The following piece was repurposed from Euwyn Goh’s newsletter A Memoir Worth Writing.

Dear Reader,

Some have asked how I have come to write the way I do. The answer is quite simple. I write like what I read. This is to me, the only way I know how to write something well. I am predisposed to think in the language my constitution deems most potent. And it is less so that I have been merely inspired by those works, more that I am almost restricted to them. If I had been as captivated by another species of writing, it is certain that I would be writing in the character of those writers instead. Here is a reality of human nature that extends beyond writing styles. But if the inner voice reflects what is consumed and valued, what then is truly authentic?

Ah, here is the question that one poses over and over again. Who am I? No, who am I, truly? Am I truly being myself right at this moment? How can I be as authentic as that person?

Authenticity was not much of an issue, growing up. I did recount in the previous axiom how I grew up maximally sociable as a child, when everything was still a simple matter of belonging. There is nothing children can be but authentic. They exhibit themselves as a set of uninhibited impulses, because they have yet no awareness of a ‘self’ to which the impulses correspond. Everything is still outward-looking at that stage, and children do not complain of feeling “inauthentic”, barring exceptions. Their inward-looking capacities have simply not yet developed beyond the point of that which immediately plays into the outward-looking, as in those instances where a child manipulates a narrative to his parent to prove himself innocent of wrongdoing. Children live two lives only when entrenched in matters of dishonesty, as opposed to the more complex adult, who may deviate from a sense of self for a myriad of reasons. It is as people allude to the wisdom of “being like children”. One of the attributes referred to (among many) is the sense of childlike naivety, the return to the state where expression was yet uninhibited and life was simpler.

How does this begin to change for the adult? We certainly do not magically create a new image of “self” at a point in time. Assisted by our cognitive development, we become aware over time of an underlying coherence behind all narratives lived. It is an awareness of that which is. That which acts and is acted upon. The conception of a centre of all things. A “self”. The thing is, it is not so simple as to live out the storyline of “one true self”, for life is not so simple as to be lived impulsively. We learn to act differently in a variety of contexts, and to subject our own performance to a higher order, that we might be edge closer to our ideal self (a socially accepted self, much of the time). Why else do we stray from our impulses, if not for a vision of the ideal?

We begin the journey to self-dissonance as soon as we understand that acting reaps benefits. Which we do, at a very young age. For instance, we learn to act in a mild manner around our teachers, incentivised by institutional rewards. Or even more potent, we learn to lean into specific personas around our friends, such as the athletic persona, incentivised by the social rewards that proceed it. Or on the flip side, the inhibition of a persona for fear of social disapproval. And so we maintain a carefully curated repertoire of acts for our own benefit, remaining faithful to our utilitarian nature. These acts are honed over time, with sufficient practice, and so we condition ourselves into developing entire personas. We become a collection of personas. One coherent field of experience, multiple personas, activated as ranked by how effectively it leads to one’s ideal self. Life is a stage and we are all performers, with many acts under the belt. Here lies the origin of the problem of authenticity, and no wonder we feel incoherent!

Simply put, the development of incoherence is inevitable as we grow from children into adults. The performative proclivity of humanity plays into our animalistic capacity to be behaviorally conditioned, and so we perpetually teach ourselves what we are, who we are, by way of acting it out. But while we are utilitarian creatures, we also have a knack for coherence above all things. And so we see this as a problem. A tension of instincts! Regardless of rewards reaped, this is a manufactured dissonance of self, with a felt magnitude in our deepest depths. We come to ask the questions: “Why do I act differently in different contexts? Which is well and truly myself, the coherence that precedes all my personas? Who am I, really?” A very valid question, to which the community has produced a myriad of answers to address, surface-level or otherwise. Let me attempt to navigate some of them.

. . .

To start with, let us cut away all clout from the word “authenticity”, for it is one that is overused nowadays. What does it first mean to be authentic? I posed this question to my circles recently, and answers returned with the following keywords: “unapologetically themselves”, “ignorant of how others perceive them”, “speaking without hidden intentions”. There are many definitions to the word “authenticity” nowadays, but these three keywords round up accurately the sense in which we use the word nowadays, I believe. Now if we were to break them down, framing them as the key sub-attributes of those we deem “authentic”, what do we arrive at? The first consideration has to be that that which is authentic is that which is expressed1. The sense of authenticity lies in the presence and intensity of idiosyncratic expression, hence the extraverted are more likely to be judged authentic than the in-drawn. Secondly, those who are authentic have a feeling of groundedness about them. Of being “unapologetic” or of having “comfort in their own skin” (or being, rather). Thirdly, the sense of groundedness is not achieved if it does not arise from the deepest depths of one’s own soul. The human ability to put on a proper social act is limited since that is in direct tension with our instinct for coherence, and so honesty too, and integrity, is a necessity. Hence, if a woman has a unique, principled intensity about her while coming across as wholly comfortable in it, she would be deemed an authentic woman.

