What Does It Mean to Be Your True Self?

Outward Matching Inward

Expressive individualism is a term used by philosophers such as Charles Taylor to talk about the way we think about being selves in the present day. Expressive individualism particularly refers to the idea that in order to be fulfilled, in order to be an authentic person, in order to be genuinely me, I need to be able to express outwardly or perform publicly that which I feel I am inside. So expressive individualism in some ways overturns a lot of the notions of the self that previous generations may have held to.

I grew up in England and the idea of reserve, of not expressing one's emotions in public, was very important to the kind of upbringing I had. Today, of course, when we look at reality television, for example, we are presented constantly with images of people who are letting it all go, letting it out, letting it rip. So, expressive individualism is simply this idea that the most authentic individual, the most real person, is the person who expresses or performs outwardly that which they are inwardly.


That has obvious implications for the sexual revolution. Take for example the most extreme example of the sexual revolution: the whole notion of somebody being transgender. What does transgenderism claim? Well, it claims that somebody with the body of a man who yet feels inside that they are a woman has the right and the need to express this outwardly in the way they dress, the way they behave, even the restrooms they care to use. That person has the right to express that inward conviction in their outward public behavior.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Carl R. Trueman

Carl Trueman traces the historical roots of many hot-button issues such as transgenderism and homosexuality, offering thoughtful biblical analysis as he uncovers the profound impact of the sexual revolution on modern human identity.

You see this quite often in the testimonies of transgender people. If you look at the interview that Bruce Jenner, for example, did with Diane Sawyer when he talked about finally being himself, about having lived a lie, that's the language of expressive individualism. The idea is that society has forced me to behave in certain ways that don't conform to my inner feelings and my inner convictions.

In a society where the expressive individual is increasingly the norm and increasingly presented as that which we should all be, then the idea of society itself forcing us to play a role that we don't feel comfortable with inside makes us inauthentic. So the sexual revolution, particularly in its transgender form, is a specific, sexualized manifestation of this wider normative person.

The Christian Correlation

There is a sense in which expressive individualism correlates to some aspects of Christianity because, of course, the Bible has much to say about hypocrites. It has a lot to say about those who pretend outwardly to be one thing and, yet in reality, are something quite different. One might say that Augustine, in his great psychological autobiography, Confessions, is giving expression to expressive individualism when he's talking about his inward feelings as he moves away from the church and then back to the church.

So, there's a sense in which that correlation between the inward and the outward and the importance of the inward life is something that lies very much at the heart of Christianity. One of the big differences between what we might call Christian expressive individualism and secular expressive individualism is that Christian expressive individualism acknowledges that there may be a problem with that which is inside.

A Christian knows that inwardly he or she is sinful, and therefore needs to repent, to turn to God, to go inwards in order to turn outwards toward God and toward Christ.

Augustine's expressive individualism—his Confessions, his crying out to God—is always a result of him moving inward in order to move outward to God. He's not moving inward simply to work out how he needs to express himself to his friends and his neighbors. He's moving inward in order to reach upwards to God and to try to bring that which is inward to conformity of the external will of God.

So expressive individualism, like a lot of things, captures something of the truth. Human beings do have an inner life, and that inner life is very important to who we are. But a Christian would say that the transgender person who acts out their transgender convictions in the public realm is, in a way, really fooling themselves. A Christian knows that inwardly he or she is sinful, and therefore needs to repent, to turn to God, to go inwards in order to turn outwards toward God and toward Christ. That's where real authenticity lies.

Carl R. Trueman is the author of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.

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