The Limits of Being Oneself

To express oneself is an exciting idea. It can feel liberating and make one feel interesting. Product advertisement often tells consumers to be themselves, in that shade of pink or peach with that pattern. With online profiles and an emphasis on individualized products, it is tempting to carve out personalities for ourselves to find out what really makes us ourselves.

Truly, there is something like a biological personality for each of us. Some traits, despite our interventions, seem to return the moment we stop intervening, or never leave us at all. At least some of those have been recognized by popular personality tests, such as the Big 5: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. We may have quirks like talking to ourselves. It’s important to understand these recurring things throughout our lives and learn to live with them, so long as they’re not debilitating.

But for other things, especially concerning our preferences for certain objects, there is no fixed “self,” and obsessing over its nonexistent identity may leave us feeling empty. Preferences for fashion, for example, are heavily influenced by local trends and our own social constructions. It is not a worthwhile pursuit to find one’s true style, because there is no set style of ourselves: In choosing a style, we are already changing our image of ourselves to fit whatever specific piece of clothing we choose. I don’t mean a person can force herself to believe rags were fashionable and thus live happily and frugally, but I do mean finding the perfect style is a worthless pursuit. Trying to be our truest selves in this way is a pointless exercise of running on a treadmill with no definite reward.

There are also behaviors that do not imply our characters. In addition to marketing telling us objects can help us express what is essentially us, social movements tell us to act essentially us. On many topics of behavior, like being assertive or talkative, we may have no preferences. Perhaps a man could see himself being happy as either the executive or the assistant. Then the choice between those positions and their related personalities is not really a matter of his being himself. He might base his decision on the needs of others, considering whether the company needs a leader or an assistant. For many other topics of trying to truly liberate ourselves and being the truest us, the question of who we are may be equally dependent on the needs of other things or people, because for these topics, there is no truest us. We may better understand preferences between some behaviors and preferences for objects as many options of being true, rather than some being perfectly true and others not. Like our preferences for products, our behaviors can be socially constructed and reinforced, and imply no essential qualities of ourselves.

For a fuller list of what does not make us more of ourselves, I think there is already a general intuition. The thought of someone trying to find escape from his or her life brings to mind many things on this list. Drugs, tourism for dopamine rushes, consumerism, and some other detachment from reality with some excessive preoccupation meet the mark. To note, all of these things are acceptable in moderation—to take them as escapes are my concern.

I think there are often several reasons for our wanting to find ourselves in objects and artificial behaviors. Sometimes, we just want a target to shoot at. We make it a game to be ourselves, and as we play, we feel like we move somewhere away from boredom. Sometimes we feel empty. We want to believe if we buy enough, or endorse enough artificial behaviors, we’ll find ourselves along the way, and with us, happiness. Sometimes we feel overburdened by our caring for others’ wants and needs, and overcompensate by going all in for ourselves. But I cannot believe our chasing ourselves in these ways is the answer to happiness. Not for me, or for anyone except the exceptional few.

Looking for happiness in objects and artificial behaviors is the opposite of where we should be looking. The only denominator for happiness I can find vastly across people is the need for meaningful relationships. Introverts or extroverts, rude or nice, open or closed, we all seek meaning in our social connections. (There is a small class of people deemed clinically antisocial who fail to seek this target.) We should be loosening our grasp on our endless objects and stop thinking about every best little way to win the game of being ourselves. We should be focusing on other people. This brings happiness. It’s my understanding of minimalism.