I recently read a wonderful book, called Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious by Timothy Wilson. He’s an accessible psychology prof who outlines in the book why self-knowledge is impossible to come by. If you want to know yourself, you need other people. And, on a note of hope for self-improvement, he argues that if you want to be a better person in any way, shape, or form, you’ve got to act the part first. In the case of self-improvement, being “fake” is not just helpful. It’s almost necessary.
His conclusion was pretty off-putting to me initially. My culture has taught me that expressing myself–my true self–is the most important thing in the world. (Dammit, it’s so important it’s divine!) My culture guides me in the worship of Myself, and constantly praises and exhorts Me in My personal decisions, regardless of their contribution or destruction to my well-being.
What I’ve recently been struck by is the assumption in all of this that I know myself. Wilson argues that I don’t and, frankly, I agree. Sometimes, I act in ways that I don’t understand. I do things i don’t really want to do. I am, truly, a stranger to myself.
This may sound cliche or sappy, but I’d argue that it’s true for everyone (it’s……UNIVERSAL!!! :O) and thus we better pay it some attention. If I don’t know Me, then maybe I should take “being true to myself” a little less seriously. If myself is an amoeba even to me, its presumable master, then maybe I should try being a little less concerned with the way I think about it (i.e. being ‘real’ and developing an ‘accurate’ concept of self) and focus more on behaving as I believe it should act (i.e. faking it and focusing on controlling my behavior, a still huge, but more modest, task).
Here’s a personal example: I want to be inclined less toward cynicism and more toward genuine kindness. To do that, I’m not going to get caught up in knowing myself, in discovering the deeply rooted cause of my cynical nature and, through some cathartic self reflection, tearing those roots from this little heart of mine. Nope. I’m gonna fake it. Because, as Wilson argues, if you want to be genuinely kind, first you’ve gotta act kind. At first, it won’t be genuine. But, if practiced long enough, it will be. I may feel like a fraud for a while, but I would rather deal with those feelings in my own private, skull-sized prison than continue being my “true” self to the potential detriment of those around me.
Something to think about!