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“Be yourself” is a popular tenet of the Western culture. According to this viewpoint, to have a good life and garner admiration of others one must live in harmony with oneself. But what does it mean to be oneself? Doctor Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc, psychologist and coach from SWPS University explains the multi-dimensional nature of the “self” and describes the process of “becoming oneself”.

No one can deny the psychological benefits of realizing one’s potential and living according to one’s values and temperament. However, to live in harmony with yourself, it is necessary to know who you are and what you want. Moreover, getting to know yourself is a never ending process.

Although it is tempting to believe that you are always the same, in reality it is only an illusion. People change all the time, whether they like it or not, regardless of the attempts to edit their past so that it matches their current attitudes, beliefs, decisions or behaviors.

Me, Myself and I

“Getting to know oneself” might seem counterintuitive or strange. “What do you mean? No one knows me better than myself! Why should I get to know myself? After all it is me. I know myself.”

Indeed, the idea of getting to know yourself is a bit confusing, because it assumes that there are at least two beings: the first one that is learning about the other and the second one that is the object of this study. The one that is/exists and the other that acts (accordingly or in opposition to the wish of the first one). Even if it seems irrational, this is how this process works. Psychologists say that the concept of the “self” is multi-faceted, which means that every person has many faces. Moreover, it is a natural and psychologically normal state. Although for many people it might be difficult to accept, because the socially promoted model values traits, such as stability, consistency, harmony, and cohesion.

This narration stems from the need to make life straightforward and easy to organize. The assumption about a cohesive personality supports your feeling of being in control, in control of oneself, of others and, in control of the world. If there is only one “self”, than it is easy to divide people into groups, e.g. good and bad, moral and immoral, clever and stupid, pretty and ugly. It is not necessary to get to know them well or to keep learning about them. It is sufficient to observe one behavior of an individual, to know everything about them.

In a sense, every individual is a totalitarian ruler, who controls and manipulates the incoming information all the time, especially the information that relates to themselves. This characteristic of the “self” was identified by a renowned American psychologist Anthony Greenwald, as early as 1980. In his opinion, when people search for information about themselves and the world, they are not directed by accuracy or honesty. In reality, human cognitive processes are dominated by an egocentric perspective that makes people see social processes and their own behavior in such a way that it would maximize the positive auto-image and their own contributions.

In other words, the ego (the totalitarian ruler) accepts only the positive information about the self and banishes the negative or unfavorable information into the subconscious (dungeon, torture, and execution). The idea of the ego protecting mechanisms, such as repression, projection or sublimation was introduced by Freud at the beginning of the 19th century.

The role of the unconscious processes, first in the psychoanalytic approach (Freudian) and then in the cognitive approach (e.g. John Bargh), in human psychology is undeniable. Although no serious psychologist would undermine the thesis that protective mechanisms, such as illusions or distortions of perception exist, the judgement whether they have a positive or a negative impact on one’s psychological wellbeing has been a point of some controversy.

To live in harmony with yourself, it is necessary to know who you are and what you want. Moreover, getting to know yourself is a never ending process. Although it is tempting to believe that you are always the same, in reality it is only an illusion. People change all the time, whether they like it or not, regardless of the attempts to edit their past to align it with their current attitudes, beliefs, decisions or behaviors.

What is Better - the Honest Truth or Illusion?

Being in touch with reality is one of the main criteria of psychological health. However, some doubts and questions arise in this matter. How much contact with reality is beneficial for an individual? How accurate should this contact be to bring positive, instead of negative, results.

In the late 1980s, two American psychologists, Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown, wanted to find out whether the illusions and distortions of perception that people experience are necessary for them to function efficiently. And if yes, then to what degree? They reviewed the theory and the research results of psychotherapy that thoroughly confronted the patient with his or her flaws and shortcomings and their environment. The results indicated that an accurate perception of oneself results in some negative implications, such as lower self-esteem and even mild depression.

