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On Not Having a True Self

‘This above all: to thine own self be true.’

One of many lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that have become everyday English phrases.

They are the words of Polonius, chief minister to the King, to his son Laertes before he heads off to university. Here, says Polonius, is the grandest truth a young person should carry with them through life: be true to yourself.

Today Polonius’ words resonate like never before. In an age without absolutes, the one absolute is to be true to myself – unswayed by the opinions of others or fearful of others’ judgements. Polonius’ speech is often quoted to inspire others to authentic living.

But today it’s about more than being true to myself. It’s about a relentless quest for my True Self, expressing my True Self, needing others to validate my True Self.

The search for the True Self has become our dominant cultural myth.

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True Self as Cultural Myth

The cultural myth of the True Self can be found in all sorts of places:

• Song lyrics. It’s at its most blatant in Disney soundtracks, where every other song urges, ‘Don’t hide who you are; don’t hold back your True Self; even if others don’t understand’. I’m a regular gig-goer at small London venues. Being true to the authentic Self has been the main lyrical theme of every one the young support-artists I’ve heard in recent months.

• Personal growth. Finding and connecting with the True Self has become a motif in personal growth, counselling, therapy and life-coaching. It’s seen as a route to inner peace, joy, healing, success, career advancement and fulfilled relationships.

• Spirituality. The search for the True Self is at the heart of many forms of spirituality – whether pagan, mystical, esoteric or Christian. New Age writer Deepak Chopra contrasts ‘everyday self’, or ‘ego-self’ with ‘true self’, saying the latter is who a person really is.

• Identity Politics. Owning my True Self is the main theme behind today’s identity politics, with its emphasis on knowing who I really am, and having my true, inner identity recognised and affirmed by society.

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Searching and Expressing

Our cultural myth goes something like this: I have a True Self, which is deeper and more authentic than the ephemera of daily life or my fluctuating moods. To live in harmony with my deep and authentic Self is to be fully alive, fully me.

Two things follow:

1) I must search for my True Self. It’s a quest, a pilgrimage, a journey, digging for treasure, an unlocking of secrets. Techniques and tools are offered in the search for my True Self: retreats, courses, meditations, positive thinking, podcasts, personality tests, changing my appearance, modifying my body.

The search for the True Self is a narrative of salvation, growth, evolution into destiny. It’s a story of Caterpillar-Self becoming Butterfly-Self. Life-coaching guru Tony Robbins warns darkly that failure to find my True Self will have serious consequences:

‘Are you thinking, “Finding myself seems like a lot of work”? It is. Creating a life that is fulfilling, purposeful and passionate is no accident. It takes work. And it starts with unlocking the secrets to how to find your true self. Then you can design a life that is in line with your personal destiny… Anything less, and you will always wonder how to find yourself – and never find out.’

2) I must express my True Self. Once found, my True Self needs to be displayed for all to see. I need to live my best life, speak my Truth, wear my Truth on a badge, T-shirt, or banner. Failure to live in full accord with my True Self, or have it validated by others, will be dire and destructive.

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True Self as Soul

What is the assumed worldview behind the cultural myth of True Self?

American trans writer Alok Vaid-Menon puts it this way: 'My personhood is not about what I look like, it’s about who I am… Because I am a soul. Invisible and irreducible to a body. The rest is just adornment.’

Likewise, Deepak Chopra: ‘The true self isn't a familiar term to most people, although it is close to what religion calls your soul, the purest part of yourself.’

It’s about a soul, a non-material core to my identity, that remains stable whatever the vicissitudes, moods, or changes of clothing each day might bring.

It follows that my truest identity is not physical. My body is secondary, changeable, playful, art, a work of curation, a project of becoming. What matters is that the outer is an expression of the sacred inner soul where my true identity resides. If I can find it, only I can know that deepest soulful truth of who I am.

The cultural myth of the True Self rests on the assumption that human beings have some sort of non-material core where the deepest, truest self is located. But is it true?

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Windows on the Soul

Back in ancient Greece, Plato and his followers developed the idea that every human being has an invisible, eternal soul that survives death. This influenced some strands of Christianity. Many Christians, and others, assume life after death means the death of the body, and survival of a non-material soul. This has found its way into Christian art down the centuries.

