“Be yourself” is a popular piece of advice. Although when I hear it, I’m usually left with more questions than I had before. How can I be myself if I don’t know who I am?
I know what I generally like and dislike, where my morals lie and how I view the world around me. But none of these things feel permanent. My interests always shift as I am exposed to new things and as I gain perspective.
When speaking of identity, philosophers have some compelling insights. John Locke says that “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person”. However, there is a problem with this theory. Locke explains that this consciousness is always interrupted by forgetfulness and our perspective.
That is to say, our identities change as our consciousness shifts. We identify with whatever is most relevant to us in the moment. Our experiences shape who we are. But since we’re always experiencing different things, we also experience ourselves in different ways. We are not fixed beings. We are always responding to the world around us.
Different people draw different things out of us. We are not the same person we are with our mother that we are with our best friend. Clinging to a preconceived notion about who we are or what we are supposed to do is limiting. Ultimately, identity is fluid and subjective.
This falls in line with David Hume’s theory that identity is an illusion. He says, “we’re all just ever changing bundles of impressions that our minds are fooled into thinking of as constant, because they’re packaged into these bodies that basically look the same from one day to the next”.
I think better advice might be, “be honest”. That isn’t to say we should say everything we’re thinking all of the time. The context of the situations we find ourselves in is the most important thing. We should follow our intuition and do what feels right, understanding that who we are is constantly evolving.