On a recent visit to IKEA, the labyrinthine Swedish furniture megastore, I was greeted with a message repeated twelve times on the entrance staircase: “Be yourself.”
Knowing who you are and being true to yourself has never been more important than in the twenty-first century West. They are seen as signs of good mental health and well-being and the keys to authentic living and true happiness.
Of course, to be yourself, you must know yourself. Most people today believe that there is only one place to look to find yourself, and that is inwards. The New York Times columnist David Brooks observes that “when you are figuring out how to lead your life, people today feel that the most important answers are found deep inside yourself.” In our day, personal identity is a do-it-yourself project.
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.
Two Dr. Taylors agree. The Canadian philosopher Dr. Charles Taylor notes that “modern freedom and autonomy centers us on ourselves, and the ideal of authenticity requires that we discover and articulate our own identity.”
Dr. Taylor Swift, receiving her honorary doctorate from New York University in 2022, intoned: “We are so many things, all the time. And I know it can be overwhelming figuring out who to be. I have some good news: it’s totally up to you. I also have some terrifying news: it’s totally up to you.”
Is looking inside yourself to find yourself a good idea? Is the responsibility of figuring out who to be both a good and terrifying prospect? Before examining the fruit of this near universal, recent cultural phenomenon, it is worth exploring its roots.
The Origins of Looking inside Yourself to Find Yourself
The maxim to look inside yourself to find yourself is shorthand for the strategy of identity formation called expressive individualism, in which all forms of external authority are to be rejected, personal autonomy is king, and everyone’s quest for self-expression is to be celebrated.
The movement of expressive individualism is, in part, a reaction against a purported 1950s culture of conformity, which, as Charles Taylor puts it, is believed to have “crushed individuality and creativity, was too concerned with production and concrete results, repressed feeling and spontaneity, and exalted the mechanical over the organic.”
However, while personal identity as a do-it-yourself project reached a tipping point in the last few decades, its seminal ideas have been on the boil for a few centuries. Carl Trueman’s two books, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020) and Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2022) are compulsory reading on this score.
Trueman points to a confluence of a host of factors to explain the cultural normativity of the self-made self, including technology, politics, popular culture, scientific progress, and so on. His work, however, focuses on the intellectual roots (the history of ideas) that explain how we got to the point of thinking that the only place to look to find yourself is inward. Trueman admits that the seminal figures in question are rarely read today, but their ideas are part of our social imagery today—unquestionable cultural intuitions. For a whistle-stop tour, consider one figure of influence from each of the last four centuries.
From the 17th Century, note the French philosopher René Descartes and his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.”
In the 18th Century the Genevan intellectual, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, representative of the artistic movement of Romanticism, wrote in his autobiographical Confessions of his desire to “make known my inner self,” for which he writes, “all I need to do is to look inside myself.” The Romantics accordingly granted authority to personal feelings as the true guide to who you are.
According to Trueman, the 19th Century German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche struck at the heart of the notion of absolute moral standards and insisted that human beings must rise to the challenge of self-creation.
And in the 20th Century, the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud established the idea that sex is foundational to human happiness and personal identity.
There is of course much more to say, but they are some of the turning points in the history of ideas that led to today’s notion of a self-made self. Such thinking led inexorably to exclusive introspection for identity formation.
The Upside of Looking inside Yourself
In principle, there is nothing wrong with looking inwards. Personal exploration is commendable, and self-reflection acknowledges the gains of living an examined life, the alternative to which is far from attractive.
Authenticity as a moral ideal is also commendable, especially if the alternative is a blind conformity to external demands that can lead to hypocrisy when people fail to own key aspects of their life. It is much better for a person to inhabit an identity that they own and can fully appropriate for themselves. There is something to be said for feeling comfortable in your own skin.
The Downside of Looking inside Yourself
However, despite these benefits, there are three problems with looking exclusively inside to find yourself.
