Is it a case of “what you see is what you get?” or is there a mismatch between how you appear to others and the way you feel inside?
For most people, the answer is: “it depends” We’re ourselves with some people, but put on a façade with others. More often than not, when we wear a mask, it’s to protect ourselves—we put on a show of bravado to hide the fact that we’re trembling inside. We laugh and smile to ingratiate ourselves with others when inwardly we’re bored, resentful or sad.
You’d think the extent to which we present ourselves falsely would depend solely on our personality or our circumstances, but new research suggests we become “more true to ourselves” as we get older—or at least we think we do.
Two US psychologists sent questionnaires to over 250 volunteers and asked them to rate how true they are to themselves.
“True self” was defined as: “Being made up of the characteristics, roles, or attributes that define who you really are—even if those characteristics are different than how you sometimes act in your daily life.”
Participants were asked to indicate how much overlap there was between their true self in the past, how they believe they are today, and how they perceived they will be in the future. A clear trend emerged—most people believed they were closer to their true self now than they had been in the past, and that the gap would close even more as they got older. What’s more, the participants believed their quest for happiness would increase as they became more authentic.
"This is above all: to thine own self be true"—William Shakespeare, Polonius in Hamlet Act 1
The idea that authenticity is closely linked to psychological wellbeing is well established. In an earlier British study, participants were questioned on self-awareness, communication style, and openness, to test their authenticity. This was matched against measures for self-esteem and happiness. Those who reported as most “authentic” also scored highest on self-esteem and happiness.
“Being authentic and aligning your innermost thoughts, feelings and desires with your public behaviour is good for you because it doesn’t require the energy-sapping vigilance of constantly self-monitoring. People are naturally happier when their outer and inner worlds are operating in close parallel and they feel they’re able to be themselves,” says chartered psychologist, Professor Hew Gill, an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society.