The Story About Yourself You Need To Forget
How The “One True Self Lie” Puts Us Into An Impossible Position To Live Happy Lives
Short Morsels On Transitions: How The “One True Self Lie” Puts Us Into An Impossible Position To Live Happy Lives
Have you ever tried something new and a friend said, “What are you doing? That’s not you.” Your sister says, “You were meant to do this, I don’t know what you’re wasting your time for.” Your coach says, “We’re going to find your life’s purpose.”
The idea of the ’one true self’—and the single purpose meant for that self—is compelling. We all want to argue that our life makes sense and is not a collection of totally random decisions and coincidences. ‘One true self’ is a comforting story, because it helps us see our future just as we see our past: when looking back on our years, we tell ourselves one narrative that connects all the dots and decision points. Similarly, we look into the future and feel the need to fulfill the story of one version of our self.‘One true self’ is like the idea of finding your one soulmate. If there’s only one life for me that I could possibly be happy in, the chances I ever discover that are incredibly low—why not give up now!
The Story Of The True Self
Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’
- Parker Palmer
For some people, Palmer’s focus on your vocation, your true calling, can certainly be helpful. But there is one fundamental level below that catchy metaphor: your set of values. They are the strings resonating from “the call”.
And as you go through life, your values change, along with your views on what’s right and what it means to live a good life. Committing your entire life to a calling sounds idyllic—but to most of us, it will create suffering, sooner or later.
Palmer is not the first to raise the idea of the vocation, calling or true self. These ideas are rooted in Christian theology and Greek philosophy
Plato believed that each of us has an inherent essence or "true self" that can be discovered through introspection and self-reflection. In Christianity, the idea of a calling or vocation has been tied to the belief that each person has a unique purpose or mission in life, often believed to be assigned by God. The Romantics expanded the idea of where the true self could be found, but doubled down on the idea, believing that “true” authenticity and self-expression could only be achieved by following one's natural instincts and passions.
Individualization and freedom of choice weren’t a thing back then. Not even during the Romantics’ dreamy epoche. All throughout history, religion and prevailing philosophy served a purpose: putting people into their ‘rightful’ places. But the power to interpret the religious narrative and enforce the rules of religion resided in the hands of few men. They were skilled at shaping sticky beliefs that would take hold in the collective psyche—and their success lasted into modern times:
The “true self” narrative hasn’t gone away, it’s only morphed to fit in with modern preoccupations. We see it over-reaching in our well-meaning grandfather, in career counselors and teachers, social media influencers and thought leaders, or our tennis partner, our tennis coach, our tennis club owner’s wife. Literally everyone, it seems, feels compelled to dish out friendly advice about how to live your life. If you would only listen!
"The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich, arguably the most well-known painter of the Romantic epoche.
Let us think again: Is this true self narrative serving you? Is it serving anyone? If we subscribe to the idea of the true self, we might just give up right away. There are just too many variables at play, making the task of working through all the combinations virtually impossible. Life transitions are not about frantically looking for who we are meant to be but for exploring one of many possible paths to fulfillment.
The idea of the true self is limiting our ability to change.
Regardless, this idea has taken hold in the coaching profession, too. Whenever I am confronted with theories about transformational growth, adult development and the role coaches should have in their clients’ lives, I bristle at how much material is out there encouraging people to find this ‘one true self’ or to ‘live in total authenticity’ and ‘find your life’s greatest passion.’ This advice is often positioned as something supernatural and out of our control. A foundational truth we just have to accept.
I feel a deep sense of injustice that so many people are being told there’s a ‘true self’ they’re changing toward, or that we’ve all been living false lives until we find this true self and that self’s true purpose. Mind you, these are self-proclaimed teachers and guides who would claim to "know" what their clients’ purpose was—often within the first minutes of getting to know them! They chalk it up to their immense intuition, some arcane mystical skill they picked up, or their coaching experience, which somehow gives them the right to be right about you. It's appalling how unprofessional the coaching industry still operates to this day and how many people are hurting from it.
