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“Be Yourself!” - What Does That Even Mean? The Messy Question of Identity and Vertical Development
In my years of working with adults in learning contexts, I’ve often heard one piece of advice echoing through the halls of self-help, personal and leadership development: "Be Yourself!” or “Be Authentic!” I’ve embraced that notion for a long time, before starting to find it problematic. What does ‘authentic’ even mean? Is this notion assuming the existence of a singular, fixed, ‘genuine’ self? But what if the self is not a static 'one thing,' but a vibrant, dynamic, 'many things'? What if our identities are not monolithic, but multifaceted? Rather than being confined to one 'true self,' might we be a kaleidoscope of selves that emerge, change, and adapt in response to different situations, relationships, and life stages?
Some schools of thought in adult development - particularly Jane Loevinger’s and Susanne Cook-Greuter’s ‘ego-development’ theory - are especially concerned with how our relationship to our own identity evolves over time. Cook Greuter sees the ‘ego’ as our meaning-making agent - an inner ‘story-teller’ that constantly narrates and makes sense of our day-to-day experiences. This storyteller evolves over time, growing through increasingly complex stages of development and with every growth spurt is able to make sense of experience in a more complex way. Cook Greuter describes the ego as a part of us which constantly explores the outer world - our external experience - and our inner world - the ‘self’ - making sense of both and helping us navigate life in effective ways.
When looking inwards, and asking “Who am I?”, the ego seems to come up with different answers, depending on one’s stage of development. At the earlier stages, the ‘self’ is not really clearly defined - people might identify with their immediate needs/wants or with their group/culture. Later on, in the median stages of development, they might start to get a feel for their own uniqueness and a stronger sense of identity, to the point of being certain of who they are.
In the Western culture, we seem to have become enamoured with this process of identity-building, which underscores our individualistic paradigm and have transformed ‘finding our one true self’ into a goal and ‘knowing yourself’ into the highest measure of maturity. I believe that many of our narratives around the importance of ‘authenticity’ are rooted in this idea that the pinnacle of human development is having clarity over ‘self’ as a solid, clearly defined and boundaried ‘thing’.
In fact, in developmental theories, the monolithic self is merely the halfway mark of human growth. There are several stages beyond that ‘median’, where the same individuals who used to be certain of ‘who they were’ start to question those clearly defined identities and begin a reverse process of deconstruction of the self. It turns out, genuinely mature people will be way less able to articulate a clear answer to the question “What is your true self” than one might expect. And they will be more likely to see ‘authenticity’ as a contextual quality, as they might be authentically themselves in myriad ways, instead of just one. Sadly this late-stage aspect of development and its many benefits are much less discussed and much less understood.
This perspective, that we should stop looking for our ‘authentic self’, might seem daunting and confusing, but it might also be liberating. The idea that we possess a multitude of selves within us opens up a world of possibilities. It allows us to tap into different aspects of ourselves, navigate the complexities of life with greater flexibility, and grow in ways we might not have anticipated.
Case in point, when I moved to Australia and started my PhD in vertical development, I left behind a thriving L&D business in my home country, which I had spent over a decade building. I was at a point in my life when I felt quite clear on who I was, what my values were, and what ‘being true to myself meant’. I was pretty sure I didn’t need that much external validation and my internal compass was strong and clear. I was also very proud of my authenticity, which I saw as a personal quality and a value to uphold.
While we as a family had spent two years preparing for the move, I discovered that nothing could have really prepared me for the profound shock of finding myself in a new country, different culture, with no business connections and very few friendships, learning how to become a researcher after I had been so comfortable in my previous identity of coach, facilitator and teacher and having to navigate all of that while supporting my husband and child through their own painful transition into a new life.
This ‘disorienting dilemma’ around who I was without my business, without my friends, without all the comfort of my knowledge and the years-long validation from my clients (which I had depended on way more than I’d ever thought) threw me into a world of pain. Who was this previously intelligent person who had to learn to do good research, turn it into coherent academic papers and felt genuinely stupid multiple times per day? Who was this short-tempered woman who snapped at her partner and child? Who was this insecure person who felt awkward in social situations and didn’t know how to connect with people anymore? Where had my brightness and wisdom gone, both of which I’d considered cornerstones of my identity?
It took a full year of having no idea who I was any more to start piecing my identity back up. As I emerged from it I realised that the whole concept of ‘one self’ made no sense now. The move had not merely thrown me into ‘fallback’ and reactivity, but it had unveiled genuine aspects of myself I had no idea were there. I realised that giving up the illusion of ‘one true self’ had opened up unexpected opportunities.
For example, the ‘stupid self’ is now in the open and co-exists with my ‘intelligent self’ in relative harmony (most of the time). With an awareness of these two selves, my ‘authenticity’ often means I simply acknowledge my limitations way more openly than I used to in the past. I’m more willing to ask for help, more ready to admit I don’t know, more comfortable being confused and less embarrassed about being wrong.
In my work with leaders, I have found that those who embrace their multifaceted identities tend to be more adaptive, resilient, and, interestingly, tend to be perceived as overall more authentic because they simply allow themselves to be who they are in the moment, not expecting that to stay the same the next moment or the next day, nor are they as attached to being ‘just one way’. They can also relate to others more authentically, understanding that others too are complex, evolving beings.
Robert Louis Stevenson's wisdom gave us
"There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign."
Is it possible that, in the exploration of our multifaceted selves, we might be mere travellers navigating the ever-evolving landscape of our identities? What might be gained by embracing the diversity and dynamism of an ever-moving self? Could change and growth perhaps become less painful? And, finally, how might our lived experience of authenticity be enriched if it was not about adhering to a fixed 'self,' but about being true to the many 'selves' we can identify within us, and curious about the many others we haven’t yet met?
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