When we are children, we are delightfully un-self-conscious. Then we gradually become obsessed with ourselves: who are we, what are we? What are we not? What do I look like from without myself? What does it feel like to be inside of myself? We try on different personas, costumes, and mannerisms. Am I punk, goth, jock, mathlete? We sort ourselves into categories with other kids going through the same process of self-identification; by observing the people we associate with we learn something about who we are. Happily for everyone, this angsty period passes, and we find a middle ground, hovering somewhere between blissful lack of self-awareness and painful self-absorption. We shuck off the costumes and extremes of those years and learn to be a bit more flexible in our identity. We can be a math whiz, and like punk rock, and play tennis. It’s a relief to learn to accept shades of gray in ourselves and in others. But still, even as adults we cling to the notion that there is some portion of ME who is solid, crystallized, real, immutable. We assume and even require some perceived internal consistency and stability in order to understand ourselves and others. We need this in order to predict our own and others’ behavior, to appreciate motives and preferences.
But what about the idea what we are capable of great and real change? That people can grow and develop and constantly change for the better? What about the idea of being socially versatile, adapting our behavior to fit the needs of others and of the situation? Maybe there is no kernel of me-ness. Maybe we are just an accumulation of habits formed on the basis of responses to the environment, patterns created as a result of reinforcements and rewards and consequences. Or maybe we do have an intrinsic selfhood that is immutable, but which still affords us the freedom to behave outside of the constraints of itself.
There is evidence to support both the idea that we form enduring core self-concepts, as well as the idea that we are capable of considerable change. In just one example I came across recently, researchers exploring the correlation between men’s height and their salary found that if you control for teenage height, the correlation disappears. In other words, height at adolescence affects adult earnings because it contributes to a self-confidence that the person leverages across their career. All that self-involved angst has some serious consequences for the self that emerges from the ashes. And yet, as we have discussed previously, research also shows that we do have immense power to change ourselves over time. Even small acts – such as adopting “power poses” – can alter both our confidence and the way we are perceived by others.
The belief in the constancy of the self is the basis for the concept of “authenticity.” When people behave in ways that we would not have predicted (including ourselves), we question their authenticity. As social creatures, it is unnerving to say the least to believe we cannot know others or begin to predict their behavior. When we hear of some horrific crime, people often say, stunned – but he/she seemed like such a nice person! But in clinging to the notion that people are static and inert entities, we fail to appreciate that our “self” is rarely a singularity but more like a dynamic program – a function that allows us to operate in the external world. We may project one self at work, another self with our immediate family, another side with friends.
We need to reconcile these differences. In order to direct our own growth thoughtfully, we must address the tension between seeing ourselves as whole and constant, yet under great pressure (from both within and without) to change and evolve. We need to dip our toes back into the swamp of adolescence and ask ourselves, who do we WANT to be? What do we want to achieve? We must observe our own behavior – who are we now, and are we happy with that person? What behaviors or skills would we need to adopt in order to close that gap while maintaining a coherent sense of self?
From a professional development standpoint, there are lots of alarming statistics about the percentage of people who derail during important career transitions. The consequence of failing to find the sweet spot between being “true to yourself” and stretching out of your comfort zone can be disastrous to careers. As illustrated in the stories in this recent HBR piece, there is a difference between being “authentic” and “doing what is comfortable.” As our careers evolve, we often find ourselves in positions that require things that don’t play to our existing strengths. How we respond in these situations can either stifle or accelerate our development. These transitions also give us the opportunity to gain greater clarity on the crystallized portions of our self-concept – that which you don’t want to give up – and the areas you want to change or are open to being adaptable about.
I envision the self to be like a house that is perpetually under construction. Some rooms may be small and close, and we need to move slowly and carefully so as to not knock things over. Other rooms are so cavernous we can throw up our hands and dance around with ease and joy. But we can fully live in the entire house and still be our whole self. We can be authentic, and still be brave and grow. We need only cultivate the insight into who we want to be.
This above all: To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. — Hamlet, Shakespeare