Our ‘true self’ may not exist (the way we think)


  • Our sense of identity, our ego, is complex and goes beyond simple labels; each label is only an approximation and can change based on context and circumstances.
  • The brain’s left hemisphere aims to provide us with a consistent narrative, which may not always reflect our true feelings or beliefs.
  • Our self is constantly evolving due to internal and external factors; recognizing this fluidity can empower us to reshape behaviors and positively impact ourselves and others.

The timeless concept of “being true to yourself” has experienced a modern resurgence, becoming a ubiquitous mantra in our fast-paced world. We are encouraged to embark on a journey of introspection in the name of “authenticity,” especially in the context of leadership and personal growth. The prevailing notion is that by uncovering and embracing our “true self,” our ego, we can unlock a wealth of advantages. This notion suggests that our ego is tangible and absolute, but is that really true?

We are much more than labels

Most of us, when prompted, would describe ourselves using various labels. For instance, I would say I am a father, husband, son, psychologist, writer, coach, calm, kind, creative, and funny (although my wife would probably disagree). Introspection would lead to even more labels. However, many other people might use the same descriptors for themselves. Does this mean we’re the same? Certainly not. Our sense of self lies in the countless nuances that differentiate us, yet our brain loves labels and categories because it provides a convenient way to navigate reality.

To make things more complex, every label we use to describe ourselves is an approximation. I am not calm 100% of the time or with every single person I have met in my life, or under every circumstance. If it is so dependent on so many factors, then can I safely use this label to describe my true self? Probably not, yet if someone says to me that I am not a calm person, this will hurt my ego, because it chooses to identify as “calm”. Quite ironic, right?

We are more than what our left brain dictates

We’ve gained significant knowledge about the different functions of our brain hemispheres thanks to studies on split-brain patients. These are individuals who have had the connection between the two halves of their brain severed, typically as a treatment for epilepsy. A note of caution here: the distinctions between the “left” and “right” brain have been popularized and oversimplified in mainstream culture. In reality, both brain hemispheres work together, and while each has specialized functions, they’re interconnected. Except for the case of split-brain patients.

During one of the studies, these patients were asked to select an object out of many using their left hand, which is controlled by the right brain. By default, since the two hemispheres could not communicate, the left brain, which predominantly controls language, had no knowledge of this choice. However, when the patient was asked to explain why they chose that object, the left brain offered a logical, yet entirely fabricated, explanation. This is because our left brain wants to maintain a consistent narrative for us, even if it means bending the truth.

Think back to a time when you, in the heat of an argument, said something you later regretted. In that intense moment, you might have genuinely believed what you were saying. However, once you cooled down, you possibly thought, “Why did I say that? That’s not truly how I feel.” It is likely that in that moment, your left brain, in its bid to protect you, led you to say something false or inappropriate. Was that person you? Would you accept that version of yourself as your true self? After all, it was your own brain making the call.

Most of us don’t believe our lowest moments define us, as acknowledging our worst behaviors can bruise our ego. It is because our logical left brain aims for us to appear coherent, logical, and reliable.

We are both individuals and one with the universe

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist, described in her popular TED Talk what happened when her left brain hemisphere went offline due to a stroke. She gradually lost the ability to speak, comprehend language, recall her past, but also her sense of where her body ended and the external world began.

With her right brain dominating, Taylor did not feel like an individual anymore. She felt as though she was as big as the universe, which made her think she had achieved what Buddhists call Nirvana. Taylor realized that this was part of herself, and in her latest book “Whole Brain Living” explains how everyone can find a balance between their individual identity (left hemisphere) and the interconnectedness of all existence (right hemisphere).

All I could detect was my energy, blended with the energy making up the space around me. My perception of myself bypassed all boundaries, and I literally became as big as the universe.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor on how she experienced reality after her left brain (which forms our perception of an individual self) had shut down.

If there is, indeed, one true self, surely it should not be so vulnerable that it might cease existing during a stroke, right?

We are fluid like everything else in the world

Even if we believe that we can fully grasp our ego, how long will this understanding remain accurate? Nothing is permanent. Nature is in constant flux. Even mountains shift due to seismic activity and tectonic plate movements. Likewise, we evolve every day. Is our sense of self as a toddler the same as when we’re a teenager or an adult? We actually change from moment to moment. At the molecular level, our bodies undergo transformations non-stop. Cells renew and die. Even if we are not always conscious of it, we are never truly static.

This constant change extends to our brains, thanks to neuroplasticity. Our brain is adaptable and can respond to our environment by strengthening existing neural connections or creating new ones. Engaging with new information, such as reading this post, can influence these connections. If reading this post made even a tiny shift in your neural pathways, aren’t you now different from the person who started reading? Which “you” is your true self?

What this means in practice

Certainly, in our daily lives, we operate with a consistent sense of self. It’s impractical to navigate the world constantly questioning our identity, or excusing our actions with claims like “that wasn’t truly me, I change every moment.” While a stable ego helps in interacting with society, it is important to understand the fluid nature of our self. An overly fixed self-view can lead to limiting beliefs and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Just because we have identified with certain patterns or behaviors in the past doesn’t mean they are our only reality. We are a dynamic mix of behaviors and traits, shaped by genetics, surroundings, and feelings. We are constantly changing. By knowing how fluid our true nature of self is, we have the right (and a responsibility, I would argue) to reshape behaviors. Let us choose words and actions that not only improve our personal experiences but also have a positive effect on those around us.

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