This is an area many have written on at length – including me, in my book Fashion & Style (a). Long since out of print, it explores bodily adornment and fashion in relation to faith and worldview. I continue to find the issues fascinating.

Its relevance here is this. An understanding of what it means to be human (Am I an eternal soul trapped in a material body? If not that, then what?) shapes how I view my identity.

If I want to find my True Self, the search is built on foundations argued over in disciplines such as anthropology, theological anthropology, sociology, and theoretical & philosophical psychology. Don’t worry about the labels – they’re just to say it’s not self-evident what it means to have a sense of self, and that clever people disagree about it.

An example. Some think of eternal life as disembodied souls going to heaven. But the Apostles’ Creed (and the Bible in various places) talks about ‘resurrection of the body’ – new embodied life. No emphasis on floaty, eternal souls surviving death, or a soul being the essential person. The idea that at death the whole person dies, and nothing survives until a future day of bodily resurrection, is arguably the position most faithful to the Bible and Creeds.

Similarly, most psychologists reject the idea of an invisible soul being a person’s True Self. Most humanists reject the idea of any kind of soul separate from the body. Most Buddhists don’t believe in a soul, eternal or otherwise – instead, they see the self as a temporary collection of matter, sensations and thoughts that dissolve at death.

Scientists rightly point out that the idea of the soul is unfalsifiable – it can’t be proved or disproved. It’s a matter of faith.

For what it’s worth, I argued in my fashion book that there is no soul. Adornment, texture, style, embodied existence, sexuality, are good in themselves. The body isn’t a temporary home to some invisible, immortal soul where a deep, enigmatic True Self lives. There’s no soul in tension with the body, no True Self in tension with an everyday, physical self. Matter matters.

I am my body; my body is me. I believed that then, and I believe it now.

The idea that we all have some sort of invisible soul, where a deeper, more authentic identity resides, underlies the cultural myth of the True Self. But it’s an unprovable faith position.

I happen to think the idea of a True Self is untrue, and more than a little damaging – despite the warm, fuzzy language that surrounds it.

Here are a few reasons why.

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Dangers of the True Self Cultural Myth

1) True Self is Open to Manipulation. It’s no coincidence that cults and other manipulative groups go big on the idea of a True Self. It’s a handy tool to open up a wedge between a person’s everyday life and thoughts, and some theoretical ideal state just beyond reach. The cult can then present itself as being the way to help the person reach an authentic selfhood they might never find otherwise:

These things we’re asking you to do, this money we’re asking you to give: it’s all for your own good. Don’t you want to show self-care? Don’t you want to invest in your own best life?

The 2020 BBC podcast The Orgasm Cult (warning: not for those with sensitive ears) tells the story of a group claiming to help women get in touch with their sexuality. One victim tells how she was isolated from family and friends, repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped, and left broken and in debt. She was told it was for her own good, to help her find her True Self and healing. Sexual brutality was a gateway that had to be gone through on her way to authenticity.

Plausible manipulators can claim to know better than you what your best interests are. They can point to a persona different from your everyday, ‘inauthentic’ self, claiming it’s who you ‘really' are. True Self offers an ideal framework for this kind of manipulation.

We don’t run away or fight, because our watchful dragons have been told it’s safe for them to sleep. After all, this person is helping me get in touch with who I really am, at my deepest level.

Authenticity is a currency as open to manipulation as any other – we’re just less likely to spot it (b).

2) True Self as Marketing Opportunity. When the True Self narrative opens a wedge between the mundane everyday and imagined authentic selves, this is fertile ground for marketing. In a consumer culture, I am always one purchase away from authenticity. This next product will help me be who I really am.

Yesterday I walked through central London’s shopping districts. The language of living my best life, being myself, being authentic, was everywhere. True Self is a dreamscape where images of my own potential are sold back to me, and my present inauthentic life disparaged.

Look at the words used by life-coach Tony Robbins, above. My True Self is a ‘secret’, needing to be ‘unlocked’, it will take ‘hard work’. I have a ‘personal destiny’ that might not happen if I do the wrong things. I’ll need to ‘design’ my life, according to a blueprint currently inaccessible to me. If I don’t put in the hard work, I’ll ‘always wonder how to find myself’, but will ‘never find out’; I’ll fail to have a life that is ‘fulfilling, purposeful and passionate’.

