Do you think that today you know yourself better than in the past? Do you think you are more authentic as the years go by? Do you think that in the future you will be more authentic than you are today?
These were some of the questions that a group of psychologists from the University of Texas asked a group of people to discover if there is a pattern in the way we think about our “ego”.
The repeal of the old “ego”
At first, the researchers recruited 250 university students and asked them to indicate how much their “ego” from the time of the institute coincided with the current one. They were also asked to estimate how much their current “ego” would resemble the one of when they finished the career.
Everyone thought that the level of authenticity increases as the years go by.
The researchers wondered if this phenomenon also occurred at other ages, so they recruited another 134 people aged between 19 and 67 years. They were asked to divide their lives in three parts: past, present and future, and to write a description for each one, evaluating their level of self-knowledge and authenticity.
Once again, people reported getting to know each other better and being more authentic over the years. The psychologists also discovered that the greater the self-esteem, the greater the expectations of being more authentic growing older.
This phenomenon is known as the “derogation of the old self”. In practice, when we look at a past that we consider distant, we tend to repeal that old “ego” in favor of the current identity. In fact, in most cases, when we look back to remember the old “ego” we can analyze it with a certain psychological distance, adopting the perspective of a third person, almost alien to that identity.
That distance occurs because, although we are aware that we were ourselves, we do not feel fully identified since we find too many discrepancies with our current way of thinking and being.
However, is it an illusion or are we really more authentic?
The permission of the insolence granted by the years
A friend, who already has several decades behind her, usually says that: “the years grant the permission of insolence”. She is referring to the fact that with psychological maturity we dare to be more authentic, to express what we really feel and think “without hairs on the tongue”. We know each other better, we know what we want and do not want and that gives us great security and self-confidence to show us what we are.
During adolescence and youth, we are in full search of our identity. They tend to be confusing stages in which we explore different identities. We also need to be accepted by the group, which is why on many occasions we allow ourselves to be influenced by the others, subjecting ourselves to their interests and goals.
As we mature – which does not always coincide with the passing of the years, since we mature through experiences, not just because the calendar goes on – we are consolidating our identity. That identity is not static but keeps changing with the course of life, we understand better who we are, outline our goals, prioritize our needs and establish our value system… In short, we give each thing the place it deserves in our life.
Growing old we make ours this Oscar Wilde’s phrase: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken”. We learn to accept ourselves, with our virtues and defects, because we understand that we are wonderfully and imperfectly unique.
The gift of experience is that it allows us to be, without stridency, with absolute and simple naturalness. It allows you to be who you want to be. You realize that pleasing everybody means ending up defrauding yourself and, finally, you grant yourself permission to be authentic.
However, we should not take that authenticity for granted, we must work to get rid of the social ties that bind it. The American writer Patrick Rothfuss shows us a very interesting way to develop this authentic “ego”: “Be smart enough to know yourself, brave enough to be yourself and foolish enough to change and, at the same time, keep staying authentic”.
If you follow that path, you will reach the point where you do not need to prove anything to anyone, except yourself. And that incredible freedom is a sufficient reward.
Seto, E. & Schelegel, R. J. (2018) Becoming your true self: Perceptions of authenticity across the lifespan. Self and Identity; 17(3): 310-326.
Wilson A. E. & Ross, M. (2001) From chump to champ: people’s appraisals of their earlier and present selves. J Pers Soc Psychol; 80(4): 572-584.