The thing is, the problem of authenticity is not so simple a matter of being more expressive, more confident and more honest. Although those attributes are that which we assess outwardly in others, the problem tends to arise in ourselves as a symptom of a deeper matter. Why problem does the authenticity paradigm seek to address? It has to do with justifying the value of the self. There are those common self-help phrases commonly propagated in the authenticity paradigm. Think, “you are enough just as you are” or “you are perfect the way you are”. Above all, they seek to justify the value of one against the looming self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy encountered by many. But to me, that is a kind of band-aid solution. An overly minimalistic framing without having to address the deeper questions from which such inadequacy arises. Ultimately, it depends on what “you are” means, and I believe that is where the problem lies at its roots. That is, that which we call “I”, “me” and “myself” is one complex structure. If it was sufficient for humans to live impulsively in ignorance of anything other than ourselves, we would retain “one true self” as children do, and hence remain faithful to our need for coherence. But we are in perpetual internal tension, a battle of competing instincts. We subject ourselves to the potent force of narratives, in order to play the social game, to which our susceptibility is dreadfully understated. The “real” self is conditional upon forces greater than our own will, and so the sense for “one true self” has little merit. It is as the Buddhists would say, the idea of “one true self” is an illusion! (As often is the case, the East contradicts the West.)

What makes one feel inadequate in the first place? That depends on the narratives one feels potent or is conditioned to take on. Might it not be narratives arising from incompetent parenting, or from the earliest of social circles? Might it not be a cultural inadequacy, that one has been told he diminishes in worth because of the slant in his eyes or the colour of his skin? One does not come to feel inadequate by default. It is an artificial problem. A consequence of the tyranny of the social factor, and of measuring oneself to a maximum, minimum and median point on the social ruler. For if a man was the only individual to exist in the world, it is certain that that person would not feel inadequate, since there would be no measure by which he should feel adequate! Such problems arise when we have a problem of framing ourselves relative to others. And it is only when one has an effective framing of the self to others, that he exhibits those attributes of authenticity which others observe so endearingly.

Then there is that added complication of modern disdain for traditions (whether religiously or culturally inclined) for its apparent tyranny over unadulterated expression. It was only a few centuries ago that tradition propagated a higher order, and deemed absolute the virtues of puritanism and the disapproval of certain structures now commonly argued human rights (for instance). Now in the new epoch, where there exists no longer an absolute standard by which behaviour should be judged and where most things are a matter of expression, the story of authenticity — of “staying true to oneself”, becomes elevated into the collective spotlight. It spreads like wildfire, since it carries with it the validation of self (warts and all) upheld above all. The authenticity paradigm is a cultural overcorrection as much as it is individual. When questioned, proponents cite those extreme cases of suicide, where the repressed (by tradition or otherwise) took to a brutal exit since it was better to not live than to cope with such a life of harrowing dissonance. Hence, tradition becomes outcast. The age of religion, interpreted as an age of repression, becomes effectively demonised. It is consistent with the Western worldview where freedom of expression is valued above all, leaving little room for tradition other than that which encourages it. (The Orientals would have a different narrative when it comes to treatment of traditions. Once again, the East contradicts the West.)

. . .

Now, I want to relate my own framing of the need for coherence, for “one true self”, and for authenticity.

I have stated time and time again how the self is a culmination of the most potent stories consumed. We think there is a true self to be uncovered someplace within, from which all true expression is derived. That is an error of framing, arising when we become so adamant about justifying the way we are that we become blind to the notion that there exist forces greater than our own will. Our narratives of self are not entirely up to us. After all, was it not Freud’s great discovery that personality is multi-layered and beyond our knowledge? What does it mean to be authentic when the sum is a battleground of its parts? There is not “one true self” that we can reliably use as a point of reference, for we are the most complex of machineries. How then are we supposed to find coherence?

If we were to examine the authenticity paradigm a little more intricately, and look at those actions we deem in congruence with our authentic self, what do we come to? To act authentically is to act in accordance to that which activates us. We can only express our idiosyncracies uniquely and honestly, and be confident about them, when the expression of those idiosyncrasies first activate us. This is to state what is aforementioned, that is, to be authentic is to be impulsive. Even when we act as such, one still has no proper conception of the self, and the self is still not uncovered — only adhered to! And what activates us? That which activates us is as laid out in the potency of stories, the figure of our ideal self, which is contingent upon the stories we have been gripped by. Why else do so many become enamoured of the story of the world-changing visionary, or the self-conquering ascetic, or the great philanthropist? It is because certain stories have gripped them most, and thus they seek out the legacy of those who have come before.

