change, and yet we see evidence of people changing all around us.

What we need is a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to have a ‘self’. One such approach is to see our ‘self’ not as a fixed entity on a journey through life, but to understand our self to be that journey. This means understanding human existence as a constant process of ‘becoming’. This is not only a more accurate picture of selfhood (in so far as it fits more closely with the reality of people’s lives), it is also a more positive one. This is because the idea of constantly ‘becoming’ offers much greater scope for change, growth and development.

And this is where the notion of being true to yourself comes into its own. It is not about finding the real you, but more a case of becoming the you that you can be – fulfilling your potential. In other words: don’t try to find yourself, make yourself! Of course, that’s not necessarily easy, but trying to be who or what you want to be is what being true to yourself is all about.

A key part of this is the concept of ‘self-disempowerment’. It refers to the ways in which we prevent ourselves from moving forward. We can question our own ability, undermine our own confidence by relying on negative self-talk and generally convincing ourselves that there is nothing we can do to change our circumstances. Defeatism and cynicism are extreme forms of this, but milder forms are very common. For example, many people will not try a new experience because they have already convinced themselves that it is not for them. Similarly, many people are not open to learning; they stick to their existing views and perceptions and are not prepared to consider alternatives.

These are not just individual characteristics; these patterns are often ‘taught’ through social experiences. For example, sexist structures and cultures can make women and men feel trapped within their own gender roles. Similarly, the education system can, for many people, give strong messages about what they are and are not capable of – creating unnecessary barriers to self-fulfilment (or what the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, called ‘self-overcoming’ – which can be seen as the opposite of self-disempowerment).

So, with these thoughts in mind, we can see that there is far more to being true to yourself than finding your ‘true’ self. ‘To thine own self be true’ challenges us to embrace the opportunities for growth and development we have and not write ourselves off (or allow societal prejudices to write us off).