Recent studies show that 91 percent of Americans agree with this statement: “The best way to find yourself is by looking within yourself.” In other words, if you want to discover who you are and what your purpose is, the place to look is inside your heart. You look inside for the answers. Trust your heart. Go with your gut. No one else gets to define you. This is the “looking in” approach to life.
The freedom you feel when you see your life this way can be mesmerizing. You get to determine your destiny. You’re free to define yourself however you want. If you want to change your name and start over, go for it. You can define yourself by your career or your hobby or your talents. You and you alone ultimately determine who you are and how you express yourself. You alone possess intimate knowledge of what makes you unique, and you alone can determine how to bring that sense of specialness out for the world.
Best of all, when you look inside to define yourself, whatever you find there’s good. Whatever you find is beautiful. No one gets to tell you your self-definition is wrong or bad or ugly. Defining yourself is the ultimate adventure.
But there’s a downside to this way of thinking: the whole project depends on you. What happens when you try to determine your destiny but everything falls apart? What do you do when you chase dreams but never reach them? Is failure fatal to your purpose and identity? Does failure threaten your sense of self?
There’s a downside to this way of thinking: the whole project depends on you.
Even more, what if defining yourself in isolation, or in opposition to what others may think about your life, feels adventurous at first but over time leads to loneliness? What happens when you miss out on the satisfying sense that you’ve contributed something significant to your community? Wouldn’t making a contribution to a community be more fulfilling than just gathering people around you who will applaud however you define yourself?
The whole project of looking inside to find yourself is filled with contradictions. Let’s consider one of the biggest problems: is it possible to discover your uniqueness without comparing yourself to other people? Can you really prioritize looking in, believing that no outside forces have affected your true individuality?
Consider a man who defines himself by his career as a teacher. He has a knack for explaining things, he likes his students, and he finds satisfaction and a sense of worth in his work. When you talk with him and ask why he teaches the way he does, he tells you about two teachers who had an impact on his life when he was young. The first teacher was excellent—guiding his students through the course and stirring up in them a hunger and thirst for learning. The second teacher was horrible—lording his authority over the class in ways that stifled creativity and led to disdain for the subject. Naturally, he wants to imitate the good teacher, and he wants to avoid anything that resembles the method of the bad teacher.
We could say that this young man has looked deep within himself to discover his passions and gifts and that he has, all by himself, arrived at the conclusion that he should define his identity and purpose through his career as a teacher. But did he actually do this on his own, in isolation? No. He’s following a path that the good teacher laid out for him, and he’s reacting to the negative effects of the bad teacher’s methods. In the end, the young teacher may think he’s looking inside and charting his own path, but both the good and bad teachers he had in the past are still highly influential in his self-definition. He wants to be like one and unlike the other. He isn’t truly alone, looking within to find himself.
The whole project of looking inside to find yourself is filled with contradictions.
“But,” you may say, “I’m not trying to be like anyone else I know. I’m different from everyone else—on purpose.” Maybe. Maybe in this case you would be like a young man who only had horrible teachers. Year after year he had to deal with different kinds of problems with his teachers: mocking and abuse of authority and laziness and poor explanatory skills. So, the young man says, “I’m going to be a good teacher, different from all those horrible teachers I’ve had.” But don’t you see—he’s still not defining himself in isolation. He’s still looking around in order to define himself, even if he’s doing so over and against every teacher he’s ever had.
Discovering Yourself Is Impossible
The “look in” approach to life imagines that our individuality is pitted against the community, as if the community always threatens to stifle or squeeze us into conformity. And so, we assume that the way to discover and define ourselves is to sequester our deepest self, and to dismiss our background, the influence of our family, or whomever we admire or despise in the community around us.
But this isolated plan for discovering yourself is impossible. It’s a myth. Try as you may, you can’t discover and define yourself without reference to other people. It won’t work. And the irony is, when you feel the most free—when you’re the most dedicated to standing out and being different from others, you are still defining yourself in response and reaction to others. Even the choice to cast off certain expectations or restraints from your community is an action taken in reference to other people. It’s not possible to find yourself merely by looking inside yourself.
This isolated plan for discovering yourself is impossible. It’s a myth. . . . [Y]ou cannot discover and define yourself without reference to other people.
What’s more, no matter how much you try to be a certain kind of person, to live according to the definition you’ve set for yourself, you keep slipping into patterns and habits that you don’t want to be true of you. What if the man who wants to be like the good teacher finds himself, in his worst moments of exhaustion and burnout, resembling the bad teacher? How many of us claim we will never do certain things our parents did, only to find to our dismay that escaping the influential patterns set by them is more difficult than we ever imagined?
When we fail to live up to the definition we’ve set for ourselves, we’re caught in another dilemma. Are you most truly yourself in your best moments, when you’re living up to the ideal? Or are you most truly yourself in your worst moments, when the “real you” that comes out in your words and actions frightens and disappoints you? Is the real you the person you want to become, or is it the person you are right now?
Defining yourself by looking inside yourself for fulfillment comes with major challenges and ends up being insufficient in answering the questions of life.
A better way exists. But it’ll cause you to rethink how you perceive yourself. It doesn’t start by looking in to define and find yourself. It starts by looking outside yourself—looking up, in fact, at the one who made you.
It’s by looking up that you find something bigger and better.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Trevin Wax’s new book, Rethink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In (B&H Books).