Authentic Living, Part 2: True Selves Dancing
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” Oscar Wilde
I love this quote from Oscar Wilde. It reminds me of how difficult it is for us to stay connected to who we are in the face of our strongest motivation– connecting with others. From our moment of birth (and even before, some research indicates) we orient toward others. An infant recognizes mother’s smells, the sounds of her voice and looks intensely and searchingly into her face. What are we searching for? Infants, and all humans, are searching for love, security and connection. According to John Bowlby, we are born to move toward and follow mother (whether with our feet or our eyes) to assure our survival. Our inborn attachment system allows us to be vigilant of mother’s whereabouts and to initiate seeking and contacting behavior designed to elicit attention, help and protection. Psychoanalytic theory develops even more deeply on the concept of attachment, theorizing that our greatest need is to love and to be loved, to become a self within the context of connection with others, and to develop, grow and have pleasure through encounters with otherness.
According to most psychoanalytic theorists, we become who we are based on our relationships with our early caregivers. The feelings we can or can’t express, the thoughts we can or can’t entertain, the ways we can and can not interact with others, and the people we become are all formed within the crucible of this experientially very high stakes early relational environment. Parts of our experience end up relegated to unconscious and dissociated states, while aspects of us that “fit” the environment develop around our relationships. Some environments are accepting and expansive enough to allow and welcome much of the child’s developing experience and behavior. Our thoughts and feelings thus find a home for expression and development. Other households are less able to process and encourage certain types of experience, so those aspects of the child remain undeveloped and/or unconscious. The 1980 movie “Ordinary People” (starring Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch and Donald Sutherland) depicts this type of dynamic, where a seemingly perfect family is not able to allow or process traumatic and painful feeling states when one son dies, leaving the brother (Hutton) alone with his suffering, which he ultimately shares and explores with his therapist (Hirsch).
But even if a very walled off and shut-down Mary Tyler Moore is not your mother, I would think that even in the most loving and accepting environments, we are still reinforced more for particular ways of being rather than for other ways of being– there is no escape from this. So, how would we think about Winnicott’s ideas of the “true self” in contrast to the “false self“? Is our “true self” the original self that gets to develop in a healthy environment and is thus authentic? Is the “false self” the self that developed stickily in response to a more constraining environment, and thus is inauthentic? Stephen Mitchell articulated how difficult it is to categorize experience this way, as we are born with some kernel of who we will become, but we are always shaped by our environment, so our “self” can not be anything other than a complex harmony of our temperament and environment.
I don’t really want to throw the concept of “true self” out though, as it does have emotional and evocative truth (to me at least). What I would prefer to do is to think of the term as more of a process than a monolithic state of being. To really be true to oneself or to live authentically, as well as knowing ourselves, we need to be able to be open to others and the world. We need to have an ability to grow and develop with and because of others. I find that in the context of all of my past and current relationships, I’ve developed and grown. Each important connection has added something valuable to me. I’ve become my true self, not just from holding strong to my own convictions and perceptions, but also from allowing in new feelings and new perspectives that enrich me. The pieces I have adopted from others resonated with me and I have consciously or not, constructed an authentic tapestry of “me”. Thus, “false self” experience seems an imbalance in the process of connection, rather than a “self thing”. We may override our own experience in our permeability to others. Or we may be so afraid of subjugating our own experience that we rigidly keep out valuable relations. To me, “true self” living is a continual mutual process of negotiation that we engage in with others where we emotionally penetrate and are penetrated by others in a wonderful, creative, always-evolving unique dance of connection. And in this fluidity, we move away from the idea of a “self” that is a “thing” to the idea of shared relational moments in continually shifting contexts that have the power to enrich us.
We’ve come full circle, from the idea of being able to hold onto who we are in the face of our strong connections, to being able to also be permeable to others in the face of our strong commitments to ourselves. For me, “true self” is a fluid movement between self- and other- attention and connection. By expanding ourselves into new territory, we are also becoming more confident beings as well.