In the good old pre-modern times, our ideas about human behaviour were quite straightforward. It was believed that what you can observe of one’s behaviour, is the ‘real’ you. If someone behaved in a pro-social, good natured or altruistic way, they were considered a good person. If someone was egotistical, greedy and inconsiderate, this was seen as evidence of their innately corrupt nature.
Our perception of human nature has changed in modern times (and rightfully so). It is now recognized that human behaviour can be complex and unpredictable, and observing a few samples of it, doesn’t necessary reveal the whole of someone’s nature.
Thinkers like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Michel Foucault have deconstructed human nature, pointing out to biological, social and unconscious forces that, while generally beyond our conscious awareness, shape our behaviour. According to them, the ‘real’ you is hidden behind the evolution, our subconscious desires, the class struggle and the power of social institutions respectively.
While their sharp minds have dramatically improved our insights about human nature, there is still a quiet assumption in our interpretation of their theories, that there is a ‘true’ you hidden behind the complex systems that shape our behaviour. That, perhaps, when you are alone with your thoughts at night under your bed covers; when you wait in your car in front of a red light and there are no traffic cameras or other vehicles around; or when you are letting slip your opinion about someone not present in the room, that you are revealing your true nature.
This assumption stems from the idea that our real identity is revealed when no one is around and that interactions with others somehow make us hide and distort this identity. Hence, we can never be ourselves around others.
However, in truth, our social identity is part of our overall identity. Human beings are social creatures and if anything, our behaviour around others is a good indication of who we are as a person.
Questions about whether we are inherently ‘selfish’ or ‘selfless’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, savvy or naïve etc are philosophical abstractions. At the end of the day, the only judge about who we really are, is the work we leave behind, our legacy and our reputation. And all of the above, are largely determined by habits we adopt, actions we implement and decisions we make on a daily basis.
It is much more helpful to accept your identity as a continuous and flexible construct. You are adjusting your behaviour, habits and actions depending on the context in your life as a business owner, a wife, a friend, a parent or an artist. Despite the variety of behaviours in your arsenal, you are holding the various pieces together through your values, your vision and your attitude.
When these values and attitudes are aligned to your daily actions, then you will feel in the presence of what people sometimes describe as their authentic self. You are not the fragmented pieces of a mosaic of scattered identities; neither are you hiding your ‘true’ self behind the various masks your wear. You are the whole mosaic, all of these masks, and more.