First, it produces an unstable sense of self. Even though there have always been life experiences that can destabilize a person’s identity, the rise of expressive individualism, aided by the powerful tools of social media, has meant that more people than ever are unsure who they really are and have a fragile sense of self. Along with the exciting opportunity to find yourself comes the daunting possibility of failing, or of not liking who you find.
Jesus insists that to find yourself, your true and lasting identity, you need to relinquish the quest for self-assertion.
The cruel irony is that while it’s never been more important to know who you are, it’s never been more difficult. From childhood educators to psychologists, more experts are raising concerns about the lack of resilience in children today. Many refer to those who grew up in the 21st Century as “The Fragile Generation.” Taylor Swift is right to be terrified.
Secondly, it is questionable whether it leads to a good life. An obsessive self-focus can easily slip into becoming self-deceived, self-absorbed, and self-centered. As Francis Fukuyama puts it, “The problem is that the inner selves we are celebrating may be cruel, violent, narcissistic, or dishonest. Or they may simply be lazy and shallow.”
Thirdly, and most importantly, expressive individualism rests on faulty foundations. Humans are not self-defining, isolated units. The biggest problem with only looking inside to find yourself is that it is hopelessly reductionistic, ignoring crucial dimensions of what it means to be a human being. Human identity does not exist in isolation, it cannot be defined without reference to the narrative in which it finds itself. We know ourselves by looking around to our closest relationships, back and forward to our shared life stories, and upward to something bigger than ourselves. We are profoundly social, deeply story-driven, and we have eternity in our hearts.
The Gospel and a New Identity
The gospel acknowledges these directions. Without diminishing the importance of human relationships and our life experiences for our sense of self, it offers us a new identity, based on being known intimately and personally by God our Heavenly Father and including us in the life-story of Jesus Christ. Paul explains: “You died, and your identity is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life-story, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Col. 3:3–4; my own translation).” The defining events in our life-stories are those we share with all believers: dying with Christ and having our true identities as God’s children revealed when Christ returns.
Beneath looking inside to find yourself lies two assumptions: (1) you belong to yourself; and (2) to be yourself, you have to find yourself. The Bible is in fundamental disagreement with both.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19: “you are not your own.” There are, in fact, some contexts in which belonging to someone else is undeniably a positive thing. A young child lost in a shopping mall makes no complaint when their parent turns up and claims them as their own. Likewise, while it is open to abuse, true romantic love has at its heart a mutual belonging. Indeed, social beings that we are, nothing gives us a more of a sense of value and worth than being loved to such an extent that we belong to another. Far from distressing or oppressive, such an embrace reassures and liberates us.
Indeed, love is the context of Paul’s startling assertion that “you are not your own.” The words following Paul’s rejection of personal autonomy in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 explain why you belong to another: “you were bought at a price.” You belong to another because you are loved beyond measure. That love was expressed in the high cost of your redemption: “you were ransomed from the futile ways . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18–19); “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
One of Jesus’s favorite sayings, appearing in all four Gospels, strikes at the heart of the other assumption: “Whoever finds themselves will lose themselves, but whoever loses themselves for my sake will find themselves” (Matt. 10:39; my own translation). Jesus insists that to find yourself, your true and lasting identity, you need to relinquish the quest for self-assertion. The paradox of personal identity is that those who gaze inside to find themselves will lose their identities, and those who look elsewhere—to the interests of others—will find their identity in Christ.
Brian S. Rosner is the author of How to Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not the Answer
I’d like to offer different advice than what you might hear elsewhere: “Do not follow your dreams. Do not march to the beat of your own drummer. And whatever you do, do not be true to yourself.”
In our day, personal identity has never been more important. So there’s unprecedented interest in identity formation, being yourself, and thinking about yourself.
Carl Trueman explores the history of Western thought with the view of answering two simple questions: How did we get here? How should the church respond?
Brian Rosner talks about how our cultural obsession with identity impacts us as Christians and how we should think about that through the lens of the Bible.