Perhaps it is better to stay true not to who you are, but who you could be. Why stay true to yourself, anyway, when “yourself” is ridden with mediocrity? With flaws, issues, and bad framing? It is more a matter of self-acceptance, for the self-acceptance paradigm has to do with first acknowledging ourselves in totality, with the framing that our current state may not be quite so “perfect” or “enough” as the authenticists like to say. One could turn the spotlight from “one true self” to the legacy of the ideal self, and with it aim towards a higher ideal than impulsiveness. Is there not wisdom in aiming towards a higher ideal as espoused in traditions that aim towards the attainment of say, divine transformation or the beauty of love? And that one might live a more meaningful life doing so, in spite of the standards it may demand living in accordance to? The ascetics, conquerors of their instincts, should attest to it. As Jordan Peterson writes of his framing: Instead of saying “you are perfect the way you are”, say “you are way less than you could be”. To elevate potential as part of the narrative of being is to tap into our immense will to the ideal self. To edge us towards that which is radical and self-actualising.

We do have a much stronger sense of the ideal self than “one true self”. The story of the ideal self is a lot more potent, and perhaps often it is acting on the ideal self that gives the illusion of “authenticity”. That which activates! After all, do we not relish in incoherence, and present ourselves the way we want to be perceived? Most people wish to be socially accepted above all, and that which activates is very often in congruence to such a goal. Is it the case then that to be authentic is to be paradoxically, socially conforming [1]? My own drive to write Frames & Axioms is about the most authentic choice I can make, when measured on the potency of my inner voice which I have acted on. At the same time, it is the most inauthentic choice I can make, for it is not original, but the manifestation of the legacy of the timeless writers which I have been unwittingly gripped by. My valuations are a reflection of the stories I have consumed, and so my “true self” is the reflection of an external force. Perhaps, if a man spent his entire life isolated from humankind, then only would he be well and truly himself, qualifying as authentic in the complete sense of the word. Then too, in the absence of social conformity, he may as well be called an outcast, or insane!

As Goethe writes, “if you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be”. Can the same not be said of the self? If there is no “one true self”, there is no absolute identity. Hence the sense of self is up to the forces of the potency of narratives, in accordance to our conditioned or learned valuations. Recall the wisdom of “you are what you do” or “you are what you consume”. It is ironic that we already know our sense of self to be susceptible to external forces, yet we continue to propagate narratives of self that assume there is “one true self” that can be uncovered. Personality is malleable. In constant evolution. We do not just act upon life, for life too acts upon us!

. . .

In the absence of one true self, it is sensible to lean into the notion that we are in a constant state of creation and re-creation. The self is not a fixed or static self. It is always something other than what it was before. It is as Heraclitus says of nature, “change is the only constant”. There is nothing constant of being, other than to be at all. It is a Ship of Theseus, the persistence of nothing in particular. Or as Hume writes, the self is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement”.

There lies not “one true self” to be discovered as a basis for authenticity, only an ever-present state, existing at each point in time, to be accepted in its totality. If one can accept himself fully amidst the battleground of narratives, one has to now simply be honest. To live out radically the virtue of honesty is to live out the values the authenticity paradigm espouses. Once one relishes in an honest being, one can shift his framing to the process of creation. Why else do we constantly look to change something of ourselves, if not to act on the malleability of the self to create a state that is more ideal? To be authentic is also to create, and to create radically. Can we pursue radically our highest of ideal selves? Can we go so far as to make our lives a monument to it?2

But, what you definitely do not want to do is lie to yourself. This is why staying true to yourself, or more accurately, not telling a lie, is a baseline goal.

A side note: I now start to think about children and the modern (Western) parenting ethic espoused. Is it truly the best idea to leave children fully to their own devices in the exploration of a “true self”? When parents let children roam free, they are merely letting society do the telling of narratives with free rein, while they themselves avoid playing any cards from their hands. The children become wholly susceptible to society’s stories, and without the directing of parents, they identify with whichever story grips their attention.

There are stories that demonstrate the antithesis. One that instantly comes to mind is the fascinating story of the Polgar Sisters, raised as their father’s educational experiment, and brought up successfully to become chess prodigies! And this excerpt is worth noting: “Although Polgár was criticized in some quarters for encouraging his daughters to focus so intensely on chess, the girls later said that they had enjoyed it all. Polgár “once found Sophia in the bathroom in the middle of the night, a chessboard balanced across her knees.” “Sophia, leave the pieces alone!” he told her. “Daddy, they won’t leave me alone!” she replied.” Are those prodigies any less authentic than modern children with maximal freedom, minimal intervention and validated at every hint of expression?

[1] Here is research on authenticity I recently came across, that supports much of what I lay out in this axiom.

[2] Kegan posits in his theory of adult development (here is an excellent primer) that the highest stage of development as an adult is the most detached self. The developed self is the self-authoring and inquisitive self — one who accepts being in its full complexity instead of seeking to justify itself. It is to take on the framing that there lies no absoluteness in the self apart from existing. The self is a creative process. It is as the Buddhists teach: that there “is neither self nor no-self but meta-self who is an “inquiring spirit”.”

Thank you to Euwyn for letting REALM republish this piece.

Cover image: Man Looking in a Mirror (1969) by Picasso (Source)