Is there a “real you,” a single, central authentic self that you should always be true to? And would you be happier if you could only discover it?

The answer actually may be no. In everyday life different situations call for us to present different facets of ourselves, not false selves but flexible responses to the present situation.

The answer to the question “who am I?” lies in our underlying principles. If we can be true to our core values, we have a compass to guide us through life, and will never stray far from who we really are. But first we have to discover those basic values.

In some ways it has never been harder to define who we are. Many of the traditional labels have disappeared: we may change employment regularly; marry up or down the social scale; or choose to hold different religious or moral beliefs than our family. We can be whoever we want to be, and often are encouraged to express this individuality and know which course of action feels right. But this tidy, unified, stable identity doesn’t fit the reality most of us experience.

Don’t Over-think It

It’s important not to become anxious or too self-conscious when trying to figure out your authentic self. If you feel that you may be living a lie, or find it hard to respond consistently all the time, step back and try to go with the flow. This sort of pressure obscures your vision and a more forgiving attitude may help you understand why you are feeling that way.

An Adaptable Self is Useful

Always being the same is not only unrealistic, but actually undesirable in a complex, fast-moving world. During the course of a day, we are likely to mix with a wide range of people. It often is wise to keep some parts of our self hidden. For example, talking too much about our private life with colleagues may come across as over-emotional or even neurotic. On the other hand, staying in work mode when socializing with friends could seem a little cold and distant.

We may tend to exaggerate our serious side at work, our nurturing side at home, and our playful and enthusiastic side with friends, without even noticing. This does not by itself mean our relationships are in any way fake, as these are all true aspects of our self.

When To Focus on Your True Self

There is a thin line between flexible and fake, and we sometimes feel uncomfortable if we cross it. Hiding our true feelings feels false, but the price of expressing them can be high. If the cost is potentially losing friends and a sense of belonging, you will have to be strong to confront your fear.

One way to discover a more authentic self is to identify your core values and adapt your life to fit them. For example, if one of your core values is equality, working for a company with the same ethos will make you feel more comfortable.

Moving Forward

If you’re feeling lost, you need to see yourself in a new light. Try describing yourself on paper, then ask a good friend to do the same and compare the two. This will help you begin to get an idea of how others see you, and an idea of what you like and don’t like about what you both see.

Create a list of what you must have in your life, such as respect, intimacy, learning or fun, then go into details — for example, taking an evening class.

Consider what’s important to you in the following areas:

  • Family and friends
  • Career
  • Physical environment
  • Fun and recreation
  • Personal growth
  • Money
  • Health
  • Significant other

Next, think back to your childhood and write down what your dreams and goals were. Which have you achieved and which would you still like to pursue? If you cannot remember, think about “peak” moments in your recent life, those times when you’ve felt happiest. What was it that made you feel so elated? It could have been a sense of independence, success, or adventure. Does this exercise reveal a desire for a more creative life, or a more sociable one? Consider what is standing in your way and how you might overcome those barriers, so that you are truly honoring your core values.

Reference and other resources

Checklist for Personal Values

Personal Values Quiz

Core Beliefs Quiz