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Is “Be True to Yourself” Good Advice?

The Self-Made Self

You don’t need to look far today to notice that personal identity is a do-it-yourself project. A gym near where I live advertises itself with the slogan: “Be Fit. Be Well. Be You.” A new apartment complex around the corner, offering high-end luxury design, carries the byline: “An Unlimited You.” People think about themselves constantly, it seems, and with high expectations!

High schools are also in on the act. One school’s marketing gave this advice to its current and prospective students: “Be Inspired. Be Challenged. Be Excellent. Be You.” The goal for every pupil in our day, we might say, is to leave school singing the most popular song from The Greatest Showman: “Look out ’cause here I come.” A veritable anthem for Millennials and Gen Z, the lyrics speak of unapologetically marching to your own drumbeat and proudly announcing to the world who you really are.

Popular culture regularly taps into this preoccupation with self-knowledge and self-expression. Think of the several decades-long success of Madonna—singer, songwriter, actress, and business woman—who embodies this approach to identity. Madonna is famous for regularly reinventing not only her music but also her image. Not surprisingly, her sixth major concert tour was styled the “Reinvention World Tour.” Personal identity today is all about self-definition and self-expression.

How to Find Yourself

Brian S. Rosner

This book challenges the popular idea that expressive individualism—looking inward—is the sole basis of one’s identity. Brian Rosner provides an approach to identity formation that looks outward to others and upward to God, which leads to a more stable and satisfying sense of self.

In the past, an individual’s identity was more established and predictable than it is today. Many of the big questions in life were basically settled before you were born: where you’d live, what you’d do, the type of person you’d marry, your basic beliefs, and so on. It’s not that there was no choice whatsoever. Rather, the shape of your life was molded by constraints that limited your choices. Today, we are open to any and every possibility. We take for granted the obligation to find and define or even invent ourselves for ourselves.1 The advice heard frequently in many contexts is to “be true to yourself,” “follow your heart,” “be yourself,” and, the most recent and hippest version, “you do you.”2

People today increasingly have what sociologists call the “buffered self,” a self defined and shaped from within, to the exclusion of external roles and ties. We find our true selves by detaching ourselves from external influences like home, family, religion, and tradition, and thereby determine who we are for ourselves. The buffered self contrasts with the “porous self,” which is the approach of most collectivist societies—in parts of Asia and Africa, for example—whereby external social ties and roles are determinative for identity. With the porous self, you find yourself as you move into your roles in family and community.

Self-determination, rather than being a principle for nations at the end of the First World War, is now the responsibility of every individual. Self-definition is thus the culturally endorsed route to identity formation in our day. Today, we have a do-it-yourself self or a self-made self, which looks only inward to find itself. Academics call this expressive individualism.

The major tenets of expressive individualism can be summarized in seven points:

  • The best way to find yourself is to look inward.
  • The highest goal in life is happiness.
  • All moral judgements are merely expressions of feeling or personal preference.
  • Forms of external authority are to be rejected.
  • The world will improve dramatically as the scope of individual freedom grows.
  • Everyone’s quest for self-expression should be celebrated.
  • Certain aspects of a person’s identity—such as their gender, ethnicity, or sexuality—are of paramount importance.

The seven points form a coherent worldview, tell a compelling story, and, most importantly for our purposes, set out a strategy for forming personal identity.

The key point is the first one. A survey in 2015 found that 91 percent of adults in the United States agreed that the best way to find yourself is by looking within yourself.3 Everything else flows from this conviction. The thinking is that to look anywhere else than inward would bring you under the control of those who wish to oppress you, would risk you not realizing your full potential, and, worst of all, would mean that you would not be true to yourself. That is the message coming loud and clear from every direction in our contemporary world. Francis Fukuyama writes, “Modern understandings of identity hold that we have deep interior spaces whose potentialities are not being realized, and that external society through its rules, roles, and expectations is responsible for holding us back.”4

