When I tell my story of blowing the whistle on the CEOs of LeisureNet Ltd, I share how much courage was required to overcome the natural psychological conflict I experienced in the moments before speaking out.

“I felt like everything I believed about who I was, my sense of self, my self concept was coming into stark contrast. I had always believed I was a loyal team player, now it felt as though I was about to act in a very disloyal way. I believed I was a compliant person, now it felt as though I was going to act in a non compliant way.  I enjoyed that my colleagues and friends felt safe and comfortable with me, now I suspected I was going to make a whole lot of people feel unsafe and uncomfortable.  It felt like my entire self concept was hiding in a tiny rickety hut and there was a hurricane coming that would destroy me.”

Most people say “self” many times per day, at least as a part word (e.g., myself, herself), but offering a definition is difficult, elusive, and usually unsatisfactory. 

So, what is a Self concept? Is it different to a public Self or a true, authentic Self? 

Around 1600, “To thine own self be true” reflected the historically new elevation of sincerity into a virtue. The context was the increase in social mobility and contact with strangers during that time, so, unlike previously, it was often difficult to identify someone at a glance. For example, some merchants became rich and could afford fine clothes and other things, and so they could pass for “the quality”, high status individuals. Class prejudice conflicted with economic mobility, so the notion of the inner self as different from the outer, visible appearance and actions became much more popular than it ever had been (Sennett, 1974; Baumeister, 1986, 1987). In particular, the actual behaviour of many aristocrats, such as being drunken, lecherous, wasteful, inept, petty, spiteful, and vindictive, was at odds with ostensible nobility of character, and so aristocrats favoured the view that people could have ostensibly true inner traits that differed from their actions. Having sincerity and integrity meant equating ones’ inner self with overt action and interpersonal demeanor, and it became a valued trait due to the societal shifts during the Elizabethan (Shakespearean) period.

In contrast, the concept of authenticity emerged as a virtue three centuries later. The societal upheavals of the 20th century, reflecting alienation and mass society (including mass media and mass production, not to mention world wars), led to the existentialist emphasis on acting in a mindful, deliberate, intentional manner instead of just being swept along with the crowd and familiar habits, doing what everyone else does. The advent of mass society tempted all persons just to follow along and act like one of the masses, and authenticity meant not doing that, instead acting with awareness and responsibility. 

How has our Self Concept changed in the 21st century? Watch the two minute video below

Self concept       True Self       Actual Self       False Self
Self-concept is not the self, any more than the concept of a tree is an actual tree. People might have a true self-concept but they might still not have a true self. The unicorn is a standard example for which there exists a concept without a reality. One could also ask people to furnish descriptions of a unicorn, and they could probably do this, without requiring that they believe unicorns actually exist.

The True Self functions not as a representation of how one is but rather as a guide to how one wants to be.  People readily use the notion of true self and regard true selves as important guides to action, indeed feeling especially satisfied with their decisions insofar as these decisions match their true self.

Widespread assumptions that the true self is moral and good is remarkably consistent across cultures;  most of us seem to be biased to see our own and other people’s true selves as essentially good. When a bad person turns good, we see this as their true self emerging. Conversely, if a good person turns bad, this is because circumstances have conspired to constrain or corrupt their true self. Read more here

However people generally associate their true selves, and authenticity, with doing what society regards as good rather than with what their own true inner nature dictates.  During the research conducted by Lenton et al., 2016, participants reported higher feelings of authenticity when going along with external influences rather than resisting them.  One would expect authenticity and the true self would best be glimpsed when a person is defying external influences so as to remain true to the inner self and one’s personal values. But no.

The idea of a true self different from one’s actual actions, roles and experiences, is probably indefensible and the notion of a true self-concept is hampered by rampant self deception, which makes self report studies of authenticity suspect, as it depends on people knowing their true self.

