When it comes to life, it is inevitable not to ask certain questions to oneself. We’ve all done it at some point, right? Many of them are based on curiosity, wanting to know about the meaning of our existence in this world, to discover our own identity, our purpose, and the role we play in this performance called life.
In this performance, you are the protagonist accompanied by a diverse range of supporting characters: your family, your friends, acquaintances, people who come and go throughout your life. In the plot’s development, you create your vision of the world and the vision of yourself in it. It is influenced by your beliefs, your environment, and your experiences.
Two selves coexist within you. Depending on the degree to which you are influenced by your surroundings, it will determine if you remain true to your inner essence, or it will create a fictional identity as a result of following the demands and expectations of others. These are the Real Self and the False Self, two sides of the same coin.
It is in our power to choose which Self to be and we should ask ourselves which one is ruling our lives at the moment. Am I truly myself at all times, or do my thoughts and actions prove otherwise? I think the following statement by Michel Foucault refers to what the False Self demands from us when he states: “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” If that caused you some kind of internal conflict, you are not alone. And by False Self, I mean an identity established and approved by society, whose concepts of happiness, success and well-being are imposed by others. What the heart dictates, is set aside.
Still, I wanted to question the reason why Foucault would say this …
Let’s take the first part of the quote: “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am…” I can understand why he said that. He has been defined as a philosopher, historian, thinker, psychologist, but none of these titles truly represented him. He felt more like a teacher; he liked the role of discussing ideas and thoughts.
There are other similar stories to this one.
Leo Buscaglia was publicly known as a teacher, writer, and motivational speaker, but has always seen himself as an educator. He taught his college students about the importance of love and sharing their feelings with one another.
Jorge Bucay, the Argentinian psychiatrist, doctor, and therapist did not particularly identify with any of these labels but, instead, he defined himself as a “professional helper.” He thought this was a more appropriate term to reflect his purpose of helping people.
The point is, we tend to define who we are and who others are with words we think that represent them, but this couldn’t be more wrong. Tagging someone is an action typical of the human mind (False Self), and it limits the true meaning of our identity and how we feel on the inside (Real Self).
Look around you. Wherever you go there is a name for everything. This not only applies to professional occupations, but everything regarding social labels: marital status, race, politics, names to define someone’s personality, even names for different generations (millennials, baby boomers, gen z, etc). Labelling seems to be automatic. Think for example when you first meet someone. What is the first thing that comes to your mind? A judgment, either positive or negative. You may be right or wrong, but it is most likely that person represents much more than the conclusion your mind came up with. And how many times we were wrong when we actually believed we were right! What Foucault probably meant was: I don’t think it is necessary to know who I am according to the false parameters of society. I don’t feel the need to identify by how the world sees me but instead by how I see myself, and it’s impossible to define it exactly by its terms.
Now, if we analyse this first part of the statement NOT from what the False Self wants, but what the Real Self envisions, the meaning of this quote changes noticeably. Because, if we didn’t know exactly who we were or where we were going, the meaning of our lives would rest in the hands of the False Self. We seek answers in the outside world. We listen to what others have to say, but how many times a day do you listen to yourself? Introspection is the means to know exactly who you are. Question things like: What old beliefs should I banish from my mind that won’t let me move forward? Maybe it is time to challenge them and build new ones. How do I feel at the present moment? You can analyse every aspect of your life, what works and what doesn’t. Am I following social stereotypes to ‘fit in’ or am I fearless by revealing the true version of myself? Knowing who you are is essential to make your own decisions. You will distinguish what matters and works for you, not what functions to others.
But if you don’t ask these (and other) questions, nobody else will do it for you. Otherwise, at some point in your existence, you will find yourself in a dilemma wondering which of these two selves you are portraying. It is important to remember that learning is not only through a university or any academic institution. Self-reflection is learning too. Nothing more, nothing less! I would remove the “don’t” from Foucault’s statement because I feel it is necessary to know exactly who you are!
Still, knowing our identity does not mean that we will think and act the same way throughout our lives. Change is inevitable. We are always changing. And what I think we aspire to (or should aspire to) is evolution. Foucault, in the second part of his quote, alludes in some sense to evolution and change when he states ”(…) The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. ” This was his idea of evolution which relates to what I mentioned earlier; Foucault himself adopted a variety of professional identities throughout his career. However, what he states does not apply universally to everyone, whatever the context of his words may be. Once again, I feel that he alludes to what a False Self is by suggesting that it is the radical idea of becoming someone different. Why doesn’t it work?
First, because the main purpose in life is subjective for each one of us. His vision of this radical change seemed to be in sight of the future when in reality, change is happening right now. In the present is where our attention should be. If we intend to change, it should start within us. No other place. When one speaks of purpose, one speaks only of our authentic being, which is not at the same level of importance as work. The work we do is ONE part that makes up our identity, but it is not the Real Self itself.
I agree to become, but become what? Being someone else implies being ruled by a False Self. It means you wear a mask. Sometimes we wear it because of an external incentive that leads to some recognition, be it a title, a good grade, a promotion, any type of credit, or to feel accepted and loved by others. Meanwhile, “becoming” from the Real Self is essentially finding a way back to who we always were. Through “the conversation” with yourself, you discover your potential as a human being. Develop and practise forgiveness, tolerance, active listening… How underestimated these actions are in humanity and how necessary they truly are nowadays. THIS is the real change we should aim for as human beings. You may not receive a standing ovation for it, but it is surely a rewarding feeling within you. And that’s what matters.
I believe Foucault’s statement functions as a wake-up call and an invitation to self-reflect and question the meaning of our identity. It challenges us. We have the power to choose how to craft the direction of our lives. Is it going to be from the False Self or the Real Self?
The real work is knowing one’s own thoughts and feelings.
The reason why we behave the way we do.
You expressed many points that touch our need to do inner-work.