I also see it in myself! I’m not immune to the impulse to guide someone too quickly and too far. I field new client requests every week, trying to understand whether they would be a good fit for me or another coach in my network. Often, I catch myself thinking, "Ah, he's just in this mid-life crisis and at the end, he is going to find out he just wants to settle down and have children," or, "Oh, she just needs to break free from this current fintech company and set up the organization in a sector she has always been passionate about!". Once I actually get to know those clients later, my initial judgment of them is never correct. There is always more complexity to respect. Their lives are beautiful and messy and intertwined with others, completely impossible to predict—even to them.
The Responsibility That Comes With Freedom
The freedom and responsibility to live the lives we want and deserve is the centerpiece to my coaching philosophy and my thinking around human development.
When your friend says, “You are meant to do this,” who is ‘meaning’ for you to live that life? Did you just subject yourself to an unknown force or entity that is judging how your life is supposed to be? Have we really gone through the motions of freeing ourselves from all the quacks and listicle-writing-gurus who tried to tell us how to live our lives, just to subject ourselves to a narrative that we have one life to live?
If all your education, hard work and reflective journaling leads into the question, “What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?” then who, exactly, is doing the meaning for you?
I hope it will be you.
No one else.
And it is each of our jobs to accept this responsibility, the responsibility of our life.
Another wanderer above a sea of fog, but in high resolution. Photo by Luca Baggio / Unsplash
To be self-determined—to be in full control of your life’s direction and circumstances—is a gift, one that many generations ahead of us have fought to attain. A gift that most humans on this planet are denied. As cheesy as it sounds: with this gift that is, essentially, freedom, comes the responsibility to exercise self-determination.
To believe in the true self is to willingly submit yourself to the narrative that some higher being has ordained your life’s purpose for you. It’s saying “thanks, progress, I’d rather go with these century-old ideas from when most people were slaves and people lived to the age of forty!” In the same way, having other people tell you what your life is supposed to look like takes away your self-determination.
But “taking responsibility to exercise self-determination” does not have to mean suffering because you now need to do all the work yourself. Nor does it mean you have to get it right. After all, there is no one true self that you are meant to find, remember?
Instead, there is a practice of making transitions fun and a worthwhile phase of life: a time to consciously explore what could be. I want to encourage you to take transitions and life choices more seriously and more lightly at the same time.
More lightly means: rarely do we need to burn bridges. By giving ourselves the optionality of trying multiple things in life, we can start to get a taste of what feels good at this time, in this life situation, and then—only then—lean in to what works for us.
More seriously means: transitions are not just the “in-between”, the vacuum before and after which life happens. Transitions are the pivotal moments in our lives when we can bring our entire being to bear. We go through transitions every few years. These phases of re-evaluation matter greatly in shaping the direction our lives take. If we want to accept the responsibility to live consciously, then these are the times in which our conscious living matters most.
In the midst of all the uncertainty about our lives, transition periods can be reframed as the times when we can explore the opportunities. This exploration needs space and permission.
Overidentifying with the idea of true self can limit your ability to change and prevent you from taking the space you need to explore many possible options for yourself, for this season.
Short Morsels On Transitions
I am hugely passionate about the topic of transition. I suffer (greatly!) in empathy when I witness people floating lost in liminal spaces.
I want to empower you to make informed choices when you face a transition. Who you work with. What theories and concepts you consume and adopt. How you treat yourself as you are navigating into uncharted waters. There are a lot of harmful concepts and guides out there, and it can be hard to tell. I have suffered from well-meaning-know-it-all- and-still-missing-the-point-advisors and grand-theories-gone-wrong myself.
I want you to start enjoying these wonderful times of opportunity, dreaming, shaping their lives.
In the coming months, I’m sharing what I have learnt about transitions, transformation and human development, what change looks like as a process, and how to play with times of change in our lives. I want to keep things simple and pragmatic, without jargon and resisting sweeping theories.
Keep following. I'll be covering…
What makes a transition phase different from transformational change.
How to recognize valid and effective theories about life transitions and human development from unproven, sometimes harmful constructs.
Navigating transitions with lightness and a sense of self-acceptance.