Self-knowledge is widely distorted. Self-evaluations are typically inflated, distorted and inaccurate. If being authentic depends on behaving in a way that matches the person’s knowledge of his or her true self, and if people pervasively fail to know their true selves, metrics to authenticity become problematic. Reports of authenticity are overwhelmingly positive, as if nobody’s true self has any flaws or faults.  At best, the authenticity feeling of “that’s me” might be better translated as “that’s how I fondly imagine I could be”.

The Actual Self is defined as how one genuinely, objectively acts in daily life, whereas the true self is explicitly permitted to be different from concrete action. The Actual Self is a doer, it decides, initiates, takes offense, accepts responsibility, promises, purchases, seeks revenge, all of which self concepts don’t do.

Instead of responding automatically or unthinkingly, a person deliberately and intentionally performs the action with full awareness of its meaning.

False Self
Most people have had the experience of having to act in some false manner, pretending to be something they were not, acting in a way contrary to their beliefs, performing actions that they regretted or were ashamed of, perhaps even earnestly trying to act differently so as to please family, manager or employer. They gladly reject these as false versions of self. They want to distance themselves from their actions or experiences, seeking to dis-own some of their acts and disown the version of self implied by them. And indeed, when people apologise and feel guilty and regret some action or non action, that often means that they repudiate the version of the self who performed that action or non action.  Read more here

Some experiences of false selves arise from doing things of which one was later regretful or ashamed.  Still, one actually did those things. The belief in a true self different from one’s actual behaviour would at least stretch the concept of truth. The very notion of a true self, especially as distinct from one’s actual actions, may be a ploy of self-deception, a rationalisation. People may wish to distance themselves from their undesirable, regretted, shameful actions or non actions. Asserting a true self that is different from those bad actions is comforting, to be sure. But such assertions are lame and suspect.

Reputation and Self
Desired reputation is more a guide and goal than a reality, but successes and failures at achieving that reputation will produce welcome and unwelcome feelings. 

Cultivating a good reputation is a paramount concern, and when one succeeds, even momentarily, there will be a welcome feeling of “that’s me!”  This is one of the paradoxes of what happens when people do act in accordance with their Actual Selves and speak up or blow the whistle only to have their reputations tarnished, leaving the whistleblower with a fractured Actual Self. Whistleblowing truly operates from an upside-down form of emotional and cognitive physics. In order to develop policies and processes around whistleblowing we need to begin with that premise.

Our desired reputation is the most important conception of self.  What happens to you depends much more directly on your reputation than your private self-assessment. Pragmatically, the most constructive and adaptive course is to choose one’s actions so as to establish and maintain a good reputation. People therefore will report feeling authentic  when their behaviour helps them achieve their desired reputation, precisely because those moments feel like they embody the true self, in the sense that they confirm the truth of the concept of self that one wants others to hold.

Own your Actions
In a previous blog, Would one Bad Day Cancel the Courage of your Convictions, I shared how, by embracing responsibility, and by default our Actual Selves,  we can help prevent unnecessary tragedy and find true meaning in life. 

The same energy applies to learning to own your own actions. Instead of invoking a match to a true self, authenticity might be understood in terms of taking ownership of one’s experiences or one’s actions, to align with your Actual Self.   One’s actions or experiences could hardly belong to someone else. Ownership in this case means that the whole self endorses the action or experience as consistent with its core values, goals, and identifications.  Deciding and intending, therefore involving the self as a whole in the causal process, and accepting full responsibility accordingly. 

Owning in this sense may seem a trivial intra-psychic gesture, but it’s not. It is associated with accepting responsibility, which is a social act that has important implications for society in general. Recognising and holding people as responsible for their good and bad actions helps society thrive.

By upskilling for Courageous Conversations participants learn the process of owning by reflecting in advance upon an action, so that it reflects the whole self rather than one particular impulse or habit. By owning an action, the participant ensures that it is consistent with his or her core values and goals. 

Cultivate the skill of Courageous Conversations by beginning to notice your own life with emboldening tenacity.

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