Philosophy  •  June 26, 2004

Many Faces of Self

Particularly in the West, there is a belief that one’s identity should always be consistent. Having multiple personalities is considered dishonest or even mentally disturbed. The ideal of our society asserts that I should always be myself no matter who I speak with. I argue that this is a misconception born out of the Western habit of seeking unchanging essence in every matter, and that such a belief could cause unnecessary pains in our lives.

As youths, we insist on treating everyone the same way. If I behaved like a nervous geek with Tom, and if I behaved like a punk with Jack, people would criticize me as being a phony. I might hear someone say, “He doesn’t know how to stand up for himself.” Or, “He doesn’t know who he is.” The myth behind this cultural ideal is that once you find your true self, once you understand who you are, you have found an unchanging essence of yourself, and therefore you would behave consistently with everyone and under every circumstance. This is not necessarily true.

There are two different ways by which you can come to terms with yourself as you grow older. One way is to construct an ego, an image of yourself, that is reasonable and sustainable. When you are young, this ego frequently conflicts with reality, and emotional and psychological struggles become unavoidable. Eventually, you come to accept a revised version of this ego that could live harmoniously with reality. This method is common in the West.

Another way to come to terms with yourself is to disassociate yourself from these egos entirely. You would still have egos (in this case multiple), but you do not identify yourself with them as essential qualities of yourself. In this, you see your own identity as a function of the context you are in. That is, your identity, your own image of yourself as well as how others see you, changes depending on whom you are speaking with and where you are. As unbelievable as this may be to the Westerners, this perception of self is quite common in the East.

Now, given these two essentially opposite ways of constituting one’s self, we examine the implications of various social behaviors. For instance, what would it mean to behave differently depending on whom you are speaking with? From the Western perspective, it means insincerity because you are acting differently from your established ego which you accept as your essential, unchanging self. That is, there is a discrepancy between what you believe to be yourself and what you are presenting to others. From the Eastern perspective, there can be no such discrepancy because there is no conception of essential self from which to deviate. When the conception of yourself is debentured, having no centralizing force, one image of yourself is just as authentic as any other. In this, there is no hierarchy of original/real and fake/unreal. In fact, the idea of authentic self becomes irrelevant, just as the idea of the absolute truth is irrelevant in Zen Buddhism.

In our teens and 20s, we insist on dealing with others the same way. For instance, if I trust person A, I insist on trusting person B the same way. If person B does not honor my trust the same way person A does, I am hurt and offended. I then criticize person B in an effort to make him behave like person A. If I don’t succeed, I decide never to deal with him again. That is, if I cannot deal with him the same way I deal with person A, I would rather not deal with him at all. It is an all-or-nothing strategy. This type of immature behavior is common in our youth. This is the reason why, as youths, we are preoccupied with notions such as trust, ideal, and righteousness.

This urge or tendency to treat everyone the same way, comes not so much from the ideology of fairness, but from our desire to believe in singular essences of ourselves. Someone with a singular image of himself would find it difficult to be a trusting person with person A and be a distrusting person with person B. If he sees himself as a trusting person, he insists on being so with everyone, otherwise the consistency of his ego is in question.

Someone with the Eastern conception of self does not have this problem. Since his identity is a function of his context, it makes sense that he would be a trusting person with person A and distrusting person with person B. He therefore has no need to criticize person B, and can retain an appropriate relationship with him without trying to change him in any way. A person with a singular ego could eventually achieve a similar attitude but it is often done so by compromising, by giving up, or by being jaded. It is fundamentally impossible for him to respect someone who contradicts his own essence.

I have a friend who is an amazing con artist. He can con his way into any important parties, events, or shows. He can scam anyone into doing anything for him. He can lie to anyone without showing any signs of guilt on his face. I have always respected him for being able to do what he does, and for certain occasions, his skills became quite handy in positive ways, like getting a good deal from an electronic store known for ripping off tourists. Naturally, to some degree, his dishonesty and insincerity extend to me as well, but since I have no expectation of him being honest to me, I am never disappointed by him. In order for me to relate to him, I adjust my own behaviors. I become more cunning, shrewder, and even outright dishonest to him. This allows me to enjoy his personalities. It would be insincere and dishonest to myself if I had an unchanging image of myself, but since I believe in no such thing, I am not fooling anyone. When you have nothing beyond the multiplicity of yourself, every face is as sincere as any other faces.

After all, isn’t this the reason why actors can pull off what they do? Because there is a little con artist in everyone. In fact, there are little bits of everyone in us: a liar, a hero, a thief, a humanist, a materialist, an idealist, a realist, a radical, a conservative, etc.. Embracing the multiplicity of self allows one to enjoy different personalities without being judgmental.

Unfortunately, in the West, and especially when we are young, the messages we continually receive from our society reject multiplicity of self. Our view of the world as youths is predominantly logical. Logic demands consistency and singular essences. Thus, even without the adults telling us to be consistent, we already have a natural inclination towards being so. This is also compounded by the popular understanding of schizophrenia as having multiple personalities. Teachers and parents frequently tell their kids, “Don’t try to be someone you are not; just be yourself.” Art is often seen as a pursuit of finding one’s self, which is misinterpreted as producing artworks that are consistent in their messages, voices, or meanings.

In the West, the odds of developing a singular ego are overwhelming. Kids are trained that way from early on. This is quite unfortunate, because once they become convinced of the consistency of self, they have no choice but to project the same onto the world. You are defined by what the world is, and the world, therefore, is defined by who you are. It is not possible to define one without the other. If the self is to be defined by its consistent essence, the world must also be defined the same way as its counterpart. This is the reason why many Westerners such as George W. Bush are preoccupied with changing the world. They believe that the world must have a singular essence just as they do, and that it must function consistently to it. In the end, all they are doing is fighting the mirror images of their own egos.

There is nothing wrong with being inconsistent. Forget about being yourself. It is misleading because being something already implies being consistent. It is confusing because it necessitates the dualism of yourself and an entity that becomes yourself. You necessarily stop being yourself by creating this dualism. A less confusing way of framing it is: Let yourself be. That is, being is not a conscious effort. If you can allow yourself to be, you will find, to your surprise, that you have many different faces.