You might think your True Self should be the easiest thing in the world to find. Look in the mirror, have a coffee with an old friend who has known you for years.

Not a bit of it. Apparently, finding your True Self is a gruelling journey into Mordor, in search of a hidden secret that you may not recognise. It will be your own fault if you don’t find it. And if, through superhuman effort, you do find it, you will spend every day anxiously living it out in correct ways, or risk for ever settling for an inauthentic second-best.

Deepak Chopra’s tone is softer, but his message similar. The pitiable ‘everyday self’ does not register on his authenticity-meter. Discovering the True Self, by contrast, is ‘the greatest spiritual secret in the world’. But life-change can only happen ‘Once you begin to recognize and encourage the qualities of the true self’.

No wonder you need the help of gurus and salespeople, who know you better than you know yourself, to let you in on the deepest secrets of who you really are – at a cost.

3) Identity isn’t Shaped in a Vacuum. It would be lovely to think we find True Self by inner contemplation. But that’s rarely true. In reality, identity is shaped over years by genes, family, culture, nationality, language, upbringing, events and experiences, peer groups, role-models, school and work, fashions, inherited stereotypes, afternoons in the park with Grandad, mistakes made, consumer choices, social media, and whatever fads or social contagions happen to be doing the rounds.

The idea that if we simply dig deep within, with sufficient diligence and silence, we shall find a True Self is an odd one – for all its popularity.

We may find something. But as we peer into our deepest selves, we’re as likely to see smiling back at us a cliché from a recent advertising campaign, or an identity approved by a group we want to impress. What I uncover when I dig for buried treasure may be dead cat bones.

Real, lasting and life-giving identity is social, shaped in relationship and community over the long haul.

4) True Self as Loaded Dice. Similarly, it would be lovely to think True Self is freely and authentically found or chosen, from all possible options. It’s not – particularly in today’s culture. The dice are loaded.

If a young woman announces she is transitioning, she is applauded for bravery in accepting her True Self, and bringing her body into line with it. If she detransitions, suddenly this is no longer brave or authentic but shameful, going against her True Self. Anybody who encourages her in detransitioning is called a hater, not having her best interests at heart – even if they are supporting her in what she wants.

Question: Who is to say a detransitioner is not expressing her True Self?

Answer: a cultural myth that decides in advance that some types of authenticity are inauthentic, even if they feel authentic – and that to be authentically authentic, authenticity has to be chosen from an approved list of authenticities that are currently considered acceptable.

Here on Trueself Farm, some True Selves are more equal than others.

5) True Self as Selfishness. What happens when you find your True Self? You have an obligation to be true to it – after all, you’ve worked hard to find it. Solipsism becomes a kind of moral duty.

• The senior woman in education who says she has no choice but to treat colleagues in ‘robust’ ways (ie belligerent, loud, argumentative), because she’s an ENTP on the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. She can’t be any other way, because that’s just who she is.

• The spiritual, intuitive man who feels he no longer has to be civil or polite to others in the group because what matters most is living his own truth.

• The partner who leaves a trail of relational devastation because they are being true to themselves.

These are all people I’ve known. All of them ‘being true to who they really are’ as a justification for bad behaviour, for hurting others.

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Unreliable Narrator

‘To thine own self be true’, says Polonius says to his son.

Ever since, people have been trotting it out as good advice. But in the context of the play, Polonius is an unreliable narrator. He’s an authoritarian misogynist, who hastens the death of his own daughter, Ophelia, and meets a bloody end while spying on Hamlet. The speech is intended to be ironic.

Shakespeare has remarkable insights into human nature. He puts the definitive speech about being true to yourself in the mouth of a vacuous, abusive character, showing it to be hot air.

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One Self is Enough

Who am I? I am my body. I am my relationships. I am me at this humdrum moment in time. I am this mess of anxieties, joys and contradictions.

Do I have a True Self? No. One self is quite enough.

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(a) Mike Starkey, Fashion & Style (Monarch 1995)

(b) Alice Sherwood, Authenticity (Mudlark 2022)

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© Mike Starkey 2023

Pic: Barry Hill


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