Why are We so Often Untrue to Ourselves?

"Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure."
-- Meister Eckhart
Bronnie Ware is an Australian author and songwriter who for many years worked as a caregiver with people who were dying.  She was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

When she asked her patients whether they had any regrets about how they had lived their lives, she discovered the single most common regret dying people have is that they have not been true to themselves. 
When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
Instead of living true to themselves, they all too often felt they had tried to live up to the expectations of others. And that, to me, is Ware's most interesting observation. Of all the reasons one might fail to be true to oneself, why is that the reason Ware heard most often?

It seems human nature to want to live up to the expectations of others.  Apparently, most of us do it every day in ways both great and small.  A friend of mine -- someone I very much admire -- is a middle-aged woman who is now discovering that she has spent her life living for others. She was raised to put the wants and needs of everyone else before her own.  And that message was both reinforced and justified by her family's fundamentalist religion.

For instance: The notion she was morally obligated to subvert herself in order to please others was so deeply instilled in her during her upbringing that she felt shock the first time someone stated to her that a woman is not required to have sex with her husband if she does not feel like it.

Today she is discovering -- one step at a time -- her own wants and needs. For the fact is, when you have been thoroughly taught to put the wants and needs of everyone else before your own, you most often suppress your own wants and needs to the point that you no longer clearly know what they are.  It is easy to tell such a person, "Be true to yourself".  But that person might have a long ways to go before she knows her real wants and needs, let alone is confident of her right to them.

Yet, we do not need to be first abused before we cast ourselves aside in order to live up the expectations of others. Abuse certainly helps us do that -- the very essence of abuse is that it unnecessarily alienates us from our true selves -- but abuse is not required for us to fail to be true to ourselves.  We are social animals.  Profoundly social animals.  Almost anyone of us, if he or she really thought about it, could list a thousand ways in which our species manifests its social nature.

It is deeply ingrained in us to desire companionship, to want the acceptance of others, to value love and friendship.  When scientists ask us what it takes to make us happy, we quite often tell them the single most important factor in our happiness is the quality of our relationships with our friends and family. Most of us at one time or another bargain for friendship by trading who we are for what someone expects of us.

Growing up, I gained a reputation for being among the most independent minded people in my cohort. It came to be expected of me that I would often go against the grain.  And there probably was some truth to that. But I paid a psychological price for it in tens of thousands of hours of loneliness. However, I did not feel lonely because I was alone.  I felt lonely because I was going against the expectations of others.

The loneliest people on earth are not those of us who are physically alone in life. Rather it is those of us who live with parents, siblings, roommates, lovers, or spouses who do not accept us as we are.  Who want us to be fundamentally different than we are.  If you know how, it is easy enough to live alone while rarely feeling lonely.  Yet, it is all but impossible to live with someone who does not accept you without your feeling lonely.

If nearly anyone of us could list a thousand ways in which our species manifests its social nature, anyone of us could list a hundred thousand in which we are encouraged, cajoled, wheedled, browbeat, bullied, or forced to subvert ourselves in order to live up to someone else's expectations.

Allow me to give but one example: A friend once told me he felt he had not fulfilled his promise as a businessperson because he had spent too much of his career compensating for his weaknesses rather than building on his strengths. He then went on to tell me that, as a child, he had done well in math but poorly in English.  However, his strength in math was all but ignored while his weakness in English became the focus of his parent's and teacher's efforts to get him to "improve" himself. In the way of a child, he took that to mean that what he was not (i.e. good at English) was more important to people than what he was (i.e. good at math). Although the experience was far from devastating, and he didn't want to make too much of it, he could see how it was one of many experiences that might have contributed to his life-long tendency to pay more attention to his weaknesses than to his strengths.

Of all the reasons we are so often untrue to ourselves, I think our attempts to live up the expectations of others must rank up there as among the foremost.  But what do you think?  Is there any truth to that?  And what are the other reasons we fail to be true to ourselves?


  1. This is a devastating indictment of most of us. How would we grade ourselves against: Have I done what I wanted to do? Have I ever truly satisfied myself? Have I ever discovered what I wanted?

    I am concerned about how I would answer those questions.

  2. This really rings true. You really nailed it in this post.

  3. Me too, Jerry. I wonder how I would answer those questions, too.

    Of course, it is also important -- when thinking of oneself -- to have some compassion. It's our nature to screw up now and then. I think we need to keep that in mind and not judge ourselves too harshly.

  4. Thank you, Jon. You're comment made my day.

  5. I don't think we can be true to our selves because there are too many of them.
    I suspect that getting beyond them is the key - but I don't know.


Comments Welcome -- but no flaming. If you wish, you can email me at paul_sunstone@q.com