Individual Expression

[Level 3: Pinnacle]

For many of us, the search for our true selves is a life- long journey of self-discovery. We meet people from different backgrounds and cultures, put ourselves in different situations and circumstances, and see life as one big trial-and-error experiment, designed to teach us more about ourselves. Each experience brings us one step closer to the answer.

When we are in our twenties and free from our parents, we go through what many of us call phases. We try on different friends, fashions, hobbies, lovers, locations—trying to figure out what fits and what doesn’t.

What part of this expansive world of opportunity and possibility do we belong in? What category of people or thinking do we want to be associated with? What category of people will accept us, and what category of people will not? What really lies behind the mask that we present to the world?

To what extent does the character that we play and present to the world resemble the real individual behind the mask? It’s a search for authenticity and a search for a home for that authenticity.

Being yourself

When it comes to being yourself, many people refer to the famous quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.” Research suggests that people who are more true to themselves tend to be involved in healthier and more positive relationships.

Research conducted by Amy Brunell, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, involved sixty-two college-age couples that completed detailed questionnaires about themselves and their relationships. 

The participants who were most true to themselves most consistently tended to be in the healthiest, most functional relationships and reported a greater sense of well-being.

Research also revealed a curious distinction in regards to men. If a man was true to himself, it tended to encourage his partner to feel more positive about their relationship.

However, when a woman was true to herself, it didn’t seem to influence her partner’s positive feelings about the relationship. Brunell suggests that this could be due to the different roles that men and women play in a relationship.

She says, “Women tend to be the ‘regulators’ or ‘keepers’ of intimacy in the partnership. When women have partners who strive for openness and honesty, it makes their job of regulating intimacy easier. For example, it becomes easier for her to disclose things to a man who wants closeness.”

How do you know if you’re being true to your- self? Brunell suggests that you answer these questions:

  • Do I usually behave in ways that are consistent with how I view myself, or do I go along with the crowd?
  • Do I pretend to enjoy things that I don’t really enjoy?
  • Do I pretend to agree with others when I really disagree?

Managing ourselves in social situations requires some element of “swimming with the tide,” so if these questions lead you to believe that you are not being true to yourself, you may want to also consider how frequently it happens, and the extent to which it suppresses who and what you really are.

In a study published by the Journal of Personality, Wake Forest University psychologist William Fleeson found that “being true to yourself” can sometimes be acting in a way that is inconsistent with your usual personality.

Fleeson’s research indicated that introverts feel “authentic” when they are acting extroverted. Fleeson says that, “authenticity is consistently associated with acting highly extroverted, even for those who characterize themselves as introverts.

Despite the cultural assumption that consistency with one’s traits would predict authenticity, it did not.”

Fleeson says, “Being flexible with who you are is okay. It is not denying or disrespecting who you are.

People are often too rigid about how they are and stick with the comfortable and familiar. Adapting to a situation can make you more true to yourself in some circumstances.”

The research essentially reminds us that we have many options that we can draw upon to decide how we will behave in any given situation. In the meantime, it’s possible that the real you may actually need some improvement.

For example, if you are extremely cautious, you may be feeling like you are missing some potential enjoyment in life. Fleeson suggests that, “It might be possible for individuals to improve their mental health by acting against their personality traits.”

What is authenticity? When he was a social psychologist at the University of Georgia, Michael Kernis developed a technical description of authenticity as “the unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in one’s daily enterprise.”

Although authenticity may seem so intangi- ble that it cannot be objectively measured, Kernis and his associate Brian Goldman developed a test, distinguish- ing four components of authenticity. Self-awareness also forms an element contained in the other three components.

Kernis and Goldman found that a sense of authenticity tends to be accompanied by many benefits. People that had a high score on the authenticity profile were more likely to respond to difficulties with effective coping strategies, rather than resorting to drugs, alcohol or self-destructive habits.

They were more likely to report being in satisfying relationships, enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and purpose, show more confidence in taking on challenges, and appeared to be more successful in pursuing goals.

It is not clear whether authenticity causes these psychological advantages or results from them. However, Kernis and Goldman suggest that people crave authenticity because people that scored low in the authenticity profile were more likely to be defensive, suspicious, confused and easily overwhelmed.

If the advantages of being authentic are so great, then why is it that everybody is not authentic all the time?

Perhaps the most obvious point to be made is that defining one’s true self can be extremely difficult. This is something that has challenged philosophers for centuries. Socrates famously asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living, but was very vague about what the advantages of such insights might be.

In the meantime, the 20th-century existentialists questioned whether an ultimate self resides within. They take the view that the self is made.

Therefore, philosophically, is the authentic self something within that should be discovered, or something that we make?

I would suggest that both categories of philosophers need to make room for each other. I think it seems clear that we are born with certain traits and characteristics that form our authentic selves.

Then we go into the world, and our experiences and knowledge alter our authentic selves accordingly. Therefore, our authentic self is a combination of the traits and characteristics that we were born with and the knowledge and experience acquired over time.

And those experiences have molded us and perhaps expanded upon our original traits and characteristics.

The second reason that people may not be authentic is that they view their true selves as being somehow inconsistent with either the people they spend time with or the overall environment in which they live.

Take, for example, being gay in a cultural environment where homosexuality is considered unacceptable or, even worse, a punishable offense. Kernis and Goldman admit the “potential downside of authenticity.” Truth can be painful.

Living an authentic life also requires that one has reliable self-knowledge and makes choices accordingly. This is not necessarily as simple as it sounds.

Consider how many decisions you make daily, including what clothes to wear, your hairstyle, which brands you want to associate yourself with, and how you treat other people.

If you are happy with your authentic self and live in a way that fully discloses it, then these decisions are easy. In fact, they are not decisions: they are merely the sequence of events that happened in your day, the natural expression of you.

On the other hand, if you are not happy with your authentic self, or if you live in a way that hides it, the decision-making process is an endless grind because the consequences of every decision must be considered and interpreted through the eyes of others. Is this any way to live?

Therefore, a critical MPI principal is not just living your authentic life but, just as importantly, living in a way that allows other people to live their authentic lives.

This means supporting changes in our social, cultural, and political environments that enable everybody to live a life that encourages individual expression. And this is critical, not just because it seems like the right thing to do, but because it benefits society by injecting different points of view and ideas.

Each individual has unique gifts to contribute to society, gifts that are often expressed in individual ways. Therefore, the suppression of individual expression is, in effect, the suppression of an individual’s contribution to society, which, in turn, diminishes the potential of that society.