Although, it is not certain what was first, the chicken or the egg, i.e. whether depressed people with low self-esteem have a true perception of themselves and the world, or whether the accurate perception of reality lowers the mood and self-esteem. However, it is quite certain that a healthy, well adjusted individual displays a positive inclination in his or her perception of the world.

The positive inclination takes on a form of three illusions:

  • control
  • unrealistic optimism
  • and heightened self-esteem.

Three Illusions: Control, Unrealistic Optimism and Heightened Self Esteem

Illusion of being in control occurs when you feel in control of events in your life, even in unexpected situations. The feeling of being in control is an indispensable element of the self and of positive self esteem. The need to be in control is one of the most human motivational forces. How does it manifest? For example, when you are convinced that you can impact the result of a chance game (e.g. throw of the dice) when throwing the dice yourself versus the result when the dice is thrown by someone else. Objectively speaking, the result of the throw is completely random in both cases. There are many more examples like this. For instance, all kinds of amulets or good-luck charms. When you carry them with you, you feel that nothing bad can happen to you, but if you lose them, you also lose the feeling of being in control and your self-assurance declines.

Believing that fate, cosmos or nature like you a little bit more than other people is a symptom of unrealistic optimism. If you believe in yourself, you are not afraid to pursue goals that might be hard to achieve. Thanks to positive illusions, you go forward and enjoy life. However, the key to the effectiveness of illusions is their intensity. The right dose of illusion is beneficial for you. Too much makes you lose touch with reality and leads to problems, such as believing that the probability of something bad happening to you is smaller than it is for others. For example, if you were a smoker and you knew that smoking causes cancer, you would still believe that your chances of getting the disease are smaller than the chances of other smokers. Similarly, you would believe that your chances of being in a car crash or being a victim of a crime are smaller than the chances of other people. It also works in the opposite way, i.e. you would believe that your chances of finding a dream job, having a perfect marriage, and being happy are greater than those of other people.

A heightened self-esteem is the third type of illusion. If you were suffering from this illusion, you would believe that you were smarter, prettier, more talented and more moral than an average person. What if it is not an illusion, but it is true? Well, exceptional people do exist, however it is not mathematically possible for the majority of the population to be better than the rest.

Why do We Need the Rose-Tinted Glasses?

Looking at the world through the rose-tinted glasses makes people not only optimistic and happy, but also motivates them to be active, effective and to pursue their goals. If you believe in yourself, you are not afraid to pursue goals that might be hard to achieve. Thanks to positive illusions, you feel good, have motivation to go forward and enjoy life.

However, the key to the effectiveness of these illusions is their intensity. A pinch of salt adds flavor to food, but if the meal is too salty, it is hard to swallow. The same happens with your illusions, self-protection mechanisms and other distortions of perception. The right dose of illusion is beneficial for you. Too much makes you lose touch with reality and leads to problems.

So when are you being yourself? When you assess yourself realistically and, as a consequence, feel depressed or when your self-esteem is heightened and you feel happy and motivated to act?

Perhaps we should all accept the fact that being oneself, understood literally, is not possible. What is possible should rather be called.... becoming yourself. No one is created or shaped once and for all. Every day brings changes to your personality, your views and your behaviors.

What you can do to make the process of becoming yourself easier and, in consequence like yourself better, is to loosen the grip of the “totalitarian ruler”, i.e. your ego. To become yourself, you do not have to have clear and unwavering views on every subject, be right in every discussion, and fight for your values to your last breath. Give yourself permission to evolve, grow and make mistakes. Paradoxically, this approach provides a better chance for achieving success in the process of becoming yourself.

Programs in English
at SWPS University

258 ewa jarczewska gerc

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc – psychologist, SWPS University. Specializes in psychology of individual differences. Her work focuses on psychology of motivation, effectiveness, perseverance and mental simulations. Her research interests include the relation between various forms of thinking, effectiveness and perseverance.

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