woman in colorful dress hugging herself

Have you ever been told to “Just be yourself” when you are nervous about an upcoming social situation? I have—I clearly remember this occurring when I was in high school. And I recently heard this advice given on the TV show Ted Lasso.

But what does it mean to be yourself? According to Buddhists, there is no self. I believe there is some wisdom to this, because it’s hard to nail down who “yourself” really is. Are you the hobbies you love? Are you your habitual mental states? Are you who you are in relation to relatives, friends, and coworkers? The trouble with these sorts of definitions is that they are changeable, and indeed they do change throughout life. But aren’t I somehow still myself throughout life?

I just finished reading the complex philosophy book Self-Knowledge and Self-Deception, by Hugo Strandberg, that I mentioned in the previous post Are We Going in a Circle? The thesis of the book tackles this problem in an interesting way. Here is what Strandberg thinks:

“As we have seen, what is truthful, as regards the question ‘who am I?’, is not some specific answer but the life in which it is not asked.”

He basically thinks we should unask the question because it has no answer. This is uncannily similar to Buddhist thought. He also puts an emphasis on living as being a sort of definition of self. Instead of defining the self as a set of hobbies, mental states, or relationships, he says, the self can only be characterized as something that moves through time as the person engages in their life.

There is a second half to Strandberg’s thesis, which directly follows the quote above, and it goes like this:

“Since self-deception could be said to be there in all moral badness, that life is only lived in goodness.”

In other words, he thinks the pure self can only be characterized as something that moves through time as the person engages in life while acting in a morally good way.

I’m not going to pretend to understand how Strandberg reaches these conclusions, because I could scarcely understand his dense book. But I will say that his conclusions ring true for me.

When I try to “Just be myself,” I end up as a spiraling mess—overfocused on myself and reverting to the immature ways of my childhood. But when I engage with the world in a fundamentally good way, paying attention to what others are saying and feeling, and showering love on the world as I am able, this feels more authentically like who I am, or at least who I am meant to be.

Sometimes, to be your most authentic self, you have to try on a new hat. And that hat is one of goodness. Only then will you be free, because you will have found yourself.

Who are you?