Philosopher Andrew Potter argues that “when it comes to personal fulfilment, many of us subscribe to the idea that the self is an act of artistic creation.”5 Sociologist Anthony Elliott agrees: “We respond to the instability of globalization . . . by reinventing ourselves.”6 And Dale Kuehne observes, “In the iWorld [meaning the individualistic postmodern world] identity is something we are instructed to select or create. If we don’t like or aren’t comfortable with who we are, we are encouraged to remake ourselves in whatever manner we are able and science will allow.”7 One of the best-selling songs of all time is sung by Elsa, a character from the movie Frozen. It is something of an anthem for Generation Z, being viewed on YouTube over 1.5 billion times: “It’s time to see what I can do / To test the limits and break through / No right, no wrong, no rules for me / I’m free!” As Tim Keller explains, the song’s sentiment is

a good example of expressive individualism. Identity is not realized, as in traditional societies, by sublimating our individual desires for the good of our family and people. Instead, we become ourselves only by asserting our individual desires against society, by expressing our feelings and fulfilling our dreams regardless of what anyone says.8

The corollary of knowing yourself is the advice to be true to yourself, which these days is about the most helpful thing you can say to someone. In 2008, filmmaker and photographer Andrew Zuckerman interviewed “some of the world’s most eminent elders,” the likes of Nelson Mandela, Madeline Albright, Billie Jean King, Judi Dench, the Dalai Lama, and Buzz Aldrin. A series of five books, entitled simply Wisdom, captured their images and their advice. When you open the first book, you find a distillation of their sage advice in large bold script on the first double page. It reads, “Nobody can teach me who I am.”9 When it comes to knowing and becoming who you are, the ball is squarely in your court.

A key driver of expressive individualism is the desire to live more authentic lives. To be true to yourself “captures the fullness of our commitment to authenticity as a moral ideal.”10 This is reflected in the way that personal autonomy is now the final word in almost every ethical debate. Whether the issue is gender, sexuality, abortion, or assisted dying, the preservation of individual choice is primary. As Leslie Cannold observes, “The central moral value in a modern multicultural society is autonomy, the right of individuals to determine the course of their own lives according to their own needs and values.”11

Evaluating the Self-Made Self

How unique is this approach to identity? My answer is that it is close to unprecedented, a recent innovation in the sweep of human history. What is remarkable is the strength of commitment to expressive individualism across so many quarters of society and its unquestioned supremacy given that it is such an untested innovation.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz puts it well, if a little abstrusely:

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.12

Geertz’s evaluation raises three pressing questions about personal identity.

First, is the self-made self resilient? This idea of a buffered, bounded person may hold great appeal in our society and seem self-evident, but the jury is out on how enduring a path it is to lasting and meaningful identity formation.

Second, is the self-made self working? Doubtless, the buffered self has opened the door to endless choices and possibilities. But does expressive individualism actually lead to good outcomes for individuals? Does it lead to good outcomes for society as a whole? Does it lead to what we might call “the good life”?

Third, is the self-made self incorrigible? While expressive individualism, sitting as it does at the bottom of our cultural iceberg, beneath our awareness, may seem natural to us now, its peculiarity in human history begs the question: Is it really the obvious and true way to forge a sense of self?

The consequences for individuals and society of implementing an idea as foundational as the way we form our identities will take decades to uncover and assess. We’ve been on this path for at least twenty years now. In my view, it’s time to step back and conduct an audit.

Notes:

  1. Consider the title of Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s book on adolescence: Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain (London: Transworld, 2018).
  2. The Urban Dictionary defines “you do you” as “just be yourself."
  3. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 58.
  4. Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (London: Profile Books, 2019), 103.
  5. Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax: Why the “Real” Things We Seek Don’t Make Us Happy (New York: Harper, 2011), 3.
  6. Reported by Bella Ellwood-Clayton, “Changing partners—Love actually,” Sun Herald, June 28, 2009.
  7. Dale S. Kuehen, Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship Beyond an Age of Individualism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 139.
  8. Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), 134.
  9. Chinua Achebe, quoted in Andrew Zuckerman, Wisdom, rev. ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2011).
  10. Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax, 18.
  11. Leslie Cannold, “In the end, we should have faith in our right to choose,” Sun Herald, September 26, 2010.
  12. Clifford Geertz, “From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding,” in Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self and Emotion, ed. Richard A. Shweder and Robert A. LeVine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 126, cited in Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (London: Penguin, 2012), 16.

This article is adapted from How to Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not the Answer by Brian S. Rosner.



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