“I went backpacking across Europe to go find myself.”
Few self-help maxims have been more oft-repeated than the idea that you need to go “find yourself.” It’s as if half the world somehow lost themselves, much as you might lose a set of keys or misplace your phone. With all of these people losing themselves, it’s a little wonder someone hasn’t invented a Bluetooth device to locate yourself again. Within all of this talk of finding yourself lurks several uncomfortable truths. Your true self is not a set of keys. You can’t lose it. You can’t lose it because your true self may not exist at all.
Have you ever been to a party surrounded by half a dozen of your longtime friends? How did you feel? How did you act? Were you quiet and introverted, or loud and talkative?
Have you ever been to a party where you knew no one? How did you feel? Were you different than when surrounded by a group of friends?
Which version of you is the true you? The party is the same. The only thing that’s changed is the people around you. But yet you’re a totally different person.
What about at work? Do you have a “work voice” (my wife hates talking to me on the phone at work for this reason)? Do you magically transform the moment you pull into your workplace parking lot? Are you able to easily converse all day long at work and then, once arriving at home, are you as quiet as a Buddhist monk taking an oath of silence?
Who are you when you’re all alone? Does your sparkling personality just bubble right through, even though there’s no one to talk to and interact with?
How do you act with your friends when compared to your boss when compared to your significant other?
Which version is the real you?
The truth is that there are hundreds of versions of you. Perhaps you could call it the multi-self (similar to the theory of the Multiverse). You are continually shifting and becoming a different person, from one minute to a next. If you don’t believe me, how many of you become maniacally hateful people when someone cuts you off in traffic, only to resume back to your calm and rational self a few moments later. Context drives what version of you is currently on display. Your context continually changes, and thus, you do too.
People who say you need to find yourself often suggest you go travel the world, volunteer in a third world country, or join the Peace Corps (which is really just a combination of the first two items). If you think about it, this is terrible advice. Context continually drives and changes our personalities and selves. Because of this, travelling to a foreign and exotic land is likely to produce a different version of you. That much is true. But it’s no more the “real you” than when you used play air guitar in your bedroom with the door shut pretending to be Carlos Santana. It’s not the real you at all. It’s just the you in that context (minus the air guitar).
I was recently with a group of colleagues my age from around the world. All of the non-English speakers said they found their personalities radically changed when they spoke in English. For most, this was due to them feeling less confident in their English than in their native languages. If you had told each one of these people they were going to find themselves when overseas, they may have been disappointed to learn that their true selves were actually much more shy, much less confident, and much more introverted than their native selves.
If a true version of you does exist (I’m a skeptic here), it doesn’t exist on a mountain backpacking across Europe. If it does exist, it’s most likely at home, eating a bowl of nachos on your couch. While the idea of finding your true self by sitting on your couch and eating nachos is much less sexy and appealing than the idea of finding yourself overseas (with your man bun and North Face jacket), there is a certain undeniable truth to it. We all secretly know that our real selves aren’t running with the bulls in Pamplona, but we lie to ourselves to tell ourselves stories to make ourselves feel better.
One of the biggest problems with trying to “find yourself” is that it assumes the version of you that is on your couch is not the real you (otherwise there would be no need to find yourself). It assumes the you that you’re most familiar with is a cheap imposter with a fake French-styled mustache. In this way, it can create an uneasiness and anxiety in your soul, as you ponder careers, relationships, and friendships.
The reason the quest for true self has become such a huge obsession by so many people is because so many people are unhappy and miserable with their lives. There’s an inherent assumption that if I am feeling unhappy and miserable, this can’t be the real version of me. The real version must be wearing something white and flowy while running along the beach with a huge smile on my face while my six-pack abs bounce in the breeze. We have these idealized versions of ourselves that are much happier, more prosperous, and more successful than the version we find sitting on our couch eating nachos. And so we make up a story about our “true” selves (what we really mean by “true” is “idealized”). Our idealized selves live and act in a certain way. And that’s what we want.
The truth is that this idealized version of yourself won’t magically appear just by going on vacation somewhere. You can’t simply think your way into your idealized self. It will only come through action and through creating the kind of life you want to have. You will have to work to solve our problems. Your idealized self is not sitting and waiting for you to find it: It’s inside your chest right now waiting for you to work to become it. It’s not a process of finding; it’s a process of becoming via your work and effort.
While you work to become your idealized self, let’s talk about the real you. The real you exists in your everyday activities and errands. It exists in the most mundane and boring details. It exists in the splash of water from your morning shower. It exists in that sleepy feeling you get when sitting in your desk after lunch. It exists in your text messages to friends and Snapchats to your sisters. It exists in all of those tiny moments of life where you actually experience the world for what it actually is, apart from your judgement about what it should be. That’s the real you.
Truly living in the moment involves experiencing the world and people and places outside of you. It’s not about yourself. The moment it becomes about yourself and your self image is the moment you cease to simply be and to experience the world for what it is. It’s the moment your mind ceases to experience the sensations of touch and sight and smell and begins to get caught in circles of self-doubt and worry and anxiety and fear that spiral towards the drain of misery. By focusing on the here and the now, you are able to be a closer approximation of yourself. It’s thus that our constant searching to find ourselves actually drives us further from our true selves. That’s why you need to stop trying to find yourself.
Instead of trying to find yourself in new contexts, start accepting yourself for who you are right here and right now. Happiness isn’t on the other side of achievement, a degree, a raise, or your next relationship. It’s available to you right now, in the quiet moments that slip into one another. While your personality, moods, and attitudes may shift based on context, the real you is that quiet constant consciousness behind all of those different versions of yourself that threads your varied experiences together, and it’s been there all along. This true you doesn’t need to be perfect or not to make mistakes. It doesn’t need approval from other people. It doesn’t need to make other people proud. It has enough and is enough.
To truly find yourself, stop searching. Go get up from your computer, walk to your mirror and stare. Welcome to the real you.